Leadership as ‘dogmatically stated nonsense’

Following on from the last post where I was beginning to question what kind of ideology organisations are embodying when they offer leadership training to others, I came across an interesting book which explores how American business schools have evolved over their 125 year history. It sets out an argument about how a particular understanding of leadership came to dominate.

In From Higher Aims to Hired Hands From Higher Aims to Hired HandsRakesh Khurana makes the argument that the neo-classical economic revolution of the 70s and 80s had a profound effect on the way that business studies were taught, how business schools started to function and thus how managers came to think of themselves. Firstly, economics came to dominate the curriculum  with the argument that somehow this made management more ‘scientific’. And secondly, the particular form of economics that dominated regarded maximising shareholder value as the only significant metric of management and organisational performance. This posed a profound challenge to the previously dominant way of understanding the manager as a member of discipline whose role was to offer stewardship of the company on behalf of a number of stakeholders. It was, Khurana argued, a wholesale discrediting of the conception of the manager as professional.

This way of thinking led to a closer alignment between the interests of executives and the interests of shareholders by offering executives share packages as part of their remuneration: if the company did well then they did well. But, according to Khurana, it encouraged executives to act much more explicitly out of self interest. Given the current economic crisis and some of the reasons why it came about, one can begin to appreciate  the force of Khurana’s argument.

Not only did this way of thinking undermine the traditional understanding of management, and the education of managers, but it led to a project to separate out the role of leaders, as opposed to managers, because, in order better to respond to the neoclassical project, they would need to behave differently. A seminal article in the Harvard Business Review by Abraham Zelnick downgraded the role of managers as mere ‘problem solvers’, while leaders were said to be more charismatic, generating fresh thinking and attitudes. It is here that we first encounter the very common contemporary conception of leader as visionary. Business schools began to reflect this thinking in their courses. Khurana gives as an example the Harvard Business School leadership programme, which understands leadership as a personal journey where leaders cope with ‘change by developing a vision of the future for the organization, aligning the organization behind the vision, and motivating the people to achieve the vision.’ It is exactly this way of conceiving leadership that we have been critiquing below.

Offering his own view of leadership courses, Khurana tells us that ‘from a scholarly perspective, leadership as a body of knowledge, after decades of scholarly attention under the social science research lens…remains without either  a widely accepted theoretical framework or a cumulatively empirical understanding leading to a usable body of knowledge. Moreover, the probability that leadership studies will make significant strides in developing a fundemental knowledge base is low.’ Quoting another scholar writing in the 30s, Khuarana states that leadership is ‘the subject of an extraordinary amount of dogmatically stated nonsense.’

If what Khurana has to say makes us come to leadership and leadership training with greater scepticism, then what is it that we think we are doing when we train others to be leaders? We must begin to explore the assumptions we are making and the ideology that these bring.


3 thoughts on “Leadership as ‘dogmatically stated nonsense’

  1. sbilling

    This is a most illuminating summary of how it has come about that the literature and leadership training are so concerned about leadership and vision, that doesn’t seem actually to work.

  2. Pingback: Leading groups: participation and improvising into the unknown « Reflexivepractice

  3. Pingback: The limits to Obama’s leadership: idealisation, hope and habitus « Reflexivepractice

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