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The Rise Of Contemporary Leadership Theory

Theories of leadership in any period are driven by a set of convictions and hopes on the part of the theorist. One conviction is that rapid societal evolution makes it imperative to keep one's pulse on social changes and their implications for how groups of human beings can best be led, an inherent assumption in the writings of leadership theorist Rosabeth Moss Kanter and numerous other scholars. A competing view is that human nature is static and unchanging and that the lasting lessons of history provide surer instruction in leadership than do the passing ripples of modernity. Ironically, the exemplars of this view are relatively ancient figures such as Lao Tzu and Machiavelli.

A core Western assumption about leadership is that leaders who succeed have "vision," a tangible end goal toward which they and their followers can strive. But countless Eastern leaders have been more influenced by the worldview of Lao Tzu, who observed, "A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.… Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself" (Lao Tzu, chapters 27 and 57).

In a related manner, some maintain that the leader must be an idealist set on speaking to that which is highest, while others hold that a leader must be a realist who is aware of human limitations. Plato contended in The Republic that:

until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils.

Yet as though he were responding directly to Plato, Machiavelli soberly observed in The Prince almost two thousand years later:

Many have imagined republics and principalities which have never been seen or known to exist in reality; for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done will rather bring about his own ruin than his preservation; for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary that a prince who is interested in his survival learn to be other than good, making use of this capacity or refraining from it according to the need.

The collective tendency has tilted toward idealism in recent decades. This shift is not a current echo of Plato's philosopher-king. It is, rather, an expression of democratic ideals, positing an assumption that intrinsic in human nature is a capacity to lead that only need be unearthed and cultivated in order to flourish.

The participative management and leadership style ascendant in the late twentieth century was exemplified by the work of Douglas McGregor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In his landmark work, The Human Side of Enterprise (1960), McGregor distinguished between a traditional Theory X, which fundamentally viewed humanity in a negative light (the view classically ascribed to Machiavelli), and a newly emerging Theory Y, which viewed human beings in a more positive light. Given Theory X's assumption that human beings are essentially flawed and resistant to work, a successful leader presumably needed to manage them in an authoritarian manner, with rigorous controls.

McGregor heralded his new Theory Y, which demonstrated that human beings are far more willing to invest themselves in their work if it bears personal meaning. If they can escape the suffocation of being overmanaged and begin to make a collaborative investment through their labor, they will bring untapped new fountains of creativity and energy to an organization or cause. The democratic model of organizational leadership began to develop, with its flattened organizational pyramids and concepts such as empowerment and shared vision.

Unlike the so-called hard sciences, the tenets of the social sciences cannot readily be subjected to the test of falsification, and, as a consequence, are often viewed with suspicion. Nevertheless, since the mid-1950s, the social sciences produced a large number of attractive theories of leadership. Management expert Tom Peters noted that Warren Bennis's work at MIT during the 1960s "foreshadowed—and helped bring about—the early twenty-first century's headlong plunge into less hierarchical, more democratic and adaptive institutions, both public and private." Bennis, a protégé of McGregor, found among other things that hierarchical and autocratic approaches were the best way for teams to carry out simple tasks, while democratic and collaborative approaches were the best way for teams to carry out complex tasks. In such cases, all team members experienced a high average level of contentment in their work, unlike in hierarchical arrangements, where the top person enjoyed maximum contentment and the others experienced minimum contentment.

American corporations were shaped most dramatically by such new models. The gradually increasing tendency toward participative management received a kick-start in the 1980s, when American and European business executives came to admire their Japanese counterparts. Japanese industry was remarkable for its emphasis on the group rather than the individual, and for team processes and a participative work style. Not out of idealism but out of pure self-interest, Western managers began to adopt similar practices. Within a few years, programs for and courses in leadership theory and development were more often housed in American universities' business schools than in departments of political science, psychology, history, or social science. For many years this resulted in an amoral emphasis on technique rather than ethics—in other words, democratic leadership was good for the bottom line as opposed to being intrinsically right—although some business-school-based experts such as Bennis and James O'Toole championed a more deontological approach.

By the last decade of the twentieth century, few successful American leaders in any profit-seeking or not-for-profit organization had avoided participating in at least one seminar, visioning session, or strategic-planning task force built on democratic management principles. However, the good intentions of democratically inclined managers and consultants collided with the limitations of human nature—and a wave of satire (as evidenced in the "Dilbert" comic strip) and public cynicism followed. This cynicism, or frustrated idealism, offers a study in contrasts with Machiavelli's brutal unsenti-mentality, which had seemingly been discredited by modern practitioners of democratic management and leadership. Machiavelli was above all a coolly detached student of human nature. His repeated advice to leaders was to believe in the reality of human nature, as opposed to what they wished it were.

Quoted again more widely in an era of renewed global realpolitik, Machiavelli has proved to be neither inerrant nor irrelevant. He illustrated sides of human nature that must be closely examined by every leader, painful though that process may be. The good news for leaders is that there are nobler facets of human nature that have just as great a chance of asserting themselves as those identified by Machiavelli. As such, his greatest legacy may be his ability to help leaders develop a more integrated understanding of human nature and leadership.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Laser - Background And History to Linear equationLeadership - Leadership In Historical Context, History's Slaves Or History's Masters?, Leadership As A Skill