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The rule of three: a unified theory of Alex Alexander leadership

There are as many leadership theories as there are leaders. All of the theories are correct in one way or another – but the one thing ...

By Errol D “Alex” Alexander 01 September 2005

There are as many leadership theories as there are leaders. All of the theories are correct in one way or another – but the one thing they have in common is that they are incomplete. Alex Alexander proposes that we can distil this profusion of leadership thinking down to a single, comprehensive, unified theory.
The rule of three a unified theory of Alex Alexander leadershipThere is an underlying structure and logic to leadership, but it is hidden within a fragmented and confusing welter of partial information and misinformation. Every year, there are 2,000 books published about leaders and leadership, and each teaches us different lessons. Add to that the untold number of leadership seminars, motivational speakers, executive coaches, and leadership ideas taught in business schools and corporate training centres – fragmentation and confusion are unavoidable.

The problem is that there are too many divergent approaches to leadership and little, if any, guidance on how to select the right theory for any specific situation. There’s little or no acknowledgement that any one leadership approach won’t work in all situations, or even in a significant number of situations. There’s little guidance on how to size up a situation or how to figure out how to deal with the followers (and other stakeholders) in the situation.

Do we follow Rudy Giuliani’s fourteen guidelines from his book Leadership? Do we adopt John Maxwell’s 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader? What if we follow the advice of Warren Bennis and Jane Goldsmith’s Learning to Lead? Should we lead quietly, as Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. counsels in Leading Quietly, or approach leadership as an art rather than a science, as Max DePree urges in Leadership Is an Art?

Each of these theories solves part of the leadership puzzle, but none of them covers it all. So if you apply any of the theories, you’ll improve your leadership abilities because some aspects of any theory will apply to some aspects of any situation. This explains why so many people will swear that one approach is the right one, because whichever theory you apply conscientiously will improve your leadership – to an extent. But that doesn’t make the theory right; it’s just part of a bigger picture.

And just as every theory can be right, they can all be wrong as well, depending on the situation. A theory that works well under some conditions fails miserably under others. None of them can be relied upon to guide every leader in every situation – nor can the aspiring leader predict which theories will work under which conditions.

It is unequivocally a myth that a good leader can lead successfully in any situation. Does anyone really believe that Gandhi could have led an armoured attack across Europe as successfully as General Patton? Different situations call for different leadership capabilities.

It’s also common leadership lore that people in demanding situations rise to the occasion. “Leaders are forged in the crucible of stress,” they say. True – but it’s just as apparent that the “crucible of stress” crushes at least as many people as it turns into leaders.

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