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A Reflection on Leadership Style in Modern Organisations


The concepts of "leader" and "leadership" are difficult to isolate from their use in the study and analysis of groups. In particular, one frequently notes that the structure and status of a group as well as power are deeply tied to the leader: the leader, in fact, can be identified as the one who enjoys a higher status than the other members of a group and exercises influence (power) over them. In this sense, the sociologist Rupert Brown (2000) considers leaders to be those who can influence others in the group more than they are influenced themselves. In a more holistic definition, Winston and Patterson (2006) define a leader as:

“one or more people who selects, equips, trains, and influences one or more follower(s) who have diverse gifts, abilities, and skills and focuses the follower(s) to the organization’s mission and objectives causing the follower(s) to willingly and enthusiastically expend spiritual, emotional, and physical energy in a concerted coordinated effort to achieve the organizational mission and objectives. The leader achieves this influence by humbly conveying a prophetic vision of the future in clear terms that resonates with the follower(s) beliefs and values in such a way that the follower(s) can understand and interpret the future into present-time action steps.”

One can see that these definitions implicitly express a particular exercise of power that the leader is acting upon: the term "influence" resonates in both definitions. Hollander (1985) distinguishes between leadership and power, the former indicating a process of influence, while the later, involving aspects of coercion and control that lead to produce attitudes and behaviour of complacency or acquiescence (compliance). It follows then that leadership is achieved through the relationship between leaders and members of the group; Hollander himself points out that the concept of leadership has within itself the idea of a process involving leaders and followers: one can’t exist without the other and, since the leader's influence over their followers is greater than that which the latter exert on him, leadership is mutual with both parties taking an active role. Leadership therefore, is a process and not a person or a role, and this process involves the interaction between leaders, followers and situations. The study of leadership over the years has focused on one of these main aspects: the personality and characteristics of the leader, his behaviour, the conditions in which the leader exercised his role, and finally, the characteristics of the followers.

Leadership in Contemporary Organisations

One of the main problems an organisation is faced with is how to control its members in such a way as to maximise their effectiveness and efficiency whilst minimising the unhappiness that follows the use of that same control. According to Weber, a bureaucracy and the resultant bureaucratic leadership style, looks to solve such a dilemma, by creating standards according to a set of rules, which, on the one hand govern the bureaucratic organisation itself and, on the other hand, determine the rules to which members must comply. This administrative order essentially consists of a distribution of authority that Weber calls "imperative coordination" or “ruler-ship”. By establishing a hierarchy of authority and specific rules and procedures, bureaucracy has provided an efficient way to bring order among large groups of people and has helped to prevent abuses of power. The impersonal relationships based on roles rather than on people, reduce favouritism and nepotism characteristic of many pre-industrial organizations. The bureaucracy has also allowed the use of systematic and rational ways to organise and manage tasks too complex to be understood and managed by a small number of people, thus improving greatly the efficiency within large organizations. However being efficient does not necessarily mean that the organisation is also effective; just because an employee knows his role and can do his tasks to perfection does not mean that the organisation as a whole is being effective in its goals. This has become more obvious in our rapidly changing world, where it would seem that the mechanistic and bureaucratic system of the industrial age finds it difficult to cope with the new challenges of modern organisations. In fact, faced with global competition and environmental uncertainty, many organisations are now fighting against increasing levels of red tape. The problems which bureaucracy aimed to solve seem to have become the root cause of inefficiency.

Contemporary organisations operate in more complex environments than Weber had envisioned, a reality brought on, in large part, as a result of globalisation. The current speed and rate of human progress is unparalleled in history; the diffusion of widespread knowledge at all organisational levels is in stark contrast with traditional top-down organisational models; the collapse of the welfare system; the emergence of multiculturalism, which, while enriching organisations, requires greater sensitivity and competence in order for smooth operation; in short, a revolution that poses many questions about the nature and characteristics of future leaders.

It is therefore evident, that as a result of this increased complexity, today's leaders - more so than in the past - are facing both future uncertainty as well as present complexity, with greater difficulties. Thus, the hierarchical image of a leader at the top of the pyramid, sufficiently capable, creative and competent to lead an organisation seems to be anachronistic when taken in the context of changing environmental conditions; a more consonant view would in fact depict a leader as the facilitator of learning and a negotiator of ideas and needs derived from all levels within the organisation. Such a leadership style clearly requires the erudition of skills and sensitivities which are different to those possessed by “traditional” leaders. Scholars argue that in the current “knowledge economy”, the traditional leadership models of command and control are inadequate to exploit the potential of knowledge, which is now considered the most valuable form of capital possessed by an organisation (Doz, 2001).

Today more than ever, leadership is a continuous search for better integration of behaviour, environmental context and needs, which will eventually lead to a decision making process through a path which constantly adapts to emerging realities. In summary, I believe that the ideal leader should not be defined through a list of attributes they possess, but rather, should be seen in the light of their ability to be mindful of their organisation’s circumstances and to adapt rapidly to change. In the past, leadership was largely identifiable through what the leaders were doing and this made it difficult to distinguish between nominal leaders, that is, those who lead without possessing the necessary capabilities, and strategic leaders of high calibre, that is, individuals who are able to identify a mission and make it operational with the aim to deliver growth and value for the organisation’s stakeholders.

Many are the organisations that retain this type leadership approach. However it has been criticised for solely centralising within the leader the decision making process and interpretation of environmental conditions in which the organisation operates (Northouse, 2007). The model also gives rise to a number of important questions: what happens when you do not have enough information, when changes are so fast that it is impossible to create long-term plans, and when the technical knowledge available is no longer enough to understand or predict future challenges? In an attempt to answer these questions, a number of leadership styles that are based on empowerment i.e. delegating decision-making processes, were born (Vecchio, Justin, & Pearce, 2010).

However, delegation still has an element of centralisation of power, as it is usually the person at the top who decides whether and when to delegate power and to what extent, and unfortunately, experience has shown that it does not always materialise in practice. As a result, many organisations have had to deal with ‘dysfunctional’ leaders who preached empowerment but who still practised a command and control style of leadership; a style of leadership also prevalent within my place of work. This model undoubtedly has its psychological advantages, especially in a psychiatric hospital, as it exalts, with minimal ambiguity, those who are in command. However, the hospital’s external environment is changing and so too must the leadership style employed.

Dr Beppe Micallef-Trigona
Dr Beppe Micallef-Trigona
Dr Beppe Micallef-Trigona is a Maltese psychiatrist who returned to Malta after working as a consultant psychiatrist with the UK Ministry of Defence (Royal Navy), and previously, as a consultant psychiatrist in the UK National Health Service.

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