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Leadership: A Human Encounter

In the postmodern age, we are surrounded by more heroes than in a Homeric epic, with football players, life guards and even movie stars being thrown into the mix.

Thomas Carlyle observed ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ In many ways, much business literature about ‘leadership’ only gets as far as Carlyle in its thinking and then rests, sure in the belief leaders are self-made people from whom lessons can be drawn and leadership techniques formalised. A classic example of this is an approach adopted by Howard Gardner in comparing eleven ‘leaders’ with a group of ten political and military leaders to test notions about leadership. Yet such views are simplistic, as those who go beyond Carlyle have found in the writing of Herbert Spencer:

You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him. So that all those changes of which he is the proximate initiator have their chief causes in the generations he descended from.

In going beyond the character or actions of the individual, Spencer succinctly showed ‘the psychological factors which make the working of authority possible are logically prior to the creation of leaders’ power.’ Spencer also underscores an important point, that we are in error to think about leadership solely in terms of a leader’s qualities, instead, we need to look to society at large and more particularly, at the followers and the qualities which engender them to follow the leader.

Friedrich von Schelling was the first to coin the term, unconscious, when he wrote:

The intuition we have postulated is to bring together that which exists in separation in the appearance of freedom and in the intuition of the natural product; namely identity of the conscious and the unconscious in the self [Bewußtlosen im Ich], and consciousness of this identity.

Charles Darwin picked up on the term when writing to the Reverend Baden Powell, in the January of 1860, following publication of his book The Origin of Species the previous year: ‘If I have taken anything from you, I assure you it has been unconsciously.’ But it was for Freud to begin the process of linking the notion of the unconscious to the motivations of patients (followers) when he noticed they kept falling in love with him. While the transference made some patients hostile and resistant to treatment, Freud also noted a positive transference which he asserted was a ‘vehicle of success’ in the treatment of patients. 10 In the context of management this transference can be an equally double edged sword with some employees experiencing a belief that their boss cares about them in a parental way, while others, experiencing the hostility Freud described, see an adversarial relationship with their manager. This has profound consequences for the study of leadership as it means followers may experience feelings as strong as love or hate for those seeking to lead them, which in turn affects the rational and irrational elements of followership.

Logically Prior

Max Weber, in his 1919 essay ‘The Profession and Vocation of Politics,’ defended the social utility of politician’s and identified three qualities: Dedication to a cause, a sense of responsibility and judgement, or being attuned to the consequences of one’s actions. This was a response to Kant whose writing stood as the preeminent voice arguing for ‘anti-consequentialism’ in German Ethics, and took the form in politics of calling for absolute transparency and the publication of all documents – much akin to WikiLeaks founding principles. Weber countered Kant by arguing:

The politician will take the view that the upshot of this will not serve the cause of truth, but rather that truth will certainly be obscured by the misuse of the documents and by the passions they unleash. He will take the view that the only productive approach would be a systematic, comprehensive investigation, conducted by disinterested parties; any other way of proceeding could have consequences for the nation which could not be repaired in decades. ‘Consequences’, however, are no concern of absolute ethics.

This need for disinterested parties is critical in the assessment of unintended consequences, as it ‘relieves investigators of the necessity to become judges of what is morally good or bad.’ In this process of assessment is what could be said to be the Weberian ‘incantation for the bewitchment of the led;’ the nexus between power and knowledge. For it is here a leader not only has the power to direct but also the foresight to understand the consequences of their commands. Logically prior to the exercise of power, is the notion of power, for which we again turn to Weber:

  1. The concept of power is highly comprehensive from the point of view of sociology. All conceivable qualities of a person and all conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a position to impose his will in a given situation. The sociological concept of imperative control must hence be more precise and can only mean the probability that a command will be obeyed.
  2. The concept of ‘discipline’ includes the ‘habituation’ characteristic of uncritical and unresisting mass obedience.’

For Weber, power is present in almost all social relationships and in this context preferred the notion of rule [Herrschaft] over power [Gewalt]. But be it rule or power, one constant remains, as Spillane correctly observes, ‘it is the essence of power, as it operates upon people, that their consent is irrelevant.’ This is in contrast to notions of authority, where consent becomes the prime mover in the interplay. What is most interesting is the symbiotic relationship between power and authority as it isn’t always a case of either / or. Rather, a chain of causal relationships occurs in which an aspiring leader mobilizes followers, the followers concede authority to the leader, the leader then has power to act without consent. But again we see it starting from the followers, in that they must first cede authority to the leader. Even charismatics who, according to Weber, possess ‘uncommon and extraordinary devotion of a group of followers to the sacredness or the heroic force or the exemplariness of an individual and the order revealed or created by him,’ are bound to this process of first having authority ceded to them before they progress to the rôle of leader with its associated power.

Manager or Leader?

Moving into the realm of the organization, notions of leadership become opaque as very few managers, beyond perhaps the industrial magnates of the nineteenth century such as Andrew Carnegie who operated prior to industrial legislation, have true power. In some instances modern managers have power over pay and promotions, but even then, most have a boss or a board, a fiscal responsibility to stakeholders or a set of industrial laws which curtail their ability to act arbitrarily. As a consequence managers, at best, possess authority, not power, and as such there is always at the root of their position a notion of concession. As already noted, even a leader with genuine power starts from a base of concession, but it is their ability to transcend concession and move into the realm of arbitrary power that makes them what they are, a leader in the true sense of the word: in this context there are no managerial leaders. There is a case to be made for an organizational leader, if we take the line of argument from Gardner that leadership entails an influence relationship. In this infinitely expandable form of leadership managers come into the scope of leaders, but so too does Donald Duck. As a result it is safe to say, managerial leaders only exist in so far as they have the influence to take people on a journey. But in this context, they are really just effective managers.

Temporary Imperative Control

What is possible would not have been achieved, if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible. But the person who can do this must be a leader; not only that, he must, in a very simple sense of the word, be a hero. And even those who are neither of these things must, even now, put on the armor of that steadfastness of heart which can withstand even the defeat of all hopes…

In the postmodern age, we are surrounded by more heroes than in a Homeric epic, with football players, life guards and even movie stars being thrown into the mix. But if we return to Homeric notions of heroes, the field narrows greatly, to perhaps people such as John Bisdee – the first Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross – or Martin Luther King Jr. If we add this to the existing list of leadership qualities, power, authority and influence, we get to a very rarified atmosphere, which most decidedly doesn’t include managers. Managers are but temporary flesh and blood holders of imperative control:

The existence of imperative control turns only on the actual presence of oneperson successfully issuing orders to others; it does not necessarily imply either the existence of an administrative staff, or, for that matter, of a corporate group. It is, however, uncommon to find it not associated with at least one of these. A corporate group, the members of which are by virtue of their membership subjected to the legitimate exercise of imperative control, that is to ‘authority,’ will be called an ‘imperatively coordinated’ group [Herrschaftsverband].

Engraving Carlyle giving his Edinburgh speech from the Illustrated London News (1881) is licensed under Public Domain.

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