This hit close to home. The study of leadership, leaders and what makes them tick has fascinated me for a number of years. I mean, who doesn’t t get excited to hear the latest developments from Apple each time Steve Jobs was on stage and utter his famous words, “… there’s one more thing.” Or learning about Elon Musk’s empire of mass producing electric cars and developing a space program rivaling NASA. These two leaders are models of what popular leadership theories might label as successes.
However, amidst the celebrity status, rock-star personas these kinds of leaders evoke, it is important to be wary of how easy and tempting it is to succumb to failure. This is evidenced in the 2008 global economic collapse in which highly paid CEOs of financial institutions stood at the helm. The Great Recession brought calamity to so many. Men and women who worked hard to save for retirement saw their future disappear overnight. Home owners who should not have qualified for loans foreclosed at alarming rates, causing a ripple effect on the larger national and global economy. It is staggering to think all this happened under the watchful eye of these Ivy League educated men and women. What happened? Was their exclusive, high-priced education deficient? Was ethics not a required course for accountancy majors? Perhaps, but something else might be the cause.
Dennis Tourish in The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective is helpful and makes a startling claim to help students of leadership understand some of its pitfalls. This is a much needed reminder, especially for me as I tend to practice leadership with an exclusive focus on practical results. Tourish points out that even well-meaning leaders fall prey to internal systems which creates an environment of temptation to manipulate company results and incentivizes unwise risk-taking behavior. Experts have argued that this kind of agency “undermines teamwork, encourages a short-term focus and leads people to believe that pay is not related to performance at all but to having the right relationship and an ingratiating personality.”1
Apparently no system of leadership (Authentic Leadership, Servant-Leadership, etc.) is immune from this excess because, according to Tourish, the pull toward “Superman” (ala G.E.’s Jack Welch) stye of leadership is too great to resist. If the leadership style of the Welchs, Jobs and Musks of the world are to be viewed with reservation, who can we look to for a better model worthy of emulation? What qualities in a leader are required when institutional needs and objectives constantly change? There are two individuals that come to mind.
The first is George Washington. According to Sam Walker, author of The Captain Class: A New Theory of Leadership,2 Washington felt responsible and connected with his troops in victory and in defeat. For example, after liberating Boston in 1776 he was reported to have humbly stayed back, sending instead his generals into the jubilant city. In that same battle, and soon after, the British returned with more men and succeeded in flanking the American position. But not before Washington led the evacuation, stayed all night until the last boat departed, saving 9,000 troops. Washington was known for persuading and encouraging his men in battle and appealing to their highest honor.
The second is obvious, our Lord Jesus. He is God Almighty and yet humbled himself to rescue sinful people. He destroyed current models and theories of leadership by setting an example of humility.3 Jesus never considered it below his dignity to stoop down to wash other people’s feet. He was present with Martha, Lazarus’ sister, deeply moved to tears upon learning of his death. When Jesus put together his team he chose individuals who already had things in common: fishermen, brothers, etc. This signifies a proactive approach to a relational component of leadership lacking today.
Instead of the traditional view of leadership where a sole agent is responsible for an organization with its attending challenges, Tourish refreshingly offers a better one. In the end he says:
“I advocate a nuanced view of leadership, in which leader agency is acknowledged to exist but in which it is balanced by a view which takes fuller account of the agency of other organizational actors and the degree to which this agency is complicit in the construction of leader agency and action.”4
Based on this assessment, it is not surprising Jesus and Washington are considered to be great leaders because they included others in the process and shared victories as well as defeats. We ought to study them carefully to glean leadership principles to bring organizational vision to reality in a confused world seeking direction.