I: Leadership, Organizational Change and Sensemaking Introduced

This book does not set out to become an encyclopedia of the enormous range of literature on leading organizational change. But if we are going to understand how leaders make sense of change we do need an overview of the literature which is likely to have influenced the current thinking of leaders prior to their engaging with change initiatives. The three chapters in Part One set the context for my research by examining the topics of leadership, change and sensemaking and then giving some practical examples of how these came together in interviews I conducted with leaders prior to engaging in my research.

What Are Leadership and Organizational Change?

Leadership

There is a wide field of literature on the nature and styles of leadership although most of it is focused on the implications for the role of leaders as sensegivers in organizations rather than how they themselves make sense of change before adopting their sensegiving role. This wide variety of literature on the topic of leadership does mean, as Northouse (2013; p.2) puts it, that ‘there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are people who have tried to define it.’ Nevertheless, definitions of leadership can be broadly categorized as based on assumptions about traits, behaviors, situations and process.

Leadership Traits

It was in the second half of the 20th Century that the concept of leadership really took hold in popular business books, journals and articles. Much of the early research was on leadership traits i.e. inherent characteristics that people hold and which are good predictors of success in leadership roles. Writers produced an ever expanding and at times contradictory list of traits they argued were predictors of leadership success (Bird, 1940, Shaw, 1976, Stewart, 1963, Stogdill, 1974). Peters and Waterman (1982) re-invigorated the trait approach to leadership and other writers (Judge et al., 2004, Lord et al., 1986) continued to identify traits associated with leadership although there remained a lack of evidence that any correlation between traits and leadership was causal rather than correlational.

The trait approach has been criticized for being over simplistic and for failing to take account of situational and environmental factors that can influence the development of successful leaders. Bolden (2004) argues that despite extensive research no definitive list of traits of superior leadership performance has been established, and research by Zhang et al. (2009) has shown that situational factors play a much greater role in successful leader behaviors than any identifiable genetic factors. This failure to establish a causal link between leadership traits and successful leadership performance led writers to explore what it is successful leaders do, rather than what they are, by studying leadership behaviors.

 
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