As an academic discipline, organizational leadership is truly interdisciplinary. It combines advances in our understanding of human psychology and the quantitative methodologies of behavioral science with theories of business management, organizational structure, and economic modeling. And, it incorporates the practical application of advanced communication skills and information technology. Various aspects of organizational leadership are taught at the undergraduate level and integrated into master’s degree programs in business administration, industrial-organizational psychology, political science, education, and other disciplines. But, PhD programs in organizational leadership are designed to seamlessly fuse the practical, conceptual, and philosophical elements of upper-level management and administration into a unified approach for those aiming to ascend to leadership positions in business, healthcare, education, government, and elsewhere in the competitive global economy.

What Is Organizational Leadership?

The very idea that leadership is something that can be taught, that it isn’t just some innate talent or skill that some people happen to be born with, is a relatively new one. Think of King Arthur of Celtic legend, demonstrating his administrative capabilities through a feat of supernaturally imbued strength, wresting the sword Excalibur from stone in a motion that instantly signaled his right to rule. That’s not the sort of thing you learn in a classroom. Indeed, with some notable exceptions, much of the thinking surrounding leadership prior to the 20th century was cloaked in an aura of mystery, implicit in the bloodlines that defined the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and in the archetype of the great leader forged in the heat of battle or some other epic struggle.

In his seminal 16th-century treatise The Prince, the Italian political theoretician Niccoló Machiavelli famously delineated some of the qualities and strategic imperatives of strong leadership. Others, from Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece, to the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, had made significant contributions to the literature on leadership. But it wasn’t until the rise of large and complex industrial operations, corporate institutions, and governmental/military bureaucracies intersected with the scientific study of human psychology, behavior, and sociology, that a systematic, authoritative, and rigorous approach to studying, quantifying, and ultimately teaching effective organizational leadership emerged.

In 1972, the University of San Diego had the distinction of becoming the first of a growing number of educational institutions to offer a PhD in organizational leadership. The mission of such programs is both broad and targeted: Specifically, they aim to arm professionals from a wide cross-section of occupations with the specialized knowledge, administrative tools and models, and critical thinking skills to advance to top-tier leadership positions, whether that be in business, healthcare, education, the military, or the non-profit sector. As the USD School of Leadership and Education Sciences explains in its promotional literature for its PhD in Organizational Leadership, “Our students develop the skills to conduct original research and use empirical evidence to improve their practice and lead innovation. Students include business professionals, service men and women, mid- and upper-level executives, and many others. After graduation, they may work as policy analysts, evaluators, consultants, executive coaches, researchers, and faculty.”

PhD in Organizational Leadership Concepts

  • Theoretical and practical application of psychology in an organizational setting
  • Psychology of human behavior
  • Evaluation of employee characteristics
  • Workplace performance dynamics
  • Increase leadership potential
  • Enhance organizational effectiveness
  • Create better understanding of culture and ethics
  • Statistics and psychometrics in organizations
  • Qualitative and quantitative research design and methods
  • Influence, motivation, and persuasion in the workplace
  • Relationships between organizational culture, executing business strategies, team structure, and alignment with overall company goals
  • Workforce staffing and compensation models
  • Training and development strategies

Differences Between the PhD and EdD in Organizational Leadership

Although post-doctoral work and research does exist in the field of organizational leadership, the PhD and the EdD are considered terminal or final degrees. They are typically designed for professionals who have already earned an undergraduate degree and attained an MA (master of arts), MS (master of science), MBA (master of business administration), or the equivalent, and who have subsequently spent a period of time working in a pertinent field. In fact, many of the better organizational leadership doctoral programs require applicants to have three years of professional experience, although this can be in any number of fields, from business and healthcare administration, to psychological counseling and social work, to employment in education, human resources, public relations, or the non-profit sector. Basically, any job that involves organizational management, team building, and maintaining an optimized chain of command can benefit from the psychological principles, communication strategies, and management models that are part of a doctorate in organizational leadership.

It’s worth noting that there are some differences between a PhD (doctor of philosophy) and an EdD (doctor of education), both in general, and specific to the discipline of organizational leadership. Both degrees carry the same weight, and will tend to cover similar curricular ground in terms of theories and models and practical applications. However, a PhD is often thought of as more research oriented, with a focus on testing theories and developing new areas of specialized knowledge in the field. The EdD, on the other hand, may be more weighted toward the actual practices associated with organizational leadership. More often than not, the designation of a particular degree program is determined by where it is situated among other graduate programs. For example, a school of education is more likely to offer an EdD in organizational leadership; a school of psychology may offer a PhD or a PsyD (doctor of psychology) in organizational leadership; and there are also business schools that have DBA, or doctor of business administration, programs that specialize in the field. The key is to find a program that fits your interests and, as we’ll see below, offers an area of concentration or specialization that suits your career goals.

What Does a Doctorate in Organizational Leadership Entail?

Because doctoral programs in organizational leadership are meant for students who have already embarked on a career and may opt to continue working while earning the degree, they do offer some flexibility. As a general rule, the required coursework can often be completed in between two and four years, during which students may begin work on a dissertation that can add an additional year or two to the process.

The curriculum for a doctorate in organizational leadership can also vary, depending on the school and the program’s area of specialization. For example, a student interested in pursuing a career in global marketing would be wise to find a program that deals with the challenges of leadership and management in a multi-cultural environment, while those wishing to pursue careers in education, healthcare, or business consulting might be more interested in team building and motivational strategies. In general, the goals of a doctorate in organizational leadership are perhaps best summed up in a oft quipped quote from business professor and management guru Peter Drucker, the author of many books, including The Effective Executive and The Practice of Management: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

With that in mind, here’s a chart that details some of the coursework specific to a PhD/EdD in organizational leadership:

CourseAreas of Study
Introduction to Doctoral StudiesA course centered on the basic research methods, analytical tools, and writing skills that are at the foundation of doctoral studies, including how to use databases and other digital resources.
Quantitative Research Methods and AnalysisAn examination of the various kinds of social and behavioral scientific research methods that underpin the study of organizational management and leadership strategies.
Strategic Change and Crisis ManagementPrinciples for goal- and mission-oriented leadership in organizations in times of dynamic flux.
Team Building and Interpersonal DynamicsModels and strategies for creating effective and efficient group dynamics and hierarchies within an organization.
Contemporary Leadership MethodologiesAnd examination of the different theories and models of leadership, including methods for self-assessment, productivity optimization, and conflict management and resolution.

In addition, the following is a list of some of the core concepts that are fundamental to leadership studies, and that form the theoretical framework for the study of organizational leadership at the doctoral level:

  • Behavioral Model of Leadership: A traditional approach to leadership that aims to characterize the personality and behavioral traits of individuals who emerge as successful organizational leaders.
  • Functional Leadership Model: A theory of team leadership dynamics that emphasizes tactics and strategies that facilitate organizational effectiveness.
  • Information-Processing Leadership Model: Based on the concepts of cognitive psychology, this is a model that focuses on the communication aspects of leadership and the ways in which social perception and presentation contribute to organizational effectiveness.
  • Situational Contingency Model of Leadership: A reaction to the “great man” theory of history and, to a certain extent, behavioral theories of leadership, the situational contingency model posits that leadership arises from larger social forces, and that understanding situations is the key to effective organizational management.
  • Transactional Model of Leadership: A merit-based approach to organizational leadership that emphasizes a strict chain of command in which clear rewards and punishments are employed to motivate workers.

Specialization in Organizational Leadership Doctoral Programs

To the extent that every PhD in organizational leadership includes independent work on a dissertation topic, they all offer opportunities for individual specialization. However, there are several specific areas of focus within the field of organizational leadership that students may be able to specialize in, including:

  • Higher Education Leadership
  • Non-Profit and Philanthropic Leadership
  • Civic Leadership
  • Business Leadership
  • Leadership Research and Consulting

Career Options and Salary Outlook in Organizational Leadership

Those who enter a doctoral program in organizational leadership have generally already begun on a career path and the PhD or EdD is usually a stepping stone to professional advancement. There’s not really a typical job description for a person with a doctorate in organizational leadership. Rather, the range is quite broad, from college and university professors, deans and administrators, to school principals and police chiefs, to corporate COOs and CEOs, to consultants and entrepreneurs. The American Psychological Association notes that executive coaching is a growing area of business consulting, particularly as businesses look outward for advice on how to remain competitive in the global economy.

The following chart offers an overview of some of the salaries and job growth projections for a number of careers in the realm of organizational leadership, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012 Occupational Outlook Handbook and 2014 Occupational Employment Statistics:

Job CategoryJob Growth 2012-2022Median Annual Salary
Training and Development Managers11%$101,930
Human Resource Managers13%$102,870
Medical and Health Services Managers23%$92,810
Operational Research Analysts27%$76,660
Management Analysts19%$80,880
Postsecondary Education Administrators15%$86,490
Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals6%$87,760
Top Executives11%$173,320

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