29
Feb

“Modern and Postmodern Conceptions of Leadership”

Written on February 29, 2008 by DeansTalk in Philosophy

www.SantiagoIniguez.com, Dean of IE Business School

I believe that management is philosophy in action
and that every management theory has a philosophical background. I do
also believe that every manager has a view of the world, consciously or
inadvertently, explicit or emergent, that conforms to a certain sort of
philosophy. Interestingly, even affirming the contrary is in itself a
philosophical proposition.

The same is applicable to theories on leadership: they can be ascribed to some philosophical movement or trend. In this regard, modern theories of leadership owe a lot to Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher of the 19th century,
famous for his affirmation that "God is dead", whose contributions have
been both influential and controversial. Nietzsche distinguishes
between two types of morality: the "master morality" and the "slave
morality". The first is applicable to the leaders of society, who
create their own values for themselves. The "slave morality" is
applicable to the herd and according to its standards the behaviour of
masters is accounted as evil. But masters, sustains Nietzsche, stand "beyond good and evil":
they are subject to their own principles, different to the norms
enacted for the herd that favour mediocrity and prevent the development
of higher-level persons: the true leaders.

Curiously, a passage from one of Nietzsche’s books could have been
extracted from the management literature on modern leadership of the
1980’s:

"To
give style to one’s character- a great and rare art! He practises it
who surveys all that his nature presents in strength and weakness and
then moulds it to an artistic plan until everything appears as art and
reason, and even the weakness delight the eye…It will be the strong,
imperious natures which experience their subtlest joy in exercising
such a control, in such a constraint and perfecting under their own
law" (1)

Nietzsche’s theory reminds me of some characters of novels and
movies from that same decade. The two most remembered icons are
probably Gordon Gecko, the protagonist of "Wall Street", preacher of the "greed is good" maxim –a part of the Reaganite credo of the time-, and Sherman McCoy, the grieved executive of "The Bonfire of Vanities", qualified in the novel as a "master of the universe".
Both characters feel, using the Nietzschean expression, "beyond good
and evil" and not subject to the standards that affect the rest of
mortals. A passage from one of Nietzsche’s works is appropriate again
as a description of their attitudes in life:

"For believe me!- the secret of realising the greatest
fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is to live
dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of the Vesuvius! Send your
ships out into uncharted seas! Live in conflict with your equals and
with yourselves! Be robbers and ravagers as long as you cannot be
rulers or owners, you men of knowledge! The time will soon be past when
you could be content to live concealed in the woods like timid deer!"
(2)

However, both mentioned stories end similarly. Gecko and McCoy are
caught and punished and they consequently loose their "supermen"
status. We witness a moralistic finale, something that does not
necessarily happen in real life.

In the past decade, business schools have witnessed the flourishing of postmodern theories of leadership
that demonise Gecko and McCoy’s attitudes and propose new, renovated
archetypes of business leaders. This has happened at the time of the
renaissance of business ethics, concomitant with some widely publicised
business scandals. If we search recent literature on leadership, we
find interesting examples of this new approach. Let me mention just
two. Jim Collins,
the business best-seller author, proposes a new concept: the "Level 5
Leader", a model of executive who blends both classical leadership
virtues -such as ferocious resolve or will- with some attributes that
were not associated traditionally with descriptions of the charismatic
leader, such as humility and the tendency to give credit to others and
assign blame to themselves. This two latter attributes were, according
to Nietzsche, virtues of the "slave morality" but not applicable to
masters who execute their will of power. And in management theory there
were intuitively linked more to the attitude of subordinates than that
of leaders.

Another inspiring recent contribution is "Resonant leadership", a book written by professors Boyatzis and McKee.
Its authors formulate a similar "antinietzschean" proposal: they defend
that managers who aspire to become effective and enduring leaders need
to be mindful, hopeful and compassionate.

A final mention to another contribution of contemporary optimistic literature on leadership: Sharon D. Sparks
defends in her latest book that leadership is not an innate but an
acquired skill, and thus can be taught and learned if the correct
methodology is employed. Although the book slightly oversells Harvard
Business School courses on leadership, it is a good antidote for
sceptics on the subject.

Notes

(1) Nietzsche, F. "Die Frohliche Wissenschaft", quoted in
Hollingdale, R.J.: "Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy" (Cambridge
University Press; Cambridge, UK, 1999); p. 143.

(2) Ibid., p. 144.

Comments

Julián Montaño February 29, 2008 - 8:19 pm

Dear Santiago,
I liked very much your post. Nietzsche arrived to the Theory of Management from the very beginning. Max Weber was inspired by Nietzsche to shape his theory of power, bureaucratic power and –a word of his invention- managerial behaviour. Managerial exercise of power appeals to his own efficiency/efficacy as a criterion, and no other external (transcendent o transcendental) rule. Now that we are conscious of the sources from where the traditional Management Theory springs we are ready to transcendent it in the more accurate to human nature Aristotelian (and postmodern or, better, post-postmodern) way: there are rules and many of them external rules, learned by practice, which conform habits. Once the habits are learned those rules (external: ethical for instance) are also internal criteria of efficiency/efficacy: to follow that rules is to follow an internalized criterion (learned, learned by habit, learned by heart as said in the old days). The non-aristotelian, hobbesian, weberian or nietszchean way of exercise power drives to failure, one turns out to be mere subject of different masks instead of a strong person, we are domineered by wishes instead the other way round: we dominating the wishes and conforming a strong character. Gordon Gecko was not at the end a strong character.
Congratulations for your post.

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“Modern and Postmodern Conceptions of Leadership” | Arts and ……

[…]If we search recent literature on leadership, we find interesting examples of this new approach. Let me mention just two. Jim Collins, the business best-seller author, proposes a new concept: the "Level 5 … Max Weber was inspired by Nietzsch…

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brian July 18, 2011 - 6:39 pm

good exam for leadership. i’ll follow. thanks
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Leo Isaac December 22, 2011 - 5:24 am

Just stumbled on your excellent blog and read with great interest. Two things stood out to me immediately. Firstly, the Level 5 leader, as described, seems increasingly apparent these days. They constantly give credit to others and tend to pick out someone in their audience an attribute something of importance to that person. It sometimes seems that are intentionally demonstrating excellence in communication skills, and this can at times seem a sham. While one often has a sense of affection for leaders with great humility, there comes a point where it becomes irritating.

The other striking truth is the dichotomy of master and salve morality. In particular, the tendency of young adults to place great energy and emphasis to be part of the herd, and to avoid standing out from the crowd. In this digital age, people are increasingly homogenised through the media. While age brings widsom and an acceptance of the importance of being different, one wonders whether the leaders of tomorrow will lack uniqueness.
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Student of Sports Management February 6, 2012 - 11:35 am

“Beyond good and evil” is a very interesting place, I would imagine. As an atheist I can certainly dispense with the religious view of the world as either good or evil, but I find it hard to let go the practical sense of good and evil. If the efforts of any human are not conducive to the planets ecology, I would describe these efforts as evil. In this sense, “evil” results from human actions that are based on greed and move us towards impending doom as a species and the degradation of life on earth. “Good”, on the other had, is a counteracting force that steadies the agressive and greedy nature of the human. Therefore to move beyond good and evil means to care not whether your life has any bearing on the future of your family, society and the well-being of the planet. It means to perpetrate any action simply to develop oneself to full potential irrespective of the consequences. I am not sure I understand or like this.

Student of Sports Management February 6, 2012 - 12:22 pm

Further to my previous comment, perhaps “beyond good and evil” is about the realisation that in the vastness of the universe, our own existence and even that of our planet, is of little consequence. Our human brain creates our self importance as individuals and as a species when in reality there is none. Student of Sports Management

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