I have been working with two faculty colleagues over the past few months to plan a course on leadership for Westminster students to be offered during our upcoming JanTerm. Leadership 101 is intended to expose our students to a sampling of the wisdom and scholarship that have grown up around the topic of leadership over time while also introducing them to leaders of all kinds in our community. A third aspect of the course will be introspective and reflective helping them to explore their strengths and aspirations as leaders.
Needless to say, it has been especially interesting to be engaged in planning this course while our presidential campaign and election has dominated the headlines. The post mortem on the final results and predictions about the future have already been framed in a variety of ways. Perspectives gained from the large body of work on leadership are worth adding to the mix as these often help define issues of the moment versus timeless dilemmas.
What follows are excerpts – with minimal commentary – from various texts that have defined and influenced this field of inquiry. There are countless others that could be added to these so consider this post to be an appetizer. Enjoy.
Thinking about leadership has been a preoccupation of humankind going back to our earliest recorded history. Below are two perspectives that put leaders in the context of mythology and history.
From Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership entitled, Concepts of Leadership: The Beginnings, by Bernard Bass.
“ Myths and legends about great leaders were important to the development of civilized societies. Stories about the exploits of individual heroes (and occasionally heroines) are central to the Babylonian Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, the Icelandic sagas, and the Ramayana (now they would be called cases). All societies have created myths to provide plausible and acceptable explanations for the dominance of their leaders and the submission of their subordinates. The greater the socioeconomic injustice in the society, the more distorted the realities of leadership – its powers, morality, and effectiveness – in mythology.”
From War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1933.
“Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes historic significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.
“The king’s heart is in the hands of the Lord.”
A king is history’s slave.”
Some notions that are current today – like the concept of “servant-leadership” – reflect ideas with ancient roots in both Western and Eastern faith traditions.
From Servant Leadership, Robert K. Greenleaf, 1977.
“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then the conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be the later choice to serve – after leadership is established. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”
In the Gospel of John 13: 12 – 15, Jesus says the following:
“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
From Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu, sixth century B.C.
“The wise leader is like water.
Consider water: water cleanses and refreshes all creatures without distinction and without judgment; water freely and fearlessly goes deep beneath the surface of things; water is fluid and responsive; water follows the law freely.
Consider the leader: the leader works in any setting without complaint, with any issue or person that comes to the floor; the leader acts so that all will benefit and serves well regardless of the rate of pay; the leader speaks simply and honestly and intervenes in order to shed light and create harmony.
From watching the movements of water, the leader has learned that in action, timing is everything.
Like water, the leader is yielding. Because the leader does not push the group does not resent or resist.”
As consideration of leaders and leadership moved from the realm of philosophers in ancient times to that of social scientists in the modern era, settling on a definition of “leadership” has turned out to be one of the most hotly debated topics in the field.
From another chapter of Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership entitled, The Meaning of Leadership, by Bernard Bass, 1974.
“There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept…Leadership has been conceived as the focus of group processes, as a matter of personality, as a matter of inducing compliance, as the exercise of influence, as particular behaviors, as a form of behavior, as a form of persuasion, as a power relation, as an instrument to achieve goals, as an effect of interactions, as a differentiated role, as initiation of structure, and as a combination of these definitions.”
The emergence of leadership studies as a social science led to research in how a diverse range of leaders approach their work. A particularly rich vein of this work focuses on differences between men and women leaders.
From Ways Women Lead, Judy B. Rosener, Harvard Business Review, 1990.
“…the similarities end when men and women describe their leadership performance and how they usually influence those with whom they work. The men are more likely than women to describe themselves in ways that characterize what some management experts call “transactional” leadership. That is, they view job performance as a series of transactions with subordinates – exchanging rewards for services rendered or punishment for inadequate performance. The men are also more likely to use power that comes from their organizational position and formal authority.
“The women respondents, on the other hand, described themselves in ways that characterize “transformational” leadership – getting subordinates to transform their own self-interest into the interest of the group through concern for a broader goal. Moreover they ascribe their power to personal characteristics like charisma, interpersonal skills, hard work, or personal contacts rather than to organizational structure.”
It is, perhaps, cold comfort to realize that decades ago some of the most prominent thinkers in this field believed that we suffer from a leadership crisis. The following two excerpts were written under different circumstances but sound like conversations we hear all around us today.
From On Leadership, John Gardner, 1990.
“I do not find the problems themselves as frightening as the questions they raise concerning our capacity to gather forces and act. No doubt many of the grave problems that beset us have discoverable, though difficult, solutions. But to mobilize the required resources and to bear what sacrifices are necessary calls for a capacity to focus our energies, a capacity for sustained commitment. Suppose that we have lost the capacity to motivate ourselves for arduous exertions on behalf of the group. A discussion of leadership cannot avoid such questions.
“Could it be that we suppress awareness of problems – however ominous – because we have lost all conviction that we can do anything about them? Effective leaders heighten both motivation and confidence, but when these qualities have been gravely diminished, leaders have a hard time leading.
“Suppose that fragmentation and divisiveness have proceeded so far in American life that we can no longer lend ourselves to any worthy common purpose. Suppose that our shared values have disintegrated to the point that we believe in nothing strongly enough to work for it as a group. Shared values are the bedrock on which leaders build the edifice of group achievement. No examination of leadership would be complete without attention to the decay and possible regeneration of the value framework.”
From Leadership, James MacGregor Burns, 1978
“In the final quarter of our century (the) life-and-death engagement with leadership has given way to the cult of personality, to a “gee whiz” approach to celebrities. We peer into the private lives of leaders, as though their sleeping habits, eating preferences, sexual practices, dogs, and hobbies carry messages of profound significance. Entire magazines are devoted to trivia about “people” and serious newspapers start off their news stories with a personality anecdote or slant before coming to the essence of the matter. Huge throngs parade in Red Square and in the T’ien An Men Square with giant portraits of men who are not giants. The personality cult – a cult of devils as well as heroes – thrives in both East and West
“The crisis of leadership today is the mediocrity or irresponsibility of so many of the men and women in power, but leadership rarely rises to the full need for it. The fundamental crisis underlying mediocrity is intellectual. If we know too much about our leaders, we know far to little about leadership. We fail to grasp the essence of leadership that is relevant to the modern age and hence we cannot agree on the standards by which to measure, recruit or reject it. Is leadership simply innovation – cultural or political? Is it essentially inspiration? Mobilization of followers? Goal setting? Goal fulfillment? Is a leader a definer of values? Satisfier of needs? If leaders require followers, who leads whom from where to where? How do leaders lead followers without being wholly led by followers? Leadership if one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”
American democracy has inspired many to ponder the particular requirements of leadership in a free society. An important insight from this line of inquiry is that leadership emerges from many places in a democracy. I’ll allow Thomas Cronin to have the last word on this important topic.
From Leadership and Democracy, Thomas E. Cronin, published in Liberal Education, 1987.
“The most lasting and pervasive leadership of all is often intangible and non-constitutional. It is leadership fostered or embodied in social, political, or artistic movements; in books, in documents, in speeches, and the memory of great lives greatly lived. Intellectual leadership at its best is provided by those – often not in high political or corporate offices – who can clarify values and the implications of such values for policy. We have long ago, with Thomas Jefferson’s assist, repudiated the tired idea that “leaders are born and not made.” Today we realize that leadership is forged out of competition and challenge of competence.”