Look what happens when you try to critically evaluate: Leadership!

I set a task for my students to critically evaluate some leadership literature. I’m half way through marking a pile of the resulting essays, but just had to stop and post this extract from one of the smart-arsed conclusions:

“Leadership has it’s origins in Anthropology and the ubiquitous structure of human families. Organisational leadership is an extension that was first theorised several thousand years ago as an approach to altruistic social control and as a concept, sits within the various local and global incarnations of Divine Command Theory. This is a long way of saying leadership is about one in front many behind. It is very useful when the one in front, has a metaphorical big stick to protect the rest of us from the mystical wild animals. An organisation/society/village requiring a heroic father in charge of its big family.

In simple straight forward situations, one person can know exactly what to do or be better at it than the others, who follow. Trouble is this linear paradigm of direct cause and effect, problem and answer, doesn’t scale well with multiple or parallel problems.

With scale comes complexity (non-linearity) which is not the same as complicatedness (lots of linear). In it’s modern scientific sense the scale issues are now understood to be a different paradigm, originally recognised by Darwin and developed considerably in the work of many people throughout the early 20th Century.

More recently, with the recognition of James Lovelock, this understanding tipped into popular culture and we now know this new complexity to be an ecological paradigm that sits conceptually within a General Systems Theory. Despite this, as we have moved away from command and control type hierarchies over the past few years, leadership has remained as the dominant organisational doctrine.

Divine Command Theory is ontologically distinct and sits alongside several other concepts that have bounded applicability, but nonetheless useful in certain situations. In modern terms all the soft-psychological double-barrelled leadership of; conversational; listening; engaged; personal, thought and especially distributed, are attempts to slot a perfectly good little square peg into a great big fractal hole.

Probably the best way to make sense of this is to consider how an ecology actually works. A social network like LinkedIn is an example of a pro-evolutionary ecology and nobody leads it, we self-organise and do the stuff we’re good at or join in the stuff we happen to notice?

It’s not that leadership is good, or bad, or systems are somehow better. It’s that as situations become more complex there is a diminishing return from the leadership paradigm, as situations move beyond its intrinsically interpersonal value base.”

I feel like it’s me that needs to go back to school, either that or the clever little bugger is playing to all my guilty pleasures! How the hell would YOU mark that?


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