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Question Description

I really don’t have much to say about the chapter on “Skills Approach” in the Northouse book. Lucky you all.

Seriously, Northouse seems to be rather singular in his appreciation for this approach. In many of his other books, he doesn’t even mention it. Most other leadership authors give it a darn good ignoring, too.

So… What can we discuss?

Professor Northouse observes that “The skills approach is primarily descriptive: It describes leadership from a skills perspective.” We could talk about that for a bit.

Our social science theories primarily fall into one of two categories: Descriptive and Prescriptive. First, a reminder that a “Theory is an invention aimed at organizing and explaining specific aspects of the environment.” (Pedhazer & Schmelkin, Measurement, Design, and Analysis: An Integrated Approach, 1991, p 180.)

Descriptive theories offer observations—they describe the situation. Not merely perception of an event, an intensely active role is exacted in the issue. It starts with a particular interest in a subject, which generates a question, that probably reveals a problem needing solving. A 100 kilogram weight released from a thousand meter tall building will accelerate at a specific rate. When it strikes the ground, it will be traveling this fast, it will still be accelerating at this rate, and it will impact with this amount of force. This is clearly measured, repeated and defined. A descriptive theory of physics. This is what is going to happen when you release that 100 kilogram weight.

Prescriptive theories offer more than mere observation—they offer advice on what to do and how to do it. They are filled with “Thou Shalt” do such-and-such. Do this. Don’t do that. A good leader will do this. A bad leader would do that. A good leader should not drop that 100 kilogram weight from a thousand meter tall building onto a crowd of people—someone could get hurt.

Of course, prescriptive theories are all predicated on our understanding of people. This is a good time to recall Mencken’s observation that “there is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.”

Question #1:

With respect to leadership, which theories are more useful–descriptive or prescriptive? Why?

Question #2:

What can be gleaned from the study of skills?

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