Leadership: The State of the Research

Article excerpt

Leadership is a topic of interest to all of us in the field of parks, recreation, and leisure services. Whether we are referring to direct leadership, where we work one-on-one with participants; supervisory leadership, where we guide and mentor our staff; or managerial leadership, where we make decisions at the board or executive level, all agencies, organizations, and individuals are affected by it. Highly effective leadership can move an organization ahead in its efforts to provide quality leisure services to a variety of constituents, while poor leadership can negatively affect an organization to such an extent as to put the organization "out of business."

Leadership has an obvious level of importance in all arenas of life, yet we do not have a clear understanding of what the leadership construct is all about. Different people believe it means different things at different times. We do know that it encompasses much of daily living-skills areas in which we tend to assume people are skilled and experienced (e.g., with an ability to work with people, get jobs done, and see the big picture). Thus, many of us find it difficult to address leadership competencies, attitudes, and concepts in staff training.

To begin this month's "Research Update," and to help us gain a better understanding of leadership, we will turn to the literature. There are two primary types of literature in existence that relate to leadership. The popular press (found in the self-help and business sections of most bookstores) has inundated bookstores with texts and manuals about improving one's leadership potential. The names of Peter Drucker, William Deming, and Tom Peters may sound familiar. Each of these individuals has written a great deal about leadership, much of which is based on research as well as personal experiences.

The other type of literature is found in research journals and reports; this is the area I delved into to learn about the latest thinking related to leadership. Leadership has been studied since humans first conceptualized a difference between those who helped others achieve goals, had access to resources, and used their power and those who followed the aforementioned individuals. Thus, there is a good deal of research available for us to review. Having studied leadership through the past 15 years, I can report that most of the research about leadership is based either in the business world or the military. Leadership has risen out of a desire to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of businesses and military institutions for maximum productivity.

While the research literature about leadership is primarily based in the military and the corporate world, what has been learned is relatively easy to apply in a variety of situations and settings including parks, recreation, and leisure services. Research about leadership, followers, and group dynamics has been reported since the early 1900s. For this article, however, we are interested in an update of the research; thus, in this "Research Update," you will be reading primarily about what we have learned in this past decade.

Conceptual Beginnings

Part of the difficulty in understanding leadership and knowing how to teach others about it can be attributed to the many definitions of the term. Over the years, leadership has been defined as a group process, a matter of personality, an exercise of influence, specific behaviors, a form of persuasion, a power relationship, an instrument to achieve goals, an effect of interaction, a differentiated role, initiation of structure, and a variety of combinations of the above (Bass, 1990). One of the combined definitions of leadership related to leisure services is "a dynamic process of interactions between two or more members of a group which involves recognition and acceptance of leader-follower roles by group members within a certain situation" (Jordan, 1996, p. 8). We do know that leadership is something that occurs in a group and that, when used well, it can move a group toward its potential in many positive ways. …