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Wikipedia on Leadership Studies

October 5, 2011

Given my interest in leadership education, I chose to have a look at the Wikipedia site on “leadership studies”. Though the topic “leadership” has received a lot of attention in various fields of study, there is still significant discussion among scholars and practitioners to come up with a single, agreed upon definition for leadership. Nevertheless, based on a fundamental differentiation from management, several sub-themes of leadership have evolved over the last years, which emphasis different aspects of leadership to explain human interactions and dynamics.

So expecting some sort of controversy reflected in the Wikipedia site, I was still puzzled by what I saw. The site is basically unreadable. It is poor in terms of content, structure and wording. After a random summary paragraph, the site offers two paragraphs, one on “leadership in higher education” and one on “history of leadership as a field of study”. While one would expect at least some sort of chronological overview or categorization of different areas of leadership studies, none of this information is provided in the article in a well-structured manner. The second paragraph cites some known but still randomly selected studies that were conducted throughout the 1940ies and 1960ies, followed by a few “theoretical lenses” on leadership, which should really be listed under a separate header. Areas of leadership studies are described very poorly in terms of content as well as wording, and additionally, they lack proper sources.

To provide an example: “Functional Leadership theory: Suggests that a leader’s primary responsibility is to see that whatever is necessary in relation to group needs is taken care of.” A simple Google search provides a slightly more elaborative explanation: “…useful theory for addressing specific leader behaviors expected to contribute to organizational or unit effectiveness”. So according to this theory leadership means to enhance group effectiveness and cohesion. Would not that be a clearer definition to use? The quick Google search also provides the appropriate sources, which are missing in the Wikipedia article: Hackman & Walton, 1986; McGrath, 1962; Fleishman et al., 1991; and finally Hackman & Wageman, 2005.

Both short paragraphs are followed by partly randomly listed scholars (though the big names seem to be present), journals, and finally organization. Especially the sections on “organizations” and “research centers” lack important institutions such as the Center for Public Leadership at HKS! When I finally saw under the “notable leadership scholars” that they even misspelled the name of my boss, Ron Heifetz, I stopped reading and decided to go to the discussion page.

And guess what, Wikipedia doesn’t have a talk page for this site, as it deleted the previous page! The reason stated seems to be an “inappropriate use of talkpage (22 March 2011). This puzzles me. Since March 2011, nobody had made an attempt to even start a discussion page again. Has the “leadership studies” page pushed Wikipedia to the boundaries of its core concept? Why has nobody since then tried to fix it the page? It clearly cant be due to a lack of people interested in the topic.

In an attempt to answer my question, I visited the Wikipedia “leadership” site. And interestingly a banner of the site mentions, “The article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. It needs additional citations for verification. It may require clean up to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards”. So it is true, leadership is messy! Fortunately, the discussion page is still working.

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