Jeffrey Pfeffer ~ Leadership: Does it make a difference?   4 comments

Leadership makes a difference; it affects the level of organizational productivity and performance by making positive occurrences in the lives of organizational associates. Leaders create empowering organizational cultures that produce long-term thinking and successful outcomes through many different aspects such as employee turnover, decision making processes and the adaptability for a company to change. Whall (2006) states, “There are key leadership traits that make the difference in companies that can truly change their industries… Changing an industry is different than playing in an industry… All companies play in their industry, but few will literally change the course of their industry.”

The theory of leadership has been an accepted topic for many years by researchers due to the fact that its effectiveness is fundamental to businesses, followers, organizations and professional individuals. The popular press has produced thousands of books on this subject matter from a range of multifaceted definitions, terminology and meanings. These views range from the significance of situations, certain processes that takes place between leaders and followers, conceptual capabilities, foundational styles, personality characteristics/traits and technical humanistic skills.

Jeffery Pfeffer is a distinguished advocate, expert and theorist in the area of leadership. He is amongst many researchers that proclaim leadership does not make a significant difference with an organizations final performance. In 1977 he conducted a study involving the comparison of before and after results of the changing of two mayors in a city. It suggested organizational performance was more likely to be influenced by the environment rather than the leadership roles of individuals. The outcome portrayed very little change taking place within the organizational performance due to the shifting of mayors. This researcher questions the implied hypothesis regarding leadership, individual behaviors and disputes the conventional thought process pertaining to the meaning of this concept. Along with other poignant views, Pfeffer has strong beliefs pertaining to the perceptual/attributional perspective.  He has discussed his opinions on leadership behavior and how opening the door to the tools of symbolic leadership led to individuals being observed as a symbol. His concern of leadership is viewed as an essential influence that is brought on by lessening the casual uncertainty and guided by a cause and effect acknowledgement in relation to the leader. Pfeffer also believed that there was a link between strategic-contingency theory, leadership power, organizational changes and the critical issues that faced the organization.

In this position paper I will share my thoughts on why I believe leadership does make a difference. This is a topic that has prompted debates over the years and it is my theoretical point of view that there is a strong correlation and impact between leadership and the organizational performance levels. Through my research and investigation on this topic I have found that there are many ways in which to measure the importance of leadership which results in making a significant difference; not only business but in every day life.

Pfeffer’s proponents first, agree with the theory that leadership does not make a difference. To view leadership within an organization as a symbol it implies that these individuals play a significant role in the creating and implementing of the meaning and culture. According to Pondy (1978), “Thus, leadership has been called a “language game” because what leaders do is “manage meaning” (p.316). They are contextualists and believe that the meaning of leadership is derived purely from the context in which symbols are used.  Through symbolic leadership these theorists contend that the perceptual/attributional perspective of followers result in a leader being held responsible or recognized for the positive and negative outcomes within the organization.  It is thought that the strategic-contingency theory is applied to organizations and help cope with the significant organizational dilemmas by utilizing leadership power.

According to Hollander (1992), Pfeffer has strong beliefs pertaining to the attributional viewpoint which states, “…that leaders are credited or blamed for outcomes over which they alone had little effect. Because positive or negative outcomes are more likely to be attributed to the leader, he or she is more readily faulted and even removed as a symbol when things go wrong, rather than firing the whole staff or team” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 272). Therefore, it is the follower that looks for someone to point the finger at yet, does not see the entire organization in the same light. Pfeffer (1977) reported, “Thus leaders are important social constructions. They are symbols, hence targets for our attributions. They serve as scapegoats for our failures and heroes around which members of a group can rally in celebration of their collective accomplishments.” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 459). Smircich and Morgan (1982) agreed with the observation stating, “…the symbols, slogans, rituals, stories and myths are among the “tools of leadership” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 10). These are considered hurdles a leader faces in order to manage the meaning of leadership.

Mintzberg (1993) also contends that the perceptual/attributional perspective is associated with the attribution of causality of leaders becoming symbols, “The leader as a symbol provides a target for action when difficulties occur, serving as a scapegoat when things go wrong.” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 464).  Gamson and Scotch (1964) explained this concept by describing a situation involving the firing of a baseball manager, “noted that in baseball, the firing of the manager served a scapegoat purpose. One cannot fire the whole team, yet when performance is poor, something must be done” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 464). It is believed that these measures will enhance the organizational performance level.

The principle of leadership power regarding environmental conditions will automatically position constraints upon an organizational leader which in turn reduces the chances of affecting organizational performances. Lieberson and O’Connor’s studies appear to be results of their opinion since the outcome of organizations performance portrays as being controlled by the environmental factors more so then by a leader’s position. This argument explains that individuals have the potential of being biased concerning the over attributing to a facilitators model of power.

Smircich and Morgan (1982) defined the meaning of leadership as, “…a product of an interaction between the situation, the leader, and the followers.”  (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 189). This coincides with Pfeffer’s opinion of the strategic contingency model of leadership stating that, “…the leader is a person who brings scarce resources to assist a group of individuals in overcoming a critical problem that they face. As the problems facing a group change, their leader may also change because of his or her access to critical and scarce resources.” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 189). Therefore, this concept reinforces the significance of the situation, environment and the leadership process.

Pfeffer (1977) discussed a study of organizational performance levels of city governments concluding that, “changes from mayor to mayor were minor and unlikely to bring about major organizational changes” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 458).

This evidence was based on, “…studies estimating the effect of administrators have found them to account for about 10 percent of variance in organizational performance…is a striking contrast to the 90 percent of intellectual effort that has been devoted to developing theories of individual action…leadership, it seems, doesn’t make a difference.

The evidence I will give appears to refute this theory. The analytical approach of this study was to feature inconsistencies in the performance measures regarding the independent elements likely to change by the means of a chronological breakdown of discrepancies. This was to depict a set of figures representing the performance variances. Thomas (1988) expressed this study of mayoral effects concludes, “that leadership differences have little or no impact on organizational performance… both Lieberson and O’Connor and Salancik and Pfeffer’s studies are seen as flawed because they do not allow the leadership variable to enter earlier into the equation” (p. 389) Proving the statement of Pfeffer’s theory –  false.

Peters and Austin (1985) disagree with the theory Pfeffer offers and it is their contention that leadership is a significant aspect regarding the process connected with the advancement and preservation stage for a company’s performance. Other scholars hold similar views such as House (1988), Day and Lord (1988) reveal evidence from their studies concluding important results connecting organizational performance and leadership. House (1988) mentions, “…that there is an abundance of evidence demonstrating significant leadership effects in the areas of: level of effort expended, adaptability to change, performance under change conditions, level of group turnover, absenteeism, group member performance, decision  acceptance, quality of decisions made, and the amount of follower learning  from leadership training efforts.” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 458).

Leadership is the most important aspect at any level…in any profession. The theory of leadership makes a difference because in every relationship someone is leading, someone is following, and everyone is learning the respective difference and importance. In my opinion, organizational performance is shaped by internal as well as external conditions such as technological factors, economy and the industry market place. McKnight expressed his opinion by stating, “Training and technology are important, but leadership makes the difference.” Rodgers and Hunter (1991) observe, “The effects of executive leadership may be direct in their impact upon both the external and internal environments of the organization” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 460). This combination of internal and external occurrences is crucial for increasing of performance as Dessler (1993) comments, “In the current environment, where flattened organizations and empowered employees are needed for enhanced performance, follower commitment is simply a business imperative” (p.89).

Leadership and organizational performance go hand in hand. An organization can not change the belief system, culture or make proper long term decisions without the capability of a strong facilitator in a top level role. Flexibility and the ability to change can make or break a company. A leader guides the organization with well thought out plans. As Snair (2004) stated, “If a route is not going well, smart decision-making comes into play as the cadet decides whether or not to continue looking or move on to the next marker or to rethink the routine entirely.”

Our society and the world in which we live incorporate leaders which are obsessed with control whether it be in observing or evaluating situations in their environment. Kelley (1971) has explained that, “…a series of studies dealing with the attributional process, he concluded that persons were not only interested in understanding their world correctly, but also in controlling it.” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 272).

Social constructionists maintain that the follower’s comprehension regarding leadership control is conveyed by their perception of it being socially provided information. Calder (1977) Meindl, Ehrllich, Dukerich (1985) and Meindl (1990) expresses the concept as being heroic view, “as observers of and as participants in organizations, we may have developed highly romanticized, heroic views of leadership”. These heroic views paint unrealistic pictures about what leaders do, what they are able to accomplish, and the general effects they have on our lives” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 457). Gergen (1998) agrees this philosophy by expressing this comment, “Whether we as scientists with to sustain a view of people as seekers of control is optional; there is nothing about human action itself that demands such an interpretation…In these ways the point of social constructionism is not to work on the world as an object, but to work within our culture as mutual subjects” (p. 101).

In my opinion, my earlier interpretation of the Yin-Yang metaphor applies to the theory of leadership and company performance. Without leadership…we can not have successful organizational performance levels T. Wolfe (2007, October 9) is quoted by stating, “When I think of management and leadership I equate it with the yin-yang symbol. I believe that each contains the seed of the other as the dots in each of them represent this overlapping of the two. I believe they are independent, yet supportive of each other in numerous ways.” Therefore, Leadership does matter!!!!  Day and Lord (1988) declared, “We believe, however, that proper interpretation of existing succession studies indicates that top-level leaders have a direct and significant effect on their company’s performance.” (in Pierce & Newstrom, 2006, p. 468).

In conclusion, many theorists are in agreement that leadership does matter. George (2007) commented that, “If they want to succeed in the 21st century, corporations would be well-advised to develop authentic leaders like these, who can build and sustain their long-term success.” There is a strong connection between organizational performance and leadership …all one has to do is review the literature.

The test of a leader lies in the reaction and response of his followers. His worth as a leader is measured by the achievements of the led…the ultimate test of his effectiveness. ~ Gen. Omar N. Bradley


Thomas, A. B. (1988 September). Does Leadership make a difference to   organizational performance?. Administrative Science Quarterly. 33 (1988) 388-400. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from  Url=http%3a//            w%3djtx%26jtxsi%3d1%26jcpsi%3d1%26artsi%3d1%26Query%3dDoes%2bLeadership%2bMake%2ba%2bDifference%2bto%2bOrganizational%2bPerformance%26wc%3don&frame=noframe&currentResult=00018392%2bdi995502%2b99p0466n%2b0%2cFF3F&

George, B. (October 4, 2007). Where Have   All the Leaders Gone? Part II. [electronic             version] Businessweek. Found November 30, 2007 at: m?chan=search

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Pierce, J. & Newstrom, J. (2006). Leaders and the leadership process: Readings, self-            assessments & applications. 4th ed.,Boston: McGraw Hill.

Snair, S. (2004).West Pointleadership lessons: Duty, honor, and other management             principles.Naperville,IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.

Vickrey, J. (1991). Symbolic Leadership: The Symbolic Nature of Leadership. Retrieved December 8, 2007, from 24/vickrey.pdf

Whall, T. (2006). Leadership makes a difference. 36(2) 120. Retrieved December 7, 2007, from            hMode=1&sid=4&Fmt=4&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=P            QD&TS=1198047184&clientId=63430

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4 responses to “Jeffrey Pfeffer ~ Leadership: Does it make a difference?

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  2. Great blog post, I agree that leadership is a neccessary element in management in the small business arena. I am in practice management for physicians and good leadership skills and training are needed more each day in order to be able to serve patients needs by a motivate staff, who are following a good leaders example of ethics, caring and compassion
    Thank you for your post

    • Thank you for your comment. I have spent 20 years in the accounting field and worked for Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida for six months. During that time I watched a CEO, a woman take leadership skills to the next level with her compassion regarding patients in our monthly meetings. She helped create a new building where woman giving birth will stay on one floor and not be bounced around from giving birth on one floor to a mother’s hospital room on another. I agree that good leaders have the characteristics you mentioned, “…ethics, caring and compassion,” and it is these traits that followers respect, admire and hopefully inspire to be within the medical field.

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