On the elusive notion of leadership
In a post entitled, Macrovisions and Micromanagement, I discussed some of the reasons for the gap between the espoused view of leadership and its actual practice in organisations. The post is based on a research study in which managers in an organization were asked what their jobs entailed. Their responses revolved around themes of leadership – things such as strategy formulation, setting direction and generally acting as enablers rather than administrators. However, when asked to elaborate via examples, most managers spoke of administrative and bureaucratic activities rather than those that involved leadership.
There are many possible reasons for this gap. Some of these include:
- Pressure to display leader-like behaviour: Management literature and education tends to place leadership at the pinnacle of managerial practice. Consequently, there is considerable pressure on managers at the middle and senior levels to display leadership qualities (as defined in management texts).
- The issue of identity: Most managers would like to view themselves as being leaders. As a result, they may unconsciously describe what they do in the flattering language of leadership.
- Gap between job description and actual job: Managers are expected to display leader-like behaviour. However, at the same time, they are held responsible for specific and very tangible results. There is thus a continual pressure to get involved in low-level detail while maintaining the illusion of being a leader.
In the present post I delve further into the question of leadership. Specifically, I explore the possibility that the concept of leadership promoted by management literature is flawed. My discussion is based on a brilliant paper by Lesley Prince entitled, Eating the Menu Rather than the Dinner: Tao and Leadership.
To those who may be rolling their eyes at the reference to religion- stay with me, I think you will find that the content and conclusions of the paper merit serious consideration.
Background and context
The author begins by noting that much of management theorising about leadership is based on the following fundamental assumptions:
- The notion that hierarchies are an inevitable within groups, and that those on the top of the heap must exert control to avoid chaos and anarchy.
- Leadership is a well-defined, independent concept that can be codified and can be the subject of inquiry. In other words, it is possible to formulate principles of leadership that are independent of environment and the actual practice of these principles can be studied.
The above assumptions flow from a western view of management. One of the tenets of such a view is that it is possible to formulate general principles of leadership, independent of the environment in which it is practiced. Indeed this is the very basis of mass education in management: business school curricula would be largely empty if there were no general, environment-independent management principles.
On the other hand, in certain eastern philosophies (Taoism and Zen in particular), the focus is not so much on following prescribed principles or exerting control, but on dealing with circumstances as they are. The latter is a interesting perspective from which to analyse leadership because it emphasises that leadership is a social skill, best learnt through experience rather than theory. The paper is essentially a discussion of how certain precepts of Taoism can aid our understanding of leadership as an experience-based skill.
Taoism and its relevance to understanding leadership
Taoism has mystical connotations in western society because it is often associated with alternative lifestyles and counter-culture groups. However, in reality it is a practical way of life that teaches one to embrace direct experience, avoiding filters of presumption or analysis. The author stresses that it is neither a religion nor a philosophy in the conventional sense. Above all, it emphasises the danger of dogma and the importance of keeping an open mind. As the author puts it:
…it is sufficient to note that the point of Taoist practice is the relatively uncontroversial claim that our habitual understandings and modes of thought, often little more than unexamined assumptions, have a tendency to hijack our ability to apprehend the world, interfere with our perceptions, and often lead us to see what we think we ought (or want) to see rather than what is actually there.
This point highlights the relevance of Taoism in our quest to understand the concept of leadership: perhaps the answer lies in observing how people relate to each other in real-life rather than attempting to force-fit theoretical or empirical models of leadership to situations as advocated by management researchers.
At this point readers may be asking: how can we understand a concept without developing mental models or representations of it? Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of Taoism that one can understand something without necessarily being able to articulate it. In the same way, the paper is an attempt to get an understanding of the concept of leadership by looking at some of its paradoxical aspects. In the next few sections, we’ll look at some of the seemingly self-contradictory aspects of leadership that are explored in the paper.
The difficulty with definitions
Taoism alludes to the difficulty of using words to describe the essence of Taoism. As the author puts it:
According to Taoism grasping the Tao in mere words is a futile undertaking, like trying to explain the experience of an orange to someone who has never encountered one. In one sense the ideas are pure simplicity, but apt to become complex and nebulous when expressed in words…
He suggests that the same difficulty arises when trying to describe any aspect of social reality: there are so many different variables at play that pinning down the aspect of interest is virtually impossible. Indeed, as the author points out, there are a number of definitions of leadership, each emphasising a different facet of the concept.
Perhaps then, it is futile to attempt to capture the concept in words. However, that does not mean that is impossible to understand it. As the author states, quoting from Keith Grint (a well-known scholar of leadership):
…before I began to study leadership in a serious manner, my knowledge of it was complete. I knew basically all there was to know and I had already spent over a decade practising it.
This insightful line suggests that it is possible to understand what leadership is and what it isn’t, without having to define it. I would hazard an opinion that successful leaders don’t over-think what they do, they simply lead as required by the situations they encounter.
The hidden effect of language
The author highlights some important differences between ancient Chinese (the language in which the original Taoist texts were written) and western languages such as English. One of the most important of these is that Chinese is a verb-based language whereas English is noun-based. An implicit consequence of this is that Chinese emphasises action and relationships between objects whereas English emphasises objects. The relevance of this observation to leadership is as follows: instead of attempting to objectify the concept of leadership, it may be more helpful to understand it in terms of actions and relationships. Once again, this suggests that we should shift our focus on the actions of leadership rather than the words (platitudes?) that define it.
The author makes the interesting suggestion that the dominant view of leadership may have theological origins. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Monotheistic religions are based on the notion of an omnipotent being who is essentially responsible for the world as we know it and is, in a sense, in charge. This view suggests that hierarchies are natural and ought to be the way groups are organised which, in turn, leads to the view of a leader as someone who wields power by virtue of their position in the hierarchy. In contrast, in Taoism (in its pure form) there are no omnipotent gods as in the monotheistic religions. It is thus perfectly natural to see the asymmetric distribution of power not as a consequence of hierarchy but as a fact of human existence.
Understanding leadership vs. knowing it
One of the central teachings of Taoism is to seek direct experience, free from preconceptions of any kind. This principle is in direct conflict with the way in which researchers attempt to study and understand concepts such as leadership. Typically, researchers make hypotheses, build models and test them against reality. They objectify the thing to be studied and analyse it through the lens of their pre-existing knowledge. Instead a case-study based approach that focuses on the actual experience of leadership may be more fruitful. As the author put it:
The conceptual tangles and contradictions in leadership that seem to be an inevitable part of the models derived from the empirical and quasi-empirical methods of the western tradition often cause more confusion than clarity when people try to apply them. In contrast an approach derived from the theoretical naivete (but conceptual sophistication) of Taoism generates powerful insights that are often difficult to express in words. Part of the key here, perhaps, is to consider leadership not as a set of intellectual principles, but much more as a set of experientially located and responsive relational skills-in-process…
A couple of lines later, he goes,
…there seems to be a stubborn adherence to an old-fashioned objectivism, particularly in the persistence of the subject-object dichotomy. This inevitably excludes the felt and experienced realities of power, influence and involvement in the leadership relation, and this has generated some of the more intractable problems we face when studying leadership. If our models are to have any value they must speak to and from experience, even if this seems messy and inchoate at times.
Although it may be difficult to capture in words, leadership is far from a fuzzy notion: given a situation, most people just know if leadership is being displayed (or not). We understand leadership because we know it when we see it.
Labels do not make a leader
Although it is generally recognised that calling someone a leader doesn’t make them one, most organisations still conflate leadership with positions and titles. The fact that high level management roles are often termed “leadership positions” is proof that this misconception is rife.
Moreover, as the author states:
…the conflation of `leader’ with any of the available position labels, makes the definition of `leadership’ and `leader’ completely superfluous – all one needs is a specification of position within a hierarchy, and all else follows. Except of course that it doesn’t, because we should still have to explain why some leaders by such a definition come to be regarded as fools, idiots, incompetents and charlatans.
Perhaps the most insidious feature of the confusion between position and leadership is that it devalues the work of those who are in subordinate roles by presuming that they are somehow unable to display leadership qualities. They are considered passive players whose job it is to follow. Ronald Heifetz’s brilliant work on leadership speaks to this very issue. As he states in this interview:
In our society, we carry a common notion of the leader as the person with the vision, who then gets people to buy in, to align themselves with that vision. This notion is bankrupt and dangerous, because the leaders who have done good for their communities and organizations are not the ones who came up with the vision. If we picture them as the conductor of an orchestra, they are good at embodying the soul of the music. These leaders are good at articulating the transcendent values of the organization or community. But it’s not their vision.
The leader is an enabler, not an oracle who has all the answers.
Doing by non-doing
Another central teaching of Taoism is the concept of non-doing. Just to be clear, this should not be interpreted as inaction. Rather, it is effortless action. In the context of leadership, there are two aspects of non-doing that are particularly relevant. They are:
- Acting without any preconceived ideas of what leadership is. That is, acting in a manner that is most appropriate to the situation at hand, without worrying about what convention might deem as leader-like behaviour.
- Creating a work environment in which people can operate autonomously and, where required, collaborate spontaneously. Instead of attempting to control events and people, the emphasis is on creating the conditions that are conducive to high quality work.
As the author puts it, “non-interference as an essential quality of leadership”
In essence, the teachings of Taoism urge us to experience things as they are. However, this is not the same as accepting standard conventions or interpretations of how things are. The failure to appreciate the difference is the reason why many people dismiss much of this as mystical claptrap. Further, it should be emphasised that one does not have to be a revolutionary: the point is not to do battle with the system or overturn convention; it is not to be a prisoner of convention, to be able to step outside of it when the situation demands.
I have to say, this is one of the most delightful and stimulating papers I have ever read. Although it has been published in a research journal, there are some brilliant insights in it for managers, leaders and those who don’t know the difference between the two.
The author quotes from Alan Watts at the end of the paper, and I can think of no better way to end this review:
I have associated and studied with the `objective observers’ and am convinced that, for all their virtues, they invariably miss the point and eat the menu instead of the dinner. I have also been on the inside of a traditional hierarchy . . . and am equally convinced that from this position one does not know what dinner is being eaten. In such a position one becomes technically `idiotic’, which is to say, out of communication with those who do not belong to the fold.
The central message of the paper is nicely summarised in its title which, though intended to take a gentle dig at scholars of leadership, applies rather well to many who claim to be leaders. Indeed, many so-called leaders act according to what books, gurus and consultants tell them rather than respond to the situation at hand. In this sense they do indeed eat the menu rather than the dinner