From problems to progress: A dialogue on prevailing issues in leadership research
Susan J. Ashford and Sim B. Sitkin
Professor Sue Ashford (Ross School of Business, University of Michigan) and COLE’s own Professor Sim Sitkin (Duke Fuqua) published a new piece on contemporary issues in leadership from their perspectives as late entrants to the world of leadership academia. They discuss challenges unique to their experiences with leadership research, from Ashford’s contention that newcomers don’t mix with legacy scholars which can result in siloes and redundancy to Sitkin’s point that the field was relatively stagnant before conferences like “New Directions,” which he argues may begin siloed into different rivulets but grow and merge into mighty streams of innovation and ideological advancement.
They discuss how the term “leadership” can be misapplied to a position rather than being used as an activity itself. The insidious force of “label creep” creates confusion among “leadership,” “authority,” and “management,” diluting the meaning of leadership across an array of behaviors and roles and taking away from its most pure form, as an act of social influence aimed at clarifying the direction of a collective and motivating others to help get it there. In a particularly striking analogy, Sitkin worries leadership has “gone the way of Kleenex or Xerox, [becoming] a generic term for something good and positive.” With this said, both agree on the importance of broadening the locations of leadership – that it occurs throughout organizations at every level.
Both professors also draw conclusions about the current state of leadership scholarship and the avenues they see inviting further study. Ashford is particularly excited about shifting “up a level or down a level,” the former looking at patterns of team leadership on a more macro level and the later taking a micro look at leader-like actions by individuals who may or may not consider themselves natural leaders. Sitkin argues for the need to keep the components of leadership distinct so as to allow their study in systematic ways, while Ashford agrees and extends the point with the twist that we ought to more carefully put together a “leadership can come from anywhere” perspective. They place particular emphasis on people thinking as leaders who may not traditionally perceive themselves to be, and Sitkin posits leadership as a subset of the broader activity of influence. Finally, they discuss their common desire for leadership studies to become more precise and clearer while also gaining applicability and relevance to practicing leaders in the real world.