The Conundrums of Strategic Leadership: Leading of Organizations, in Organizations, or through Organizations?

The Conundrums of Strategic Leadership: Leading of Organizations, in Organizations, or through Organizations?

David Starr-Glass (University of New York in Prague, Czech Republic)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 11
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1049-9.ch122
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Strategic leadership has emerged as the most significant and widely used leadership approach, and is seen as moving leadership away from a concern with the organization's internal dynamics to an involvement with its strategic alignment in the external environment – a leading “of” organizations, rather than a leading “in” them. Rhetorically, strategic leadership has a strong appeal; conceptually, however, it presents a number of conundrums. Strategic leadership seems to confound the process of strategic management with a process of leadership. It fails to recognize a relational understanding of leadership that might actively include people, develop inspiration, or sustain productive motivation. By focusing exclusively on hierarchical leaders and their externalized goals, strategic leadership also avoids a consideration of how leadership might actually work through the organization, rendering internal organizational dynamics invisible, if not irrelevant. This chapter explores these problems and calls for a reconsideration of what strategic leadership might mean.
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Leadership theories are not in short supply – a recent review indicates that some sixty-six different approaches are currently recognized (Dinh et al., 2014). This is a staggering number. It suggests that “leadership” is at best a complex, slippery, and multi-faceted construct that is resistant to precise definition and which is expressed in different ways, in different organizational settings, and in different socio-cultural contexts. From these sixty-six possibilities one has emerged as the most popular and widely advocated: strategic leadership (Hitt, Haynes, & Serpa, 2010; Rainey, 2014; Rowe & Nejad, 2009).

In reviewing leadership theories Boal and Hooijberg (2000) identify two focuses, informed by the early work of sociologist Robert Dubin, that seem helpful in mapping the leadership territory: supervisory theories and strategic theories:

  • Supervisory Theories: These focus primarily on “leadership in organizations” (Boal & Hooijberg, 2000, p. 516, emphasis added). In these leadership theories the locus of action is centered on the internal dynamics, processes, and behaviors of organizational participants. Supervisory theories:

    • o

      Tend to be relational in nature;

    • o

      Identify people (individuals, work-teams, and leaders) as the primary units of interest; and

    • o

      Are concerned with the dynamics and effectiveness of leader-follower dyads.

  • Strategic theories: These are concerned with the “leadership of organizations” (p. 516, emphasis added). Here, leadership centers on the alignment of the firm with its external environment. Strategic theories:

    • o

      Are essentially transactional in nature;

    • o

      Identify reified organizations (functioning units and entities) as their main units of interest; and

    • o

      Focus attention on the process of steering the corporate entity, thus defined, through the complexity of its external environment towards its strategic goals (Duursema, 2013).

Strategic leadership is obviously a strategic theory. However this raises a question: Does it make sense to talk about leading abstract business entities, or does the construct of leadership presume the involvement of people? Put another way: Does a focus on the “leading of” business entities only serve to obscure and negate the essential human agency and relational dynamics of “leadership in” the entity?

The first section of this chapter provides background by considering the critical elements and assumptions associated with strategic leadership. The second section builds on this overview and focuses on the extent to which strategic leadership can be considered a complete leadership option. In particular, this section explores the differences between strategic management and strategic leadership within business organizations. Based on this exploration, the third section suggests a number of research initiatives that might provide a better understanding of the conundrums associated with strategic leadership. The concluding section briefly summarizes the main issues presented.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Configurational Approach: An understanding that organizations are a cluster of interconnected structures, linked processes, and mutually dependent practices that are best viewed in a systemic or holistic manner. Configurational approaches are valuable in developing a deeper understanding of organizational structure and function, but they also provide insight into the process of organizational change and strategic alignment.

Strategy: An intended course of action which is designed to attain specific ends that are considered to be desirable or advantageous. Strategy is fluid and continuous revised. It is informed by past experience, present insights, and future expectations.

Upper Echelons Theory: The understanding that the senior executives of an organization (the CEO and his/her selected team) are responsible for strategic formation and enactment. In viewing strategy, and in interpreting strategic possibilities, members of the organization’s upper echelons inevitably do so through the lens of their through their personal experiences, values, personalities, and other similar human factors.

Leadership: The art of communicating a vision – which might initially seem distant and unattainable – and of inspiring, motivating, and empowering individuals to recognize, accept, and realize that vision.

Opportunity Seeking: The ongoing process of considering, evaluating, and pursuing market-based activities that are believed to be advantageous for the firm. Prior experience informs the process, but it may also limit it: opportunity seeking calls for continuous reconsideration and adaptive learning.

Management: The skillful art of planning, organizing, and directing the activities within an organization. Management must reconcile the organization’s ongoing day-to-day present with it future. It must also engage with, and be expressed through, people – the individuals, groups, and teams that constitute the organization.

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