ISSUES IN APPLIED ETHICS: 7.5 leadership

7.5. Leadership

If leadership ability is due to a personal quality that influences people’s decisions regardless of rational considerations by which the desirability of actions could be weighed objectively, it can be harmful, and the conclusion that the societal role of leaders should be minimized or eliminated appears justified.

But the general public perception of leadership is preponderantly favorable; the likely response to the view expressed above would be: “That is your conception of leadership; by leaders I understand persons who have earned the trust of their fellows by being reliable, concerned about their welfare, and capable; someone has to lead, otherwise anarchy ensues, and no one is the better off for it.”

No doubt there have been leaders who had a beneficial impact on the course of history. In our opinion they constitute the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, the great disparity in educational levels that made it necessary in past ages for the large majority to trust the guidance of a few is gradually being reduced by the spread of public instruction and information. If one insists that only those who have exercised their influence in a manner to benefit their followers should be recognized as true leaders, we have to coin a different word for all those who have been called leaders but whose activities proved disastrous.

The substantive part of the argument is: one can observe a widespread algorithm whereby people endowed with the right physical appearance as well as magnetism, self-assurance, acting ability, etc. for gaining the confidence of others, ascend to political, organizational, or military power only to turn around and exploit it in their own interest and contrary to the interest of those who confided in them. It is because of the mystical basis that is independent of rational choice and at least permits betrayal of trust that society would on the whole be better off without those who are de facto referred to as leaders.

As we stated above (6.7), leadership is essentially for cattle; rational human beings should be able to make up their minds on the evidence pro and con. The validity of this proposition is so obvious, it is supported so much even by simple common sense, that the constant harping on the need for great leaders and the obsequious tributes paid to them would appear almost astonishing. But they are securely founded on deeply ingrained irrational and–particularly in a contemporary, turn-of-the-21st-century context–harmful values: Code-One values affirming power, deceit, and exploitation. The ideas of leadership on the one hand and democracy founded on equality on the other are irreconcilably opposed, as are the two codes proposing them. But most righteous citizens would black out rather than be confronted with such inconsistencies in their ethos or Weltanschauungen. Accordingly, we have come up with leadership scientists who explain us all about the democratic leader, just as we have developed rules for humane conduct in war, fair ways for fighters to knock the hell out of each other in the ring, or compassionate methods of butchering animals in hunt and slaughterhouse. “Well, is that not an advance over an even more brutal manner of practicing those fun games?” you might ask. Certainly. But how about not practicing them at all?

The notion of a leader in a democratic society built on equality is like that of a squared circle. The sensible approach would be, in a modern context, to distinguish between leaders on the one side and managers on the other. The efficient and successful operation of an organizational apparatus unquestionably necessitates, for instance, a determination and assignation of tasks and perimeters of operation to insure the smooth co-functioning of different divisions or departments. Management science aims at optimum solutions for pragmatic problems, such as inventory policies, production schedules, or shipping patterns, employing, e. g., calculus and probability theory. The harmonization of interpersonal relations may also be counted among the manager’s responsibilities in the capacity of ombudsman. Ombudsmen do not need to dominate or issue orders. The planning of the future course of an enterprise is much more securely entrusted to experts than the vagaries of an authoritarian leader.

The functions of leader and manager are logically distinguishable. However, in actual usage the two overlap. Managers are also often deft behind-the-scenes manipulators, PR men pulling the strings and wielding real power in the name of figureheads, and thriving on fraudulence.

In the United States modern leadership studies were first informed by a behaviorist orientation. This is apparent on the opus known as Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership, formerly regarded as the authoritative compilation on the subject and at this writing still available in a revised edition. The author rejects the suggestion that leadership is a simple power relationship, yet this rather revealing statement appears on page 292 in the work (New York: The Free Press, 1974):

More powerful members of a group tend to be better liked than low-power members. They attempt more influence, exercise more influence, and their influence is more accepted. Groups tend to be better satisfied when more powerful members occupy the leadership positions.

Stogdill also condemned autocratic leaders, though he was unmistakably partial to the leader we might well call authoritarian, one who issues firm directives and brooks no contradiction; he shared the majority opinion in dismissing the conclusions offered by Lewin, Lippitt, and White, whose study had indicated that leaderless groups could function successfully.

Writing in 1977 (“Where have All the Leaders Gone?” The Technology Review 75:9 [March-April 1977]), Warren G. Bennis, one-time president of the University of Cincinnati, complains precisely of the fact that he is forced to act as a mere manager instead of a leader:

Time was when the leader could decide–period. A Henry Ford, an Andrew Carnegie…could issue a ukase–and all would automatically obey. Their successors’ hands are now tied in innumerable ways….

Nixon and Agnew were forced out of office, he points out; and in the business world it is just as bad, albeit business is the concentrated epitome of our culture: Coolidge was right when he said that America’s business is business. Confronted with all the advocacy groups, leaders have become paralyzed. Abraham Zaleznik, professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School, makes the same observation (“The Leadership Gap,” The Washington Quarterly 6:1 [Winter 1983]): “The increasing imbalance in our society weighted toward management has created a shortage of leaders in American institutions.” He denies that leadership is an elitist concept, though admits that, considering the issue superficially, there could appear to be a contradiction between leadership and the democratic ideal.

Max Weber in his 1921 classic, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, coined the since overabundantly employed term charismatic leader. Though he always wrote about the legitimacy of power in a merely subjective sense–i. e., as socially recognized–many subsequent authors have represented Weber as a spokesman for objectively legitimate leadership; indeed the adjective “charismatic” has been used overwhelmingly in praise by authors commenting on the subject.

Those who follow this tack have implicitly embraced the irrational aspect of leadership, stressing it in fact at the expense of all other aspects and engaging at the same time in an inflationary spiral of ever higher encomia heaped on leaders. James McGregor Burns and B. M. Bass invented the variant transformational leader. Adopting this term and combining it with the theory of developmental psychologist Robert Kegan, two professors of psychology, Karl W. Kuhnert and Philip Lewis, examined the motivational states of transformational leaders (“Transactional and Transformational Leadership: A Constructive/Developmental Analysis,” The Academy of Management Review 12:4 [1987]). They found substantially that the higher they were found on the ladder of political, organizational, military, etc. hierarchy, the higher leaders were likely to score on a scale of self-chosen principles of justice, integrity, altruism, and–surprising as this may sound–even equality! (As we know, all animals are equal, and successful animals are more equal than others.) At these heights, they do not need to barter for goods and rights like lower types, the authors assert. (The moderation of company CEOs when it comes to financial compensation for their services is after all proverbial.)

The theses of Kegan and, in turn, Kuhnert and Lewis, bear the unmistakable imprint of Piaget’s influential cognitive developmental psychology theory (particularly as interpreted and developed by Kohlberg [cf. 5.2.3 – 5.3 of this outline]). But attention! Kuhnert and Lewis are turning Piaget upside down. They, as do many others who are prominent in leadership studies, in effect take it for granted that the highest status in the organizational hierarchy coincides with the highest moral stage in personality development. Piaget maintained nothing of the kind. They on the other hand take success as proof of the pudding.

For practical purposes the effect is to legitimate precisely the most harmful type of leader, the essential leader who commands prestige not because of expertise and competence but charisma, magnetism, showmanship, manipulation, etc., the demagogue and rabble rouser in the political arena.

From our perspective this trend is substantially inspired by Code-One values, characteristically using Code Two as a screen. The result is that power-over is turned into the supreme moral value. It is the same type of make-believe that wants to turn a vulnerable innocent person into a culpable one, taking advantage of a perceived weakness (see 7.2) or confuses fame with merit (see 7.4). The insistence that these values are self-chosen highlights the dangers of the Kantian bias for deontological ethics founding Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s theories. When you divorce principles from consequences it is easy to exploit your ideas in the service of causes you never contemplated.

In accordance with the inflation in terms (superlative praise) coupled with a penchant for the occult, from charismatic through transformational we arrive at the magic leader (so named by David A. Nadler and Michael L. Tushman in the article “What Makes for Magic Leadership?” in the June 6, 1988 issue of Fortune), whose distinguishing mark is vision. The literature on visionary leadership alone could fill a bookcase. Let us start by citing a characteristic example, an article entitled “Visionary Leadership: A Perspective from Education,” by Marshall Sashkin, in the volume Contemporary Issues in Leadership (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984).

Sashkin, a recognized authority on the subject, says that there are three major aspects to visionary leadership. The first is visioning itself. The process of conceiving a vision calls for certain cognitive skills, he adds as a note of caution. Effective executive visionaries must vision over periods of at least five years; more often, ten years or longer.

He subsequently discusses visionary activities recommended for high school principals. The exemplary leader conforms to the truth. However, truth has a variety of definitions; the successful leaders adopt the definition that help them achieve their goals. Should they have difficulty in accepting this, they ought to remember: “One aspect of the development of moral character is understanding the difference between what is right and what works” (p. 231).

When followers of the cult of visionary leadership combine esoteric mysticism and the most prosaic and pragmatic managerial considerations, the result is apt to strike the reader as verging on parody. One does not expect a toothpaste or thumbnail manufacturer to be a seer subject to beatific visions. Metanoia, a shift of mind, meaning in the Gnostic tradition an awakening of shared intuition and direct knowledge of the highest–of God–is the deeper meaning of learning, says Peter M. Senge (The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, New York: Doubleday, 1990: 14). The learning organization continually expands its capacity to create its future by generative learning. As a founding partner of Innovation Associates, the author imparts this arcane doctrine to the assembled managers of Ford Motor, Digital, and Procter & Gamble.

Senge states that he believes in new types of organizations: decentralized, nonhierarchical, dedicated to the well-being of employees as well as success. Robert K. Greenleaf took this spirit even further with his conception of servant leadership. Though belonging to a much earlier generation, in his numerous works Greenleaf, who acted as consultant to the Brookings Institution among others, already exhibited the full panoply of mystical and symbolic inspiration exemplified in visionary leadership literature. According to him the only authority deserving allegiance is one knowingly granted by the follower in response to the servant stature of the leader. The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership is carrying the torch of his spiritual heritage. Undoubtedly these and similar enterprises do not lack some good motivation, but at times the impression that one is listening to a sort of propagandistic double talk may also enter the mind.

Professor Robert E. Kelley of Carnegie-Mellon University believes and, in fact, furnishes concrete cases to show that leaderless groups, where all members assume equal responsibility for achieving goals, can be highly productive (“In Praise of Followers,” Harvard Business Review Nov-Dec.1988). Delegation to the lowest level is another technique. Organizations must find ways to bring followers into full partnership because engaged, energized, appreciated followers can make a business prosper, he affirms. Yet he gives an operative definition of the leader in which the desire to lead has the greatest weight. Somehow the desire to lead is supposed to justify the need for leaders. Effective followers manage themselves well, Kelley also insists: they see themselves as equals of the leaders they follow (another touch of Animal Farm?).

A dossier of literature condemning leadership outright would be much thinner. One eloquent recent publication is by Frederick G. Bailey (Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988). “[N]o leader can survive…without deceiving others…. Leadership and malefaction go hand in hand” (ix), writes the author. According to Bailey astute leaders consolidate their power by playing on and taking advantage of contradictory and simultaneously proclaimed values of their civilization, choosing the side helpful for their designs. They thus always remain as it were one step ahead of their enemies.

Though in our view Bailey’s diagnosis is closer to the truth, it would be wrong to qualify the school exemplified by the likes of Greenleaf and Senge as merely hypocritical. It is best seen as part of a development that, despite temporary ups and downs, has so far proved favorable to the cause of equality.

In its December 5, 1994 issueTime devoted a long report to the future of leadership. In his introductory comments Lance Morrow condemns the universe of rights and entitlements that started to replace in the United States the old territory of duty during the 1960s. Entitlements represent the decadence of the American guarantee, claims Morrow. He unequivocally maintains that there is an imperative need for leaders, but emphasizes that the type of leader needed today is no longer the traditional (authoritarian) one, as the leader now is faced with a reasonably well-educated and informed electorate.

Morrow’s stand probably voices the majority opinion obtaining in this country. The anti liberal turn inaugurated in the 1980s and culminating in 1994 has led to a mild backlash since, but the spirit of the 1960s is gone, and at present the dominant mood is perhaps best described as one of moderate conservatism. Yet even moderately conservative experts take it almost for granted nowadays that power will become gradually diffused in the future, self-management will gain a larger role, employees will participate in leadership, the category of the governed will be divided into smaller entities, and within those entities the principles of self-government will make headway.

In our view neither leaders nor followers are needed inasmuch as reason and experience serve as the best criteria for decisions. The spread of knowledge, improvement in educational levels, advances in information technology and communication have tended to undercut the operational field of the leader despite all the sidetracking, paradoxical phenomena, prestidigitation, and temporary setbacks.

Taking the last 300 years, one could cite two conspicuous examples of seeming exception to this general trend: 18th-century absolutism and the rise of dictatorships between the two world wars. Both of them in fact confirm the rule. The absolutist monarch was typically reaching out, over the heads of the established inherited aristocracy that had impeded progress, to the wider and professionally more competent new bourgeois class, thereby ultimately contributing to a dispersion of power. The typical dictator of the interwar period on his part rose from the people as a challenger of monarchical rule in countries with weak democratic traditions only to betray the populist message that had helped him to power. These dictatorships succeeded temporarily just because of the infirmity of local democratic roots and were successively replaced by more widely based regimes.

We will have leaders in our ranks for a long time yet; however, their dominance will likely diminish. Today the dimensions of power are still vast, the most significant change is however that its original, primitive and crude forms have become progressively more indirect, mediated, and diffused. From the military and political, preponderance has shifted to the economic and the high-tech informational spheres. “Knowledge is power.” But our hope is that, in its own best interest, knowledge will have the foresight to reach out to each member of the human family.

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