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Leadership & Organization Development Journal

Emerald Article: Leadership as an exercise in virtual reality Gilbert W. Fairholm

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To cite this document: Gilbert W. Fairholm, (1998),"Leadership as an exercise in virtual reality", Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 19 Iss: 4 pp. 187 - 193 Permanent link to this document: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/01437739810217160 Downloaded on: 15-10-2012 References: This document contains references to 39 other documents To copy this document: permissions@emeraldinsight.com

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Leadership as an exercise in virtual reality

Gilbert W. Fairholm University of Richmond, Midlothian, Virginia, USA

Understanding the essential truth about what leadership is is not easy. The problem is that each person sees leadership through the lens of his or her unique virtual reality. We each interpret the world and major ideas like leadership from a mind-set that seems real and logical to us, but ignores or discounts other equally (maybe even more) logical perspectives. This paper explores alternative leadership realities. It concludes that most of us must progress through each of ve leadership virtual environments before we can sense the full meaning of leadership.

Introduction
Finding the true nature of leadership, like any signicant idea, is difficult. Most of us see only part of the whole fabric of any universal idea, not its whole. Our viewpoint is limited by our own experiences and observation, and is constrained by limitations of fact, time and inclination to reason fully Tradi. tional ideas and views are also comfortable. It is no wonder that the leadership literature reects many points of view, each with its own advocates. Fortunately, although these models differ, we know some basic elements of leadership. First, it is objective. It exists. It has always been a part of group relationships. And it is a process, which is repeated in most circumstances, places and over time. It is part of every social situation in which we are a part. Simply put, leadership is one person affecting the lives of others in intentional ways. It is and has always been a process of inspiring followers to do things for the group that both come to accept at intimate emotional, mental, even, spiritual levels (Fairholm, 1991, 1997; Kouzes and Posner, 1987; Mintzberg, 1977). Finding leadership truth is daunting since each of us sees this task differently While our . personal perception changes over time, at any given point we apply leadership from our particular cumulative wisdom. We act out of this leadership mind-set. It guides our thinking and denes our reality (Graves, 1970). It is hard to introduce new ideas and models of leadership more in line with objective reality in this ambiguous situation. To get others to accept his or her ideas, the modelmaker must rst understand the listeners intellectual environment and act to change that viewpoint before introducing his or her, hopefully, more correct idea. In the meantime leaders lead, writers write and trainers train. And full mastery of the leadership function continues to elude us. Learning to lead, understanding the leadership process is like learning to live. It is a series of progressively more sophisticated developmental stages which, as mastered, can be made to work for us. Just as a child develops by ages and stages, so does our understanding of leadership mature from one stage

to another. Each incremental stage represents our growth out of simpler preparatory behavior to more complete comprehension and application (Erickson, 1974). Analysis of contemporary research points to several of these mental mind-sets that form and inform our growing understanding of the leaders tasks. Each offers useful insights about this process. So far, none is complete. Taken together they dene a much more comprehensive model of the true nature of leadership. Full understanding of leadership requires that we progress through each successive stage and not settle into a preliminary one as each theorist suggests.

The leadership dilemma


There is a problem in moving from one leadership mind-set to another. While we are in a given mind-set, we believe it to be the right interpretation of the leaders tasks. And we act in concert with this understanding. Until we move on to a higher developmental stage, to a new reality, we do not accept that other perspectives are possible. That is, the truth about leadership (or any other signicant idea) is restricted by the parameters of our present developmental reality While we are . in one virtual environment we may not be able to accept that other realities exist or that other realities may be better, more useful to us, than our present one. Assuming (as we do here) that leadership is the same process regardless of where it is practiced, our individual mental viewpoint about leadership becomes critical to full understanding. We each perceive this reality differently as our ideas and experiences differ at various stages of our life. Understanding leadership, therefore, is more about appreciating what perceived environmental stage someone is in, than it is learning actions and events or principles chronicling this human interaction pattern. The new computer science of virtual reality is a useful paradigm for helping us explain this idea. In virtual reality, hardware and software create a digital version of reality and projects the individual into that model. It is called virtual, because it appears to be real,

Leadership & Organization Development Journal 19/4 [1998] 187193 MCB University Press [ISSN 0143-7739]

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but is not! It is only a model of the truth, emphasizing only some aspects of the total environment (Reichbach, 1996). Virtual reality provides a way for people to visualize, manipulate, and interact with their environment articially In virtual reality a . world is created that exists entirely in the memory of a computer and in our perception as participants. Via computer power we are able to enter and interact within an environment that in many ways is real to us. Similarly, our cumulative experience creates a mental reality that lets us see our world more globally than our local experience. Over time, the virtual environment we are in now may change as our experience changes. Just as individuals develop formal concepts of leadership, the various leadership models also are just formal kinds of virtual reality, not necessarily the truth, but accepted as binding by adherents. We all live every day in virtual environments we create. They are dened, not by computers, but by our accepted beliefs, biases and experience (Ott, 1989). This virtual environment emphasizes parts of our experience and ignores other factors. It simulates a unique worldview that rationalizes available data, people and relationships and enables us to interact with them. It also effectively boxes-in our thinking and excludes alternative truths from our attention. The notion that individuals develop unique ways of looking at the world and use this perspective to dene and measure their life is, of course, not a new one. The argument for alternative environmental realities is supported not only by computer and information theory, but also by both social and hard sciences. Several contemporary models serve to illustrate the intellectual support for this view of leadership thinking.

objective reality Our personal perception of . what leaders do is given meaning in the context of our cultural experiences as both leader and follower of anothers leadership. Accepting as valid any other understanding of leadership than our personal cultural one is, often, beyond our own experience and, therefore, impossible (Schein, 1985).

Paradigms
Another way to understand our particular view of the truth about leadership is to see it as a paradigm. Paradigms set the rules groups adopt, often implicitly, that denes the boundaries of the acceptable. Our paradigm provides a standard for problem solving, measuring results and identifying acceptable actions. Barker (1992) says a paradigm consists of the rules and standards as well as accepted examples of common practice, laws, theories, applications and work relationships in any group. As individuals or groups progress, they may shift from one paradigm to another. Examples of paradigm shifts in business are the shift from production by craftsmen to mass production. A more recent shift can be seen in the move from mass production to lean production. Managers who advocate mass production and those who advocate a lean production system, like that of Toyota, think and act differently Their different prac. tices, beliefs, values and assumptions dene the different world views members in each group live by . The power of paradigms, like that of virtual environments, is that they physiologically affect our ability to see the world. Quite literally what is obvious to one person may be invisible to another. For example, those people who see leadership as position-based cannot accept the idea that leaders can also occupy positions in the middle or lower reaches of the organization. Similarly, people who see leadership as management control cannot accept as plausible any notion that leaders ought to deal with a followers spiritual side as well as his or her skills.

Cultural change
The idea that people have unique, and differing, perspectives that control their thinking and action is, for example, central to the concept of cultural difference (Ott, 1989). Culturally-induced differences in individual behavior are obvious to even the casual observer. People in different national, ethnic, religious, professional or other realities behave differently, measure success differently and value ideas and material things differently . Each of us lters our perceptions though our culture, our values and experience (Fairholm, 1994a). Part of the reason we understand leadership as we do has to do with the personal cultural lter through which we view it. Our cultural environment is often more important in dening truth for us than

States of being
Another model for sensing reality comes from the work of Graves (1970). Graves dened eight levels of human existence (or developmental states of being) related in a hierarchy This work mirrors that of Erickson . (1974) about developmental stages of children. Graves identied eight states of human existence. Each state shapes human thinking and denes reality for people living in a given state. Graves concludes that whatever level of existence we are in determines our values,

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our actions, our relationships and our measures of success for self and for others. A person in a given state of being uses the reality that level denes to solve problems and choose appropriate courses of action in relationships with others. Our preferences for a given style of leadership are appropriate to that level. If we were in another level we would act differently and use different values and a different ethic to judge the appropriateness of both our and our fellows actions. For Graves, the process of growth is a process of evolution into successively higher levels of psychological existence or virtual environments. Each of these modes of seeing human development and action say about the same thing. We each see leadership differently depending on our current paradigm or level of psychological existence or culture or virtual environment. Each virtual environment denes a real-for-us context beyond which we cannot easily go.

Leadership developmental virtual environments


Life is a stream of ideas packaged into virtual reality environments ranked hierarchically . The leadership idea stream includes several alternative mental environments around which researchers and writers have developed elaborate structures to dene and describe the leadership dynamic. Which of the virtual environments we bring to our tasks will, of course, depend on our cumulative wisdom. At least ve virtual leadership environments can be isolated from the leadership research of the last 100 years. Each adds something to complete understanding of leadership. While there is a chronological order to these virtual environments, each has adherents today They rank themselves along . a continuum from managerial control to spiritual holism. The ve virtual environments include leadership as management, leadership as excellent management, values leadership, trust leadership and spiritual leadership. Readers may want to place themselves within this continuum and assess the utility of their present virtual environment and any more sophisticated realities reective of others experience.

management. The effort has been to make leadership a science, controlled, precise, predictable. This science-focus has dictated leadership theory, method and convention surely in the literature if not in practice (Gorman, 1997). Management is a role the heads of organizations assume involving control over others behaviors and actions. Some people also accept this role as true for leaders. Those who accept this virtual environment force us to dene the leaders tasks in terms of controlling interpersonal relations, making decisions, aligning individual member actions and perceptions with organizational goals, planning, budgeting, and directing the effort of the people engaged in the work. Current hard science models dene leadership in the same terms we use to dene management (Mintzberg, 1977). The resultant confusion raises about as many questions as it answers. A managerial role equating leadership with managing asks of leaders the same expertise we ask of managers: to ensure that group activity is timed, controlled and predictable. This mind-set says little, if anything, about the leadership task of building shared values, trust and vision (Selznick, 1957). It ignores critical leadership issues like empowerment, inspiration and other factors listed in the current leadership literature. It is silent about the animating essence of business and business people (Kotter, 1991). Leadership as management has limited utility in todays pluralistic, complex and rapidly changing work communities. Relegating workers to the status of cogs in the corporate machine has scant appeal to the better educated, more aware and more wanting people now entering the workplace. And, the need to be rapidly responsive to changes in customer demand for products and services places a strain on the rigid, procedural, control mechanisms developed by the managerial mind-set to produce traditional outputs: multiple units of the same product to high tolerances.

Leadership as excellent (good) management


Responding to the pull of the quality movement, another virtual environment emphasizes high quality, excellent management as the real denition and function of leadership (Juran, 1989). While a helpful way to look at the managerial task, a focus on high quality does not deal directly with what some others accept as a more complete leadership reality It . does introduce some of the core values that have guided leaders throughout time and which are still emphasized today: high quality,

Leadership as management
Since Frederick W. Taylor dened Scientic Management a hundred years ago, many people have focused on the hard sciences techniques in describing both leadership and

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concern for excellence, stakeholder development and values of integrity, creativity and service (Fairholm, 1991). But, it fails to include them specically in its theory . This view of leadership changes the character of the follower core and enlarges the domain of the manager. But, essentially it retains the idea that leaders and managers do much the same things. It falls short of full explanation of the leadership relationship (Gitlow and Gitlow, 1987). It limits the scope of leadership to just one function quality improvement and ignores the full range of capacities of both leader and led and the needs of the corporation beyond high quality .

shaping our lives and we do not know how to consciously set our own values systems or evaluate the merits of or results of those we see in others. Values leadership theory clearly articulates the power of values in relationships and advocates specic values and techniques in their use. This theory holds promise of reshaping our understanding of the impact of leadership in the new millenium.

Trust leadership
The leadership style leaders adopt (though not necessarily consciously) grows out of their ideas and feelings about the nature of man (Gibb, 1978a). The trust leadership virtual environment sees the leaders role as not so much a function of the individual leader as it is a condition of the group culture (Gibb, 1978b). Leadership may be spontaneous at times. Most often it is a result of specic, planned actions to create a culture conducive to internal harmony and interpersonal trust. The leaders task is to build a culture of shared values where people can come to trust each other enough to sublimate their differing values so that they can work together. People in this virtual environment see followers as people who choose to follow leaders (Fairholm, 1994b). They are not forced to do so. Consequently it is the trust followers have in their leader that allows them to lead. Trust is the glue holding the organization and its people together. Indeed, no organization can take place without interactive trust. And, no leader can ignore the powerful element of trust as he goes about creating and managing his organizations culture and inducing stakeholders to behave in needed ways (Martin, 1996). In this virtual environment members see leadership as a group, not an individual, task (Maslow, 1971). Those accepting this leadership reality see the need for a unied, effective, harmonious culture characterized by mutual trust that allows leadership to take place. It is a collective activity, shaped and controlled by the values-laden culture leaders create as much as by the leaders own values and behaviors. Indeed, leadership can only take place within a context where both leaders and followers can be free to trust the purposes, actions and intent of others (Fairholm, 1994a). Trust leadership is a logical outgrowth of values-based leadership. Trust is both a personal and a group cultural capacity activated by shared values among members. Its special value is in calling attention to a key element in the relationship between leader and led that must be present for leadership to take place. Without trust the quality movement

Values leadership
Breaking new intellectual ground in our journey to the truth about leadership is accepting a truism that leaders bring a values component to the group. The essential idea in this virtual environment is simple: everybody has values and these values trigger behavior (Fairholm, 1991). To lead others, leaders must rst ensure that the group shares common values that are congruent with both the group vision and the measures of group and individual success. This virtual environment makes full use of the power of common values in securing group solidarity . A values-basis for leadership is not new. The problem is we have not thought of our leadership in values terms. So values leadership theory is new, while the practice is much more common (Hart, 1988). This new conception of leadership proposes a kind of leadership rooted in the reality of human nature and conduct. It is values-driven, change-oriented and developmental (Sergiovanni, 1990). It is world wide in its application. In America its central characteristic is reliance on a few core values like freedom, justice, team unity and respect for workers and their happiness that celebrate the individual (Fairholm, 1991; Kostenbaum, 1991). By adding values to available theory, we introduce a powerful force affecting human behavior, one that has been ignored in leadership theory for most of our generation. We recognize the power of our values in shaping behavior, but out of a false desire to let each person choose their own values have refrained from advocating any values or even discussing relative merits of alternative value systems. Indeed, we teach that any value is equal to any other. The result has been that people are generally ignorant of the ways values are formed or the consequences of our values choices, while constantly being bombarded by example with the values of every one we meet. So values are

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and managerial control leader models would not work. Building trust focuses values leadership and gives it scope.

Spiritual leadership
As the twentieth century ends, we can detect a new virtual environment to help us understand leadership (Lee and Zemke, 1993). It extends and reorients values leadership. A few people are combining much of the discussion of the recent past and concluding that leadership is a function of the leaders concern for the whole-soul, the inner sense of spirituality of self and others (Fairholm, 1997; Greenleaf, 1977). They believe that leadership comes out of the leaders true self, his/her inner spiritual core. This, not facts or situation, determines what is good and true and beautiful, and, therefore worthy of their action. Even the casual observer can see some of the evidence for this new way of thinking. Given the pressures (Hoyt, 1987) in the modern workplace downsizing, diversity, globalization, automation, computerization people nd they are losing their moral and spiritual anchors. Tradition, home, family and church are often sublimated today in the push for economic success (Hawley, 1993). Work is becoming the center of our attention and the place where we spend most of our time and energy And work values are forcing . other values out of our lives (Naisbitt and Aburdene, 1985). Prot and productivity are becoming the guiding values and these values do little to satisfy the soul (Jacobson, 1995). As a result, people are hungry for meaning in their lives. They feel they have lost something in their lives. To ll this void, some are trying to blend their spiritual with their everyday work lives .They are asking their leaders to ll this void as they also meet economic needs (Nair, 1994). We have long known of the powerful impact of the spirit on decisions effecting our work. It is unmistakable, if only tangentially mentioned in more and more formal discussion. We are all aware, for example, of the high touch reaction to the introduction of high technology that John Naisbitt (1982) discussed in the early 1980s. Part of the most recent pressures toward reinvention of the organization is clearly to invent organizational structures appropriate to this age of spirit at work. Whether or not this virtual environment is a fad or a sea-change, we can see a discernable shift in America from leadership based on control over resources to concern for the whole person (see, for example, Fairholm, 1997; Lee and Zemke, 1993; Pinchot and Pinchot, 1994; Vaill, 1989).

People in this virtual environment can point to amassing evidence suggesting there is a signicant connection between a leaders (or workers) ability to have a transformational effect on the organization and his or her disposition towards spirituality (Hickman, 1989). In the authors research, 84 percent of surveyed managers conrmed this link (Fairholm, 1997; see also Jacobson, 1995). The reasons are obvious. A leader or member with a dened sense of their own spirituality and that of their co-workers can have greater transformational effect on the organization, its forms, structures and processes than some formal reorganization plans. We cannot separate our spirituality from our actions and character. Only as our communications are laced with commonly held spiritual values will what we say strike a responsive chord in others and foster group and individual growth. Failure to do this will result in loss. Leaders need followers to lead, but they need enabled people able to ourish in an environment of interactive trust, shared vision and common values (Sashkin, 1986). A leader who knows him/herself, is comfortable with him/herself, is happy and strong and can convey these qualities to others will gather followers about them. In this way they can be a part of anothers spirituality When . this bonding is present, leaders and group members can be very effective. The spiritual leadership virtual environment is very new. Its parameters are just now being dened. It builds on values theory and redenes it as primarily a personal soul issue and not so much a social one. The mind-set is observable in relationships and needs to be dened in new leadership model-making.

Discussion and application


Understanding the role and function of leadership may be the single most important intellectual task of this generation and leading the most needed skill. The reason is simple. Leaders, dene business and its practice. They determine the character of society They . dene and shape our teams, groups and communities. They set and administer government policy In all walks of life, leaders . behaviors set the course others follow and determine the measures used to account for group actions taken. Success in the new millennium, as in the past one, will depend on how well leaders understand their roles, the leadership process and their values and vision. Traditional leadership, thought of in terms of the head, or chief officer, of an organization

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regardless of the tasks or functions they may perform (Mintzberg, 1977), is outmoded. These tasks more accurately dene a managerial role; only a part of the leaders total task. Given the nature of modern society an exploding information base, global markets, fast-changing product demands, a diverse and demanding population and a labor pool increasingly composed of knowledge workers traditional management alone will no longer work (Pinchot and Pinchot, 1994). Neither our followers nor our customers will accept it (Barnard, 1968). We need a new type of CEO, a team leader, a coach, a builder instead of a controlling manager. We also need new ways to think about the role of the leader, a new kind of leadership reality . Perhaps that new leadership reality is in the emerging spiritual leadership model or perhaps in values- or trust-based mind-sets. Or, perhaps full understanding will come only as each of us individually moves through these ve virtual environments taking the best elements from each and forming a new reality no one, at least this author, has visualized before.

to full understanding of leadership. Each is true in the sense that they help describe some part of the leadership task. Each lays out a logical, rational pattern of leader action. But it is only together that they clarify the full picture. Perhaps each of us has to move through each virtual environment, accepting one for a while before we are ready to accept the next. This article is intended to help the traveler see the trail marks guiding this movement. It is also intended to raise the possibility that the truth we now accept about leadership may not be the only, the full truth. It may not be the best to meet our twenty-rst century leadership challenges.

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Changing leadership realities


With time and use our present leadership virtual environment becomes difficult (maybe impossible) to change. With time any other than our virtual environment will be seen as wrong, incorrect, maybe, even, inconceivable. That is, we will not move away from an understanding of leadership as (say) mere headship or as managerial control until we recognize there are other ways to think about and value the leadership task. Practically speaking, each of us is locked into our current leadership environment and need heroic measures to move out of it. Over the years, most of us have passed through one or more of the ve virtual leadership environments respecting what leaders do and the leadership process. Whether our view is scientic, procedural or managerial or we see it in terms of high quality, values, trust or spirit we live out that reality in word and deed (Kouzes and Posner, 1987). We may accept the parts of the full picture of leadership represented in earlier virtual environments, but nd it impossible to conceive of realities different from those we have previously experienced. The virtual environment we adopt to understand leadership is personal. It is selected as we experience leadership, read about it, think about, and observe it in our leaders. But the way we think, the reality we construct out of our reading and experience, both illuminate and shade our understanding. These ve virtual realities mark a route

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