The alienating myth of leadership

One of the things I noticed about the ALP leadership dramas recently was the complete lack of substance behind the brawl. Even though a number of Government policies have changed quite dramatically since Julia Gillard took charge of the party (the mining tax, welfare, and asylum seekers most importantly), the leadership tensions did not seem to be about any substantive policy differences. Instead, the tension was focused on personal issues and on the different ‘leadership styles’ of Kevin v Julia. This is something I posted about on my blog recently – an almost irrational (I hate the way we use the word irrational, but that is a blog post for another day) feeling of having an innate desire to have one leader over the other. The public generally seems to have this same feeling – despite the lack of policy differences, there are significant differences in voter intentions depending on whether Julia Gillard or Kevin Rudd are the leader of the part.

This debate about leadership has come up recently through some paid work I have been doing. I have managed to secure myself an academic job this year – helping write papers on project management. You may think the content seems boring (I wont say it is because my supervisor may read this), but more recently it has taken an interesting turn, as I’ve started to read some material on leadership. One paper in particular that I thought I would review today is called “Leadership: An Alienating Social Myth” by Gary Gemmill and Judity Oakley. Sounds dull  – but stick with me!

Firstly, let’s have a quick look at the idea of leadership. I’m not going to cover over the basics of leadership, but what is important to note is that leadership has turned largely from a communitarian system, to one focused on individuals (obviously linked with the growth in individualism under neoliberalism). As John Storey says:

“Despite prevailing and persisting cultural differences between certain countries, the diffusion and increasingly dominant influence of American values in recent years may also help to explain the increased attention given to leadership across much of the world. The American Dream and the focus on individualism and the can-do attitude have permeated international teaching and development in relation to how organisational leadership is viewed.

“This individualised interpretation is fuelled by the media. Business magazines such as Business Week, Fortune and the Director  are especially prone to focus on the supposed crucial impact of top managers. Even serious financial newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times tend also to profile and give huge prominence to individual personalities and attribute to them apparent critical importance.”

This trend goes well beyond corporations. Leadership has become more and more important in our political sphere, as the influence of the collective of the party has weakened. The same can be said for NGOs, the public service and even places like schools. For Gemmill and Oakley this is what they’ve called the resurgence of the ‘great leader myth’ – that leaders, who have particular, and prescribed traits, “are unquestionable necessary for the functioning of an organisation.”

This myth, they argue, has been created from a growing sense of social despair and helplessness (maybe for more information the growing sense on despair and helplessness, check out my post on The Western Cultural Crisis). As they explain:

“It is our thesis that much of the current writing and theorising on leadership stems from a deepening sense of social despair and massive learned helplessness. As social despair and helplessness deepen, the search and with for a messiah (leader) or magical rescue (leadership) also begins to accelerate.”

“The leadership myth functions as a social defense whose central aim is to repress uncomfortable needs, emotions, and wishes that emerge when people attempt to work together (Gemmill, 1986; Jacques 1955). Stated somewhat differently, when members of a group are faced with uncertainty and ambiguity regarding direction, they often report experiencing feelings of anxiety, helplessness, discomfort, disappointment, hostility, and fear of failure. Frightened by these emerging emotions and impulses, which are ordinarily held in check by absorption into the prevailing social system, they collude, largely unconsciously, to dispel them by projecting them onto “leadership” or the “leader” role.

In other words, based largely around the push around indvidualism, we have created a social myth that we need leaders in order to survive. This myth occurs in an unconscious manner, creating anxiety and depression when it’s not around. In doing so it reinforces already existing power structures, by identifying particular people as leaders based on particular traits, and then depowering those who don’t have these traits:

“The social myth around leaders serves to program life out of people (non-leaders) who, with the social lobotimization, appear as cheerful robots (Mill, 1956). It is our contention that the myth making around the concept of leadership is, as Bennis arrests, and unconscious conspiracy, or social hoax, aimed at maintaining the status quo (Bennis, 1989).”

“Leadership theories espousing “traits” or “great person” explanations reinforce and reflect the widespread tendency of people to deskill themselves and idealise leaders by implying that only a select few are good enough to exercise initiative.”

We can see this everywhere. Whether in our workplaces, or in our politics, we place faith in particular leaders, and rely on them to provide solutions to the problems we need. The problem with this is not just that it enforces power structures, but that it can create a non-empowered community, one which relies heavily on particular individuals, and has the capacity to crumble when those leaders fail. Gemmill and Oakley argue therefore that we need to break down our understanding of leadership:

“In recent years, empowerment has emerged as an idea designed to increase involvement and participation in decision making by those perceived as working in environments where taking orders and being told what to do is the norm and self-management is not practiced.”

“For change to occur, it is necessary to experiment with new paradigms and new behaviours to find more meaningful and constructive ways of relating and working together. While such social experimentation is a process marked by uncertainty, difficulties, awkwardness, disappointment, and tentativeness of actions, it is indispensable if people are to experience a non-alienated mode of existence in a work environment or in a society.”

If we go back to our example of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd what this would mean is that their leadership traits – the very thing we seem to be arguing about – wouldn’t matter anywhere near as much. Political leadership, or just politics as a whole, would be more about everyone being empowered as political leaders. Instead of being alienated from the process, we would find ways for everyone to be leaders – to create a more communitarian approach to political leadership.  To paraphrase Kennedy, it would be to not ask what our leaders to do for our community, but to ask what we can all do for our community.

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