How do people become leaders

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Dissertation Proposal: How do people become leaders?


Organisational and management theories cite leadership as an important concept, one which relates to organisational and business success, improved functioning and efficacy, and better human resource management (Martin, 2001 p 675). Leadership is viewed as distinct from, but related to, management. It is argued to be both innate and learned, and as such, suggestive of a process of acquiring leadership capacity through either self-development or objective, constructive learning. Some organisations engage in activities to actively develop leadership capacity, whilst others rely on members developing themselves and moving into leadership roles within workplace teams, with or without assumption of managerial power within the organisational hierarchy. However, the ongoing debate about whether leaders are born, or whether they are made, suggests that more research is needed into the processes by which people become leaders. This proposal suggests the use of a combined methodology or mixed methods research study to quantify elements of leadership progression whilst simultaneously exploring and evaluating this from a qualitative, inductive perspective. A brief review of the literature summarises some of the contextual elements important to the study, which is followed by an exploration of the methodological approach to the research, its timescale and proposed course.

Literature Review

Leadership has been viewed as an important theoretical and practical concept within the business and managerial theory domains for some time. Although the terms management and leadership are quite often used interchangeably, they are not always the same, and while it could be argued that many managers must act in leadership role, not all leaders are managers (Martin, 2001 p 675). Gretton (1995 p 20-22) argues that leadership is about listening to people, providing support, encouraging and motivating them, and involving the in decision-making and problem solving processes, while management, essentially, involves telling people what to do, and how, when and where to do this, followed by close and constant sueprvision of their performance. Martin (2001 p 676) cites the ongoing conceptual vagueness and lack of clarity in relation to the evolution and establishment of leadership roles and behaviours.

Management seems to be about power, and it could be argued that leadership and management may be at odds if the person with leadership attributes, skills, knowledge, and influence, is at odds with the managerial structure or hierarchy of an organisation, challenging the power and control of management (Abernethy and Vagnoni, 2004 p 207; |Casey, 2004 p 59). Leadership is also synonymous with processes of change, top down change and bottom up change, and this too can destabilise the status quo (Adams et al, 2006 p 21; Buchanan et al, 2005 p 189; Gill, 2003 p 307). This author would argue that there may be dimensions of leadership ‘becoming' which are related to this power struggle or to the shifting sands of power and control, outside the overt hierarchies of the organisation (Guzzini, 2005 p 495; O'Reilly, 2001, online). If organisations are to evolve to achieve greater efficiency and better financial returns, maximising on the knowledge and skills of all their members (McNamara, 2004, online), then understanding how leadership emerges from the individuals, groups, teams and covert behaviours and codes of the organisation can perhaps provide insight into how to achieve this. Leadership is not an individual occurrence; for one person to lead, others must be willing to follow them (Marin, 2001 p 681; Weymes, 2003 p 319). Therefore, the process of becoming a leader is likely to be related to the relationships between people and the ways in which people interact with each other within the organisation and its culture. Therefore, an examination of the stages or processes which brings a person into a leadership role should be supported by an exploration of the factors, features and elements of the organisation, its members, and its relationships and internal politics or culture, which would precipitate, support or hinder that process of leadership becoming.

Research Question:
How do people become leaders?
Research Aims:

To quantify and explore the processes of becoming a leader within an organisational context, and the explore the features and factors within the organisational context and the relationships between organisational members which affect the process of becoming a leader.


The project will make use of a combined or mixed methods approach, involving a questionnaire to produce quantitative data and a series of semi-structured interviews which will be qualitative in nature. According to Bryman (2004 p 4, ‘social research does not exist in a bubble' (2004, p. 4), and therefore the use of the mixed methods approach which will allow the researcher to make best use of the advantages of quantitative rigour and qualitative depth. There is insufficient scope within this proposal to debate in detail the relative merits of the two approaches (for further information, see for example Fielding & Schreier 2001online), but the author will focus instead on the important areas of the design, including data handling, ethics and timescales (Bryman, 2004 p 4; Johnson et al, 2006 p 131). However, there are sufficient precedents for qualitative studies within the management and organisational studies field to justify this approach (Johnson et al, 2005 p 131; Morgan and Smircich, 1980 p 491; Trim and Lee, 2004 p 473; Saunders et al, 2003 p 13), and some time here will be dedicated to the theoretical background and discourse, because, as Silverman (2001 p 101) shows, often too little time is given in qualitative-oriented studies to an explication and exploration of the philosophical, ideological and teleological context and foundations of such studies.

While the focus of the research is to determine the ways in which people become leaders, it would take a large sample to determine the relationships between defined variables, such as length of time in post, level of education, gender, age, and other experiential and demographic variables. It is intended to generate a sufficiently large sample in this study to explore such relationships, but it would not allow the researcher to identify all the potential variables affecting this process, or to understand the individual differences and the experiences of such a process. Therefore, the questionnaire data, which will be analysed using SPSS, will be supported by qualitative data derived from a purposeful, random sample of employees within each organisation, taken from every level and occupation within each organisation. Qualitative findings add significant depth and value to research because of the ability to provide details of contextual and individual factors which would affect or explain behaviours and phenomena (McLelland and Bagnall, 1999, online). However, using a mixed methodology means crossing the dividing line between a positivist paradigm, which describes phenomena (Trochim, 2006, online, and interpretivism, both of which are viewed as theoretically diametrically opposed. Positivism is based on science and on rationalism, in which scientific methods are used to explain phenomena by defining relationships between them, usually through experimental methods (McClelland and Bagnall, 1999, online).

In a nutshell, the positivist approach involves the manipulation of theoretical propositions under the rules of formal logic and the rules of hypothetico-deductive logic, so that the theoretical propositions satisfy the four requirements of falsifiability, logical consistency, relative explanatory power, and survival.Lee, 1991 pp p 343-344

Positivist or rationalist researchers argue that using hypothetico-deductive logic within scientific research allows them to compensate for not always being able to pinpoint the causes of the phenomena they are studying (Johnson et al, 2006 p 137). However, it is just this inability to really understand or explain the individual nature of complex social phenomena which leads us to the justification for the use of qualitative approaches, which aim to move beyond the obvious limitations of this scientific, rationalist approach (Groenwald, 2004, 4; Clondinin and Connolly, 1994 p 294). Phenomenological approaches have been used in this field, as the basis for one theory of qualitative methods, founded in the studies of the philosopher Husserl:

“Husserl rejected the belief that objects in the external world exist independently and that the information about objects is reliable. He argued that people can be certain about how things appear in, or present themselves to, their consciousness.” Groenwald, 2004 p 4.

Phenomenology as a research paradigm was developed from this theory, looking at how researchers could describe, understand and explore experiences, looking at lived experience of actors within the social situation, taking into account all the complexities of that situation (Groenwald, 2004 p 4). It is in this approach that the applicability of phenomenology to this study lies, because, this author argues, there may be significant contextual or organisational factors which affect the ability of individuals to develop leadership skills and move into leadership roles (Cassell et al, 2005 p 161). Other qualitative paradigms were rejected for being too proscriptive (see for example, Grounded Theory [Goulding, 2005 p 294]). It is argued to deal with the complexities, and the subjective nature of experience, which positivist research simply does not address (Goulding, 2005 p 295). As Johnson et al (2006) state “qualitative methods are the most appropriate for fulfilling [the] commitment to the exploration of actors' inter-subjective worlds” (p 140). The mixed methods approach can therefore combine the strengths of both positivism and interpretivism, by showing statistical relationships and mapping explanations of phenomena in context (Cox and Hassard, 2005 p 109; Johnson and Onwuegbuzie, 2004 p 14).

A quantitative questionnaire will be provided to a random, large sample of managers, and employees, in two large organisations, one within the commercial sector (a bank) and the other within the public sector (a hospital). The author intends to target a total population sample in both organisations, due to awareness of the difficulties in gaining good response rates from questionnaires. The questionnaires will be administered by email for ease of distribution and return, but will be anonymised at the point of collection.

At the same time as distribution of the questionnaires, the covering email will ask those interested to respond to a secure email address if they are happy to take part in a qualitative interview about their knowledge and understanding of leadership, and their career progression in relation to current or future leadership roles. Semi-structured interviews will use a guiding protocol but will be founded on open questions to allow for free discussion and expression. The author aims to gain a sample of individuals from every tier of each organisational hierarchy to be interviewed. All interviews will be audio-recorded. Interview data will be transcribed, anonymised at the point of data collection, and analysed thematically, using qualitative analysis software, NVvivo (QSR, 2003, online). From this analysis, a model of conceptual meaning will be developed, and this will then be compared with the quantitative data in the final writing up.

Ethical concerns will be addressed thus: ethical approval will be secured from the author's educational institution, and from the organisations targeted. Permission will be gained at managerial or directorial level to access employees via email and to recruit them to the study. All data will be anonymised at the point of collection. Participants will be given information sheets and consent forms, and assured that they can withdraw from the study at any point. Interviews will be carried out at locations convenient to the participants. Follow up contact will be offered to offset any negative backlash from the process of being interviewed.

The timescale of the study will be one year. The questionnaire distribution, collection and analysis will run concurrently with recruitment of participants to the interviews, and with the interview process. This is projected to take six months. A further six months will cover data analysis, and writing up.


This study offers a valuable opportunity to map the processes involved in becoming a leader within an organisational context, and will also allow for the exploration of the parameters and depths of what the concept of leadership is, and how it is manifest. It will add to the body of knowledge by providing new insight and perhaps new information on which to structure future, wider and larger studies. The mixed methodology approach will enhance the research by making best use of the strengths of positivist research and the strengths of a qualitative approach. Conclusions from this study might allow managers to develop leadership skills in their employees more effectively, and to make better use of the existing resources which lie in those with innate and developing leadership capacities already within their organisation.

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