Burns (1978:2) declares that “leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth”. In spite of this still being generally true, Van Vugt (2006), in his review of literature pertaining to the phenomenon of leadership, does conclude that considerable development has occurred towards developing a more complete understanding of leadership. Whilst this is indeed so, the academic discipline fields remain dispersed and fragmented. Van Vugt identifies the potential for research synergy between the evolutionary sciences, on the one hand, and psychology, on the other. Pierce and White (1999) have similarly concluded that leadership behaviour is essentially interplay between environmental cues and psychological mechanisms.
It is however true that, in spite of dispersed and fragmented research in the field of leadership, a large body of knowledge about “leaders” and “leadership” has been produced. Much has been written about “good” and “bad” leaders as a platform for exploration of “leadership”. Historically (e.g. Fiedler, 1967) has connected “leaders” to “followers” to “situation” in an attempt to organise these three elements for purposes of establishing potential rules for leader behaviours. Most contemporary formal generic concepts of leadership embody the conceptual trilogy of “leader”, “follower” and “situation”. Included amongst these are transactional leadership, transformational leadership and servant leadership. Although undoubtedly useful, it is perhaps in these attempts to fragment and analyse the components (or “parts”) of leadership that the truth is being obscured. Similarly, the tendency to conflate the idea of “leader” with “leadership” confuses a process (“leadership”) with an actor (“leader”), whose designation may have more to do with hierarchical position than capacity to understand or practice competent leadership or appreciate the significance of the context within which leadership occurs. Throughout history – both ancient and modern – much has been done to document the behaviour of leader figures and to extrapolate generic lessons about leadership. While these are useful studies in the relationship between behaviours and outcomes, there is similarity in such an approach to the assumption that case studies provide generic learning, rather than merely an interesting set of lessons that may not work in a different context.
Contemporary leadership writing (e.g. Senge et al., 2005, Boyatzis and McKee, 2005) has made considerable progress in shifting understandings of leadership to be mostly a phenomenon arising from mutual trust, consciousness and self awareness. Significantly, Wood (2005) explains leadership in terms of the processual nature of the “real” – an inter-relatedness that holds and sustains processes best defines the world that, according to his reasoning, is more about “becoming” (or emergence) than it is about “being” (or existence). In this view, therefore, leaders, followers, and situation, are simply convenient constructs that represent the surface elements of an underlying process that relies on relationships, collective sense making and continuous flow to form the real basis for understanding leadership practice. Hence there is a view of leadership that defines it as perceptual as well as creative; a dissipative system that is in constant dynamic renewal and transformation.
Csikszentmihalyi (2003) also defines “good business” to be about “flow” and “making of meaning” in a context of continuous change, hence to emphasise the processes of movement as being that which defines leadership. Leadership cannot therefore be easily separated from the institutions, economic and social systems that are vehicles for action and change in the real world. Nor can it be conveniently isolated from the total sweep of history that develops from the past but also needs to contemplate the future. Artistic composition, for example, derives its meaning from the whole, including the social context and historic period in which it was produced.
Interpretation, composition and communication are central to the practice and appreciation of art. De Pree (1989) was amongst the first to define leadership as ‘art’, thus providing valuable insight into the true nature of leadership. Others, such as Zohar and Marshall (1994) have directed attention to the manner in which emotion and spirit influence states of awareness, and hence play a subjective role in insight and appreciation. Appreciation of art does indeed involve interplay of the senses including the objective and the subjective as well as the context within which experience occurs. Kurtz and Snowden (2003), using ideas deriving from complexity theory, write about patterns of relationships, pattern detection, and pattern formation and modification as being key elements in developing organisational understanding. These ideas, and others like them, define a competence that is about synthesis rather than scientific analysis; about art rather than science. They also provide signposts as to the nature of leadership in complex environments.
Wilson (1998) has contrasted the nature of science with the nature of art, defining both as attempts to deal with complex phenomena, where science delights in the disclosure of the detail that comprises the whole and art, by way of contrast, revels in the diverse interpretations of complex wholes, and how the parts resonate and harmonise with one another. Wilson goes further, stating how difficult it is to accurately and definitively comprehend complexity because complexity is not easily bounded, nor are human beings naturally encoded to cope with complex phenomena. Yet interpretation of complexity and composition and communication of response is the substance of the art of leadership. Interpretation implies the existence of diverse perspectives, as indeed does composition. The ability to accept and work with diversity and to move away from the idea that there is only one truth, (or “one best way” in the language of scientific management) further emphasises the nature of leadership as art rather than science but does not detract from the need for science or importance of the analytical methods of science.
In sum, therefore, leadership is hypothesised to be a form of “emergent” art, intending to interpret real world complexity in diverse ways and to use such interpretations to compose and communicate in order to facilitate sustainable progress.