by: Ram de la Rosa
John W. Gardner authored the book titled, On Leadership in 1990 and is based on a five-year study. Gardner outlines the importance leadership building, leadership expectations, and leadership values. This paper outlines Gardner’s basic ideas, his theories, his contributions to the field of leadership, and a comparison of his work to Warren Bennis’ 1994 book titled On Becoming a Leader.
What are Gardner’s basic ideas?
John W. Gardner published his book titled On Leadership in 1990, which was based on a five year study. In its seventeen chapters, Gardner describes his basic ideas of leadership, which could be summarized into leadership building, leadership expectations, and leadership values.
Gardner’s first basic idea is on leadership building. According to Gardner (1990), leadership is a subtopic of the accomplishments of a group and the first purpose is understanding (p. xvi, xviii). Part of understanding, is that without followers a leader would not be a leader. Without a group of followers a leader would have no purpose.
Perhaps the single most important thing Gardner believed in is that leadership is not something people are born with, but something that is learned through a set of simple steps (p.1). If we look at the history of leadership theorist, one can safely assume that such is the case. All of the greatest leadership theories were build on the knowledge of previous leadership researchers.
Gardner’s second basic idea is on leadership expectations. Gardner (1990) defines leadership as: ...the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by a leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers (p. 1). In other words leaders are expected to lead followers towards a common goal(s). Yet as Gardner states, leadership must not be confused with status, power, or official authority (p.2) Instead, leaders are an integral part of the system, they are expected to perform tasks that are essential if the group is to accomplish its purpose. Unlike managers, leaders are visionaries, they are expected to look at the whole picture, their influences reach beyond their inter-circles, they comprehend the leader-follower relationship by emphasizing vision, values and motivation, they have political skill, and finally they constituently renew (Gardner, 1990).
Gardner’s third basic idea is on leadership values including accountability and trust. Gardner believes that the concept of accountability is as important as the concept of leadership (p. xviii). In today’s culture, this is such a powerful statement. Leaders should be held to higher moral and ethical values, if they are expected to lead followers toward common goals. These leaders are symbols of who we are as a whole, as a nation, as an organization. The leaders whom we admire the most help to revitalize our shared beliefs and values. They have spent a portion of their time teaching the value framework (p.14).
Trust is an important component of collaboration between the leader and his followers. It is equally as important within a team, whether its comprised of a single leader or a team of leaders. Research shows that trust within a team leads to collaboration and hence to team efficiency. The higher the levels of trust in a team the higher the level of efficiency. Additionally, trust in a team leads to a sense of group belonging, which also leads to team efficiency. The question is how do leaders become trustworthy. According to Gardner (1990), leaders become “trustworthy” by being steady in his/her ideology, being fair in private and public, and becoming one of the team. In other words, stand for what you believe and do not change course unless absolutely necessary, treat everyone in a fair manner regardless of the situation, and above all be yourself. Of course, trust can not happen overnight; its something leaders have to constantly develop. Gardner echos Burns’ (1978) statement, the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders see and act on their own and their followers’ values and motivations (p.19).
What is Gardner’s theory?
According to Gardner (1990), there are nine tasks that are the most significant functions of leadership. They include envisioning goals, affirming values, regeneration of values, motivating, managing, achieving workable unity, trust, explaining, serving as a symbol, representing the group, and renewing (p.11). Each task is equally as important as the other. Of course, the list is non-exhaustive to these nine functions. Leaders must learn from other theorist and add to the list as it pertains to their own situation. Gardner goes on to say that perhaps it would be easy to work on each function individually, however an effective leader would multi-task all nine and take into consideration the leader/follower relationship.
What body of work does Gardner add to the field of leadership?
Gardner contributed to the field of leadership in many extraordinary ways. One specific thing he added or expanded on is the idea of leadership renewing. Gardner (1990) believed that renewal is possible within a leader and within an organization.
Furthermore, if the leader or organization do not regenerate or renew, they are sure to decay and terminate. The purposes of renew according to Gardner are to renew values, to liberate positive energies, to reenergize forgotten goals, to achieve new understandings, and to foster the release of possibilities.
In Boyatzis & McKee’s 1998 book Resonant Leadership, the relationship between mindfulness, hope, and compassion contributes to positive emotions between leaders and followers. Emotions that allows leaders to remain resilient despite continuous challenges, especially in today’s economic and cultural climate. Additionally, the elements of mindfulness, hope, and compassion counter the destructive effects of power, and stress, while keeping leaders in a constant state of renewal.
How does the work of Gardner and Bennis compare and contrast?
Gardner writes about leadership and trust. According to Gardner, leaders can become trustworthy by practicing steadiness, fairness, and by becoming part of the team. Warren Bennis also writes about leadership and trust in his 1994 book titled, On Becoming a Leader. Bennis (1994) lists four elements, which leaders must have in order to generate trust. They include Constancy, Congruity, Reliability, and Integrity.
According to Bennis, constancy means that leaders stay the course despite the many challenges they face. We can compare this to what Gardner calls “steadiness,” which means that a leader is predictable and does not flip-flop on issues.
According to Bennis, congruity means that leaders walk their talk, there is no gap between their theories and the life they practice. We can compare this to what Gardner calls “being one of the us,” which means followers look up to the leader and want to imitate his walk.
According to Bennis, reliability means that leaders are available and ready to lend support when it really counts. Additionally, integrity means that leaders honor their commitments and promises. We can sort of compare this to what Gardner calls “fairness,” which means leaders are fair equally in public and private.
In comparing Gardner and Bennis’ elements for becoming a trustworthy leader, one notes the parallelism both authors portray. However, equally important to a leader is the implementation of the elements as they pertain to the leader/follower relationship.
John W. Gardner based his book on a 5-year study, where he focused on leadership development, leadership expectations and leadership values. Gardner shares his ideology with other great leadership theorist.
Bennis, W. (1994). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Boyatzis, R., McKee, A. (1998). Resonant Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.
Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
Gardner, J. W. (1990). On leadership. New York, NY: The Free Press.