Five questions prompted by the articles in the American Psychologist special issue on leadership (January 2007, Vol. 62, No. 1) suggest some new directions for leadership research: (1) Not do leaders make a difference, but under what conditions does leadership matter? (2) Not what are the traits of leaders, but how do leaders’ personal attributes interact with situational properties to shape outcomes? (3) Not do there exist common dimensions on which all leaders can be arrayed, but are good and poor leadership qualitatively different phenomena? (4) Not how do leaders and followers differ, but how can leadership models be reformulated so they treat all system members as both leaders and followers? (5) Not what should be taught in leadership courses, but how can leaders be helped to learn?
For all of the research that has been conducted on the topic of leadership, the field remains curiously unformed.. Leadership scholars, including those who have written for this special issue, agree that leadership is extraordinarily important both as a social phenomenon and as a subject for scholarly research and theory. Yet, as both Bennis (2007, this issue) and Vroom and Jago (2007, this issue) have pointed out, there are no generally accepted definitions of what leadership is, no dominant paradigms for studying it, and little agreement about the best strategies for developing and exercising it.
Among the many possible reasons for this gloomy state of affairs is that leadership scholars over the years may have been asking questions that have no general answers, thereby adding complexity but not clarity to our understanding. The articles that comprise this special issue summarize a great deal of informative research about leadership, to be sure. But perhaps their greatest contribution is that they raise a number of questions the answers to which will help us develop knowledge about leadership that is interesting, useful, and cumulative. In answer to Bennis’s (2007, this issue) plea that scholars use their creativity to identify and reframe the most important questions about leadership, we pose in this concluding essay five questions that were prompted by the articles in this issue. We hope that these questions may be somewhat more informative, or at least more tractable, than some that have historically been prominent in leadership research.
Question 1: Not do leaders make a difference, but under what conditions does leadership matter?
As the authors of these articles have noted, the long-standing debate between leader-centric and structural or situational explanations of collective performance has never been resolved, and probably cannot be. The reason is that the debate is about the wrong question. The right question is to distinguish conceptually and empirically those circumstances in which leaders’ actions are highly consequential for system performance from those in which leaders’ behaviors and decisions make essentially no difference (Avolio, 2007, this issue; Chan & Brief, 2005; Hackman & Wageman, 2005; Vroom & Jago, 2007, this issue; Wasserman, Nohria, & Anand, 2001).