Leaders: Myths and Reality

November 26, 2018

General Stanley McChrystal and co-authors explore contemporary beliefs on leadership. They do so by assessing leaders and leadership through a series a case examples, some ancient, some modern. 

The authors acknowledge that the structure can be traced to Plutarch’s Lives, no longer the best-seller it once was. 

Plutarch hit on the wheeze of comparing the recorded acts of the great leaders. Both the method and foundation myth of the Great Man leader persists today, as McChrystal points out.The demise of The Great Man myth has been predicted for long enough, but even the increasing announcements of its decline may prove premature. Arguably, the more interesting question is what permits its survival? I am reminded of the century-long search for the essence of leadership, when trait theory guided popular and scholarly beliefs alike. The American theorist Stogdill is widely regarded as weakening the long-established belief in a trait-based essence of leadership. 

Modern textbooks point to the weakening of trait theory (interestingly, not mentioned by McChrystal), but we are still saddled with a candidate for the essence of leadership, in the charismatic leader. I have argued the dangers of unchallenged belief in the charismatic leader, in Dilemmas of Leadership, particularly in later editions of the textbook, and in the monograph about the charismatic football manager Jose Mourinho.


My own interest in leadership was quickened by the writings of the British academic John Adair, who also drew on his understanding of classical leadership accounts. 


McChrystal’s contribution adds to the genre, and stands above many pot-boilers which continue to be churned out.