Leadership: Reflections of a Journeyman

Leadership also involves skills such as communication, decision-making, and problem-solving, which are valuable in any domain

“Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.”
Thomas Gray – An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1747)

Vijay Anand Sharma Timilsina

I would not go as far as to use the word ‘folly’ but if folly were to be replaced with ‘overwhelming,’ what Gray said centuries ago for the innocent and unadulterated life of children would be a perfect metaphor for my serendipity with leadership. I humbly confess that pre-2000 AD my understanding of leader(ship) was innate, ill-informed, and superficially educated. Back then, the act of leader(ship) involved a formal position, occupied by a charismatic personality with a gung-ho attitude so influential that anyone concerned, even if uninspired and unwilling till then, would fall in line and follow vehemently. Eventually, the objective/purpose would be achieved, the leader immortalized and everyone would live happily. Post-2000 AD, kismet serendipitously dictated and I began reading about and reflecting on leader(ship). As I read and reflected, it did not take me long to realize that my notions of leader(ship) were child-like; I knew not that I knew not. Two decades of reading and reflection have made me wiser; now I know I know not.

Leadership is enigmatic; perhaps because if on one hand it seemingly has a ubiquitous allure, then on the other, it is also an ECC – essentially contested concept (Gallie, 1955). Leader(ship’s) irresistible allure is evident in the near omnipresent acceptance of it being the cause of the success of any collective human endeavor. This allure is often traced to its connotations which include having a vision, a purpose, and a positive impact on others. Leader(ship) also involves skills such as communication, decision-making, and problem-solving, which are valuable in any domain. Leader(ship) is also expected to inspire people to follow a common goal, to overcome challenges, and achieve excellence. It is also capable and expected to provide recognition, respect, and rewards for those who demonstrate excellence. Leader(ship) is of critical importance in connecting comrades-in-arms (c-i-a) with three vital components of organization success; purpose, achievement and one another. There is empirical evidence which suggests that when leaders connect c-i-a to purpose, work engagement could increase to a whopping 747%, while incidences of burnout drop by 49%. In addition, when leader(ship) is able to connect c-i-a with achievement, the likelihood that comrades-in-arms performing well above average can increase up to 247%. Also, when leader(ship) connects c-i-a with one another, there is up to 156% increase in the sense of well-being (Experience: 2020 Global Culture Report, 2020). With so much good that leader(ship) can and is expected to propagate, one can be presumptuous about its impact on the ‘bottom line’. Nevertheless, the presumption is reflected in many empirical studies such as one by Zenger & Folkman, (2019) who found profitability to be positively correlated with leader quality. Based on self-reporting as well as 3600 appraisals, they classified the leaders included in the study into three categories of top 10%, the bottom 10% and the middle 80%. Lo and behold, the work units led by the top 10% made more than double the average profit of the other 90%. Such findings and insights could have been the reasons which must have led Bass & Bass, (2009) to begin their handbook of leadership with the stark opening statement “The evidence is all around us. It is in our daily lives – in our schools, businesses, social groups, religious organizations, and public agencies.”

One is awestruck on knowing that the ubiquitous allure is despite lack of consensus on what it actually means. An accepted definition of leader(ship) is still as elusive as the unencumbered Yeti. As remarked earlier, one facet of leader(ship’s) enigma is it being an ECC. ECC are concepts with endless disputes on what a term means and how it should be used. Moreover, such disputes cannot be settled by appeal to empirical evidence, linguistic usage, or the canons of logic. That leader(ship) is an ECC was sounded out nearly half a century ago by Stogdill (1974) when after a review of leader(ship) research till then, he famously stated that ‘there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are people who have tried to define it.’ In his widely acclaimed book “Reinventing Leadership: Strategies to empower the Organization”, Bennis estimated that there were at least 650 definitions of leadership in the literature (Bennis, 1995). Citing the quadruple increase (from 14,139 to 53,121) in books for sale on leader(ship) on Amazon.co.uk over a span of six years, Grint, (2010) made a not-so-outrageous claim that “…within a short span of time, there will be more books on leadership than people to read them.” In 2012, Barbara Kellerman a personality of repute and a Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Leadership is known to have said that “I heard that there are approximately 1,400 different definitions of the words leader and or leadership” (Silva, 2016). Even with an objectivist epistemological perspective, leader(ship’s) ECCian predisposition remains steadfast. After applying an inductive approach and using the relatively new statistical tool of graphic network analysis as a guide for drawing conclusions about the status of leadership theory integration based on published research from 2000 through 2013 AD, Meuser et al., (2016) identified 49 leadership approaches/theories. The list goes on and on… The literature is massive and diversity in theory immense. It has been proposed that construct evolution undergoes a three-stage process; first, concept introduction and elaboration, second, concept evaluation and augmentation, and third, concept consolidation and accommodation. It is in the third stage that a ‘generally accepted definition’ appears, but enthusiasm wanes as there is nothing new to discover (Reichers & Schneider, 1990). I hope and wish that leader(ship) never begins the third stage or begins only when I am intellectually comatose. In my personal odyssey of leader(ship), this never-depleting and ever-increasing reservoir of information and knowledge may have shaken my understanding from the core, yet I willingly refuse to break free from the entrapment of this enchantress.

Diabolic, yet Enchanted!
सत्त्वं रजस्तम इति गुणाः प्रकृतिसम्भवाः ।
निबध्नन्ति महाबाहो देहे देहिनमव्ययम् ।।
Bhagvad Gita: 14.5

A layman’s elaboration of the shloka would translate to something like good and evil are influenced by the three gunas, which are the qualities or modes of nature. The three gunas are sattva (purity), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). Sattva is associated with goodness, wisdom, harmony, and peace. Rajas is associated with activity, desire, ambition, and conflict. Tamas is associated with dullness, inertia, laziness, and confusion. Not only human beings themselves, but their actions too are a combination of these three gunas. Therefore, at any given point in time the dominant guna determines personality, behavior, morality, and the purpose of any given action. When sattva is dominant, the person or the action is more likely to be good and virtuous, when rajas is active the same is likely to be selfish and aggressive, and if tamas is high, then ignorance and evil is a foregone conclusion. Believing this to be an immutable truth, the same person in one lifetime could have different incarnations, different shades of gunas one might say.

Whatever the act may connote, leadership is practiced by a leader, whomever it may denote. The immutable truth reflected by the shloka above, however, is applicable regardless. This is a blind spot in leader(ship) wherein we do not readily accept that leadership by the same leader and in itself can be deployed for good and evil (Miser, 2016). Leadership has in itself not just sattva, but is a potent concoction of rajas and tamas as well. For better or for worse may yet be undetermined, the contemporary leader(ship) approaches with some traction (charismatic, transformational, authentic and servant leader(ship) to name a few) however, seem to ignore the rajas and tamas within. The voices with a resolve to warn of the chasm have been raised, but unfortunately are being drowned by the cadence and clamor of opinionated belief and feverish research anchored only around the sattva in leader(ship). For instance, Alvehus, (2021) explored leader(ship) based on the socio-psychological construct of docility through Milgram’s work on obedience to authority and Foucault’s work on discipline and punishment. He concludes that “We must open up for the idea that the accomplishment of leadership will involve all those ’dirty’ things that the term leadership seemingly denies: management, manipulation, and so on. We need to start staining the immaculate concept of leadership with exactly such dirty elements in order to understand it.”. With a backdrop of high profile leader(ship) failures all across the world, in almost every sector (banks, politics, business, education…), one may be forgiven to believe that even though those who are attracted to leadership and take leadership roles start off with sattva (grater good) to begin with, but later succumb to ‘hubris syndrome’ (in for myself – to exercise power and seek glory), a fatally toxic concoction of rajas and tamas. Blind focus only on sattva(the unalloyed good) in leader(ship) will inadvertently lionize it, perpetuate social alienation by exalting and fetishizing the abilities of heroic few at the expense of subduing and muting the masses (Gemmill & Oakley, 1992). Narcissism which can be conceptualized as inflated sense of self-regard, arrogance, entitlement, grandiosity, over-confidence, self-absorption, and an excessive need for admiration is another venomous concoction. Steffens & Haslam, (2022) argue that leadership with all its current connotations and denotations acts the same way on individuals with narcissistic tendencies as a flame for moths – drawing them naturally to positions of power and influence, once there, and usually after some initial success, narcissism within rises feasting on the opportunities for self-advancement that high office affords.

The diabolic, yet enchanting nature of leadership is well represented by Bathsheba Syndrome (Ludwig & Longenecker, 1993). The syndrome has its roots in the story of David and Bathseba. David is a humble man to begin with, a critical incident (his victory over Goliath) brings out the leader in him. His rise to fame and power is rapid, for he seems to be endowed with a transformational strategic vision, brilliant organizational skills, supremely charismatic personality, and is able to solve problems with eclectic pragmatism; nothing but unadulterated sattva. Battles were norms in King David’s time, he goes to battle, wins and wins a lot, and then slowly the toxicity starts taking over. He begins to indulge in the chicanery of disguising complacency with delegation and leaves the supervision of battles to a trusted few, Uriah the Hittite being one of them. This ‘delegation’ not because David had other critical strategic matters to attend to, but simply because he could and no one would think of it as out of line or question his privilege. David isolates himself in the cozy comfort of palaces. One fine evening as he rises from his slumber and wanders idly in the high patio of his palace, he sees Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) bathing on the roof top of her own house. Aware of her relation to Uriah, but completely consumed by lust he sends for her and consummates his lust (Bathsheba’s consent is irrelevant to the context). With Bathsheba now pregnant, David schemes a plot of recalling Uriah from the battlefield under the pretext of taking update but hoping that Uriah would sleep with his wife. Uriah, righteous as he is, shows no inclination for the act purely out of respect and camaraderie for those still in battle. David even gets him drunk, but to no avail. With nothing working, David deliberately sends Uriah to a battle from which he never returns. For every David there will be a Bathsheba, albeit not in a human form (narcissistic tendencies for instance) as is depicted in the syndrome, and the success leader(ship) seeks and is expected to achieve, will corrupt it. The hubris success can unleash in leader(ship) is the nemesis of its very essence.

Leadership is fascinating to say the least. There is so much out there, yet there is so little to take away. It is but human to assume that leadership does impact the fate of any collective human endeavor, but it is also human to err. How on earth can who is in charge not be related to what the outcomes were? There is plethora of empirical research to indicate that change in leadership is inadvertently followed by change in performance of the collective (Kaiser et al., 2008). Look hard enough, far enough and deep enough, there is evidence too that the effect of leadership is readily overshadowed by other forces and events in history, in the environment, and in the commune of people where leadership is placed. Additionally, given the assumption that organizational systems and outcomes are volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous, or VUCA (Bennett & Lemoine, 2014) for short, it is difficult to understand (especially the causal relationships therein) how outcomes are created. This need to understand makes us humans susceptible to commit fundamental attribution error. Perhaps it was recognition of such susceptibility which lead Meindl et al., (1985), to argue that ‘leadership has assumed a romanticized larger-than-life role’, that too as pristine and unadulterated as one can imagine.

To end this reflection, all I say is: We have done enough to make leaders out of humans and practice leadership, no harm in continuing the work, but perhaps it is high time we also thought about making leader and leadership a bit more human.

Timilsina is an academician. He can be reached at vastimilsina@gmail.com

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