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The leadership puzzle

Date:01 March 2019
Janka Stoker, professor of leadership and organisational change, and In the LEAD director, with Harry Garretsen, professor of international economics and business
Janka Stoker, professor of leadership and organisational change, and In the LEAD director, with Harry Garretsen, professor of international economics and business

Leadership is a much debated topic both in research and practice, even more so now with more calls for strong leaders on the rise. Janka Stoker and Harry Garretsen’s new book on the issue Goede leiders zweven niet (Taking hot air out of leadership) has proved a hit and is already on its second print.

"There is a whole industry of books about how to be a great leader. But the problem is many of these works don’t engage with the scientific evidence that exists. The truth is there isn't one snappy formula, or ten steps you can follow,” explained Janka Stoker. As professor of leadership and organisational change and director of In the LEAD centre of expertise, if there was one magic recipe for good leadership, Stoker would know about it. But research shows such a recipe does simply not exist.

“Effective leadership depends on the circumstances. It depends for instance on the group you are leading, the type of organisation etcetera.”

Stoker and co-director of In the LEAD Harry Garretsen, who is professor of international economics and business, pooled their expertise to write Goede leiders zweven niet together, and the book has touched a nerve in the Netherlands.

Based on academic research on the topics of leadership and management, it analyses case studies of good and bad leadership from practice, identifying how different styles of leadership can be effective for different groups and in different circumstances. It’s an attempt to redress an issue in much of the ‘popular knowledge’ about leadership. Those making decisions about leadership in the business and political world are often not aware of the wealth of academic research that could help them make better choices, according to Garretsen.

"We want practitioners to benefit from the research that is being done,” Garretsen said.  “Good and bad leadership is something that has high stakes in the wider world.”

That’s where initiatives like the centre of expertise In the LEAD itself come in. ‘LEAD’ stands for leadership, evidence, advice and data, and the group’s purpose is to give organisations access to state-of-the-art research on the effectiveness of leadership. The centre also delivers tailored advice and offers lectures and, starting in March 2019, executive education to managers, organisations and the business community.

Of course, another strategy is to publish blogs, op-eds and now a book aimed at a broader audience, like Goede leiders zweven niet.

“That is part of the reason we have written this book, to make the results of solid leadership research that are out there more accessible,” Garretsen said.

One of the points that the book hammers home is that there is a difference between management and leadership. A good manager does not necessarily make a good leader, and vice versa. Good managers who have a grip on day-to-day operations are vital, but their strength in running a company operationally might not translate into a visionary strategy. Likewise, a leader with foresight and who can inspire a community of workers might not even need to know every aspect of the business inside out.

Garretsen and Stoker examine case studies from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in politics, to captains of industry in the Netherlands and abroad. The book describes Rutte as an example of a transactional leader rather than one who sells a vision.

“His argument is more: support me, and you will get what you want in return. That was probably useful for him in forming and holding together his coalitions that involved many different parties,” Stoker explained. “As Rutte once himself said, if you’re someone who suffers from ‘visions’, go see the eye doctor.”

However, later on Rutte experienced the limitations of this pragmatic approach, according to Stoker. While under pressure over a surprise decision to scrap a dividend tax, Rutte turned to ‘vision’ to defend his motivation. “He said, trust me, I feel this is the right way forward for the Netherlands. Suddenly he was asking people to accept an emotional argument, and especially on this quite transactional topic, it wasn’t credible,” Stoker explained.

Can international readers expect an English translation of the book sometime soon?

“Perhaps it is written in the stars,” Stoker laughed. “Although we might have to change some of the case studies to something more familiar for an international audience.”

For the meantime, Garretsen and Stoker are happy to focus on getting the message to the audience closest to them.

“After all, and even though we are also international researchers, this is the context in which we are often working when dealing with leadership practice,” Garretsen explained. “We are working to strengthen links and cooperation with the practitioners in the Netherlands, and this is a community that likes to engage in Dutch.”