Leadership Theory
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Leadership Theory

Cultivating Critical Perspectives

John P. Dugan

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eBook - ePub

Leadership Theory

Cultivating Critical Perspectives

John P. Dugan

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About This Book

An interdisciplinary survey text on leadership theory grounded using critical perspectives

Leadership Theory is designed specifically for use in undergraduate or graduate classrooms providing a comprehensive overview of essential theories informing the leadership studies knowledgebase. The text infuses critical perspectives in a developmental manner that guides readers through increasingly complex ways in which theory can be deconstructed and reconstructed to enhance practice and advance social justice. The book uses compelling examples, critically reflective questions, and multiple approaches to concept illustration to cultivate readers' abilities to engage as critical learners. At the heart of this are powerful counter-narratives offering a range of insights on the challenges and rewards of leadership. Narratives represent accomplished leaders from across a broad range of fields including Eboo Patel, Mary Morten, Felice Gorordo, and more. The facilitator's guide and instructor's website supplement this with case studies, sample syllabi, structured dialogues, and learning activities tied to each chapter.

Leadership texts tend to limit application of theory to a singular disciplinary context, omit important ways in which research evolves the understanding of theory, and/or lack critical evaluation of theories which diminishes the ability to translate theory to practice. This book provides a much-needed solution to these issues.

  • Learn the nature, origin, and evolution of specific theories
  • Understand and apply leadership theories using critical perspectives
  • Consider the influences of ethics and justice, social location, and globalization

The rapid expansion of leadership programs has thrown the dearth of suitable primary texts into sharp relief. Instructors forced to cobble together course materials from multiple piecemeal sources will find their much-needed solution in Leadership Theory.

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The Evolving Nature of Leadership

“We are the leaders we've been waiting for.”
You would be hard‐pressed at this particular time in history to find someone who does not have an opinion about leadership. The media vacillates between showering praise on political leaders and deriding their incompetence. The business community is alternately framed as leaders in social innovation or criminals who abuse their leader roles. Contemporary social movements are lauded as examples of collective leadership while simultaneously chastised for lacking organization and a central leader. All the while social media provides an increasingly powerful vehicle for individuals to quickly voice and disseminate their opinions about leaders at all levels, from local to global, and across all sectors from industry to education. There is no shortage of opinion on the state of leadership, the success or failure of individual leaders, or the desperate need for more and better leadership—unless, of course, you talk to those who are often, for very good reason, exhausted with or feel alienated from leadership altogether.
Love it or hate it, the concepts of leaders and leadership are ubiquitous in contemporary society. This chapter begins with civil rights activist and feminist scholar Grace Lee Boggs's reframing of a Hopi quote that captures a central theme of these reactions to and feelings about leadership … they often reflect an outward gaze. They illustrate the longing we have for someone else to make the social structures we navigate (e.g., work, community, society) function better and our deep disappointment when this does not happen. Sometimes they even capture the ways in which we feel marginalized from the concept of leadership as traditionally defined. But what would change if we turned our gaze inward? What if we came to realize our own potential, our collective power, and our shared place in creating the world in which we want to live? What if we positioned our family, our friends, our colleagues, and ourselves as the ones for whom we've been waiting? This book is built on these very assumptions and explores the role of leadership theory as providing the scaffolding to do just that.


Beyond the general fascination with the topic of leaders and leadership, what makes it worthy of study? Why create entire classes on the subject, generate volumes of scholarship, and direct so much attention? Our interest in leadership likely stems from the ways in which it evokes issues we care about deeply. Heifetz (1994) underscored this when he reminded us “the exercise and even the study of leadership stirs feelings because leadership engages our values” (p. 13). If I care about the new business I've started, I likely want to make it as successful as possible. If I'm concerned about the environment, perhaps I want to figure out ways to bring community members together to improve recycling efforts. If I acknowledge that my place of work is one in which I'll spend a great deal of time, maybe I want to contribute to a culture that is affirming and collegial. All of these examples force us to cross an implicit bridge that links the things we care about with leadership. Heifetz and Linsky (2002) extend this notion when they share that “exercising leadership is a way of giving meaning to your life by contributing to the lives of others. At its best, leadership is a labor of love” (p. 223).
More pragmatic rationales for the study of leadership exist as well. Bennis (2007) reminds us, “In the best of times, we tend to forget how urgent the study of leadership is. But leadership always matters” (p. 2). He goes on to share “the four most important threats facing the world today are: (a) a nuclear or biological catastrophe, whether deliberate or accidental; (b) a world‐wide epidemic; (c) tribalism and its cruel offspring, assimilation; and finally, (d) the leadership of our human institutions” (p. 5). You could add to Bennis's list issues associated with rapid globalization, persistent domestic and international human rights violations, and growing resource scarcity to create a virtual perfect storm of leadership issues. There is no doubt that these challenges necessitate the study of leadership and how best to operationalize it. The truth, though, is that there are few times in history that are not characterized by a conflation of social, political, and scientific issues that require leadership. Bennis reminds us that individuals and groups have the power to leverage leadership as a vehicle to address complex problems. The degree to which we are adequately prepared to do so is tied to the degree to which leadership is studied and learned.


That there is no shortage of opinions about leadership contributes at least in part to the vast number of definitions that exist. One could question, however, the degree to which these definitions actually add something meaningful to the knowledge base. Do they functionally alter the ways in which we think about or engage in leadership? This book is going to take a bit of a different approach. No singular definition of leadership will be advanced. I most certainly will provide you with multiple definitions of leadership derived from a myriad of leadership theories. I will not, however, be offering you my own definition nor positing a grand, unifying theory of leadership. In a debate with a fellow leadership scholar, Day offered the term “pizzled,” defining it as “simultaneously pissed off and puzzled” (Day & Drath, 2012, p. 227). I realize that for some readers this lack of a singular definition may result in feeling “pizzled” at this very moment. That's okay, as the learning of leadership should invoke alternating feelings of frustration and excitement if it is treated as the complex and deeply personal phenomenon that it is.
The choice not to provide a definition for leadership is a purposeful exercise in restraint to avoid adding yet another set of terms, another semantic differential to the pantheon of preexisting definitions. I will most certainly provide a means of bracketing the core components of leadership as well as encourage you to play with them, arranging and rearranging concepts in ways that are meaningful to your understanding of what leadership is and is not. I also want to be clear that this does not reflect indifference about definitional clarity. Definitional clarity is essential to understanding a particular theory and its underpinnings as well as how we engage in leadership practice. We are simply embarking on a different approach that suggests learning leadership theory is less about the acquisition of terminology and more about becoming a critical learner. It also repositions readers as having the agency to author their own definitions of leadership that arise as an eclectic mix of components from various theories and their own life experiences.


Some of you may be ready to jump right into the leadership theory waters, but we aren't going to take a swim quite yet. My goal for you is to first begin developing the skills to be a critical learner. Simply being able to rattle off the names of important theories or theorists is not enough. It does not necessarily mean you know how to use theory any more effectively. I want you to be able to examine a theory to deconstruct its assumptions, its areas of strength as well as limitations, and then take from it the most useful components that resonate with your own beliefs to apply in the unique contexts you are navigating. This is what a critical learner does. However, to approach theory this way means we have to take a few steps back and first explore some content about theory before looking at it directly.
Exploring the inner mechanics of a theory is essential. This includes unpacking key assumptions about its nature, clarification of terminology, and differentiation of core considerations among theories. Taken together these three elements could be considered the building blocks of understanding leadership. In fact, let's use the process of building a home as a metaphor here with assumptions, terminology, and core considerations representing key elements of a building's (or theory's) architecture (see Figure 1.1). Your goal is to assess the structure of the theory looking at how its architecture informs, constrains, or elevates the utility of the content it presents.
Scheme representing the key elements of a building’s architecture.
FIGURE 1.1 The architecture of leadership theory
So, what are the elements of the architecture of a home or a theory? Assumptions about the nature of leadership provide critical footings on which theory is built, undergirding and supporting ideas. When building a house, concrete footings are often taken for granted but bear the entire weight and structure of the home along with keeping it level. They serve as an essential grounding on which the foundation and the rest of the home are constructed.
Key assumptions provide the footings for terminology, or the major concepts associated with understanding the nature of leadership. The terminology employed in a theory is essential as it is akin to the foundation of a home drawing on the strength of the footings to offer further support in bearing the weight of the structure. Foundations are also designed to resist external threat such as moisture and cold by tailoring the design to fit its context. Similarly, terminology bolsters the parameters used to define leadership and adjust to the shifting contexts that inf...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Leadership Theory
APA 6 Citation
Dugan, J. (2017). Leadership Theory (1st ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/991850/leadership-theory-cultivating-critical-perspectives-pdf (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Dugan, John. (2017) 2017. Leadership Theory. 1st ed. Wiley. https://www.perlego.com/book/991850/leadership-theory-cultivating-critical-perspectives-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Dugan, J. (2017) Leadership Theory. 1st edn. Wiley. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/991850/leadership-theory-cultivating-critical-perspectives-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Dugan, John. Leadership Theory. 1st ed. Wiley, 2017. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.