Deconstructing Leadership

    Leaders aren’t just born – they can be built. As we learn more about what makes the best leaders, we’re rethinking the kind of people we need to navigate our complex world

    By Omar Mouallem on August 8, 2014

    Deconstructing Leadership


    There are three elements to leadership: vision, understanding the situation and the courage to act .... Leaders must have all three to be effective.


    Across the world, academics, corporations and media are brandishing the word “leadership” as if it were a newly discovered cure. Searching the word on Amazon.ca brings up 96,000 titles, most from the last three decades, when research in the field spiked. Ivy League schools in America request applicants to submit essays on the topic. Closer to home, the University of Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Leadership College is poised to be the first Canadian school focusing not just on governmental leadership but also on private and non-profit contexts.

    Kim Campbell, former prime minister and founding principal of the leadership college, will lead the new institution in its quest to form tomorrow’s visionaries.

    Despite just over four months as prime minister, Campbell knows a lot about leadership. Since leaving the prime minister’s office in 1993 after the Progressive Conservative party’s defeat, she has founded the Club of Madrid for former heads of state, taught at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership, served on the boards of technology companies and persistently advocated the advancement of women through various means, including the Council of Women World Leaders, where she is chair emerita. It might leave one thinking she was born to lead. She has heard it before and has considered the question.

    As a young girl, Campbell was highly organized and motivated. She hosted a CBC kids’ show, Junior Television Club. Campbell remembers a time when, as high school president, she made a public speech that excited the audience. “It was gratifying,” she recalls, “but it did frighten me because of the sense I had that this was a scary thing to be able to do. That ability carries a huge level of responsibility because we all have buttons we can press.”

    Good leadership should bring out the best in people and make them feel at ease and comfortable with belonging to that community and entity.”
    – Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell

    She points to Russian President Vladimir Putin as an example of an effective leader who can gain the support of a country for discomforting reasons. “Good leadership,” she counters, “should bring out the best in people and make them feel at ease and comfortable with belonging to that community and entity.”

    As someone who has taught leadership, Campbell hesitates to say that leadership — at least her sense of it — is inherent. She believes some have a natural disposition toward it and others are made that way through circumstances that challenge them to take control of their surroundings and not accept the status quo.

    Leaders of the Pack

    As with emperor penguins, honeybees and countless other creatures, human beings ensure group survival by uniting with others — historically, our relatives. One can imagine that staving off wild predators, protecting against rival tribes or surviving drought is more complicated and less successful if each individual confronts the challenges separately. Any species that can improve its chance of survival by acting together sees leaders emerge naturally, according to Mark Van Vugt, a leading evolutionary leadership researcher. It’s as inevitable as reproduction.

    In the animal kingdom, leaders typically bear a physiological or behavioural trait that increases their propensity to act before others, according to a 2009 Current Biology article co-authored by Van Vugt. For Homo sapiens, leadership correlates strongly with ambition, autonomy and talkativeness (what’s known as “the babble effect”).

    But is there more to leadership than genetics and chattiness?

    Richard Field says the biggest misconception is that leaders are born, not made. “You hear that all the time,” says the professor of strategic management and organization at the University of Alberta. “People believe that, and they couldn’t be more wrong. And when students believe that, it’s a terrible thing because they become licensed not to learn.” Field challenges students at the U of A’s Alberta School of Business with case studies, hypotheticals and lectures about the application of power and the resistance to it.

    “There are three elements to leadership: vision, understanding the situation and the courage to act. What differentiates leaders from followers is that leaders must have all three to be effective,” explains Field, who marvels at the many texts on leadership today compared with when he wrote his PhD on the topic in the early 1980s. Back then, it was a small field budding from organizational theory. It has since become a cultural and academic sensation.

    This raises a problem within the research field: just how do you define leadership? “There’s no commonly accepted definition,” he says. “It’s not that there isn’t a definition; it’s that there are thousands.” He participated in a subcommittee for the new Peter Lougheed Leadership College that wrestled with exactly that question — how to define the term to guide the pedagogy.

    No Time for Heroes

    While the definition of leadership might be murky, the need for good leaders is clear. The world is full of problems, large and small, itching and festering, just waiting to be tackled: everything from food security and climate change to suburban sprawl and corporations wrestling with the bottom line.

    The world is also becoming more inclusive, more tolerant, and, in many ways, that has made it harder to lead the way in addressing problems. Leadership is more complex now, says Campbell. “The days are gone when someone said, ‘I’m going to be a bank president or a university president or a CEO or prime minister, and I’m only going to deal with people who look like me.’ ”

    David Kahane, a professor of democratic theory and practice at the U of A, thinks that, as a society, we overemphasize individual leadership while ignoring the powers of group collaboration. “In many of the stories we tell ourselves and the way we write history, we often see leadership as a quality possessed by individuals, where they inspire and structure and mobilize those beneath them to engage effectively with challenging situations,” he says. “I don’t think that’s persuasive as history, and I don’t think it speaks to what we need in order to address the toughest challenges of our times.”

    Where do people learn leadership? Often from being thrown into a situation where they really recognize that their family, local community, the world, need something from them.”
    – Professor David Kahane

    Kahane, leader of Alberta Climate Dialogue, a five-year project to engage Albertans in finding climate-change solutions, says Canada has fumbled opportunities to lead the way in protecting the planet against possibly its biggest threat in modern memory. “Our stalemates around climate change speak less to the quality of individuals in senior positions of governments, companies and so on, and more to the governance structures of those institutions.”

    As long as we hold to the “heroic model,” he says, where an individual — whether a statesperson, academic or author — is expected to solve complex problems independently, we’ll only chip away at the edges of problems like climate change.

    Kahane, who sits on a subcommittee for the Peter Lougheed Leadership College, hopes the school will enable students to work with diverse communities to solve real problems. The ideal college, he says, is one where students learn about power, relationships, facilitation and group process by “contributing to addressing genuinely important community problems.” He believes leadership, as a body of scholarly knowledge, takes on meaning through experience. “Where do people learn leadership? Often from being thrown into a situation where they really recognize that their family, local community, the world, need something from them.”

    That combination of need and group dynamic emerged at the University of Alberta in the 1960s, when a group of students took the lead on a project that still benefits U of A students today.

    The Flip Side of Leadership

    It’s hard to imagine the university without the Students’ Union Building, but it exists because of some extraordinarily strong-headed student councils. “What we were doing at the U of A around the 1960s, no one in North America was doing,” recalls Wesley Cragg, ’63 BA(Hons), ’64 MA, then the SU president, today an ethics professor at York University and founding project director of the Canadian Business Ethics Research Network. “It was unique.”

    The 1963-64 student council — Cragg and co-councillors Doug McTavish, ’64 BCom; Dave Cruickshank, ’62 BSc(Pharm), ’65 BA; Patrick Bentley, ’61 BSc(CivEng), ’64 LLB; and Sandra Kirstein, ’64 BEd — took on a number of daunting projects in its first month, including drafting a new constitution and organizing a National Federation of Canadian University Students conference. But it’s the fight to build SUB that Cragg remembers most from that year.

    Together, the council secured property from the U of A, persuaded the province to underwrite a loan, selected a winning architect from an open competition and confronted a student rebellion fuelled by opposition in the Gateway that cast SUB plans as irresponsibly lavish. Indeed, the building was groundbreaking in that it addressed so many aspects of student lives. It included an art gallery, theatre, music-listening lounge, bookstore, bank — even a bowling alley. “We provided the vision of the building: that we were going to build a state-of-the-art student facility that would be unique in North America,” reflects Cragg, now 73. (More on SUB and student leadership)

    The Lone Hero?

    It does seem rather antiquated in our wired and socially networked world to think of leadership as an individual rather than a collective endeavour. The Egyptian revolution of 2011, the slow food movement and fair trade — these were not mobilized by just one person at the top of a pyramid but by clusters within. On the other hand, one can’t dismiss the singular visionaries who have transformed societies (Martin Luther King Jr.), technology (Steve Jobs) and nationhood (Joan of Arc). Leadership is a necessity — even if it’s poor leadership.

    “We have to point at someone and say, ‘Here is the cause for our great success or failure,’ ” explains Field. “In reality, there are so many causal factors, but we feel better to think that a person was responsible. When they’re lucky, they’re cast as the heroes. In times of failure, we need a scapegoat leader to ... explain our problem. It’s almost tribalism.”

    What does this say about followers and their importance? Although the study of leadership is one of the fastest-growing fields in social sciences and has inspired countless books and numerous scientific journals, the importance of “followership” is, surprisingly, largely ignored.

    “Followership dominates our lives and organizations, but not our thinking, because our preoccupation with leadership keeps us from considering the nature and the importance of the follower,” wrote Robert E. Kelley in a seminal 1988 Harvard Business Review article, “In Praise of Followers.”

    There are solitary animals, but we’re not among them. The fact is that we are a social species, hard-wired to rely on each other for survival. In the quest to solve group problems, leaders take cues from followers, who execute the vision. Otherwise a leader is just a lone wolf. “It’s a reciprocal relationship,” says Field. “Leaders influence followers, but followers influence leaders, too. You can’t consider any relationship as one-sided.