Leadership’s Grand Theory

SULT, leadership’s grand theory (LGT) emerged from a 3-year mixed-methods study. SULT is another name for the sustainable-unsustainable leadership theory (SULT). The theory is not simply another leadership approach to add to the list of many. It is the general theory for any leadership. The name is given to convey that the theory explains how leadership sustains itself in any context. Also, the ground-breaking theory expresses how a single factor will contribute to the failure of the leadership practice. As a result, LGT focuses on that component that is latent, subsumed, or missing from over 90 percent of the local and midrange leadership theories. So the same is the critical factor leadership confidence and trust were notably low over the past two decades.

As a result of the numerous scandals and crises around the globe, there was an increase in research on ethics, virtues, and morality in leadership studies. The cost of leadership failure is enormous. One notable scholar asked the question: is it now time moral leadership (Grint, 2005)? A paradigm shift is imminent, particularly after the emergence of leadership’s grand theory. Scholars who theorized about leadership in the absence of its influential foundation theorized at the peril of practitioners. Thus, the prescribed practice can become corrupted when subject to one’s worse self.

For example, when an otherwise effective multinational organization lost this focus, it failed after 89 years of operation. Therefore, the theory also helps to explain how leadership will become unsustainable or fails. Thus, the purported or once upon a time leadership practice would be non-existent. There are too many conflations with leadership that have little to do with it. The sustainable-unsustainable leadership theory helps to explain how the phenomenon of leadership works and does not work. 

A Grand Theory

When we use the term grand theory, it is in light of theories such as Newton’s laws and Einstein’s theory of general relativity (GR). The field has theories on approaches to leadership and some scholars have co-opted social learning theories to help explain the phenomenon. According to Popper (1959), “theories are nets cast to catch what we call ‘the world’: to rationalize, to explain, and to master it. We endeavor to make the mesh ever finer and finer” (p. 59). A well constructed theory will meet the following criteria when judging its quality (1) understanding, (2) generality, (3) fit, and (4) control (Pezalla, 2016; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Some benefits a good theory are ecological validity, novelty, and parsimony.

A theory is not a hypothesis when ones puts forth a supposition made on the basis of limited evidence. It is not the starting point for further investigation, except for its testing. SULT is grounded in the data of a grounded theory phase of the investigation. The investigation began from a theoretical abduction and not a simple interest in a phenomenon. To get to a theory the process entailed theoretical sampling, theoretical saturation, and constant comparison. That is in addition to data collection, analysis, coding, theory development, another data collection, quantitative data analysis, results, and their interpretation. SULT is a tested theory yielding statistical significance with effect size and supported literature and empirical evidence back as far as 3,000 years.

Definitions Supported by Leadership’s Grand Theory

SULT is also a term meaning to spring forward, richness, and a hunger or starvation; thus sustainable-unsustainable as SULT suggests. All too often scholars form definitions before going into an investigation. This is fine when the appropriate revisions follow the results of the inquiry. Definitions should be grounded in theory and evidence. New leadership definitions for the dictionaries that emerged from the study and LGT are:

Leader – one who practices leadership.

Leadership – a multiple-triadic relational practice of right-influence and or right-inspiration toward purposes and transcendence.

More on These Definitions

A leader related to the art or science of leadership meant for good should not solely be one that goes in front of people, because one can lead from behind. The leader may not even be physically present when the influence starts or takes effect. Mob bosses, deceivers, authoritarians, and many other descriptors not meant for the good relates to others who follow and influenced. However, what is the nature of the following? Is it willingly or for some other reason? Simple and intuitive, a leader is one who practices leadership. The practitioner can be male or female, young or of age. The standard for usage is clear, one who practices leadership.

So what is leadership? According to various scholars, there are as many definitions for leadership as there are authors. Many definitions are not grounded in theory and often reflect what people see and not what leadership is or should be. In the current century it was James MacGregor Burns, leadership scholar, author, historian, presidential biographer, and Pulitzer Prize winner, who asserted that leadership is a moral undertaking. An aphorism that rose from the study is “leadership in the absence of moral values is unsustainable.” The research team led by Kenneth-Maxwell Nance, a leadership scholar-practitioner (scientist), confirms Burns’ assertion and found support in literature a far back as 3,000 years.

The most common word is leadership definitions is the term influence. However, there is good and bad influence. Babies can influence their parents. Husbands and wives influence each other. Are these leadership, the art and science? Nevertheless, there is a right-influence.

Leadership Grand Theory Complexity Made Simpler

The research shows wrong influence or immoral actions of so-called leaders degrades and or harms the relational practice of leadership (Naseer, 2016; Sturm, 2017; Williams, 2019). One who practices leadership can be in positions of power and authority. However, so-called leaders who are in positions of power and authority such as a president, CEO, and various others who fail to practice leadership, but threaten the needs of those who they have power over, fail in the space of influence. If it is a president, the person may continue to be president but degrades and harms the relational practice. To understand why one would only need to examine theories such as Maslow’s need theory and the work of Kohlberg.

If people have needs of belonging and love, it is intuitive that a relationship between a so-called leader and those potentially influenced is at risk when there is a lack of understanding of needs. For example, it is understood that there is correlation between job satisfaction and needs fulfillment (e.g., physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization) of people (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2012). If the so-called leader threatens fulfillment; the relationship is at risk. It is important for one who practices leadership to understand others (humans) as well as the self. Therefore, understanding is one of five dimensions of the multidimensional leadership construct supported by leadership’s grand theory.

Based on LGT Start of Failure May Be Unobservable

A leadership practice can experience degradation, harm, and imminent failure from inside the leader if the leader’s conscience is underdeveloped as it moderates cognition. The effect of that moderation often appears in the conduct. See Figure 1 for a depiction of the space of relational practice. In continuance, the person ceases to practice leadership according to the definition but could still retain authority and power before imminent failure. An underdeveloped conscience may do the right thing to avoid punishment. However, when the same believes punishment is avoidable or the worst self wins in a continuum, the practice of leadership ceases.

Figure 1

Leadership’s Multiple-Triadic Relationship

Note. The leadership construct formula or equation L=f(Mi, Wi, Ui, Ki, Pi) operates across the multiple-triadic space.

The Arthur Anderson organization began in 1913, with the youngest certified public accountant in the state of Illinois. It was one of the big five accounting firms, and one of the largest multinational organizations in the world. In short, when the powerful firm lost focus of the right things instilled by its founder, the organization failed. Consequently to Arthur Anderson’s leadership failure, the organization gave up its license in 2002. However, the surrender of its license was despite an increase in its revenues and 89 years of skill development and experience. So, the firm’s technical knowledge and vast experience did not rescue it. Thus, the Arthur Anderson organization is now associated with several of the world’s largest organizational failures to date, including its own. The outcome for the organization is consistent with the research findings and aphorism that emerged with leadership’s grand theory.

More on Leadership’s Grand Theory

Similarly another case is unfolding before the world. Just a mere allegation of immoral conduct set the stage for the resignation of a co-founder in a company that has become a household name. Importantly, what happened in the earlier example case and in 98% of the over 2,000 studied cases is consistent with the conclusions of the key study underpinning leadership’s grand theory. See Figure 2. The world experienced a financial crisis in 2009, which will be considered small compared to the losses associated with this pandemic. Subsequently, there are ongoing investigations into the start of COVID-19. However, the medical community knew about one intervention required to avert something worse than the SARS epidemic. Enough of those in power and authority, some called leaders, also knew, but it was not until January 2020 the intervention went into effect.

Figure 2

Unethical Leadership Action Resulting in Unsustainable Leadership Outcomes

Note. Clustered bar chart from a Chi-square test among several tests, indicating the frequency of observation of unethical leadership action (ULA) and its association with unsustainable leadership outcomes (ULO) from over 2000 global cases.

Leadership in the absence of moral values is unsustainable. The best performing local and midrange theories contain a moral component. Leadership is less about the organization of systems or more about the psyche of humans. The general theory SULT is predictive and preventive of leadership failure. There will be a continuous discussion on the dimensions of the multidimensional leadership construct. The book Leadership Holy Grail: Leadership’s Grand Theory in-press, describes the theory’s conceptualization, operationalization, and other details. Additionally, the key study, a 100-page inquiry underpinning leadership’s grand is on target for publishing in a peer-reviewed journal before the coming fall season. A presentation of the study will take place amidst the largest worldwide community with a commitment to leadership scholarship, development, and practice this year. Therefore, to stay informed connect with us.


Grint, K. (2005). Leadership: Limits and possibilities. Palgrave Macmillan.

Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. J. (2012). Organizational behavior (10th ed.). McGraw-Hill


Naseer, S., Raja, U., Syed, F., Donia, M. B. L., & Darr, W. (2016). Perils of being close to a bad leader in a bad

environment: Exploring the combined effects of despotic leadership, leader member exchange, and perceived

organizational politics on behaviors. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(1), 14–33.


Pezalla, A. (2016). Grounded theory. In G. J. Burkholder, K. A. Cox, & L. M. Crawford (Eds.),

The Scholar-Practitioner’s Guide to Research Design (1st ed.). Laureate Publishing.

Popper, K. R. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. Hutchinson.

Sturm, R. (2017). Decreasing Unethical Decisions: The Role of Morality-Based Individual Differences. Journal of Business

Ethics, 142(1), 37–57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2787-x

Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. M. (1990). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory

procedures and techniques. SAGE Publications.

Williams, K. R. (2019). The Cost of Tolerating Toxic Behaviors in the Department of Defense Workplace. Military Review,

July-August 2019, 14.

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