“We the people”. Where’s the evidence that transformational leadership works?

November 25, 2013

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.

Fast forward

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 [2013] 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.


Low Status High Security: lessons from the Snowden case

August 19, 2013

By John Keane

The Snowden case has drawn attention to a characteristic of espionage in an electronic age in which high security information is accessible to security-cleared contractors of relatively low status

The phenomenon of electronic espionage by low-status contractors is becoming increasingly discussed after several high-profile leaking stories, which for shorthand sre being labelled as wikileaks. The BBC noted recently that the conditions are well-known, but little has been done to address the problem. The article points to the need to grant contractors high security status. They cite the large consulting firm Booz Allen as having remarkably high numbers for staff cleared for accessing Government information. Of its 25,000 staff, nearly half have security clearance to top secret class information. These are the ranks from which Edward Snowden emerged.

A leadership dilemma

Security analysts recognize that the management of vast information flows requires considerable back-up support. I think of it as a wormhole in the blogosphere through which data can slip. In principle, the dangers can be reduced by greater care in allocating access to highly sensitive data. In practice we have a leadership dilemma of the electronic age.

The author

This post is written by Dr John Keane of Urmston University in Northern England where he teaches and researches into leadership and the history of economics. The views expressed are those of the author.


Richard Dawkins re-interprets memes and offers a creative tautology

July 23, 2013

by John Keane

Just for hits

Rickard Dawkins continues his Odyssey in search of scientific truth against the forces of superstition. In the sponsored advertising video Just for Hits he raises interesting questions about the logic behind his reasoning

What lies at the core of this eight minute glossy video? Its title hints at it. At one level it is Just for Hits. That which is designed is designed for a purpose, he declares. If designs are fit for purpose, they survive and spread. He has already borrowed the metaphor of a virus. Concepts intended to spread are fit for purpose if they spread.

I rather like to concept of a meme spreading through imitation. It offers a description (but not necessarily an explanation) of the processes of cultural replication. I am the sort of person who likes to examine possible mechanisms in search of explanations. The principle behind a design, if you like.

The Darwinian principle of natural selection

The Darwinian principle of natural selection is a very satisfactory one which fits observations and permits predictive trials. I prefer it to other wide-range explanations, as does Professor Dawkins. The mechanism is elegantly captured in the notion of blind variation and selective choice.

‘As if’

At very least, I believe that blind variation and selective choice ‘works’ in the natural world. It offers what most scientists would consider a robust basis of an explanatory theory. Its scientific respectability can be examined in various ways. One way is to assess its success as if it describes what results in the variety of the world, the survival of genetic material or natural selection. It works as if the world operated according to its beautifully elegant principles.

The whiff of tautology

I am not the first to be troubled by a whiff of tautology in the way it is applied to explain just about observable aspect of biology (including leadership).

Many years ago, before I heard of Richard Dawkins, I asked a distinguished Professor of Cell Biology whether a gene was a material entity or a metaphor. He told me that was a good question, which I came to suspect was polite way of saying he would have trouble providing an answer.

For the hits

The whiff of tautology is stronger in the concept of a meme. The closest I get to understanding the memetic replicator is that humans have a deeply embedded inclination to imitate. Well, yes. So viral messages ‘go viral’ because they have something which triggers the imitative response.

Creativity

Dawkins suggests that creativity may be part of the story. He reinvents (or knowingly imitates) a mechanism for creativity examined by scholars such as Dean Simonton . Pithily, it is a version of the natural selection mechanism of blind variation and selective choice.

The ghost in the machine

Arthur Koestler was another deep thinker on the act of creation. He offered the metaphor of the brain as a machine, with creativity as the ghost in the machine. This recognizes the mysterious nature of the creative principle. Professor Hawkins has written about his own sense of awe at the evolutionary principle. Koestler would probably agree, although perhaps favouring the aha moment of creative discovery. [Another of Koestler’s classic books was called The Sleep Walkers which examines the way progress is ‘stumbled upon’.]

Acknowledgement

To Guardian journalist Andrew Brown who drew my attention to the tautology in his comment piece about Richard Dawkins’ ‘meaningless meme’.

[Dr John Keane writes on matters relating to leadership and the history of science. He teaches and researches at The University of Urmston.]