Disciplines, conventional categories for knowledge aggregates, rule much of academe. It seems that true (or at least accepted) “disciplines” orbit around a core of knowledge, expertise and competences. Some were defined in medieval universities.
My take (generally) is that in a discipline:
- There is a critical mass of expertise
- Credible peer review is in place
- Agreed-upon definitions frame inquiry and practice
- There are common paths for apprenticeship – including recognition of a named terminal doctorate
- Outcomes can be assessed
- A body of scholarship is recognized outside the discipline
- Departments within institutions fall within rankings schemes or formulas
Leadership as a discipline is problematic for several reasons:
- Everyone claims to be an expert.
- Rarely are there leadership departments (there isn’t an academic home).
- Key scholars approach the subject from other, more traditional “recognized” disciplines (sociology, history, psychology and so on).
- Some accreditors place it within business or management schools, but it tends to be unclear in other departments (I recall that one accreditor claims that every course with the word “leadership” in the title must be reviewed within the business school – this becomes confusing for the schools of education, public health, government, etc., who all teach courses containing leadership in the title).
- Ranked, recognized universities treat it awkwardly (at best we may find a reference to “leadership studies” in catalogs and websites). The stand-alone word gets sniffs and condescension.
Peter Drucker was once asked by a bank VP to speak on “how one acquires charisma”. After choking on the question, he built a careful argument that ended with the assertion that folded it into effective management, summarizing:
The final requirement of effective leadership is to earn trust. Otherwise, there won’t be any followers—and the only definition of a leader is someone who has followers. To trust a leader, it is not necessary to like him. Nor is it necessary to agree with him. Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says. It is a belief in something very old-fashioned, called “integrity.” A leader’s actions and a leader’s professed beliefs must be congruent, or at least compatible. Effective leadership—and again this is very old wisdom—is not based on being clever; it is based primarily on being consistent.
After I had said these things on the telephone to the bank’s human-resources VP, there was a long silence. Finally she said, “But that’s no different at all from what we have known for years are the requirements for being an effective manager.”
For Drucker, leadership could be understood within the discipline of management.
Key researchers – James MacGregor Burns, Warren Bennis, Ron Riggio, Jean Lipman-Blumen and Barbara Kellerman – hail from political science, economics and social sciences, psychology, organizational sociology and political science respectively. My PhD is in history and I unfailingly frame thoughts about leadership within the schema of my discipline. For you academics, try to recall the last significant research you read that was prepared by someone with an actual PhD in “leadership”. (no scoffing intended here, just a hardnosed question about how leadership can be made more relevant…)
Three perplexing questions arise:
- Should leadership become a discipline? if so…
- How could leadership become a discipline? and…
- Perhaps more to the point, should (or will) disciplines in general even continue to exist?
One author believes we should abandon disciplines in general because “interdisciplinary work” may be more useful or compelling:
… many universities have a hard time embracing interdisciplinary work in part because the tenure and promotion process is not designed to properly evaluate interdisciplinary scholarship. In fact, our entire tenure and promotion system is controlled by disciplinary review boards that measure how individual scholars stack up against other scholars in the same field. How can we evaluate the tenure cases of interdisciplinary scholars? How can we incentivize interdisciplinary work when research money, departments, and promotion committees are constructed along disciplinary borders?
My suspicion is that leadership may be a – if not the – top candidate for interdisciplinary inquiry. But to have any academic credibility, the scholars can help us all by continuing to apply the rigors of their traditionally-accepted disciplines (until they are abandoned at least), with their disciplinary hat affixed firmly upon their heads, at least until the way seems clear to establish a new leadership (studies) discipline credibly.
Elaine Howard Ecklund (quoted above) suggests that we reorient our thinking around research problems rather than disciplines. At Prescott College this Autumn, freshmen take a twelve-credit course focusing disciplinary inquiry (including creative writing) around Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 immigation bill (following a three-week backpacking expedition which serves as orientation). Even Oxbridge is becoming known for this to some extent – their PPE degree crosses philosophy, politics and economics. Claremont McKenna College has a similar degree, but applies the contributions of the Kravis Leadership Institute in a sort of matrix curriculum. The horizontal axis of the curriculum (PPE faculty) covers theory and the vertical axis (KLI) provides experiences and events for application.
Is there any research problem more compelling than how we will lead?
My guess is that it affects just about everything else.
 Drucker, Peter F. (2001). The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker’s Essential Writings on Management. New York: Harper Business. pp. 268-271.