Saturday, 17 October 2009

Leadership: Towards a Paradigm Shift

According to M. Popper (2004), "The first modern attempt to formulate a theory of leadership appears to be that of the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle (1841)". Carlyle, describes the leaders as the ones leading the masses, the ones who are responsible for cultural changes, the ones who make history. Leaders are prophets, heroes, martyrs, fighters and other similar outstanding figures. Outliers. We, mere mortals, cannot even think of being one.

The dominant (stereotypical) idea of a leader is precisely the one described above. Leaders are very rare individuals with even more rare attributes: they are able to transform and inspire people to become their followers. They have a vision and they change things dramatically. German sociologist, M. Weber called these leaders charismatic: they do not derive their power from legal sources (they are appointed as leaders because some law or regulation wants it) or customs (they are appointed as leaders because the tradition wants it), rather they are like that because of their traits, their characteristics, their charisma.

The reasons why we have this kind of implicit leadership theory (Schyns and Meindl, 2005) can be explained in various ways. The first, more evident, one is the fundamental attribution error (Ross, Amebile & Steinmatz, 1977). This bias refers to the fact that we tend to overestimate dispositional, personality-based explanations when trying to understand/explain someone actions, and therefore undervalue the influence of context. It is very difficult to understand how things really work, therefore we attribute the success of a given firm only to the CEO. Such phenomenon is called by J. Meindl the Romance of Leadership, describing the tendency to excessively attribute to a leader the success or failure of an entire organization. "In the absence of direct, unambiguous information about an organization, respondents would tend to ascribe control and responsibility to leaders with events and outcome to which they could be plausibly linked to (Meindl et al. 1985, cited by Jackson & Perry, 2008). It is a mental shortcut, in fact it would be definitely too difficult (if not impossible) to investigate and try to understand the complexity of a given chain of events. Media also play an important role in creating such figures. They need them to attract our attention and we need their narratives to better understand reality. These narratives are made of heroes crafting events. There is no space left for circumstances, structural forces and so on.

Anyway in the last years, some scholars have been trying to promote a paradigm shift in the discourse (as meant by Foucault) of leadership. A discourse defines and thus limits the ways in which a topic can be plausibly reasoned and/or talked about: hundreds of years, books and university courses describing leadership in a certain way have shaped our way of thinking about the topic. As written above, the classic, hegemonic view on leadership tended to promote the idea that leaders are people with larger-than-life personalities, capable of changing people's mind with their charisma, communication abilities, and so on and so forth.

J. Badaracco, though, challenges this view. In fact, he speaks of quiet leaders as those people who lead behind the scenes in a silent way we can say. He writes: "over the course of a career spent studying management and leadership, I have observed that the most effective leaders are rarely public heroes. [...] They move patiently, carefully and incrementally. They do what is right - for their organizations, for the people around them, and for themselves [...]" (Badaracco, 2002). So leaders, according to Harvard professor Badaracco, are not those people (e.g.: CEOs & co.) constantly standing in the spotlight making dramatic decisions for their blind followers. They are normal people. A similar concept, critical to the classic idea of leaders, was also put forward by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great (2001). In his study of various successful US organizations over several years, he concludes that: "these CEOs represented the antithesis of the charismatic and narcissistic turnaround kings who were held up as the archetypical CEOs during the financial booms of the 1980s and 1990s." (Jackson & Perry, 2008).

This new way of thinking about leaders may not take into consideration the whole truth. In fact, we definitely have and need "classic charismatic leaders", but it is useful to counterbalance the more traditional approach with a more quiet view on the phenomenon. The idea that you don't necessarily need to have an extra strong personality to be a leader is definitely intriguing. The understanding of the fact that those who are defining the game may be playing off stage is even more attracting and encouraging in today's mediatized world, where if you're not in the media you don't exist. This and other critical approaches to leadership are therefore very useful in widening and deepening our understanding of this very complex and interesting social phenomenon.