Analysis by Tudor Rickards and Kamel Mnisri
The question was put by a participant on a leadership workshop in Dubai recently. What indeed might we expect from future leaders? Harvard Business Review sometimes permits speculation on the subject to find its way into its august pages. Such articles show a rather worrying absence of any radical shift in beliefs across the period including the global economic crisis which manifested itself in 2008. That is to say, articles about the future of leadership need to be studied as imaginative essays which require constructive testing.
For example, the dominant views of leadership in the most widely-read articles and books on the subject build on work from American leaders. These ideas drew on and fed back into theories of leadership which became increasingly influenced by the American experience, mediated by American cultural norms of individualism and self-actualization. That is not to say that the ideas were sealed off from older influences, particularly from Europe. The economic principles of the free market were retained and developed from the insights of the moral philosophers such as Adam Smith, and through French and German intellectual figures, whose ideas were reinforced in the Unites States by the waves of immigrants making a new life in the emergent super-state.
The re-exporting of these ideas around the world was reinforced by the powerful influence of Harvard Business School which has been attributed as having invented the discipline (and some would say the rhetoric) of organisation studies. By the 1930s, its consulting handmaiden McKinsey was emerging was becoming equally dominant globally through Harvard trained consultants and faculty.
By the turn of the 20th century, the vigorous marketing of the American idea of leadership was firmly entrenched through the most-highly regards journals, textbooks, and more popular best-sellers promising organisational and personal redemption.
A tipping point for leadership theories
Then something spectacular occurred, impacting on leaders and leadership theories around the world. It took the shape of a radical disruption of normality for economic systems. As banks failed, their leaders were accused of corruption, incompetence or both. Even the so-called new leadership model of the 1980s looked rather inadequate. Where were the transformational leaders, believed to be transforming followers into less-selfish actions for the good of the wider social system? Where were the ethical leaders supporting greater awareness of environmental dangers and seeking to achieve greater corporate responsibility?
Opinion pieces on leadership offered a few possibilities. The harshness of dominant leaders had led to proposals that animal instincts were too close to the surface [Mandrill management]. A more person-centred style was advocated with attention to ‘softer’ skills. The new leader was expected to show emotional intelligence.
Blowing in the wind. Superleadership?
A question for students of leadership: What answers are there blowing in these winds of change? One idea is that of distributed or collective leadership. Manz and Sims offer the concept of a version of distributed leadership which collectively makes up a superleader. Will this help introduce a more evenly shared distribution of power and influence in organizations? Will China’s million graduates produced annually be enthused by the prospect of such leadership?