Insights from Newly Released Special Issue of The Leadership Quarterly

Leadership is often thought of as a singular individual, with formal authority, standing up and motivating employees, teams, etc. onto great success.

This notion of leadership is changing.

Many organizations are flat, or even seemingly leaderless, yet they still progress toward a united goal. How does this change the meaning of leadership and the role of leader?

Leadership – Working in Concert

Current theory is defining leadership less as an individual’s ability and more as a force that creates direction, aligns efforts, and creates commitment. With this definition, leadership is created by a collective of individuals working in concert to advance an organization’s goals. How this occurs could take varying forms.

Some have described leadership as an orchestra where the formal leader (conductor) still plays a major role, but other musicians listen to each other adjusting their playing and following each other’s lead.

Another is a flock of birds, rotating leadership. There is no single long-term leader, rather different birds shifting into and out of the lead role and all the birds adjusting their flight patterns in response to each other.

In any case, many individuals with both formal and informal authority act as leaders and the outcomes of leadership (direction, alignment, and commitment) are created in the interactions between people. From this view, leadership is a social process that occurs within a collective (e.g., team, department, organization) and through relationships between people. These relationships form a leadership network that emerges and shifts over time.

Advancing Theory & Gaining Evidence

Thinking about leadership in this way — as a property of the collective as opposed to a few select individuals — represents a paradigm shift within the field of leadership.

Recent academic reviews, as well as a small conference hosted by CCL in 2014, have noted that leadership scholars have made substantial advancements in theory regarding how collectives engage in leadership, but empirical tests of theory lag behind.

This was the impetus for a special issue (published last month, April 2016) in The Leadership Quarterly on Collective and Network Approaches to Leadership that Francis Yammarino (Binghamton University) and I were privileged to edit.

With this special issue we sought to:

  • Spur research examining the formal and informal leadership processes occurring within collectives, networks, and systems.
  • Expose readers to a variety of theoretical and methodological approaches for studying network and collective approaches to leadership.
  • Increase knowledge sharing among groups of researchers working independently from their own theoretical and methodological orientations.
  • Provide guidance from these studies for practice.

Leadership Network Articles

The special issue consists of our introduction and 9 excellent articles that provide insight into the emergence of collective and shared leadership in various forms and the role of formal leaders in collectivistic forms of leadership.

You can learn more about this research by reading the abstracts and full articles.

Leadership Research

Both the conference and the special issue were spawned with the idea of advancing research. The conference brought together scholars to figure out why empirical research was being stalled and the special issue created a concentrated outlet for a diversity of research in this space.

These efforts have helped to push the field of leadership research to examine forms of leadership needed in contemporary organizations, which are relying less on hierarchies and heroic leaders.

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