Jul 11, 2021 • 20M

209 The Essence of Leadership

The first essay in a series on the art of ethical leadership and working successfully with others.

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Larry G. Maguire
The Sunday Letters Podcast is the weekly audio newsletter from organisational psychologist Larry Maguire on the meaning & purpose of daily work and our paradoxical relationship with it. We explore how we may break free from tiresome means-to-an-end labour and take command of their own working lives. Topics include solo working, careers, entrepreneurship, small business economics, society and culture. Content follows the written newsletter, which goes out to subscribers every Sunday.
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This week in Sunday Letters begins a series on leadership. Over the next six weeks, I’ll be bringing you essays on the paradox of success, Machiavellianism, inauthentic leadership, and new Capitalism, amongst other topics. These essays previously lived on a minuscule publication (The Lead) that I started on a whim a few months ago that is moving here to Sunday Letters. I hope you enjoy these essays and the perspectives they represent. After all, they represent in large part my personal philosophy on how to work successfully with others. Become A Patron of Sunday Letters

Prelude | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

The Essence of Leadership

The essence of leadership is not so simple to capture, and perspectives are broad and varied. For example, there are the perspectives of gender, personality, social context, culture, and ethics, to mention a few. It may be, in fact, impossible to define concretely what leadership is; nevertheless, to explore the concept and endeavour to understand it is to understand oneself and, therefore, make better leadership decisions. Understanding oneself is perhaps the most crucial component in living a fulfilling life, let alone in leading others. And so, this self-pursuit will form the core of many essays here on The Lead. Development is a lifelong project that is, perhaps, never complete. Therefore knowing oneself lies at the seat of effective leadership.

I have never considered myself a leader, per se. In fact, I back away from self-assigning the label. It’s too showy, and to assign it to oneself represents a fundamental weakness in character, in my opinion. Many leaders place themselves in the spotlight, and with red ties, power suits, and rhetoric, they make their mark often at the expense of others. Instead, true leadership is something conferred on us by others. The greatest misconception any person graced with the honour of leadership can hold is that they are or should be front and centre. This misconception is perhaps the antithesis of true leadership, and as we will see in future essays in the Leadership Series, it brings about detrimental consequences. I’ve seen so many examples of bad leadership over the years and demonstrated it enough times to offer some perspective that I think is worth sharing.

When it comes to work, I prefer to put the blinkers on, head down and get stuck in. This doesn’t mean I ignore the peripherals; that would be foolish. Things on the fringes often become or disrupt central components, so it pays to keep them on the radar. What I mean is, that I’ve always sought to do my work to a high standard. Not for notoriety or praise, but because the work itself was worth the effort. Regardless of how it came about, I always seemed to end up in certain roles that demanded responsibility. That experience has taught me many things about good and bad leadership and, indeed, about myself over the years.

I had no formal leadership training; instead, I relied upon my instincts. My leadership skills usually meant adopting a “get it done or else” approach in the traditional masculine character. And that worked for a long time, but eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that it was a less than optimal method. It’s adversarial and invariably splits the camp, and under crisis conditions, it can be like petrol on a fire.

Seth M. Spain suggests in Leadership, Work, & The Dark Side of Personality1 that we must understand human nature to understand leadership. Because, he says, leadership is one-half of a relationship between at least two human beings. And the first step in this is to understand oneself. According to Spain, leadership may not solely be determined by individual character but strongly reflects it. Reflecting on my time in business and accompanying leadership roles, I can now see this view's accuracy.

A Definition of Leadership

So, what is leadership? Is it forced upon an unsuspecting group by a dogmatic controlling person, or is it demanded of unwitting individuals by their group or community? Should followers follow, or should they insist that their chosen leader represent their interests? There is so much to this question, and is impossible to cover in one article; however, I’ll start by offering some interesting definitions.

Former US President Dwight Eisenhower famously defined leadership as;

“the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

This view is centred on the idea that coercion of others is necessary. It implies the Machiavellian view that means justify ends, and maybe that’s required under certain conditions such as war. But business is not war, or at least it doesn’t need to be, and other approaches can achieve better results for all concerned.

Eisenhower also is reported to have said, “you don’t lead by beating people over the head; that’s assault, not leadership.” So perhaps it is harsh to assume he was Machiavellian in his approach.

That said, regardless of the domain in which they operate, most organisations rely primarily on a top-down hierarchical model of leadership2. Gary Yukl at the University of Albany, New York, offers us a more holistic and inclusive view of leadership3;

“Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.”

Yukl suggests that the term leadership is taken from our everyday vocabulary and is often used interchangeably with other terms such as power, authority, management, administration, control, and supervision. As such, our understanding of leadership behaviour can be tinted by ambiguity and misunderstanding. He cites Bennis from 1959, who wrote;

“Always, it seems, the concept of leadership eludes us or turns up in another form to taunt us again with its slipperiness and complexity. So we have invented an endless proliferation of terms to deal with it . . . and still the concept is not sufficiently defined.”

A leadership definition will usually follow a researcher’s theoretical angle or reflect the practitioner’s perspective of their on-the-ground experience. That means definitions are broad and diverse. And perhaps this is how it should be for leadership means different things to different people under the infinite expanse of human experience. Whether or not it is a viable theoretical construct is an entirely separate debate.

What’s true, perhaps, and what should be parallel with any discussion on leadership is the concept of followership.

The Leadership-Followership Dichotomy

As I mentioned above, leadership seems to be the apparent product of human relationships. I can only be a leader if some are willing to follow. But who creates who? I think this is an important consideration. Do people wait around for someone to present themselves as the leader, or do they demand it of someone? In a corporate setting, it seems clear. You know when you accept a job that you’ll have a boss to whom you’ll report. Everybody reports to somebody in a corporate setting. But what about in the broader social context? In the early 20th Century rise of Fascism in Europe, did Hitler and Mussolini impose their will on the people, or did the people push these autocratic personalities to the front?

We know only too well the catastrophic impact their leadership styles had on society at the time, but antisemitism had been brewing for perhaps the previous eighty years or more. Hatred fuelled by the press and made acceptable by political rhetoric met social unrest and created a firestorm. Still, I would be of the view that these leaders were created and sustained not only by local demand but by the expression of a global structure. Who funded their movement? Who supplied them with raw materials, education and knowledge? Who provided them with the resources necessary for their execution of barbaric ideals? They were supported and fuelled not only by local popular opinion but by international vested interests.

I’m steering slightly off the main thrust of this article. Still, the above illustrates that leaders and followers are mutually causative, and there are often more aspects to their rise than what may seem apparent. Trump is a contemporary case-in-point. Vast waves of people in the United States felt the powers in Washington did not represent their views, and when they were presented with what they deemed a viable alternative, they backed him. Couple this with the need of the Republican Party to hold power, and we had the perfect recipe for placing a buffoon in arguably the most powerful seat of power in the western industrialised world.

Thankfully the American people resolved the situation, but for how long? 80 million people voted for Trump, whose policies, it should be said, were constructed to garner votes and not because they were an integrated part of a social agenda. I don’t think the scope of his intelligence reaches that far beyond the boundary of his own skull. People, even his own family and institutions of the United States, served to fulfil Trump’s narcissistic motivations. To Donald Trump, everything, not him, is a potential means for personal gratification. He is the quintessential narcissistic, autocratic leader. Of course, that’s merely my personal opinion, but it’s backed up by thinkers who know much more than I do on these matters4. What’s interesting and perhaps scary about Trump is that the leadership-followership dichotomy can put dangerous people in powerful positions.

In Conclusion

Without followers, there would be no leaders. Although autocratic leadership styles have dominated the ranks of business and beyond for quite some time, there is clear evidence that this dogmatic trend is shifting5. The representative view of leadership taken from the political sphere, for example, suggests that the leader represents their followers. They consider their constituents' diversity of views and attempt to synthesise them towards a coherent vision for the organisation or society. In this way, both leader and follower are cooperative agents in the dynamic of change. Of course, this idea is somewhat idealistic insofar as politicians are seldom this straight. Often they become the lapdogs of corporate interests, but the principle has merit.

According to Seth M. Spain, the representative view is not necessarily at odds with traditional hierarchical models of leadership, given that business leaders must often consult with other members of the corporation. In this sense, successful leadership is an “Art,” as Eisenhower had suggested, and requires a sensitive balancing act between the leader's desire and that of their followers. Leadership is not linear and is certainly not a one-way street. Leadership is a product of the 360-degree relationship, of a personal and a social phenomenon. Therefore, to be an effective leader, we must understand ourselves, those with whom we interact, and the environment in which they find themselves.

The years have taught me that hierarchical leadership concepts are not advantageous to everyone equally. Instead, they create an exponential loss for those further down the pyramid and so are fundamentally flawed. True leadership, I have found, whether you are in business or otherwise, is about taking responsibility for cultivating a social environment that benefits everyone equally. It’s why I believe the traditional pursuits of capitalism and its contemporary neo-capitalism are not good for the human race. They are the product of short-term materialistic ideals. They identify, intensify and commoditise human craving for instant gratification and make no apologies for it. The petrol on fire analogy might be suitable again here.

Effective and sustainable leadership, in my opinion, requires a sense of humanity and a social imperative toward the welfare of a larger number of people. In contrast, the neo-capitalist model serves only a thin wedge of interests and ends constituted by material wealth and power to justify any means necessary for that achievement. Neo-liberal capitalism, therefore, can never meet the needs of a socially conscious leader. I also believe that the majority are too easily cajoled and manipulated. Therefore, we must practice self-leadership. Often we are coconspirators in the deceit, discarding critical thinking in favour of a cognitively fluent message. I’d love to believe the majority can change, that leaders can act with integrity for the benefit of more than themselves or a tight minority. But perhaps that’s too much to ask

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  1. Spain, S. M. (2019). Leadership, work, and the dark side of personality. Academic Press

  2. Clarke, M. (2006). A Study of the Role of ‘Representative’ Leadership in                Stimulating Organization Democracy. Leadership, 2(4), 427–450. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715006068938

  3. Yukl, G. (2009). Leadership in Organizations. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley.

  4. Rhodes, E. (2021). Psychologists and Donald Trump | The Psychologist. Retrieved 28 March 2021, from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-30/march-2017/psychologists-and-donald-trump

  5. Northouse, P. G. (2021). Leadership: Theory and practice. Sage Publications.