The Philosophy of Leadership

Presentation to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, Sunday April 3, 2011

1.0 Leadership, Charisma and Management

1.1 Leadership is initially defined dialectially; it is someone who has followers. This suggests the abilities and motivation that provides the capacity to have followers. Leaders have the ability to persuade and direct their followers, they provide a focus for a common vision, they can engage in common direction. Most importantly leadership is about people: "You cannot manage men into battle. You manage things; you lead people." (Admiral Grace Hopper, US Navy). All leaders have the same roles; visionary and strategist, identity builder, and motivational communicator.

1.2 Early theories of leadership - and contemporary conventional wisdom - assume that leadership is due to intrinsic traits (e.g., Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship 1841, Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius 1869). Even if environmental factors are considered, trait theory argues that particular personality types are best suited for leadership roles whilst others are better suited as followers. This is explored in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator - derived from Carl Jung's Psychological Types, 1921 - or the equivalent in the Keirsey Temperament Sorter (David Kiersey, Please Understand Me, 1984).

1.3 In the latter half of the twentieth century suggestions arose that leadership skills could be learned as could the psychological motivations requisite for leadership. Thus there was a revival in courses in rhetoric and public speaking, the introduction of 'scientific management' (e.g., Frederic Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, 1911), and personal interaction guides (e.g., from Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People, 1936 to Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 1989).

1.4 A critical distinction is drawn (as hinted in 1.1) between leadership and management, first conceptually explored on a sociological level by Max Weber (The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, 1947) in a discussion of power. Weber considered three types of power; traditional, legal and charismatic. Those with managerial skills were best suited to legal or bureaucratic power; those with charismatic power changed values and norms - managers re-established the order. Weber emphasised the technical efficiency of bureaucratic power but also the destruction of individuality and the undermining of modern freedom and democracy: "How is it at all possible to salvage any remnants of 'individual' freedom of movement in any sense given this all-powerful trend?".

2.0 Leadership Styles

2.1 Correlating with leadership types and their sources of power (traditional, managerial, charismatic) are different styles of leadership (traditional, transactional, transformational). Traditional power does not have a rational basis, and as a result the style of leadership is command-orientated. Managerial leadership is institutionally and legally-bound and is therefore based on a social contract and the presupposition of mutually beneficial exchange (e.g., wage-labour, formal and informal contracts). In contrast, transformational leadership is disruptive, both destructive and re-invigorating (see James Burns, Leadership, 1978).

2.2 Traditional leadership styles are based on authority, from superiors to inferiors in a hierachy of command, typically passed from one generation to another. Largely tied to custom it derives strength from social latency and often a brutal suppression of dissent. Examples of traditional authority include household patriarchs, patrimonial and centralised governance (e.g., the military, feudalism).

2.3 Transactional leadership styles are derived from the authority of modern, legal-rational, rules. Due to the requirements of modernity, the transactional leader is a subordinate appointed with a degree of freedom commersate to their conduct, technical ability, professionalism, and impartiality, with a strong separation between their private lives and official duties. Another major characteristic is the dependence on written documentation. Transactional leadership is characterised by mutually beneficial exchanges between parties to optimise mutual benefit. The exchange-model produces fairly predictable outcomes. This style of leadership is functional, stable, efficient, and seeks compromise and contract.

2.4 Transformational leadership styles require the generation of new values. They are most likely to develop in a period where the existing leadership cannot rationally sustain the existing style, either on a positive or a normative level. Thus they often develop from periods of community stagnation or corruption and will appear from the margins of the community. Transformational leadership appeals to values and sense of purpose. It aspires, requires and demands a higher levels of follower commitment, effort and appeals to enduring change. Transformational leaders provide compelling visions of a better future and inspire trust and loyalty through confidence and conviction.

2.5 Although Burns saw the leadership styles of transactional and transformational as mutually exclusive, Weber considered the equivalent sources of authority as ideals with variance. More recent analysis by Bernard M. Bass (Leadership and Performance, 1985) suggests that whilst the two modern leadership styles are generally exclusive, they can occur within the same organisational setting with boundary conditions. For example, transformational leaders are often introduced to an business that is in the doldrums with the objective of inspiring and giving the place "a good shake-up". There is no suggestion however that such a person would lead the staff away from the company to join a monastery!

3.0 Leadership Concepts and Behaviour

3.1 Leadership concepts deals with the questions of the requirements to become a leader, the most effective approach, and the qualities do leaders need to develop. The three main theories of leadership concepts are universal, contingency and emotional. Universal approaches argue that specific traits are common to all leaders; whilst most claims have been shown to have grave exceptions two traits do seem to be universal to modern leadership styles - intelligence, willpower and a sense of responsibility (see Ralph Stogdill, Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of the Literature, 1974). Contingency concepts argue that the selection of the right leader entirely depends on the circumstances of the leadership situation. The contingency model is based on a complex derived from the appropriate leadership style, the characteristics of the followers and the external influences of the situation. Emotional leadership argues that leadership comes from the right values and attitudes; what they target as issues that need changing and how they change it. Emotional leadership places the source of leadership success with the followers.

3.2 The three main behaviours of leaders come down to defining strategy, motivation of followers, and communication. Strategy involves making an assessment of existing circumstances (SWOT analysis, Porter's Five Forces, Triple Bottom Line etc), core values and purpose (a mission statement), proposing a vivid envisioned future (a vision statement), and outlining the path to achieve that. Once the vision and direction is set, leadership involves development, implementation and assessment. Applying cooperative actions that match a community's mission and that is orientated towards the vision is the purpose of motivation through the application of power (defined as: expert, referent, legitimate, reward, coercive; John French, Bertram Raven, The Basis of Social Power, 1959) and an appeal to needs (e.g., Maslow, Alderfer), cognition or situations. Leaders (and followers) requires clear and assertive sending of information, and effective listening, questioning and emotional intelligence through formal and informal channels.

4.0 Leadership and Philosophy

4.1 Studies of leadership are primarily associated with the discipline of sociology, management and psychology. However there are also contributions from philosophy. Because leaders require followers, leadership studies are an excellent illustration of social dialectics (as expressed in Hegel's famous master-slave dialectic in The Phenonmenology of Spirit, 1807). It also raises the question of whether the dialectic can, or should, be resolved (as dialectics suggests that it would).

4.2 Studies of leadership are also influenced by theories of ontology, of being and existence, and those of epistemology, knowledge and consciousness. It refers to the way that individuals and communities interpret and are influenced by their circumstances and how they engage in the practical question of changing those circumstances.