Beware the bold visionary, warns new book

Donald Trump incites an emotional response, which is at the core of our contemporary idea of a charismatic leader, Dr Wilson says.

A new book being launched in Leadership Week 2016 has questioned our modern obsession with the charismatic, transformational leader. In Thinking differently about leadership, Massey University management lecturer Dr Suze Wilson examines the history of leadership thought from ancient through to modern times. She concludes it is an invented concept that morphs according to changing social norms.

“We need to understand that leadership doesn’t have a timeles, enduring essence,” she says. “If you’re looking for its essence, you’re on the wrong path. Leadership is something we invent.

“That’s what history tells us – we’ve invented it repeatedly in different forms, to meet different needs and to reflect different values.”

The modern concept of the visionary leader only emerged in the late 1970s, Dr Wilson says. At that time the United States’ economy was reeling from the oil crises of the 1970s and the rise of Japanese manufacturing. American firms were no longer world beating and there was a sentiment that America is “no longer great”. All this came after charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem appeared on the scene with exciting visions for change.

“One of the most influential scholars at the time was a political scientist named James MacGregor Burns, and he wrote a book that argued leadership should be about transformational change. That’s still a really exciting idea, but one of Burns’ key assumptions was that followers could choose their leaders,” Dr Wilson says.

She says Burns grounded his model in a democratic framework and his thinking was shaped by the transformational power of political movements at that time.

“The problem is we have taken that model into a workplace setting where managers aren’t elected, where people don’t get to choose their leaders.

“With these inflated expectations, we have also given managers a task they typically can’t achieve but it’s a big ego booster, which is problematic. It’s not helpful to have big egos running organisations because they don’t listen and don’t care about others’ point of view. The idea that managers should have the power to try and change employees’ values can actually be quite dangerous.”

The notion that leaders know best is “profoundly undemocratic”, she says, and leadership has historically been based on masculine ideals.

“We need to be aware of the fact that we are culturally inclined to conceptualise leadership in a very gendered way – and that’s a problem if we want more women in leadership roles. To achieve that, we need to change the mold of leadership to better fit what women can bring, not make women fit a masculine mold.”

Dr Suze Wilson's new book says transformational leaders are not the answer to every problem.

Bold leadereship isn't the answer to every question

Dr Wilson says the world of business is littered with failed leaders who have tried to impose their vision on others. The recent departure of Mediaworks chief executive Mark Weldon is a good example.

“The profit-driven values he ascribed to were unsurprisingly resisted by staff who believed in the public service of journalism as the fourth estate. Installing a personally-abrasive leader with mismatched values was clearly never going to land well.

“What’s astonishing is the amount of damage he was able to do in such a short time, in the name of this vision he had for the organisation.”

Dr Wilson says the the presidential campaign of Donald Trump is another example of the dangers of this type of thinking.

“Trump tries to incite an emotional response, which is at the core of our contemporary idea of a charismatic leader. It’s fascinating to see how ideas move on from how they were first conceptualised. It would never have been Burns’ intention, but Trump trades on the generally-accepted notion that leaders should be bold and transformational, and he exploits that idea to incite hate and fear.”

In the past, Dr Wilson says, scholars weren’t always as keen as they are now to promote bold leadership as the answer to every problem.

“At different times in history, scholars have seen leadership as dangerous, something needing to be constrained by laws. At another time they saw leadership more modestly, as about organising tasks and being considerate to others,” she says.

“This teaches us to think carefully about what particular needs and expectations we have about leadership. We shouldn’t see it as the answer to everything – that’s just wishful, romantic thinking."

Dr Wilson says the solution is to ground leadership in context and shared values. Instead of considering leadership the solution, regardless of the problem, we need to consider what type of leadership is required for each specific situation.

“You need to ask: What are the problems at hand? What useful purpose does leadership have in this situation? And what are the values and norms that should shape the style of leadership?

“Then you can think about the personal attributes needed, the roles and responsibilities required, and what the relationship between leaders and followers should be.”

She says that this type of leadership is “going on all over the place, but generally not making headlines”.

“These are people getting on with it, solving problems, living by their values and not feeling the need to narcissistically promote how good they are.”

But one well-known example she can identify is Te Puea Marae, the Auckland marae offering shelter to homeless families.

“This is a wonderful example of leadership. There isn’t a leader on a pedestal trying to say, ‘I know best’. They are a group of people who have seen a need and organised themselves to do something about it. It’s about the collective achieving meaningful results.”

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