Dr John Keane
Since the 1980s, leadership texts place transformational leadership at the centre of the new leadership movement. Is the theory supported in practice?
Like many leadership teachers, my lectures refer the new leadership movement as the major change in theoretical thinking. It was introduced around the 1980s, and places emphasis on vision, innovative change, and the transformation of organizations and individuals. It succeeded in challenging the older ideas in which leadership was rather easily muddled up with effective management plus a dash of mysterious charisma and inspiration. Early work frequently referred to John F Kennedy whose death fifty years ago we remember this week [Nov 21st 2013].
I’ll start with examining the possibility of transformational change through political leaders in the west who are considered transformational.
The Thatcher vision
The 1980s in the UK were the Thatcher years. She would be the most obvious example of a visionary leader. The Telegraph offered a succinct and plausible definition: “to release the repressed aspirations of millions of ordinary people”. Advocates of transformational leadership could argue that Margaret Thatcher helped change the aspirations of millions of ordinary people. Others would argue that the transformation has not resulted in more noble aspirations or a more widespread capacity to reflect on personal beliefs and values. That is hardly a surprising conclusion, but arguably it lies at the heart of transformational leadership’s capacity to transform people as well as systems.
The Reagan Vision
Margaret Thatcher’s political soul mate in America was Robert Reagan. He held steadfastly to a vision of a world in which the ‘evil empire’ of the [then] Soviet Union would be defeated and transformed into a democratic society. The Soviet Union did crumble. Again, the vision has been partially fulfilled in the structural sense, but it is hard detect evident that the legacy of Reagan has transformed beliefs.
The transformation of societies and organizations
By the end of the decade, Francis Fukuyama had declared a victory of democracy through the advance of science and rationality and decline of dictatorships. His prediction now seems somewhat exaggerated.
In America, the beliefs of “we the people” today seem to be far from transformed by the heirs to Reagan. Efforts to achieve the changes in President Obama’s “can do” vision stall in what is increasingly seem as a dysfunctional political system.
In the UK this year at her death  Margaret Thatcher was seen as a towering figure who achieved structural changes that many of her political opponents are pleased enough not to attempt to reverse.
The people of Russia appear to be ‘untransformed’ enough to prefer the old style strong-man leadership of Putin over the Social Democratic ideas of the 1980s which appear to have been President Gorbachev’s more transformational vision.
In America, the beliefs of “we the people” seem to be far from transformed by the heirs to Reagan.
The non-transformation of the people
I listen a lot to the publicly-expressed views of leaders. I hear how their visions will transform the broader groups whom they seek to influence. I listen to the views and beliefs expressed by those broader groups.
Should we have a vision non-proliferation movement?
Political leaders speak as one with our business leaders in expressing their visions. Political and business leaders are failing to win the confidence and trust of their constituents. Perhaps we need a vision non-proliferation movement.
The author is a writer and researcher into leadership theory and practice. The views expressed are his own.