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Leadership research

An additional cause for the multiplicity of leadership theories is related to the approaches and perspectives that different authors used to theorize about the phenomenon. Three systems of classification about leadership research were reviewed for this study to illustrate the attempt of different scholars in synthesizing the leadership literature (Bolden & Kirk, 2009; Korac-Kakabadse & Korac-Kakabadse, 1997; Yulk, 2010). Even though their selection was opportunistic and one might argue that their lack of consensus might be due to an incomplete appraisal of the literature, their inconsistencies and contradictions reflect a cohesive opinion in the field about the fragmentation of this literature (e.g., Zaccaro & Horn, 2003).

Two of the systems selected labeled their typology as perspectives on leadership theories and models (Bolden & Kirk, 2009; Korac-Kakabadse & Korac-Kakabadse, 1997), while the other considered its typology as consisting of approaches (Yulk, 2010). Even though a distinction could be made between the terms approach and perspective, the disparities among these classification systems do not seem to originate from it, and it appears that one of the perspectives have more in common with the approach than with the other perspective.

Both the approach and this perspective seem to utilize the type of variables that is

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most likely emphasized by a particular theory or model (Korac-Kakabadse & Korac-Kakabadse, 1997; Yulk, 2010), while the other perspective seem to use ontological/epistemological frameworks to build its categories (e.g. Bolden & Kirk, 2009; see Table 4). Hence, at least among these three classification schemes, it does not seem to have a consensus as to what constitute the parameters of build an approach or to build a perspective about leadership theories and models.

In addition, as can be observed in Figure 5, there are some overlaps among the categories of the different classifications, but the overlaps are not consistent and there are categories that are exclusive to each author’s typology. With these discrepancies, it is no wonder that “attempts to organize the literature according to major approaches or perspectives show only partial success” (Yukl, 2010: 30). Figure 5 indicates that, utilizing these three classification schemes as basis, leadership theories could be classified either into six groups (see vertical lines separating the clusters of approaches/perspectives), or into eight groups (vertical lines separating cluster plus the three clusters – represented by squared titles – that compose the first cluster).

In order to understand what leadership development is, it is important to first state what leadership development is not, since often the literature treat terms such as management education, leadership training, executive development, and leadership development interchangeably (e.g. Collins & Holton, 2004), which might hinder our understanding of these phenomena. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between management and leadership and between training, education and development.

Management and leadership are interrelated concepts (Yukl, 1998), since leadership and management skills should coexist in the same individual for effective performance (McCartney & Campbell, 2006). Management skills involve activities such as planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving; while leadership skills are usually related with interpersonal relationships between leaders and followers, with the leaders setting a direction, aligning, motivating and inspiring his or her followers (Kotter, 1990). Management and leadership development, therefore, require different emphases (Day, 2000).

Management development focus more on abilities, skills and knowledge that help individuals increase their task performance in the application of established solutions to common problems (Day, 2000). This attention towards skills and known problems relates more to training than development. Training has been defined as “a planned learning experience designed to bring about permanent change in individual’s knowledge, attitudes, or skills” (Campbell, Dunnette, Lawler & Weick, 1970; cited in Noe, 1986). Management development can also be associated with education, which “includes those learning activities and educational environments that are intended to enhance and foster (…) abilities” (Brungardt, 1996: 83).

Thus, training and education, either of management or leadership skills, share several commonalities: they usually occur within a structured setting, they involve taught interactions, and they enhance skills or abilities to known situations. On the other hand, development requires maturity, personal growth, and life experiences and usually builds the capacity to unanticipated challenges (Day, 2000). Development can, therefore, be defined as “the process of becoming increasingly complex, more elaborated and differentiated, by virtue of learning and maturation (…) which opens up the potential for new ways of acting and responding to the environment” (Beardwell & Holden, 2001: 279-80).

This systematic review will focus specifically on leadership development. Yet, the terms that are used interchangeably with leadership development will become part of the systematic review, since some authors might use some of this terminology to investigate this phenomenon. Nonetheless, the definitions above will be utilized to discern studies that are specifically targeting leadership development, which can be defined as “the expansion of a person’s capacity to be effective in leadership roles and processes” (McCauley & Van Velsor, 2004: 2). Roles and processes are related with the leadership skills of aligning, setting direction and promoting commitment in followers.


“There is much sound advice on various programs and practices to promote leadership development, but little of it is grounded in an empirically based, scientific foundation.” – Day & O’Connor, 2003:12. Many initiatives and practices have been used as developmental experiences in order to improve leadership (e.g. McCauley & Van Velsor, 2004); however, very few of them have been investigated scientifically (Day & O’Connor, 2003).

This lack of empirical support is representative of the dearth of research that exists in the field of leadership development currently: leadership development has been hitherto more focused on the practical aspect of promoting developmental experiences than on the scientific investigation of the processes and the content of what is being developed (Day & O’Connor, 2003; Day & Zacarro, 2003; Klein & Ziegert, 2003).

Day & Zacarro (2003) suggest that there are seven major challenges and obstacles that hampered the scientific study of leadership development. These include: measuring development through performance, even though those are different constructs; difficulty in implementing rigorous scientific methods, such as longitudinal and randomized control experiments; and presence of extraneous variables in either in the context in which leaders work or in the mode of development in which leaders participate (i.e., formal, structured instruction, developmental work experiences or self-initiated learning).

All of these challenges are associated with difficulties in conducting and obtaining empirical evidence, which might partially explain why there is also a lack of theories about leadership development, as many academic follow an inductive research strategy (Blaikie, 2007). However, they do not fully elucidate why the almost absence of theory building, through a deductive research strategy, in the field. The absence of theory building might have other causes, such as the nature of the phenomenon of leadership itself, which, as exposed in the previous session, is complex, contextual, and multidimensional.

Thus, the leadership development literature is characterized by an imbalance between the lack of empirical or theoretical grounding for leadership development and the profusion of utilization of leadership development initiatives and programs by organizations, which creates an interesting riddle: if there is nearly no specific theory about leadership development, what theories, if any, have informed the literature of leadership development?

In other words, what theoretical underpinnings have been employed in the literature so far? For instance, does the literature in leadership development utilize most, or any, of the plethora of leadership theories available? Does the multidimensionality of levels of analysis, ontological and epistemological frameworks and variables in the leadership literature influence the design and delivery of different leadership development programs? Answering these questions form the basis of this systematic review.

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