What defines a great leader? Why are some people great leaders and others not? Are leadership and management the same thing? Why are some people excellent leaders at one point in time or in one situation, but complete failures as leaders at other times? Are leaders born, or can they be made? What does “leadership” mean if one is an entrepreneur or working freelance?
These are just some of the many questions about leadership that historians, political scientists, psychologists, and, of course, management experts have wrestled with for centuries. Leadership remains one of the continuing mysteries of human experience. All of us have observed leaders throughout our lives, whether the leaders were our parents, teachers, the class president, our boss, or any one of the dozens of other leaders and leadership situations we encounter daily. But despite the fact that examples of leadership are all around us, there is still much about it that we don’t understand. Nevertheless, in this chapter, we will explore what we do know about leadership and, more importantly, how we can use that knowledge in today’s media management. Probably at no time in the history of the modern media industry has leadership been more important than now.
Over the past quarter century, a combination of technological and market forces has completely disrupted media industries. Today, media executives face the need to reinvent almost every aspect of their businesses: media business models, production processes, distribution channels, audience measurement methods, demand forecasting, and human resource management. Equally importantly, changes in traditional media industries have opened new opportunities for entrepreneurs and shifted many media and journalism jobs from staff positions with established media companies to freelance and contract positions. Entrepreneurs and independent contractors are, by definition, both leaders and managers. After all, they have no one but themselves to turn to for the vision, organizational skills, strategic thinking, and discipline that separate success from failure in a highly competitive, rapidly changing market.
In short, then, the time for strong and visionary leadership in media industries is right now, and the most important leader in your media career must be you.
The Foundations of Leadership
Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. —
–Peter Drucker (2001)
My job is not to be easy on people. My jobs is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.
—Steve Jobs (quoted in Morris, 2008)
As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.
—Bill Gates (quoted in Kruse, 2012)
Leadership Traits and Skills
One of the perennial questions about leaders is whether they are born or made. Today, experts in leadership acknowledge that some people are “natural” leaders, gifted with a confidence and charisma that is difficult for others to learn or imitate. If you think of the “great” leaders in history, most possessed such natural abilities. Moreover, research has suggested there is a correlation between media Chief Executive Officers’ (CEOs’) backgrounds and personal characteristics, and their likelihood of adopting nontraditional leadership approaches and strategies (Shaver & Shaver, 2006). However, whether natural leaders or not, people can learn the fundamentals of leadership and become more effective in leadership roles. This chapter will lay out some of skills and dynamics of successful leadership.
Early studies of leadership focused on leadership traits (Northouse, 2010; Parry & Bryman, 2006; Redmond & Trager, 2004; Stogdill, 1974). Traits are personal characteristics that people have. In some cases, they can be developed, and in other instances, developing a trait may be more difficult. Research has identified a long list of traits common to effective leaders. As the word “trait” suggests, many of these characteristics come more naturally to some people than others, although most individuals probably can improve at least somewhat in these areas with effort. Although individual lists of traits vary, common characteristics include intelligence, ambition, self-confidence, expertise, charisma, creativity, perseverance, flexibility, commitment, integrity, the ability to inspire and motivate others, social and emotional intelligence, and the ability to envision what the future ought to be (Northouse, 2010; Stogdill, 1974; Zaccaro, Kemp, & Bader, 2004).
Many students of leadership argue that of all of these characteristics, vision is most important (Redmond & Trager, 2004; Sashkin, 1989). Vision is the ability to think creatively about the future and the opportunities it holds. Visionary leaders also must possess the ability to inspire others to adopt their vision and work toward its achievement.
It is not enough, of course, just to have vision. Successful leadership demands that leaders transform their visions into realities. Executing a vision is where most leaders fail because a new vision represents change (Johnson, 2004), and managing change is one of the most difficult of all management challenges. Any attempt to introduce change to an organization will bump into traditions, differing viewpoints, and established interests. Thus, for the leader, bridging the gap between vision and reality requires planning (see Chapter 7
) and leadership skills. Unlike leadership traits, leadership skills are abilities that can be developed with training and effort.
Central among the critical leadership skills experts have identified are (a) communication and listening skills, (b) empowerment, (c) coaching, (d) delegation, (e) assertiveness, (f) decisiveness, (g) problem solving, (h) goal setting, (i) conflict management, and (j) negotiation (Harris, 2002; Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 1999; Northouse, 2010). Communication, which includes listening skills, is arguably the single most important skill a leader must have (Harris, 2002). Leaders must communicate their vision, goals, and instructions clearly and in terms that motivate and inspire. Some managers cling to the idea that information is power and, thus, communicate as little as possible with subordinates. Employees who constantly receive partial or misleading information quickly stop trusting the boss. Skilled leaders communicate effectively through formal channels, such as memos, e-mail, speeches, and meetings, and informally in casual conversation and social settings. Regardless of the channel, failure to communicate leads to misdirection, misunderstandings, inefficiency, and lost trust. Nonverbal communication is another important element of leadership communication. How leaders dress, carry themselves, and interact with others communicates much about their power, self-confidence, and expectations for their employees (Harris, 2002). Research shows people read nonverbal cues as more accurate and reliable than verbal messages, particularly where relationship quality is concerned (Hickson & Stacks, 1985; Malandro & Barker, 1983), and some scholars have argued that nonverbal communication is the most important form of communication in organizations (Richmond, McCroskey, & Payne, 1987). Managers who fold their arms when talking with subordinates communicate defensiveness and lack of openness (Kurien, 2010). The bosses who give their full attention to male subordinates but don’t look up when female subordinates talk to them communicate a dismissive attitude toward women. In short, we cannot not communicate because everyone around us constantly interprets our nonverbal displays (Harris, 2002). The leader who fails to monitor his or her nonverbal messaging is likely to quickly encounter communication problems with colleagues and subordinates.
Listening skills are no less important than communication skills; effective leaders are active listeners (Harris, 2002; Johnson & Bechler, 1998), giving the speaker full attention and ignoring cell phone, e-mail, or other interruptions. They ask questions, take notes, and rephrase back to the speaker what was said to make sure they understood correctly. More importantly, they act on advice and suggestions from employees. When managers tell employees, “My door is always open,” or “I really want to hear what you think,” but never act on the input they get, staff quickly come to see the boss’s claim of openness as a sham.
Communication and listening skills play a role in other leadership skills such as empowering, coaching, and delegating. Leaders empower subordinates by seeking their input on important decisions, trusting them to succeed at critical tasks without constant supervision, and permitting them to find their own ways to accomplish goals as long as the goals are accomplished. With such trust, managers can delegate some of their responsibilities. Delegation allows the leader to refocus on tasks that can’t be shared (Hughes et al., 1999). However successful delegation requires that subordinates be expert enough and professionally mature enough to handle the delegated authority (Hersey & Blanchard, 1969).
Assertiveness and decisiveness also are key leadership skills (Hughes et al., 1999; Stogdill, 1974). Leaders and managers must be comfortable confronting problems; advocating for their own, their organizations’, and their employees’ needs; and telling people when they don’t meet expectations. Decisiveness is equally important: An editor who dithers in a breaking-news situation or a leader who avoids dealing with problems because he or she can’t make tough decisions loses subordinates’ confidence. However, decisiveness does not mean refusing to change course once the chosen course appears wrong. Effective leaders constantly seek and evaluate new information and admit when they’ve made a mistake. Decisiveness does not equal blind stubbornness, the fear of admitting mistakes, or the illusion of personal infallibility, all of which can afflict people in leadership positions—often with disastrous consequences.
Assertiveness enters into conflict management, negotiation, and problem solving, which all are important leadership skills (Hughes et al., 1999). Conflict is a natural part of any organization and can be a healthy and creative force. Fear of conflict creates a passive, change-averse environment that may slow development and excellence. On the other hand, uncontrolled conflict is a destructive force, causing good people to leave a company and encouraging the survivors to focus on defeating their internal rivals rather than on achieving mutual success. A leader has to manage conflicts at organizational and individual levels, allowing differences to surface, be aired, and to contribute to change and development, but not allowing them to evolve into running feuds or disruptive outbursts. In the very public, high-pressure, ego-driven world of media professionals, conflict is inevitable. Assertiveness and conflict-management skills are particularly important for media leaders.
Successful conflict management requires negotiating skills. Skilled negotiators focus on win-win solutions allowing all parties to save face and gain something. Effective negotiations focus on the interests at stake, not the positions the parties take (Fisher, Ury, & Patton, 1991). Well-managed negotiations serve everyone’s interests to some degree and leave relationships undamaged.
Finally, problem solving, motivation, strategic planning, and goal setting are the core of every leader’s responsibilities. Most of a leader’s activities involve problem solving at some level, and many of the problems they need to solve involve these other core leadership functions. So important are the ability to motivate, plan, and set goals to a leader’s success, that those subjects will be addressed in detail in later chapters.
Leadership experts argue that successful leadership depends on combining the style and skills of the leader, the styles and skills of the followers, and the specific conditions of the situation the group is addressing (Fiedler, 1967; Hersey & Blanchard, 1969; House & Dessler, 1974; Hughes et al., 1999). In other words, even the most gifted leaders will fail miserably if their traits and styles do not match their followers’ or the circumstances. On the other hand, even the most unlikely leaders may succeed if they develop their leadership skills and understand their followers and the situation.
Leadership style refers to the way a leader works with subordinates and superiors, including how much autonomy subordinates have, how much emphasis is placed on subordinates’ personal goals and development, and whether the leader makes accomplishment of the task more important than maintenance of collegial relationships. Most leadership theories argue that there is no “best” style of leadership, despite what you may have heard or read about the importance of humanistic and transformational leadership. In reality, successful leadership requires leaders to respond to their followers and the situation.
There are different ways of looking at leadership styles. Some experts have focused on how organizational structures and working conditions create an organizational leadership style, and others have examined the personal leadership style of individual leaders.
Effects of Organizational Structures on Leadership Style
Theories X, Y, and Z comprise one of the more common frameworks for understanding differences in leadership styles and explain the connection between organizational structure, culture, and leadership.
Theory X refers to a top-down, authoritarian style in which supervisors command and subordinates obey (McGregor, 1960, 2006). Theory X leadership typically exists in highly structured, hierarchical organizations where members’ status derives from their job title, and lines of authority are clear. Subordinates may have some input in Theory X environments, but when a decision is made, compliance is expected. The military is the most obvious example of this style; other examples include police and fire departments and airline and ship crews. These types of organizations use Theory X because it is most effective when people work in changeable, potentially dangerous, or extremely time-pressured conditions. For those reasons, news organizations often exhibit elements of Theory X leadership style.
Experts often describe Theory Y leadership as a “humanistic” or “human-needs-oriented” style (McGregor, 1960, 2006). Theory Y leaders strive to create harmony between the organization’s and employees’ goals. Generally found in more decentralized, horizontally structured organizations, Theory Y leaders give workers some power and autonomy. The approach assumes most people are self-motivated and produce better results if they control their own work and if the work fits with the employee’s personal goals and values. Media workplaces also widely use Theory Y, particularly in the creative industries and new media.
Theory Z leadership (Ouchi, 1981), often referred to as “Japanese-Style Management,” first attracted attention in the 1980s when Japanese companies became major global competitors to U.S. and European industries. Theory Z combines elements of X and Y. Theory Z organizations tend to be hierarchically structured, with the expectation that employees at the hierarchy’s bottom will be consulted by senior management on issues within those employees’ expertise. In return, workers take personal responsibility for the quality of the product and the success of the organization.
Theory Z management requires a high level of trust, loyalty, and mutual respect across all levels of the company. It works well in organizations where managers and employees expect workers to stay with the company for most, or all, of their careers. In today’s competitive economy where employment security has eroded and many companies, particularly in the media industry, are replacing employees with contract workers, Theory Z leadership is becoming harder to find—even in Japan.
For those who might wonder why these approaches to leadership are called Theories X, Y, and Z, the terms don’t have any special significance. The author of Theory X and Theory Y designated them as such simply to “avoid the complications introduced by a label” (McGregor, 1957, as cited in McGregor, 1960, 2006, p. 341). Theory Z, which came later, was so named by its author (Ouchi, 1981) because it built on McGregor’s earlier work.
Other aspects of organizational structures such as centralization, unity of command, span of control, division of labor, and departmentalization also affect a leader’s style and effectiveness (Hughes et al., 1999). Centralization refers to the number of people in the organization who control power or, said another way, the degree to which power is shared in the organization (Andrews, Boyne, Law, & Walker, 2009). Highly centralized organizations tend to be more authoritarian or Theory X, while decentralized organizations tend to be more participative. Unity of command refers to how clearly the lines in the chain of command are drawn. Historically, organizational theorists argued that clear chains of command that had each employee reporting to one, and only one, supervisor were associated with better firm performance and more satisfied employees (Rizzo, House, & Lirtzman, 1970). In media organizations, however, authority often is very diffuse. Journalists may work with several different editors on a story, while in entertainment media, creative teams often are responsible for production. In entrepreneurial organizations and settings where new products are being developed, authority usually is highly decentralized.
Span of control refers to the number of people and projects managers supervise (Ouchi & Dowling, 1974). A wider span of control makes it more difficult to keep track of individuals and details. Widespread consolidation in local media since the 1990s has meant that many broadcast managers and newspaper publi...