Six decades of leadership research

In March 2011, a new four-volume set on leadership, was published by Sage, providing a unique insight into how academic thinking on leadership has developed since the end of World War II.

Featuring journal articles published between 1947 and 2009, the work is a prime resource for leadership scholars and students, said Professor David Collinson of the Department of Leadership and Management, who was one of the three leadership researchers asked to put together the series.

"I found that, with leadership in particular, people are always keen to know what the latest ideas are, and also how leadership ideas have developed over time. Practitioners often want to know what practical ideas they can bring to their own leadership, and are looking for something that will give them a bit of an edge."

Emerging perspectives

The great value of this reference work, he adds, is that it makes accessible in one place both key papers from the earlier decades that have already proved very influential for leadership theory and practice and newly emerging perspectives that will perhaps take leadership in new directions in the future.

Collinson’s fellow editors both have strong Lancaster connections: Professor Keith Grint, now at Warwick Business School, is a former Management Learning and Leadership colleague and founded the journal Leadership with Collinson while at Lancaster, and Professor Brad Jackson from the University of Auckland Business School completed his PhD at LUMS.

Condensing more than sixty years of leadership research into a four-volume confined to no more than around sixty articles was a daunting task, so how did they reach agreement on what made the cut and what didn’t?

Influence and impact

Certain ground rules were established early on, says Collinson. They would include journal articles only, not chapters from books, and permit only one paper by any one author to keep the representation as broad as possible.

They also decided to take a strictly chronological, rather than a thematic, approach, with the first volume covering the period from 1947-1987 and subsequent volumes covering progressively shorter time-spans – mirroring the more recent explosion in the number of published papers on leadership. They also adopted a strict scoring system. 

"Particularly with Volume 1, the classics, there were certain papers that we were unanimous about, because they were head and shoulders above the others in terms of their influence and impact," Collinson explains.

"And with the last volume, we based our selection on the intellectual areas where we felt the researchers were really pushing the boundaries. The very last paper, for example, looks at race, an area which has been largely neglected in leadership studies.

"One of our prime concerns was to leave space for more critical and questioning work, just as we do with the Leadership Journal. We didn’t want the focus to be too heavily American, even though there is inevitably a lot of American work in here. Leadership studies as a whole has been dominated for too long by American thinking. We wanted to look more broadly than that, and represent other voices."

Developments in leadership research

The 64 papers in their final selection certainly reflect the huge variety in perspectives on,  and approaches to, leadership research. Yet, over time, certain evolutionary trends are clearly detectable, says Collinson.

He singles out three main developments in leadership research over the post-war period:

  • A move away from the early focus almost exclusively on leaders themselves – their particular styles, qualities and contributions – towards seeing leadership in terms of the dynamic relationship between leaders and followers.
  • A methodological shift from largely quantitative studies to more work which is qualitative in approach, opening the way for more nuanced views.
  • A widening recognition of different cultural perspectives and contexts, with research no longer being so US-centric (understandable as many early studies were funded by the US government and military), and carrying the underlying assumption that the American model was generalisable to the rest of the world.

"It’s indicative of how leadership research is now opening up," Collinson says. "We wanted to reflect those patterns in the way the research is going, and to open it up to much more complex and situated models of leadership and followership.

"What we’ve found in the last ten years in particular is a growing interest in leadership in very different countries and societies – for example, in Japan, China, India and also across Africa – in how that varies and what the cultural dynamics are.

"Bring culture into the equation, and leadership starts to take on very different forms in different contexts. It’s very exciting from that point of view – for example, we have a special issue of the Leadership Journal coming out shortly which will look at leadership in Asia."

With recent events at home providing such striking examples of leadership failure, and struggles for power taking place in many other parts of the world, there is clearly no shortage of areas for leadership researchers to work on in the future, says Collinson.