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Works on the subject of leadership weigh down bookstore shelves the world over. Tomes tell you how to be a 30-second manager, how to inspire your employees like Churchill, and the three keys to “strength-based leadership.”

Everyone has been writing about leadership, in fact, except the people you would expect to be most active in the field: scholars.

“If we look at the leading research universities and at the business schools within them, the topic of leadership has been actually given fairly short shrift,” says Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana.

The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, recently published by Harvard Business Press, aims to give the topic its intellectual due. Edited by Khurana and Nitin Nohria, who will become the new Dean of Harvard Business School on July 1, 2010, the Handbook brings together critical writings by some of the world’s foremost scholars in fields ranging from psychology to economics, sociology, and history.

“Leadership is based on complex phenomena.” -Rakesh Khurana

As Khurana explains below, leadership—what it means, why it matters—is an exciting and an increasingly urgent area of scholarly inquiry. But it wasn’t always so. Vexing problems we experience in business and society may be due in part to the neglect of leadership studies in the academy for many years.

“If we had to characterize the path of work on leadership, it has been a lot like the metaphor of a blind man and an elephant. Until recently, leadership was the elephant, and there were a lot of blind people identifying different parts,” says Khurana.

“What we tried to incorporate in the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice is how each different perspective illuminates key elements such as similarities and differences in leadership across task, culture, and identity. We don’t offer a simple answer. Like any complex phenomena, scholars are in the earliest stages of beginning to understand the complexities of leadership.

“What we think we have done in this book is set the foundation for hopefully a long-term, programmatic approach to looking at the phenomena of leadership.”

Republished with permission of HBS Working Knowledge