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The Challenges of Leadership

Myrtle, Robert C. DPA

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doi: 10.1097/HCM.0000000000000215
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It has been said that leadership is one of the most discussed and least understood concepts in the management literature. A Google search will return more than 10 million hits. Refine your search just to focus on the academic literature, and close to 200 000 books and articles are identified. With a topic so diverse and so complex, is it possible to create ideas and insights that might be useful to a manager or leader interested in becoming a leader whom people look to and admire? Recent research suggests that becoming this type of leader depends on how effective you are in responding to the leadership challenges that every leader faces. These are (1) the vision challenge, (2) the alignment challenge, (3) the empowerment challenge, (4) the motivational challenge, and (5) the learning challenge. We characterize these challenges in combination as the leadership challenge. How you respond to that and the other challenges will determine how effective you will be as the leader you may wish to become.

Understanding leadership

Our initial views of leadership were influenced by a focus on individuals who had a decisive impact on people, organizations, or nation states. Often characterized as the Great Man theory, efforts at that time explored the role of intelligence, charisma, social status, or political skills in explaining leadership effectiveness. As inquiries into understanding leadership expanded, the idea that leadership was something that was limited to a few changed. New insights suggested that leadership was something that could be developed. This led to a focus on identifying the traits associated with the effectiveness of leaders. While ongoing research suggests that traits are important, studies found that traits alone did not explain leadership effectiveness.1,2 Other factors, particularly the behaviors of leaders, emerged as important contributors to leadership effectiveness.

Lewin and colleagues3 noted that the behaviors of leaders were important in influencing the actions of people. They found that whereas authoritarian leaders achieved higher levels of production, participative leaders were generally more effective in achieving higher-quality results. Later, McGregor4 characterized the differences between authoritative and participative leaders as “theory X, theory Y.” This was followed by research that suggested the situation facing a leader influenced the effectiveness of the leadership behaviors being applied. Contingency models of leadership suggested that there was no one best way of leading. Instead, leadership effectiveness was influenced by the context under which the work was performed and the experience and the ability of the worker in responding to the demands of the task.

More recently, our views of leadership have been extended to recognize that leaders are not limited to only reacting to the situations they and their followers are facing. Leaders were found to act in an effort to bring about changes in the environment under which the organization operates.5 Not only do leaders respond proactively to shape conditions in their environment, but they also act in a similar fashion to bring about changes in their organization to exploit the opportunities emerging in their environments. These transformational efforts of leaders to enhance their organization’s effectiveness add new insights to the prevailing logic that underscores our understanding of the work of leaders.

Bennis6 summarized these decades of leadership study by noting that if we have learned anything about leaders and leadership it is that leaders do not exist in a vacuum. He notes that leadership exists only with the acceptance of the followers. He suggests that the challenges confronting organizations and nations today require exemplary leadership. Our research suggests that responding to these challenges requires addressing 5 fundamental issues. These are (1) creating a sense of purpose, (2) devising means for aligning the actions of the followers with that sense of purpose, (3) establishing a context that enables followers to behave in a way that is consistent with the vision and values of the organization, (4) ensuring that the work that is done provides meaning to those engaging in the work activities, and (5) adding to the sum of everyone’s knowledge through learning through reflective actions.

The vision challenge

Hamm7 points out that the real job of a leader is to inspire the organization to take responsibility for creating a better future. Kouzes and Posner8 add that people are moved by a clear vision of a hoped-for future; they want a vision of the future that reflects their own aspirations. Hence, this ability to create a vision is an essential part of successful leadership. Indeed, Korn/Ferry International’s survey of leaders found that the dominant quality desired in leaders was the ability to convey a strong sense of vision.9 However, as Kouzes and Posner8 note, this is not something that most leaders do good job. Not surprisingly, this lack of vision is often cited as a key reason for the downfall of many chief executive officers.

The message is clear; for you to succeed as a leader, you must have a vision, you must communicate that vision, and more importantly your actions must be seen as aligned with that vision. Yet, a vision is more than a statement of purpose. Rather, it is an aspirational expression of the future the organization is seeking to achieve. As an example, Oxfam10 offers this vision “a just world without poverty” to guide its actions. Johnson & Johnson begins its vision with the statement, “Be Yourself, Change the World” encouraging “every person to use their unique experiences and backgrounds, together—to spark solutions that create a better, healthier world.”11

Although it is common to see vision making as something that occurs at the top, effective leaders recognize that crafting a vision is a responsibility at all levels of the organization. As Kouzes and Posner8 note, the visions that capture the imagination and the commitment of people are those that are shared. Doing so requires the involvement and engagement of team members to create a vision that is forward looking and anchored more on the possibilities of the future than the constraints of the present. One place to begin in this process is to use the organization’s vision statement as a beginning point. Then, with this as a reference point, begin to engage your team to craft an aspirational statement that describes how you will act to achieve what is expressed in the organization’s vision statement. Keep in mind that without a vision no one on your team or in your organizational unit will know what your aspirations are and why they are important.

The alignment challenge

Most leaders realize that the activities of their people and systems must be aligned if the vision, strategies, and goals of the organization are to be realized. Ensuring this is the case is the challenge of alignment.12 In many organizations, alignment is seen as an “ends means chain” that cascades down throughout the organization. But what seems so logical in ensuring that the future envisioned through strategy rarely unfolds as planned?13,14 Emerging research suggests that although it is true that alignment involves linking strategy to action through goals, roles, and resources, achieving this linkage is less an engineering challenge and more a one translating action through the behaviors of those responsible for the implementation of strategy.15

Covey16 found that the vast majority of those employees do not know which actions or behaviors on their part actually contribute to their employer’s goals. Semler17 notes that while people have a general understanding of the organizations’ goals, translating these into behaviors that lead to their realization is anchored in the inspirational aspects of the organization’s purpose and vision. The underlying reality is this: Until and unless the organization’s culture is aligned with the vision, little will be achieved. Hence, an important leadership task is creating an organizational culture that enables individual and collective action. One element in aligning worker behaviors with team, unit, and organizational strategies is that of worker empowerment.

The empowerment challenge

Why do people work? Conventional wisdom would say “to earn a living.” While financial rewards do matter, most workers want to gain a sense of purpose in what they do. They want to find meaning through their accomplishments, they seek a sense of mastery over what they do, and they desire to have a degree of control over the factors that affect their performance. With the transition from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, a similar transition in how we design the means and methods organizations use to achieve the purpose captured by its vision is required.15 Unfortunately, in many organizations, the approaches used to align people with the vision and the strategies necessary to be successful have not kept pace with these changes. As a result, nearly 20% of working people in America are actively disengaged from their organizations and the work that it does.18 Even under current uncertain economic conditions, research has found that approximately 30% of people view the work that they do as “just a job to get them by.”19 Not surprisingly, the link between strategic intent and implementation rarely achieves the results expected.20

Gallup18 notes that great managers use empowerment methods to motivate their employees. They seek to overcome obstacles that hinder their team in achieving their goals. They act to build trusting relationships by creating a culture of accountability and support their workers by making informed, unbiased decisions for the good of their team and company. Creating conditions that empower is not easy. First, you need to be sure what you mean by empowerment; what an empowered work environment might be like, and what behaviors of your employees would be consistent with this vision. Next, you need to reflect on the possible changes in your management practices and behaviors that will be required to support workplace and worker empowerment expectations. Goldsmith21 points out that most employees understand their jobs; they know their roles, functions and their responsibilities. This suggests that the potential exists for developing an empowered workforce. The key is letting your employees do what they need to do to get the job done. Of course, they must also have the information, resources, and support that are part and parcel of empowerment.

The motivational challenge

The reasons people decide to work for a particular organization are many. For some, it is the means to an end, a way of acquiring things that provide a sense of well-being.22 For others, it is the work itself and its ability to provide a sense of purpose, meaning, or achievement.23 The extent to which these expectations are met can have an influence on the effort that workers will devote to meeting the goals and objectives inherent in their jobs.

Gallup,24 in the effort to understand what influences worker engagement, identified 2 underlying factors. The first set involved work-related conditions. Those surveyed wanted some degree of autonomy in how they did the work assigned. They wanted work that allowed them to develop a level of proficiency that can be best described as mastery. Doing so required knowing what was expected of them, having the materials and resources to do the work assigned, and an opportunity to get into roles that they did best and with feedback and recognition for their accomplishments.

The second factor identified by Gallup24 involved the behaviors and actions of the worker’s supervisor in overseeing and supporting their carrying out their responsibilities. They wanted a leader who created a work environment that supported them in their work-related activities. This meant having a leader who listened to them, who made them feel that their ideas and opinions mattered, who they felt would support them when the need arose. They wanted a supervisor who helped them feel trusted and valued, who was concerned with their growth and development, who provided them with helpful and useful feedback on how to improve what they did, and who provided them with opportunities to grow and develop.

Much of what we know about motivation suggests that the effort workers give to their assigned responsibilities is shaped by 2 factors—the behaviors and actions of the leader and the work that they are asked to do. Leaders who get their people to do their best create a working environment that empowers through opportunities to learn, grow, and develop.

The learning challenge

With 50% of gross domestic product in the major Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) economies being described as knowledge based, the importance of developing and disseminating what is being learned is becoming the “next source of competitive advantage.”25 However, this rapid growth and dissemination of information often mean that what we believed to be true is now being replaced with new insights, theories, and practices. This transformation of what we know had led to an increased recognition of the importance of learning, both individual and organizational, on the organization’s success.

While organizational learning is more than the summation of individual learning, one of the key factors affecting organizational learning is the behaviors of individuals who translate experiences into refinements of beliefs or behaviors. While most views of learning suggest that it is the systematic accumulation of experiences, not all experiences are beneficial. And because knowledge has a shelf-life,26 it is important to recognize that successful learning requires unlearning as well.27

Can organizations learn? After all, they are artificial constructs designed to align the collective action of people and technology to serve an important social purpose. It might be convenient to view organizational learning as the accumulation and transmission of the individual experiences to others in the organization. However, not all experiences are value adding, and thus, learning in an organizational context involves the monitoring and assessment of these experiences to ensure that what is being shared is consistent with the vision and values of the organization. More recently, the leaders of organizations have sought to exploit the knowledge creation and dissemination activities within organizations by constructing knowledge management capacities. Whether knowledge management systems will measure up to the potential for improving organizational functioning will depend on how well individuals and organizations systematically reflect on and evaluate their accumulated experiences and translate those insights into changes into behaviors or belief systems.

The challenges of leadership

Kotter28 notes that leaders face 2 fundamental challenges. The first is figuring out what needs to be done, and the second is making things happen. This translation of what must get done into results depends on how effective you are in addressing the leadership challenges highlighted in this article. It begins with having a compelling vision that touches the hearts and minds of those people. For the most part, visions do not “just happen”; they evolve over time. They may begin with a sense of purpose, but as Lucas29 suggests, the vision that is most likely to move people is one where those responsible for its implementation participate in its development. While the best vision statements are anchored in the core values of the organization, visions evolve over time—essentially, they become a living document that sets forth the aspirations that drive the organization and its people.

Drucker30 felt that effective leadership depended on knowing what motivates people. He believed that leaders create a culture that encourages people to assume a sense of responsibility over their work activities. He believed that people should be encouraged to be self-directing but with the leaders’ guidance and in line with the limits associated with the roles and responsibilities of the job and the person. Our research offers a framework for aligning the actions of people to the vision, values, and goals of the organization. We argue that effective leaders create a culture that empowers and encourages people, a culture that focuses on providing a meaningful work experience that respects the motivational drives of people. People want to be respected; they want to achieve a level of mastery over the work that they do; they want to be able to grow and to learn, and they want to be rewarded fairly for their efforts.

Bennis6 pointed out that today, perhaps in no other period in our human existence, the challenges leaders face are so profound. We look to leaders who create a sense of purpose, who generate trust and optimism, who realize that none of this can be achieved without the efforts of others. Becoming the leader whom people look to and admire requires an active commitment to responding to the leadership challenges that all leaders face.


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alignment; empowerment and learning; leadership; vision

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