Academic analysis finds leadership is a fine art

The Life: For 100 years, experts have taken a scientific approach to solving management problems in the workplace. But some now argue that the making of a great leader boils down to art, not science.
The fascination with the belief that scientific methods in leadership can solve any problem has become an almost addictive mindset.istockphoto.com
The fascination with the belief that scientific methods in leadership can solve any problem has become an almost addictive mindset.istockphoto.com

Does the making of a great leader boil down to an art or science?

Throughout the history of leadership as a discipline, it has been commonly referred to as the science of leadership. But this view limits the real impact of leading, as it requires much more than a formula.

Morgan Witzel from the Centre of Leadership at the University of Exeter recently wrote an article for the Financial Times titled "How science led teaching down a blind alley".

In his piece, Mr Witzel argued that the theory of being able to solve the problems of management through science - which has held true for the past 100 years since Fredrick Taylor's writing of The Principles of Scientific Management - has gone too far. We need to bring art as well as science back into management thinking.

This is a very impacting insight for modern business as it has relied upon the influence of the scientific approach to shape the ways of business, management and leadership for decades. While there is space for scientific influence, relying on it exclusively is a formula for limitation in leadership.

The scientific approach logically and rationally explains knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions, but markets, consumers and employees are unpredictable and irrational.

From my assessment of the leadership approaches of the titans of industry and commerce, more than half of the influence on their leadership approach comes from the art side of the equation. Why do I say this? The answer is clearly what differentiates uber-successful leaders from the others - their understanding of, and focus on, people.

After all, leading is a full-contact, people-oriented sport; employees are people, consumers are people and markets are comprised of people. Leaders who incorporate the art of leadership typically do better with people.

Making the transition from a scientific approach to one that encompasses the art of leadership is monumental, as it requires a reworking of business-school curriculum, performance-management systems, leadership-development programmes, various books and most of today's leaders' practiced approaches.

Unfortunately, most leaders have fallen into the science trap and allowed it to extend into every part of leading. Just look at the core courses many of them study in an MBA programme: finance, economics, accounting, operations and supply-chain management.

The only course that has a minimal people focus is marketing, and even that subject is taught as a formula with a focus on the four "Ps" of marketing (product, price, place and promotion).

Borrowing a note from Mr Witzel, the fascination with the belief that scientific methods in leadership can solve any problem has become an almost addictive mindset. But leading in this region is full of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Therefore, we need a prescription to remake the GCC leadership approach to include art in the equation.

To reformulate the leadership equation, leaders will need to begin with a mindset shift that defaults on the art side.

That means leaders should think people first and the formula second. Then in every leadership interaction, leaders need to pause and inquire about what is guiding them - science or art?

Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth & emerging market leadership, author of The CEO Shift and the managing director of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center.

Published: August 21, 2011 04:00 AM

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