Cassius: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings." Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)
It was less than 12 months ago that the bank chiefs whose reputations now lie in ruins were lauded and hailed by the business press across Scotland as almost single-handedly creating global financial behemoths. Knighthoods, plaudits and honorary degrees were flung at their feet by a grateful populace. Business magazines and newspapers headlined stories of how these great men had used their unique wisdom and drive to build world class organisations. Since their rapid fall from grace the same magazines are now pouring over every detail of each of the great men’s fall as if to find the hubris that led to their tragedy.
These extreme reactions to success and failure may tell us a little about the people involved but they perhaps tell us much more about the nature of leadership. James MacGregor Burns stated that one of his primary motivations for writing his landmark book Leadership (1978) was that whilst ‘we know a lot about leaders we know too little about leadership’ (p.3). Despite claims to the contrary, much of the literature on leadership is still dominated by the ‘great man’ paradigm that supposes that the control of information, power and resources lie with the leader. Airport bookshops and popular management magazines are replete with book and articles on how one individual has turned around a major corporation.
Why do we have such an extreme reaction to leadership? Peter Senge (1990) stated that’ the traditional view of leadership is based on the assumptions of people’s powerlessness, their lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces of change, deficits that can be remedied by only by a few great leaders’. Although Burns emphasises leadership as a process of engagement with followers on the basis of mutually held motives, values and goals, much of the thinking on leadership is still leader-centric, in many cases highlighting concepts such as ‘charisma’ or ‘inspirational’ and ignoring any exchange dimension to leadership. Leadership writers often fail to recognise or explore the influence of followers on the leadership style in an organisation, or reduce followers to static objects that can be manipulated in order to control. Contrary to Burns’ theory, these models proffer a simplistic model of leadership with a clear causality between leader behaviour and follower outcomes, rather than as complex, reciprocal relationships of people and institutions. Leaders hold the power and followers simply follow.
One of the key, but significantly overlooked, contributions of Burns’ work is that he has been one of the few leadership scholars who has asked the much-sidestepped fundamental question of ‘why do people follow leaders?’ Why do people follow and commit resources to leaders as varied as Roosevelt, Hitler, Kennedy, Milosevic or Mugabe? Why would seemingly rational people follow leaders with such differing agendas and visions? How, in a free society, do we end up with the political and business leaders we have? To understand this we must examine the motives of the followers.
Leadership & motivation
Burns argues that the key to the leadership is motivation: ‘leaders must assess collective motivation – the hierarchies of motivations in both leaders and followers.’ Leaders operate effectively when they address the motivations of the people who follow. There were few complaints about the bank or business leaders in the times when house prices were rising, there were high return on investments and businesses were booming. Our motivations for status and financial reward were being addressed. It is when these motivations cease to be addressed that we turn on our leaders and see in them the causes of all our problems and woes. Very few commentators have asked why we the followers or investors were not challenging the strategies of the leaders in the good times, or why very few challenged the levels of risk that was delivering such great returns. It could be argued that we get the leaders we deserve. They are a reflection of the values and motivations we have in ourselves. We rarely find it comfortable to examine our own motivations to ask why our leaders, business or political, act as they do. It is too easy to lampoon or stereotype our leaders and not reflect on what their decisions tell us about ourselves. As easily as we project success onto the great men, we also externalise fault and seek to blame them when times or results change.
Perhaps if as much time and energy was focussed on understanding the motivations of followers as is spent on examining the traits of the great men would we start to gain a more genuine and useful understanding of leadership and how it works. Any organisational leader must ask themselves if they really understand and are seeking to address the motivations of their followers. What do they seek? Security, self development, reward or status? Motivations also change through circumstance or through time, and today’s hero can very quickly become tomorrow’s villain. Until a leader understands what motivates their people they will be unable to establish a strategy to move them towards those ends. Similarly, if we wish to know our leaders we must examine the motivations of the followers.