Retracing the Pathway

Perhaps one way of differentiating “the modern” from “the (purportedly) postmodern” is the former’s predilection for definition, and the latter’s suspicion of it (or at least complication of it). For “the scholar,” the first task is to define the terms of one’s argument. This is meant to lead to clear and cogent argumentation. Philosopher Nuel Belnap insists that “[d|efinitions are crucial for every serious discipline” (1993: 115). And yet, as I emphasize time and again in Following Reason (2019: 3-4, 8, 53, 70), the word “leadership” belongs to a category of words and phenomena - like “love,” “beauty,” “Reason,” and so on - that apparently defy definition: we think we know what they are, and yet we’re confounded when we’re pressed to conceptualize them. Perceptive leadership theorists have been aware of the difficulty of defining leadership for quite a long time (e.g., Miner 1975; Pfeffer 1977: 105; Bennis 1989: 1). While there are the optimists (e.g., Burns 1978: 3, 448; Blake and Mouton 1982: 275; Bass 1997; Robinson 2001; Goethals and Sorenson 2006; Dugan 2017: 3, 5), some of the most prominent contemporary leadership thinkers remain suspicious about the possibility of finding/conceiving a general model of leading (e.g., Ciulla 2004: 305; Zoller and Fairhurst 2007: 1338; Ladkin 2010: 2-3). In Following Reason, I recognize but also critically respond to these suspicions (2019: 8-17), thus paving the way for re-opening this venture in a tentative and epistemically humble manner.

How, then, do I proceed to identify/construct a general definition or model of leadership in Following Reason? I commence by recalling the most famous quotation in leadership studies, written by the great James MacGregor Burns: “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth” (1978: 2). The simultaneous force and familiarity of this remark have the effect of obscuring the opening: its descriptive power continues to overwhelm us, often preventing us from “mining” it, while its familiarity also tends to foster the assumption that there is nothing to be mined (Manolopoulos 2019: 15). But the opening is there: leadership is a phenomenon that is observed; it is observable. Observing is not merely a passive receiving of sensory data: the process involves not only perceiving the phenomenon but paying sustained attention to it; observation therefore involves perception, analysis, and reflection, resulting in grounded speculation (Norris 1984, 1985; Daston 2008; Eberbach and Crowley 2009, 2017). Hence, by more closely observing leadership phenomena, I claim that we might be able to better understand them, especially in terms of identifying them and differentiating them from other, often apparently similar phenomena (2019: 15-16).

Following Reason therefore invites readers to participate in the act of observing “as if for the first time,” attempting to carefully describe and analyze purported leadership phenomena. While observing or re-observing these events, the following kinds of questions are posited to assist in the task (2019: 16): what is occurring? What is being done? What do leaders (i.e., leadership groups or networks, often personified or epitomized by one or several agents) do when they lead? Do these leadership phenomena exhibit certain elements or features that are common across the range of leadership experiences? If so, might these be identified or construed as common or universal conditions or characteristics that may therefore be co-opted into a general formulation of leadership? And could this fundamental formulation allow us to identify leadership phenomena and differentiate them from others?

One can already discern that this “largely-phenomenon-centered” method differentiates itself from more conventional approaches, which focus on agency, character, virtue, etc. (e.g., Weber 1947; Stogdill 1948; Tucker 1968, 1977; Burns 1978; Bennis and Nanus 1985, 1997; House, Spangler and Woycke 1991; Bass and Steidlmeier 1999; Sankar 2003; Chun 2005; Sosik 2006; Crossan and others 2017), and especially male agency (for excellent critiques, refer to, e.g., Sinclair 1998; Gronn 2000; Ospina and Sorenson 2006; Uhl-Bien 2006; Ladkin 2010; Case and others 2015; Liu 2015; Grint, Jones and Holt 2016). The pathway developed and applied in the book focuses our attention on the act itself more so than the participants, their characters, motivations, etc. The focus lies more with “the doing” than the “doer” - on the action more than the actors - though the question/element of leaderly subjectivity is not completely suspended.

Why is a “more-than-agent-centered” approach laid out in Following Reason? First of all, the conventional pathway has not sufficiently progressed our understanding of leading, so why tread down that well-worn path again? Pursuing a relatively novel path seems to have produced new/renewed insights. And so, a fundamental part of the approach used in Following Reason (2019: 16-17) was to try to temporarily suspend or bracket received notions of leadership. (Once again, my approach mirrors Cartesian and phenomenological methods.) Attempting such a procedure was necessary because predominant notions were likely to obscure or distort our observations. We also reiterate that the suspension was temporary because the study recalled and compared certain landmark scholarly formulations and everyday “understandings” with the proposed theory, a process that reinforced and refined the formulation.

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