I have been reading Cohen and March’s study on leadership. They studied 46 college and university presidents to discover “leadership effectiveness.” Their conclusion: Higher Education leadership is mythological! In an often quoted line they say, “an organization’s leader is like being the driver of a skidding car. There is little a leader can do to really influence organizational outcomes. Whether he is convicted of manslaughter (for an on campus fire) or receives a letter for heroism is largely outside of his control.” In other words factors outside of the control of any one single individual primarily drive organizational performance. Ok, I do not know that I fully agree – duality. However, scholars of organizational theory of the “resource dependence school” do say that, “most organizational action does not result from individual agency. It is the product of an organizational response to the demands of external actors upon which the organization depends for resources, influence, and support.” These external actors impose very specific expectations on what, how, when, and why an organization should be doing. These expectations of external actors even define the agenda, structure, and specific behavior of an organization and individuals within organizations.
Are leaders then just translators and pawns for these external actors? Well, sort of and sort of not. I can attest that the change in the composition of a board of directors can bring dramatic change in these expectations and you either get on board or not. But leaders and leadership teams can be and should be empowered to guide these expectations in the right way and should have the power to say no if a particular direction is deemed not the best. Sadly, this is often not the case.
Leadership duality is realizing that you operate under this tension of agency and external actor expectation. Real leaders take their calling as agents deeply and seriously. Thus it is critical that alignment exists!!