Monday, 28 August 2017

Leadership in (Philosophical) Crisis

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Leadership today is in acute crisis. According to psychologist Harry Levinson in the Harvard Business Review, the signs of trouble began around 1980 in the USA. This coincides with the rise of a theory of leadership called transformational leadership, which is trusted and applied by countless leaders. Does the problem lie in the theory?
Bloomsbury columnist Max Nisen, in Business Insider, describes leadership burnout today as a ‘huge problem’. 96% of senior leaders feel ‘somewhat burned out’, while a third describe the problem as ‘extreme’. Psychologist Kevin Fleming writes: ‘The numbers are absolutely staggering.’ The problem has been exported, too – at least, there has been a lag before it has reached other shores.

There are costs and collateral damage to match. According to Forbes, businesses in the USA lose nearly $40 billion every year through absenteeism among professionals, executives, and managers – far in excess of any other occupations. Mental stress and fatigue affect not only the leader, but the company.

Several years ago, I submitted a proposal to a major seminary, to investigate the problem in a 150-page postgraduate thesis.

The damage to leaders was approximately known. It was known, too, that most put their trust in transformational leadership theory. But statistics which might reflect on the causes of the trouble were virtually non-existent. There were not so much as credible definitions of transformational leadership – and without definitions there is nowhere to begin. Existing definitions seemed more like slogans for the movement.

I chose to use a semantic critique – and this proved to be a powerful tool. I applied it to about five-thousand pages of leadership texts. My first task, then, was to identify the core concepts of the texts. From these, I isolated and developed a fresh definition of transformational leadership (which may go by various names, including connective leadership, servant leadership, and ternary leadership).

Then I listed ‘oppositions’ of the core concepts. Oppositions are something like ‘opposites’. They help us, among other things, to find subtexts. Did the authors' writing cohere, or did their texts reveal subtexts – namely, oppositions which subverted what they said?

It might seem an absurd idea – to look for evidence that authors contradict their own selves. However, it proved to be very fruitful. I was later awarded a distinction for the research, which was a testimony to the power of the method.

Out of five or six core concepts of transformational leadership theory, ‘influence’ is arguably the highest on the list. Leadership consultant John Maxwell epitomises this with the mantra: ‘Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.’ This is too simplistic, yet it captures the core of it. Other concepts are subsidiary to influence, among them character, persuasiveness, and strategy.

The core question was whether there were ‘oppositions’ which showed that influence was rejected, defeated, weakened, and so on. Indeed there were. To sustain one’s leadership influence, one needed (quote) ‘more than sacrifice and suffering’, ‘courage of the highest order’, and a ‘Herculean effort’, among other things. Hercules, needless to say, was a demigod. There were ‘countless discouraged leaders’, and ‘low expectation and hope’. One author wrote, ‘Lord have mercy!’

The leadership authors seemed to have a perverse drive to tell the truth, even if it was only in a single line. Those single lines torpedoed whole chapters of text. The subtext, although one finds it only in snippets, reveals that all told, the core concepts do not work. Every transformational leadership text, without exception, fundamentally subverted itself.

On the surface of it ‘influence’, with its attendant concepts, would seem to be a felicitous approach to leadership. In reality it is not. It can only seem felicitous as long as one admires it in isolation. Oppositions of resistance, discouragement, acquiescence, failure, and many more, lie in wait at every corner, and slowly destroy the leader.

This is not a small finding. One is dealing with the dominant theory of leadership in the West.

But the purpose here is not merely to summarise a situation. It is to drive deeper, philosophically. The very fact that there are oppositions in the leadership texts gives the problem away. We are not thinking holistically today. We are thinking one-sidedly, or dichotomously. We have developed a one-sided leadership metaphysic, while a powerful subtext has been largely expunged from the texts.

It surely has to do with the times. We have been trained to think in partial ways. We no longer think expansively. In physics, wrote the philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen, we investigate processes ‘by progressively screening things out.’ While one might justifiably think this way in physics, we now find it all over. It reaches all our concepts, including leadership. We are in bondage to dichotomies today, writes psychologist Ellyn Kaschak, in Psychology Today.

Some put the troubles of leadership down to work load, inadequate coping skills, a lack of preventative mechanisms, an increasing rate of change, and so on. Under my own leadership, in an assignment, a Canadian intern Peter Nighswander put it like this: symptomatic treatment of leadership burnout is not without use, yet it seems that we need to be ‘questioning the system that is producing these results ’.

The alternative to a one-sided or dichotomous view is obviously a holistic one. Many proposed solutions point to the need, not merely for holism, but for deeply holistic thinking.

The scattered solutions, when one surveys them together today, are both broad and complementary. Proposals for a more participative leadership promise to reconcile the leader with the led. Proposals for more adequate recuperation promise to reconcile the leader-as-leader with the leader-as-person. Calculations of total losses to business promise to reconcile the fate of the company with the fate of its leaders. A reduction of stresses external to the workplace promise to heal not only the leader but society.

All such proposals may be characterised as the introduction of a more holistic thinking. This is the philosophy of it. We need to develop a holistic picture, then apply it. We cannot afford any more to lean on one-sided or dichotomous concepts based on a misplaced trust in the text.


  1. I'm copying a comment I received via e-mail. A director of a major law firm: 'Very insightful.'

  2. Thank you, Thomas, for this original and I think valuable inquiry. I would count in tas a piece of 'Applied Philosophy' with a touch of social science - and critical thinking skills too maybe.

    The line that struck me was this one: "we investigate processes ‘by progressively screening things out.’"

    You seem to then say that this is an appraoch to be avoided - but why? If people screen things out, then they ahve at least considered them in some sense. The alternative approach would be to leap 'intuitively' at solutions, with all the risks that that entails.

    Another thought your piece prompted was that point about leadership being influence. This reminded me of the old Taoist saying about water: that it yields to everything, but over time it still shapes the world...

    1. Thank you, Martin. I would think it is a case of both-and.

      Physics 'screens things out', then it re-enters the world. Yet beyond this back-into-the-world transition, things are often poorly thought through, if at all. Physics being ubiquitous as it is, I think this has rubbed off. Our thinking, even in the human sciences, has effects on the world which go beyond anything that was seriously taken into account when we formulated our theories. This, I think, is the case here, with a high-sounding theory which apparently has devastating effects.

      These were philosophical thoughts, in this post. Yet admit religion to the debate, and one reckons with the influence of God. That changes the whole scenario.

  3. Your essay, Thomas, grabbed my interest for at least a couple of reasons.

    First is that the subject of ‘leadership’ has proven fascinating to me for years, during which time many leadership gurus took fresh runs at trying to reinvent it. The cycles of reinvention show how difficult leadership is to get right, and how much people can disagree.

    Second, in light of the essay’s viewpoint, is more of a confession: Truth be told, I was an ardent practitioner of ‘transformational leadership’ over the course of running sizable, multidisciplinary divisions.

    I found transformational leadership the most effective leadership style among the alternatives that gamely tried — though never successfully, in my opinion — to challenge it.

    My sense was that transformational leadership provides the ‘holistic thinking’ that the essay rightly urges. (The many online descriptions of transformational leadership provide the informed, rich grist to decide whether that judgment bears up, or not.)

    Perhaps today, spurred by the rapid, transformative change on all fronts that people, social institutions, business models, and others face, getting ‘leadership’ right is even more critical.

    I’m only one voice — and clearly, based on the essay, you’ve identified people who would disagree — but my sense is that the philosophical underpinnings of transformational leadership have remained stoutly up to that task.

    I’m curious, though, whether the acceleration of transformative change in the world will strain what we now know about leadership, requiring some leadership sage (or these days, more likely a team) to offer a promising alternative.

    There are a number of intriguing new fronts in related research, including the involvement of many lessons from neuroscience that are increasingly wending their way into the field of leadership. We'll see.

    1. Thank you, Keith. The original reason for the research, just to get behind what motivated it, was evidence of massive dropout in my own vocation. Up to 95% by some accounts (but the problem is more widespread than that, as touched on in the post).

      Was a leadership theory at fault? In the absence of careful definitions or dependable statistics, I took the semantic approach as described. The very need for such an approach reveals that the recommendations for the theory are empirically weak. On the surface of it, advocates of the theory speak of its wisdom, efficacy, and so on, as apparently do you. But is that true? Or does the theory merely represent popular cultural biases and so on?

      There were various strands of ‘oppositions’ which I did not enter into in the post. These further revealed that the content of transformational leadership terminology was not what it seemed to be. So, for instance, influence would normally be interpreted as something fairly benign. The oppositions revealed that it contained fairly much the opposite. Given the circumstances, influence becomes ‘power’, ‘force’, ‘seizure’, ‘inducement’, and so on.

      This, I think, has some bearing on the holism of the theory. More than anything, on shared goals. Yet in reality (see above) that concept, too, conceals contrary things.

  4. Thinking of school teaching, which typically involves a course of lectures by a professor of education, I was inspired by the great Tim Brighouse. Tim gave wonderfully insightful and witty lectures, and was incredibly committed and hardworking to boot. Yet trainee teachers also fall by the wayside in huge numbers. The thing is, a leader cannot really transform sheep into goats, so to speak - though temporarily they may make the sheep 'feel like' a goat. I never became a full-time teacher, but I benefited from my experience in many other ways even so. The moral (perhaps) is perhaps that leaders can draw out qualities, but not yet put them in.

    1. I would agree that leaders can, as you say, ‘draw out qualities’. It’s a fundamental dimension of leadership, I would argue, to encourage team members to explore and express their passions, creativity, and talents. An organization’s vision and mission, though important and preferably arrived at communally, should be minimally prescriptive, ideally allowing for such opportunities and flexibility. That’s one of the ways, I would offer, that a leader makes it possible for a team member — and the team as a whole, as it’s an infectious, sharable process — to think maximally, and in doing so to derive both professional and personal happiness. As for ‘putting those qualities into a team member’, that I suggest that that typically can come from some (elastically tailored) combination of encouragement, coaching, training, experimentation, and peer partnering — at its best, an iterative progression of self-discovery by team members and by the team as a whole.