Leadership and the Collective Good

The insightful analyses of the contributors to this volume underscore the practical complexities of the very notion of individualism and the common good. One thing that is apparent from this collection is that the relationship between individualism and the greater good is complex and highly dependent on the definition of individualism, a term that is largely misunderstood and debatable. Understanding the nature of the greater good is no less, and perhaps even more, complicated. These chapters point to a number of situational factors, including social organization and culture, that influence the extent to which the collective good is supported and the extent to which various prosocial behaviors, such as altruism, are adaptive. Likewise, prosocial behaviors are also shown to be impacted by individual-level factors including genetic predispositions, emotional reactions, collectivistic orientations, and individual actions. The practical importance of these situational and individual factors on both the willingness and effectiveness of people to contribute to their collectives is demonstrated through their impact on both philanthropy and volunteerism.

Each of these chapters also details, sometimes indirectly but in many cases explicitly, the close association between leadership and an understanding of and commitment to the collective and its welfare. Scholars are by no means in agreement when it comes to defining leadership, but many would accept as a working definition one that suggests it is a process of exchange and influence between individuals who are, in many cases, united in their pursuit of a common goal. Although those who use their position within a group, organization, or society to compel others to act, without regard to those others’ desires and interests, could be called leaders, the dictator, the tyrant, and the despot are barred by some from the category of leader precisely because they ignore the interests of the collective. Those individuals who seem to epitomize the rare but nonnull category of “great leader” are those who consistently act in ways that further the interests and outcomes of those they lead. One popular approach to leadership, known as servant leadership, stresses the selfless nature of leadership, as does—with a bit more finesse—-James McGregor Burns (1978) who suggests that one who fails to act morally is not worthy of the label leader.

Moral righteousness is often in the eye of the beholder, but leaders are assumed to be motivated by their concern for others rather than their own needs. Although in both contemporary and evolutionarily older times leaders tended to prosper relative to those who followed, in some sense a life spent leading others is one spent in “public service” to others and sacrifice. In earlier times leaders put themselves at great risk, and although the advantages they accrued in terms of fitness were substantial, they stood to lose a great deal by taking on extra responsibility for helping others collaborate in the pursuit of shared goals. Leaders must, in many cases, also ask their followers to sacrifice for the good of the group. Is their success in such an undertaking more likely if followers recognize the rationality of such an undertaking; that by helping the collective they help themselves? Or is something more needed: must followers be able to empathize with other, less fortunate, individuals, or with the leader himself or herself? The chapters in this volume seek to illuminate the nature of the greater good, and in so doing illuminate the nature of leadership.


Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper.

Machiavelli, N. (1977). The prince. (R. M. Adams, Ed. & Trans.). New York: Norton.

Rand, A. (1992). Atlas shrugged. New York: Signet. (Original work published 1957) Tocqueville, A. D. (1990). Democracy in America. New York: Vintage Classics. (Original work published 1835)

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