“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

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!"

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.


(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.


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