The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership

The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership

New Horizons in Leadership Studies series

Edited by George R. Goethals and Georgia L.J. Sorenson

In this compelling book, top scholars from diverse fields describe the progress they have made in developing a general theory of leadership. Led by James MacGregor Burns, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the classic Leadership (1978), they tell the story of this intellectual venture and the conclusions and questions that arose from it.

Chapter 3: The Theory and Metatheory of Leadership: The Important but Contested Nature of Theory

Mark C. Walker

Subjects: politics and public policy, leadership


Mark C. Walker Introduction In our description of nature the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of the phe­ nomena but only to track down, so far as it is possible, relations between the manifold aspects of our existence. Niels Bohr, 1885–1962, Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (1934) Before Sir Isaac Newton, no one thought to link the reason why an apple falls to the ground with the rotation of the moon around the earth. It had simply never occurred to anyone to ask the question. It was Newton’s insight, his vi­ sion, that offered a hypothesis about a more general, theoretical force called gravity; no amount of empirical observation alone suggests such a relation­ ship. It was theoretical not because it was as of yet unproven or unproveable, but because the terms it uses to describe phenomena cannot be measured in any direct way (Carnap 1988, pp. 162–4). Newton’s genius was that he sug­ gested the existence of a general force that could describe similar but distinct phenomena. Scholars of leadership have presented themselves, as illustrated in Tom Wren’s introductory chapter, with a similar and no less admirable, no less at­ tainable task: what are the general, theoretical laws that govern the leadership phenomena in all of its variety? Chapter 1 describes in detail the quest that a group of scholars set out to fulfill with no less integrity and diligence than simi­ lar quests in the natural sciences. In doing so, the...

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