Cunningham Lecture 2003: Leadership observed

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Professor Leon Mann FASSA

Leon Mann is Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne and is Director of the Centre for R&D Leadership. From 1991 to 2003, he taught at Melbourne Business School where he was Pratt Family Chair of Leadership and Decision Making. His past teaching positions include Harvard University, University of Sydney, and Flinders University and he has held Visiting Professorships at Stanford University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Leon is a past President of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (2000-2003) and of the Australian Psychological Society (1987-1988). He was elected Honorary Fellow of ASSA in 2006.

The subject of leadership can be approached in many different ways. How we approach leadership – who and what we choose to study, the activities and events we attempt to analyse, and the conceptual frameworks we use to understand leadership – determines what we see and therefore what is concluded. Who is a leader? How important are leaders? What difference do they make? What drives and motivates them? What makes a capable leader? What is the essence of effective leadership? How do we nurture leadership?

In a 1998 review of leadership theory and research it was observed that ‘most of the research on leadership during the past half century has been conducted in the United States, Canada and Western Europe.’ In addition, it has been noted that ‘almost all of the prevailing theories of leadership and about 98 per cent of the empirical evidence at hand, are distinctly American in character: individualistic rather than collectivistic, stressing follower responsibilities rather than rights…’. But in many Asian countries there is a long tradition of writing about political, military, and spiritual leadership as well as a strong research interest in the moral dimension of leadership. Rost, who conducted a historical review of the literature on leadership, concluded ‘leadership… has come to mean many things to all people’ and that ‘scholars and practitioners of leadership are no more sure of what leadership is in 1990 than they were in 1930’. While the diversity of views about leadership may indicate a field without direction, a more positive reading is that there are many valid ways to define, approach, and understand leadership and this testifies both to the complexity and the richness of the field.

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