Friday, July 1, 2011



I just read an entry in the Harvard Business Review, by organizational behavior guru, Jeffrey Pfeffer. The title: Good Leaders Acknowledge What Can't Be Done. In this well-written article, Dr. Pfeffer described how leaders have sometimes faced the decision to: (a) pour more resources into failing or marginally successful projects or (b) cut their losses and move to the next projects. He continued by explaining how "bad leaders" often select the first choice and how various psychological forces underlie their selection. Of course, some of these forces included the pressure of expectations, the associated face-saving, and the accolades awarded to heroes who resolve crises, among others. Still another included the misconception that some leaders have believed that since they have control, they will ultimately succeed. In his conclusion, Pfeffer suggested that when faced with the aforementioned decision, good leaders choose to admit they cannot do it all and then they follow the associated, more successful courses of action.

I found several issues worth debating in Dr. Pfeffer's thesis and I plan to address a few of these over the course of the next few entries. One of the issues I chose to answer included his implicit assumptions (at least my inferences) regarding the terms "leader" and "leadership." His examples of leaders ran the gamut from MBA students, simulating a financial management problem, to CEOs and COOs, serving as titular heads of multi-national corporations. Fair enough, but in real-world scenarios, three issues have appeared to challenge his use of these terms in these applications.

First, Dr. Pfeffer referred to MBA students as leaders, as they served in the role of project manager. It seems by this he implied that members other than those serving in executive roles can serve as leaders. Several scholars have agreed with that position (McGregor, 1960; Mescon, 1958). However, Dr. Pfeffer appeared to continue his discussion by identifying leaders primarily by position. Especially when discussing leadership by positions or roles, few leaders at any levels other than at the most senior, executive levels appear to have possessed enough autonomy, authority, power, etc., to maintain inertia in projects or programs that have presented as ongoing failures. People holding greater levels of accountability within those organizations have, a priori, stopped the associated projects and programs, in order to minimize their own exposures to the inevitable losses and subsequent fallouts.

Second, only when people have ascribed to authoritative leadership by position, have leaders possessed the wherewithal to end-run around standard, cost benefits analyses in strategizing courses of action. Furthermore, both end-run strategizing and cost benefits analyzing have arguably served more as functions of management, rather than leadership (Schermerhorn, 2005).

Third, regardless of the selected definitions of leader and leadership, leaders have undoubtedly faced the cited decision, but an associated question emerges. Have others not faced this decision, as well? It seems that choosing between continuing to follow a destructive course and cutting losses in favor of next projects has presented a universal dilemma that has transcended all people, regardless of their hierarchical positions, operational roles, or functional behaviors (Ferguson, 2008; Pugno, 2008). What advantages does it provide to have cited this as a leader-centric phenomenon, at least without having specifically noted its unique applicability to leaders?

Ferguson, L. (2008). Transformational empowerment. Interbeing, 2(1), 57-60. Retrieved from Proquest.

McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Mescon, M. H. (1958). The dynamics of industrial leadership. The Journal of the Academy of Management, 1(2), 13-20.

Pugno, M. (2008). Economics and the self: A formalisation of self-determination theory. Journal of Socio-Economics, 37(4), 1328-1346. doi:10.1016/j.socec.2007.03.004

Schermerhorn, J. R. (2005). Management (8th ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

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