A large part of current scholarship on leadership represents a questioning of the heroic model of leadership. This a model of leadership that has long dominated discourses, according to which larger-than-life leaders inspire their followers to extraordinary feats. It can be found in many different areas of leadership from political to business, from military to educational and from football to the arts. Heroic leadership is presumed capable of dramatic turnarounds, rescue missions, inspirational motivation and truly spectacular results. Based on material provided by six top leadership academics (Doh, 2003), I have parodied this model in a Creed (see Gabriel, 2005), whose main principles are:
- I believe in a God called leadership
- And this God is capable of everything
- And, I believe that people are born with different degrees of leadership, different innate abilities and dispositions
- But, all the same, many aspects of leadership can be learned
- And some can be taught
- And the best way of teaching leadership, always respecting different local traditions, is experiential
- And the teaching of leadership must be informed by ethics and morality
- In as much as they do not really interfere with the bottom line
- And I believe that leadership can be taught in many places
- Of which, the great business schools of the world, are the greatest.
- And I believe that this God called leadership has various apostles on Earth
- Of whom, X is the greatest. (X = any leader that currently seems to do no wrong.)
The heroic model of leadership is not only to be found in the regular presentation of business and other leaders in the media but suffuses a huge industry on executive development and coaching and inspires a substantial part (though not all) of leadership education. Its essential qualities, the emphasis on the leader’s traits, on the extent to which such traits may be standardised and cultivated continue to preoccupy many scholars. A corollary to heroic leadership is inspirational leadership, a softer version, but still one that lionizes the leader and credits him/her with the ability to inspire followers by listening and responding, teaching and explaining, shows respect and cares for his/her subordinates.
What are the main challenges to heroic leadership? Foremost, the realization that even when leaders appear to deliver miracles, they fail to repeat them on demand. This leads to the realization that success attributed to leaders is often the product of diverse factors including the qualities of followers, situational factors and even luck. Hence the importance of the leader-follower relation assumes greater significance than the qualities of the superman/leader. The psychological contract between leaders and followers becomes very important. Emotion is a crucial dimension of this contract, hence emotional intelligence is greatly discussed in connection with leadership today.
The management of emotions is closely linked to the management of meaning. This is currently being discussed in connection with the way leaders communicate, the words they use, the metaphors they deploy and the stories they tell, in short, narratives. Management of meaning can and often does backfire, so power, control, politics and contestation remain major issues in leadership scholarship. The management of meaning (and its dark twin, spin-doctoring) is also linked in our culture with the management of the media and leaders’ ability to come across effectively to television and other audiences.
Uses and abuses of power by leaders remain a very major area for scholarship. In the wake of Enron and other corporate scandals, a wide range of leadership dysfunctions is currently pre-occupying scholars. Toxic leaders who may be authoritarian or narcissistic personalities can, for a time, appear to deliver results, when in effect they are covering up for decay and failure. Leadership dysfunction is also discussed in connection with political, military, business and other failures.
The increasing emphasis accorded to followers has raised the profile of distributed leadership. Originally used in connection with education, the idea that leadership may suffuse an organization at all different levels instead of being located at the top is gaining some attention in different areas.
An area of scholarship that appeared to hold the promise of major break-throughs but, in my view, has rather slowed down concerns the differences between leadership and management. Following well known arguments by Burns, Zaleznik, Bennis and others, it was argued that leaders and managers are fundamentally different in terms of their:
• Attitudes to change, restlessness, turbulence
• Attitudes towards efficiency and waste
• Attitudes towards details and grand picture
• Emphasis on logic, plans and rationality as against hunches, intuition and gut feeling
It seems to me that, following the work of Bass, the extreme polarization of leaders and managers has given way to more convergent views, i.e. those that regard management and leadership at least as partially overlapping social practices.
One area of scholarship that has impressed me is the attempt to bring the concept of negative capability into the study of leadership. This concept, originally used by the poet John Keats, suggests that there are times where inaction is preferable to impulsive (and potentially reckless) action. The Chinese concept of wu wei has sometimes been used to the same end.
Finally, it seems to me that the area of management of diversity is one that will increasingly dominate many studies of leadership. In a diverse and heterogeneous world, the management of difference will assume increasing attention. Diversity can be a force towards creativity and innovation but it can also lead to break-downs of communication, rancour and acrimony. Leadership, in all spheres of social activity, will be confronting issues of maintaining unity within highly diverse and differentiated domains and creating synergies across different types of boundaries. Hence, the management of boundaries, organizational, psychological, moral and others, will assume great significance in both the theory and the practice of leadership.
Doh, J. P. 2003. Can leadership be taught? Perspectives from management educators. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2(1): 54-67.
Gabriel, Y. 2005. MBA and the education of leaders: The new playing fields of Eton? Leadership, 1(2): 147-163.