Guest Blogger: The Leadership Theory Lack

Airport bookstores are crowded with books on leadership, and each one seems to promote a “leadership lack.” They’ll each begin with phrases like “The most pressing issue in organizations is that leaders lack integrity…or empathy…or strategy…or even humor. These books continue by laying out the author’s simple framework for developing the perfect leader. On and on the dialogue goes to the point where readers become be confused because the 21 Unassailable Edicts of Leadership are different than the Seven Routines of Really Efficient Leaders.  It would be a poor move to add to this confusion. With this in mind, we will admit that we do not believe our “leadership lack” to be the most pressing issue in organizations, just the easiest to fix.

Leaders lack an understanding of leadership theory.

These airport leadership books provide decent advice that is easily digestible. And because it is easily digestible, leaders continue to gorge themselves on it until there is very little room left for real, solid theory. Most see theory as complex and hard to digest. When leaders think about leadership or organizational theory, they think back to the 400+ page textbook they had to buy in business school. “Seems like quite an undertaking,” leaders think. So they cheerfully hand their money to the cashier and board the plane with the latest, pocket-sized “leadership” book.

Leaders lack an understanding of leadership theory because it isn’t presented in pocket-sized form.

But leadership theory isn’t some kind of rocket surgery. Attaining a true understanding of theory isn’t difficult, if it’s presented right. We’ll survey the major leadership theories. Our intent is to present them in the same easily digestible, pocket-sized form as the airport bestsellers.

Why Theory?

During WWII, Allied bomber losses were high, so high that the British Air Ministry undertook a rigorous analysis in hopes of finding a solution. Their engineers set out to eyeball every bomber they could, gathering data on each bullet hole. After analyzing the results, engineers decided to reinforce the areas that had the highest concentrations of holes with armor plating.

It didn’t work.

Perplexed, the engineers assumed that the extra plating had made the planes too heavy, and that the difficulty in handling the planes was offsetting the protection of the armor plating.

Enter Abraham Wald.

Wald, a mathematician, suggested that they simply put extra armor plating where the bullet holes weren’t. The idea was simple: if the planes are returning with bullet holes, obviously those areas can be struck without causing the planes to crash. The planes that weren’t returning, Wald theorized, are the ones that are getting hit in different areas. The engineers’ error was so significant, statisticians decided to name it: survivorship bias (the tendency to include only successes in statistical analysis). Any time you only examine just the successes, you will skew the results.

If we return to the airport bookstore in our minds, we see the shelves littered with survivorship bias. We love reading about successes. That’s why books by celebrity CEOs and leadership gurus are among the best sellers of any list. We’d much rather read about the brilliant company leader who started working out of his garage and ended up dominating the industry. However, when this is all we consume about leadership, we succumb to survivorship bias. While a celebrity CEO may reveal the secrets he used to climb to the top, how are we to know they work in every situation?

This is where theory comes in.

Leadership and organizational theories are constructed and tested by examining not just the successes but also the failures. Good and bad leaders, successful and failing change efforts, all get included in the analysis and the resulting theories spare us from our survivorship bias. If we want to grow into outstanding leaders, we must know how and when to utilize the knowledge provided by the existing body of leadership research.

Good leaders focus on where the bullet holes are; great leaders consider where they aren’t.

Please provide comments on this timely topic.


David Burkus is the editor of LeaderLab, a community of resources dedicated to promoting the practice of leadership theory. He is a consultant, a speaker and an adjunct professor of business at several universities. He can be reached at

19 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: The Leadership Theory Lack

  1. This is a very timely article and well written article. Leaders dream dreams. They refuse to let anyone or anything get in the way of achieving those dreams. They are realistic, but unrelenting. They are polite, but insistent. The constantly and consistently drive forward toward their goal. Anyone can be a leader when it matters enough to you. A leader must have vision, the drive to see a plan through, and the rights traits and skills.

    Leadership theories aid these leaders in becoming even more. The Fiedler contingency model bases the leader’s effectiveness on what Fred Fiedler called situational contingency. This results from the interaction of leadership style and situational favorableness (later called “situational control”). The theory defined two types of leader: those who tend to accomplish the task by developing good-relationships with the group (relationship-oriented), and those who have as their prime concern carrying out the task itself (task-oriented). Pick your theory carefully but more importantly pick your leader with even more care. Sometimes the best decision is not to try to lead but to follow a great leader.


    Reh, John. What is a leader? Retrieved on 3/22/11 from:

  2. Successful leadership books are indeed everywhere. What most individuals do not realize is these “self-help” books won’t necessarily make you a better leader. Some leaders will spend their lives learning how to be successful leaders and fail everyday they try. A good leader must possess both knowledge and have the characteristics to execute their knowledge. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine if an over educated leader lacking characteristics will be more successful than a leader with less training but more characteristics of a good leader.
    Characteristics of a superior leader include: mission, vision, goals, competency, a strong team, communication skills, interpersonal skills, a “can do, get it done” attitude, inspiration and ambition (David G. Javitch, 2009). These characteristics can be found in all strong leaders regardless of their intellectual training. A lot of times organizations pass up real leaders due to lack of perceived skill sets the individual is supposedly lacking. A superior leader finds and maintains balance between their training/knowledge and the characteristics listed above.

    Works Cited
    David G. Javitch, P. (2009, 12 9). 10 Characteristics of Superior Leaders. Retrieved 3 22, 2011, from Entrepreneur:

  3. Leaders don’t become great because at first they succeeded; they become great because at first they failed. Is this true?

    “In innovative or entrepreneurial fields, the idea of not only learning from failure, but the importance of failure, is even more pervasive. Without the willingness to take risks, including the risk of failing, nothing new … or at least, nothing significantly new, would ever be discovered. Thomas Edison is famously reported to have tried over a thousand types of light bulb designs before finding one that worked.

    A recent Harvard Business School study looked at the success rate of entrepreneurs to see what difference previous success (or failure) made on subsequent start-up ventures. Statistics showed:

    First-time entrepreneurs (at means of other variables): 20.9%
    If previously successful (at means of other variables): 30.6%
    If previously failed (at means of other variables): 22.1%
    Paul A. Gompers, a professor at Harvard Business School says the results showed that, “for the average entrepreneur who failed, no learning happened” (Wallace, 2006). That being said, the question still stands, are leaders great because they at first failed?


    Wallace, Lane. May 6, 2009. Do We Really Learn from Failure?

    March 23, 2011.

  4. In response to Jalene’s questions, “Are great leaders great because they first failed?” In order to correctly answer this question we would have to define what makes a great leader. For me I a great leader is someone who has a major impact on the course of history. A great example of this would be Abraham Lincoln. Some of his failures included two legislative elections races, two Congressional races, two Senate races and failed bid to become Vice President. If Lincoln was like most he would have hung up is political career early on. However, he continued to proceed after his goal of becoming President. We have all studied the 16th President of the United Sates from elementary school and his leadership. Though I do not believe that all great leaders must first fail to succeed, I do believe their perseverance is a key attribute in being a great leader.


    Frye, J. (2008, February 28). The story about a leader who failed much but succeeded in greatness [Web log message]. Retrieved from

  5. Many companies tend to focus on the “bullet holes” when a new CEO takes the reins of leadership and not acknowledge the untouched metal.

    A recent Harvard Business Review article discusses that a common mistakes that most new CEOs make by not tapping into their predecessors’ knowledge base for “information, insight, or advice.” (Friel, T.J. & Duboff, R.S., 2009). The article outlines procedures that companies should follow to ensure a successful transition:

    1) require ongoing consultation between the former CEO and the new executive this requirement can be a requirement of opening or continuing a compensation package.

    2) Arrange a formal exit interview with the outgoing CEO with the tone of creating an engaged conversation.

    3) Create a debriefing outline-this should include updates on current projects.

    4) Acknowledge the departing leaders contributions – this will identify projects where the outgoings CEO’s advice will be most valued.

    5) Carve out a legacy project for the outgoing CEO to commence following the new leaders start date.

    Friel, T.J., & Duboff, R.S. (2009). The last act of a great CEO. Harvard Business Review, 87 (1), 82-89. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

  6. Positive psychology is the scientific study of ordinary human strengths and virtues (Why Positive psychology is Necessary, Kennon M. Sheldon and Laura King). Sheldon and King say that “Positive psychology revisits “the average person,” with an interest in finding out what works, what is right, and what is improving.” Positive psychology highlights human potentials, motives and capacities.
    This is applicable to leadership because there is a lack thereof in leaders taking the initiative to find out what makes people “tick.” They take for granted the old formulas for motivating employees work and that one size fits all. Employee performance evaluations are a perfect example of this. The same measures that have been used for years are still implemented today. Even though we are in an age where both parents work in a two parent family, or that our workforce is more diverse than ever, leaders try to fit employees into one box.
    Servant Leadership’s main purpose is for the long term interest of a whole group. There is a commitment to the growth of the people in the group. A servant leader’s main drive is see where the greatest synergy can happen and adjust, adjust, and adjust.

    Click to access Articoli%20-%20Sheldon%20-%20Why%20Positive%20Psychology%20is%20necessary.pdf

    Click to access ServantLeadershipLG.pdf

  7. Organizational leaders commonly deploy facts, opinions, perspectives, coercion, manipulation, and/or theoretical assertions to garner compliance from their employees. However, the fact of the matter is, if their employees’ mindset is not right, they will never attain their end goal – which is to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of their organization. Research shows us that 80 percent of human thought is negative. If this is true, future and current leaders must learn how to capitalize on the positive thought patterns of their employees. In effect, this would call for an effort to affectively control employee morale and behavior. This leads us to the concept of Behavioral Management, which is “the study of how managers should behave to motivate employees and encourage them to perform at high levels and be committed to the achievement of organizational goals” (George & Jones, 2009, pp. 55). By utilizing the concepts set forth under this school, organizations can ensure that their employees are properly aligned with their short- and long-term objectives, resulting in a higher probability of success.

    George, J. & Jones, G. (2009). Contemporary Management. (pp.55). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

  8. According to Stogdill, the word leadership means different things to different scholars. The definition of leadership used in the present study is the process (act) of influencing the activities of an organized group in its efforts toward goal setting and goal achievement ( Stogdill, 1950). Transformational leadership style has significant relationships with work quality, work quantity, and creativity in problem solving of subordinates. Moreover, it has significant relationships with leadership outcomes; effectiveness in work, satisfaction, extra effort and organizational commitment. It is possible that the leadership styles effectively adopted at the professional to professional level is different from those adopted at the professional to worker level. That is transformational leadership may be effectively used when dealing with professional employees but transactional leadership may be more suitable when project managers deal with technicians or site workers. (Limsilia, Ogunlana, 2008).
    Limsila, K., & Ogunlana, S. O. (2008). Performance and leadership outcome correlates of leadership styles and subordinate commitment. Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, 15(2), 164. Retrieved from
    Stogdill, R.M. (1950), “Leadership, membership and organization”, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 1-14.

  9. There are hundreds and thousands of articles that tell you what a good leader is and isn’t. It is impossible to state one theory is more valid than the other. They are all based on personal biases of what we believe a good leader should encompass. While it may be hard to decide on one theory over the other, one author believe there is an easier way to sift through the theories: categorize them. Kendra Cherry state there are about eight standard categories that most leadership theories fall under. These categorized theories are: “great man”, trait, contingency, situational, behavioral, participative, management, relationship theories. I believe in order to be the most efficient while also being effective leader you must include all leadership theories into your managing styles. However I do completely agree with the statement that managers learn from failures and as well as successes. It’s crucial that we learn both the good and the bad, no just what works and run with it.

    Cherry, K. Leadership theories. Retrieved on April 20, 2011 from

  10. What an insightful observation! Dr. Green often states that in order to solve a problem, we must first define the problem. The same holds true with leadership as well as with the theory of strategic formulation or planning. By finding areas of weakness, a plan can be formulated in order to improve the organization. A SWOT Analysis, for example, takes a look at the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in order to develop corporate, business, and functional level strategies. Yes, a SWOT Analysis does begin with strengths to identify what is currently going well, but then includes the weaknesses so that leaders can fully understand and form a plan using strategic thinking and foresight. Just as Mr. Burkus states that “great leaders consider [where the bullet holes are not,],” great strategic plans also utilize the same practice.

    George, Jennifer M. & Jones, Gareth R. (2009). Contemporary Management. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

  11. First, leadership is a social influence process. Leadership cannot exist without a leader and one or more followers. Second, leadership elicits voluntary action on the part of followers. The voluntary nature of compliance separates leadership from other types of influence based on formal authority. Finally, leadership results in followers’ behavior that is purposeful and goal-directed in some sort of organized setting. Many, although not all, studies of leadership focus on the nature of leadership in the workplace. Leadership should be distinguished from management. Management involves planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling, and a manager is someone who performs these functions. A manager has formal authority by virtue of his or her position or office. Leadership, by contrast, primarily deals with influence. A manager may or may not be an effective leader. A leader’s ability to influence others may be based on a variety of factors other than his or her formal authority or position.

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