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The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership

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.
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Chapter 1: A Quest for a Grand Theory of Leadership

J. Thomas Wren


J. Thomas Wren What happens when a collection of scholars from differing disciplines comes together to create a grand theory of leadership? This is the question philosopher Joanne B. Ciulla came to identify as particularly intriguing as a group of aca­ demics assembled to attempt precisely that. Although the substantive challenges of creating a grand theory of leadership had always been the group’s focus, it gradually dawned on the participants that how they were going about the task of coming together across disciplines to create an integrated product was as significant as what they were creating. Political scientist Georgia Sorenson noted that ‘there is a process and a product here. We need to write about the reflective process’ as well.1 Similarly, in the throes of a particularly difficult debate over foundational assumptions, Joanne Ciulla commented: ‘Perhaps we could show what it’s like to be in a group of people trying to do this and what it is like to do it: to watch people struggling with this intellectual [challenge].’2 Or, as Ciulla later phrased it, ‘A paper on what happened when leadership scholars tried to create a unified theory might be more interesting and useful to the field than one on [the] unified theory [itself].’3 The substantive output of the academics engaged in this initiative is an important contribution, and is presented in this volume. This opening chapter, however, purports to trace the challenges and achievements of the process itself. In doing so, it also illustrates the pitfalls...

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