We talk leadership all the time and everyone seems to know what it is, though everyone may have a slightly different idea. As a part of my teaching course, I do ask my students to define leadership, and get many definitions. In summary, the answer to my question is given in the lines of Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it", with a long list of names that stretch from Jesus Christ to Jose Mourinho.
While this may sound intuitive, there are a few granular details in this definition we should be aware of. Indeed, Jesus Christ and Jose Mourinho are two very different kind of persons, but even the common strand that seemingly tie them together in my students' conception - the ability to move people - is actually two very different kind of things. Indeed, I exaggerate the difference by picking two extreme examples, and this would be much less emphatic if one picks another pair of names from the list, like Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi (or Abraham Lincoln for that matter): Yet, it remains a task going beyond a merely anecdotal definition of leadership and attempt to define it as an idea.
My students are most comfortable defining it in terms of personalities, or in the absence of that option, as a position, like the President or Prime Minister of a country, or the CEO of a firm, but I still labour towards defining the idea of leadership for two reasons. One, because the great man idea of leadership essentially portrays leadership as an accident, extremely rare and often unattainable for most people. And, two, leadership in the great man emphasises leaders are born, but overlook the aspect that many people have been born with the possibilities but may have failed to achieve the required prominence.
So, I construct my lessons in the form of stories, some concerning the great men but how ordinary they would have appeared to their contemporaries at various points of their lives; indeed, my biographical retelling lingers on the ordinariness than the exceptionalism, which I expect the students to figure out themselves. I also search for and balance these stories with other leadership stories, of less heroic people who made a difference, of accidents and events: One of my favourite story is of outbreak of Cholera in Soho in September 1854 (I teach only a few yards away from the infamous Broad Street pump and the pub named after Dr John Snow), which helped shape the sewage system in London in the later years. I talk of Darwin - and indeed he is much less known among the crowd studying business qualifications than you would expect him to be - and his grandfather, Erasmus, and his commonplace book. In general, I try to push back against the leader as a hero conception - and, in fact, leader as a particular kind of person conception. Instead, my objective often becomes centred on exploring leadership as an act, something that one can bring about in one's own life, as long as they go about it in a certain way.
But if the leader-as-the-hero conception of leadership made leadership more of a distant act, the bureaucratic leadership, leader as a position holder, an industrial age creation, creates a different problem for the idea of leadership. While it takes away some of the exceptionalism that we need to guard against (though it does not, as the hero narratives of business press bestow these characters with a different aura), leadership-as-a-position create a different conundrum for the educator. The essential idea here is that if you become the President of a country (or the CEO), there must be a certain number of people who trust you (voters or investors), and thereby follow you: Henceforth, the idea of leadership is the idea inherent in the position you occupy, and the process of getting to that position is the process of becoming a leader. Again, the inherent limitation of this conception is really two-fold. One, it attaches the concept of leadership specifically to a domain - there are different rules of success in business compared to politics - and focuses away from the idea of leadership as a wholesome phenomena. It creates peculiar questions like whether John Terry's indiscretions with a team mate's girlfriend lessen his position as the England captain at the time, or not (apparently not, if the leadership idea is vested in the captaincy and the technical expertise to do so). Two, this also establishes an apparently false notion that there could be one given way of achieving such leadership position, despite the fact that achieving such positions may be dependent on many accidents and coincidences, mostly outside a person's control. The idea of leadership-as-a-position is as dis-empowering as the leadership by the great men.
This is indeed where the business textbooks on leadership are singularly unhelpful. They are usually in the template business, either as textbooks dispensing fixed norms under the guise of infallible research (blind to cultural contexts that underlie such research, mostly done in Europe or North America, among educated, affluent population) or as guru-speak, which promotes a singular idea as the panacea for all ills. Teaching in a business course, it is often difficult for me to steer clear of the theories such as these: Therefore, more often than not, I shall try to put these theories in context, not just exploring their underlying research contexts but also their application in the actual work contexts of my students, at which point their limitations often become all too apparent.
We would normally go through this journey - I would normally allow my students to move through this journey on their own (knowing fully well that some of them may never actually graduate through the process, unable to see beyond the leader-as-the-celebrity or the leader-as-the-position-holder paradigms). This does not sit well with the Ofsted-style quality assurance that governs the institutions offering such formal leadership qualifications in the UK, where the meaning of quality is defined in terms of output consistency rather than the variety of the journey or quality of the debate. However, I have tried to defend my ground arguing that if and when any student graduate through this enquiry, they are clear about the leadership as an idea; and besides, we must accept the validity of the other ideas of leadership as long as it appears the most potent to the individual enquirer.
So, finally, what then are the attributes of leadership as an idea? The way some of my students see it is that it is a personal ethic. The externalised attributes, such as credibility or authenticity, ever so often discussed in business literature, become far more consistent and achievable once the underlying ethic is understood and appreciated. At this point, the discussion about leadership really becomes about the qualities of the personality, things that could be learnt and practiced, ideals that could be defined and worked towards, and commitments that a person can make at any point of time in life. In this sense, the concept of leadership becomes empowering, a beacon that can guide action: This is that beautiful idea that can float anyone's boat, an exercise that is worth doing wherever one started from.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was,
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
A week into lockdown and things are beginning to change. Mornings are late, afternoons are lazier and evenings never end; meditations are filling out the time for Yoga routines and Netflix profiles are strewn with half-finished movies. This state-mandated, state-funded period of idleness is being likened to being called up to serve, but is nothing like that: Such a comparison is really an affront to the idea of service. Instead, this is just one long streak of panic; of the centre not holding and life not going on as usual. With the usual patterns and rules in suspended animation and business talk - and business - being rendered meaningless, space is opening up for unusual questions: Is Capitalism about to end? Is this the death of globalisation? Does it get uglier from here? My grandfather's generation would have scoffed at us. They saw through wars and pandemics. But, in fairness, we haven't had a life-ending crisis of our own. Notwithstanding the experiences of th
The ‘Why’ Question? Adolf Hitler was appointed the German Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg on 30th January 1933. This was an extraordinary turn of events. Previously, President Von Hindenburg consistently refused to appoint Hitler the Chancellor, despite the impressive electoral performance of NSDAP in July 1932, Hitler’s uncompromising demand of the Chancellor’s post and a repeat election in November 1932 which failed to break the deadlock. Explaining his refusal, Hindenburg wrote in a letter on 24th November, “a presidential cabinet led by you would develop necessarily into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extraordinary accentuation of the conflicts in the German people.” The question ‘why’ Hitler was appointed Chancellor, despite the President being acutely aware of what might follow, is therefore a significant one. The NSDAP had election successes throughout 1932, and was already the biggest single party in the Reichstag and various Landtags acros
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind , which echo the pessimism somewhat. I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope. However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right
The Creativity Imperative Businesses today consider creativity of their staff as a critical, possibly the most critical, factor for their ongoing survival. This is because the environment, political, social and commercial, has become so fluid; as Yogi Berra put it, “the future isn’t what it used to be”. Constant change, demanding and more aware customers and citizens, rapid information dissemination through new technologies of information and communication, and intense competitive and regulatory pressures, are pushing companies and people who work for them to innovate and adapt continuously. Set in this context, employee creativity has a whole new meaning. It is traditionally understood as people thinking about products and services, which did not exist before, or tweaking and improving the existing ones. Competitive pressures add to this creativity imperative. Information is fast and cheap, and communication technology is driving the costs of production and distribution
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.