Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

A leader at work? I photographed this dung beetle working hard at recycling on an earlier trip to South Africa

A leader at work? I photographed this dung beetle working hard at recycling on an earlier trip to South Africa

Well, I’ve just returned from delivering two, three-day MBA Starter Workshops in Johannesburg, alongside a couple of Henley colleagues. Exhausting, but also what fun! I am – as always – amazed at the diversity of the group, and the range of reasons for being at Henley. Many have stories of adversity early in life, or in recent generations, and this is even more of a tribute to their belief in themselves and their determination to learn and grow. And the spirit to make a better country and continent.

The Starter workshop kind of divides in four areas, or themes. There is the “getting-to-know-you” element, and the faster this is done, the easier it is to get the intake to tune into how that diversity will be the key to the other three. Second comes the topic of Personal Development – discussed in one way or another elsewhere in this blog. There is always too much to say, too little time to say it and too few opportunities to check what impressions are, but we will return to the topic of awareness and reflection in later PD workshops with both the new Intakes, so I hope to follow this thread with them. Third comes the input on study skills and all the know-how needed actually to complete an MBA. The vehicle, or excuse, for talking about those things is (broadly) the topic of Leadership.  It’s not too much of a stretch to see how a discussion of the models, concepts and theories of leadership make for engaging interaction at the start of an MBA, but I’m keenly aware that I shy away from using the L-word in the Personal Development part of the Starter.

So, do I know what leadership is? Not really. I have an opinion, which is summed up most eloquently for me in the words of Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching:

“The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right. It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them. And when good things are accomplished, it lays no claim to them.”

Leadership, if it is anything at all, arises from followership (and vice versa), and ought to be a spontaneous act. Hubris is not real leadership, though nearly all those we hold up as examples will find that this is what the stage they are standing on is constructed of.

(By the way, “Anganomkhankanyo” is Zulu for “I have no idea!”)


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new yorker you are here

“It’s in our DNA…”

This is an expression that is much in circulation these days. So much so, in fact, Private Eye magazine now has a regular feature called ‘DNA Testing’ which has plenty of examples culled from journalism. I figured that it will surely follow that the people who manage organisations and (far more dangerously) the people who write theory about how organisations should be run, will become tempted to follow suit and use the same idea as a logical form of explanation.

And sure enough, in Blackwell’s, which is a fine bookstore in Oxford, I found evidence* of just such a trend in Rhea Duttagupta’s 2012 book “Leadership: It’s in your DNA” (Bloomsbury Press, available – evidently – in many fine bookstores).  By way of mini review, the book appears harmless enough at first glance, and is written using a reflexive, folksy style. I’m sure it is well-intentioned in its central assertion that Leadership can be defined in 10 key ingredients. Be warned, the list consists of a set of concepts which are drawn from a rag-bag of the usual suspects in central casting, such as “Self”, “emotion”, “fear”, “dark side” and “intuition”… you get the idea. There is nothing new here, though.

One first sees that this list is built around an assertion that these elements are innate traits. This is the long-standing pop psychology mantra of “you have all the ingredients for success as a leader inside you”, is a well-worn path to an individualist and reductionist notion of the person. Second,  there is an equally well-worn path to a behaviourist tradition in the realisation of the self in management practice. It is within the paradigm of these grand antecedents that the logic of the metaphor ‘these 10 ingredients = the DNA for Leadership’ is selected. This feels like  a worryingly literal, not to say absurd, suggestion. It’s a shame, really, because using an abductive form of inference could have been a really good way to try to understand this phenomenon we call leadership. The problem is that there are no ‘things’, no nouns, no ‘instinct’, no ‘self’ etc. in our DNA, despite many of us finding this a useful way of processing what we think DNA really does. DNA must operate, if it can be said to operate in an isolated way at all, in a system of relationships. It functions relationally, in dynamic and complex arrangements of contexts, boundaries and thresholds, and not in terms of coded properties which are embedded as traits. It is incorrect, though tempting, to say that DNA contains ‘information’, because information is always a matter of relationship and ratio. A trait-view of genetics, however, fits nicely with a trait-view of human beings. And this, despite the humanism evident in the choice of the 10 ingredients, is what I think Rhea’s book is claiming.

Doubtless anyone using this phrase will be aware that they are employing it as metaphor, but I suspect that paradoxically it is a message of the book that the metaphor be understood literally. It would follow that  all the incredible technical advances in neuroscience and in our understanding of the biological functioning of the brain is also  the explanation of how we think and act. The basis for this claim is flimsy, but not because the examples Rhea uses in the book aren’t any good, or aren’t interesting, or that she lacks conviction. All three of those things are there. The real problem is that this is just, to borrow a phrase from Bateson, ‘shoddy epistemology’. In other words, when the way we think we know things is not in line with the way we know things, the results will end up being catastrophic because our ability to use technology and abuse our intelligence in pursuit of short-term domination of our situation is always unsustainable.


I found my thinking got a bit knotted in writing this, and I’m not sure the main point comes across. So, I’ll re-state what I think it is I’m trying to say:

1. it is a trap to take metaphor literally.

2. Metaphor is the key to understanding how the world actually is (it is just a shame to say it).

3. To confuse the properties of the referents of a metaphor with the metaphor itself is to make a categorical error in thinking.

*A quick review of Amazon books later showed me that the use of this DNA metaphor is spreading… see also Judith Glaser’s “The DNA of Leadership: Leverage Your Instincts To: Communicate-Differentiate-Innovate” (Platinum Press, 2007), or Thomas Harrison’s “Instinct: Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals” (Business Plus 2005), or Silverman and Honold’s “Organizational DNA: Diagnosing Your Organization for Increased Effectiveness” (Davies-Black Publishing, 2003)…

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This is an article by Prof John Burgoyne, who is one of my two PhD Supervisors.

“Beyond Leadership? Is it approaching its sell-by date?

 John Burgoyne 11th August 2011

The current preoccupation with leadership must have been going on for a decade or two.  Not that there wasn’t interest in it before, but not on the same scale.  Indeed leadership predates management, which only started with the industrial revolution (Child 1969).

It says in Parkinson’s Law (Parkinson 1958) that when something moves from the Portakabin on the edge of the site to a new main building it is probably on the way out.  Leadership has definitely reached this stage.

I can account for the rise in interest in leadership.  In the ‘70’s and ‘80’s America, in particular, went ‘lean’.  There is a limit to how far one can go in the way of ‘doing the same Fifth Discipline’ (Senge 1990) and ‘The Learning Company’ (Pedler 1991), both learning organisation approaches.

Learning organisations generate knowledge, which in turn need managing, hence knowledge management from the late 90’s on (Stonehouse 1999).

Knowledge management needs knowledge workers (Blackler 1995), and knowledge workers in turn need leadership rather than management.  This is because, in Marxist terms, knowledge workers, unlike other kinds of workers, own and control the means of production, i.e. their brains, which they take home with them.  For other workers the means of production is bolted to the factory floor, literally or metaphorically, and they can be managed easily by giving them or denying them access to it, and hence the ability to earn a living.

So that gets us to leadership, and is the easy bit.  What next?

Well here are some thoughts:

1. Keith Grint has argued that management fashions swing like a pendulum between scientific management and human relations.  Leadership is clearly the latter.  We already see signs of the swing the other way, for example in the British National Health Service there has been a cut back on leadership development in favour of shorter term and more local ‘system improvement’ initiatives, including Six Sigma (for reasons I do not understand).  These are more local, quicker to implement and easier to evaluate.  No doubt the ‘credit crunch’ etc. in all sectors is adding impetus to this movement.

2. Organisation and work is becoming increasingly ‘virtual’, in the sense of working other than face to face, usually through IT.  There are three dimensions to this: (a) personal work style or working at a terminal that can be anywhere: at home, on the move etc..  Secondly internal communication, both between people and between people and machines and databases etc. is virtual, and thirdly, the organisation’s interaction with its clients and suppliers and other stakeholders is largely virtual, think of Amazon.  This may not be so much an end of leadership as a new challenge for it.  The question is whether it is just leadership through another medium, or changes the form, or even the existence, of leadership. Of course IT, the web, networking etc. has the potential to join people up in collaborative networks without leaders.  This is what ‘anarchy’ means, as a political philosophy, rather than the bomb throwing trouble maker in a black cloak, which is the popular association of the word. 

 As I write this there are, or have recently been, city centre riots which, it is said, have been very much enabled and facilitated by social networking resources. This provides an example.  It is also an example, in many respects, of what the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, is asking for in the form of the ‘Big Society’, an intended empowered bottom-up way of meeting societies needs.  It is perhaps only the ends, and some of the means, that are not what he visualises.  But given the example set by MP’s and their expenses and bankers and their bonuses and insider trading, perhaps not surprising.

 However, despite these examples, leadership and hierarch are not going to disappear overnight, if at all.  The question is whether it is going to be just the same leadership through another medium, or whether this will lead to a change in the nature of leadership itself.  My view is that it will be, and indeed is, start with the former, but may progress to the latter.  My argument for this, which is supportive rather than conclusive, is that it will be part of the general trend reported in ‘In the Age of the Smart Machine’ (Zuboff 1988).  She argues that the initial use of IT has been in the form of ‘automation’, i.e. do things we are already doing, faster, more easily and cheaper, exemplified by everything from robots to IT based payment systems and self-service HR.  After ‘automating’ comes ‘informating’, i.e. saturating the organisation, and beyond, with transparency and information sharing. This sounds very much like the anarchic organisation described above.  However IT also greatly facilitates surveillance and control, in some cases control by just being watched as described in the idea of the panoptican, Jeremy Bentham’s ideal prison (Bentham 1789) where the guards can see into the prisoners cells from a central tower, without being seen themselves (Foucault 1977).  The fascinating book, ‘The Internet Galaxy’ (Castells 2003), points out that the web was developed by what one might see as an unholy alliance of the military, academia and hippies, are largely American.  The military interest was to have a network communication system not vulnerable to having one or a few critical nodes which, if they were taken out, would disable the whole system, the advantages of having a semi-leaderless network discussed above.

 3. ‘Virtuous’ might be a fitting follow on from ‘virtual’.  Certainly, since Enron and the like at least, this has been a hot topic for both academics and professionals.  On both fronts there has been much discussion of ‘authentic’ leadership and leadership development (Alvolio 2005).  There are a number of problems with this.  Some formulations say having a firm set of guiding values is one of the features of authentic leadership.  Adolf Hitler probably qualifies, championing the superiority of the Arian race.  And it wasn’t just those nasty Nazis, the ‘liberal Christian West’ did it in genocide of the ab-original populations of North America and Australia, to name just two, and there was the slave trade.  The question is what values, and what legitimises them.

Authentic leadership implies an ‘essential’ self to be true to; perhaps a more constructionist view of self would translate authenticity as an alignment of historical inherited identity with current circumstances?  Would the alignment involve adaptation to both?

Then there is the other Marxist view, Groucho this time, adapted: ‘authenticity is everything, if you can fake that you can do anything!’.  Which begins to sound like emotional intelligence as formulated by Golman (Golman 1996).  However in my view he is talking about the reverse, intelligent emotionality, which is taking cognitive control of emotions, deciding which ones to hold back and which ones to let out.  True emotional intelligence, which would mean trusting the wisdom of our emotions would be much more in the spirit of ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ (and many other things) (Galway 1974), as in the Nike slogan: ‘just do it’. From an evolutionary psychology point of view the emotions are the much longer and hard wired part of the psyche, evolved over millions of years to have wisdom and serve our individual and collective survival.  These are likely to be ‘intelligent’ for us today if they are relevant to current circumstances, which is a debatable question, but I think the answer is at least a partial yes (Nicholson 1998).  Finally, on this topic, Peter Reason has developed the argument that we can join up our emotions, like you can join up microcomputers to perform like one big one, to achieve a substantial collective emotional intelligence (Reason 2007).  This could be a novel approach to shared or distributed leadership? (Pedler 2006).

4. The mention of ‘spirit’ leads us on to spirituality, in the sense of a belief in a power beyond, as distinct from religion, an institutionalised form of this.  Having said that Will Hutton of the Work Foundation has said that many leaders of his acquaintance are deeply religious in a low key and quiet way.

My form of spirituality would come closest to pantheism, the idea that God is nature, or is in nature (Levine 1994).  This is also highly consistent with critical realism, the research methodogical approach that I favour, based on the ontological view that the world is real and an open system with emergent properties rather than the determinist machine of the logical positivists or the sea of cultural meaning of the post-modernists and extreme social constructionist, who are either atheist or agnostic in relation to realism (Bhaskar 1989; Archer 1998; Sayer 1999; Bhaskar 2000; Burgoyne 2008; Burgoyne 2010).

Returning to leadership the implication of this is that it is high time for a return to the work of Mary Parker Follet (Follett 1927), and her proposition of the ‘law of the situation’, which is the idea that if we listen to the world closely enough, and pay attention to the feedback it gives us when we take action on it, then we are picking up on the wisdom, in both an instrumental and moral sense, of the pantheistic, non-theist ‘god’.  This is highly compatible with pragmatism in the philosophical rather than everyday sense (though they share a lot in common).  The central proposition is that ‘the truth is what works’ (Pierce 1907; Dewey 1929).

In the practical world a return from ‘spin’, and the belief that the world can be constructed by PR and propaganda, and in the academic world the extremes of post-modernism and social constructionism are long overdue. Having said that both have much to offer in challenging over entrenched mindsets and practices that may have passed their sell by dates.  Owen Barfield argues, in a book called ‘Saving the Appearances’ (Barfield 1988), we have moved from a world of primary participation, where we directly experienced, say, a clap of thunder, to one of secondary participation where we ‘know’ it is an electrical discharge, and in its more developed form we only experience the ‘language’ though we interpret things, and lose sight of the ‘thing’ altogether (linguistic theory has followed this path).  He argues that the next phase, which we are hopefully entering now, is ‘final participation’ where we combine the two, with a kind of detached but committed and sensitive involvement with reality.  It seems long overdue.

 5. ‘Spirit’ also means ‘of the essence’, so whiskey, for example, is much stronger than beer, and is called a ‘spirit’ because it contains more of the ‘essential’ ingredient, alcohol (I am spiritual in this sense too!).  ‘Ephemeralisation’ is the word used by Buckminster-Fuller (Buckminster-Fuller 1969) to describe this process.  Think of the wristwatch size transistor radio of today with the suitcase size monsters of a few decades ago, that is ephemeralisation.

This has a strong resemblance to becoming ‘lean’, and products with a high knowledge content, for example the laptop computer that costs several hundred pounds, but only a few tens of pounds of actual material. Also, we are moving to products that provide the customer with an identity, for example the Nike T shirt that may cost £50 but only cost 50p to make in China, the same to ship and distribute, and a pound or two to market.  This, for the wealthier and more developed parts of the world at least, is ephemeralisation and also has ecological advantages.

The implications of all this for leadership are worth thinking about.

 In conclusion, the organisations that leaders need to run today, and at least for the foreseeable future, need to be created, creative, innovative, learning, knowledge managing, virtual, virtuous (ethical), ephemeralised, networked, generative (co-evolving with the environment, not just adaptive to it, a Peter Senge term (Senge 1990), connected, sustainable (in both the ecological and economic senses, antipoetic (same as ‘generative’), politically enlightened, realistic (see argument under 4 above), total quality, meaning giving (see the Nike example above, and it applies to employees as well), wealth creating (in the original sense of the word, wellbeing, not just loadsa money (Carter 1971)), complexity thriving (Peters 1987), high performing, dynamically capable (a post knowledge management term for the learning organisation (Helfat 1997), dialogical (see ‘Deep Blue Sea for an approach to leadership based on this (Drath 2001)), good company (good as in moral and company as in people working together, see: (Pedler 1991) ).

 I hope these ideas are a partial basis for think about what post leadership or new leadership might look like.

Perhaps there is scope for someone to offer an MA in Post-Leadership Studies? I would be interested in being involved.


Alvolio, B. J., and Gardner, W. L. (2005). “Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership.” The Leadership Quarterly 16: 315-338.

 This Special Issue is the result of the inaugural summit hosted by the Gallup Leadership Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2004 on Authentic Leadership Development (ALD). We describe in this introduction to the special issue current thinking in this emerging field of research as well as questions and concerns. We begin by considering some of the environmental and organizational forces that may have triggered interest in describing and studying authentic leadership and its development. We then provide an overview of its contents, including the diverse theoretical and methodological perspectives presented, followed by a discussion of alternative conceptual foundations and definitions for the constructs of authenticity, authentic leaders, authentic leadership, and authentic leadership development. A detailed description of the components of authentic leadership theory is provided next. The similarities and defining features of authentic leadership theory in comparison to transformational, charismatic, servant and spiritual leadership perspectives are subsequently examined. We conclude by discussing the status of authentic leadership theory with respect to its purpose, construct definitions, historical foundations, consideration of context, relational/processual focus, attention to levels of analysis and temporality, along with a discussion of promising directions for research.

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Zuboff, S. (1988). In the Age of the Smart Machine. London, Heineman.”

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