Philosophy can teach us much about leadership and management, but you would not guess it from the two recent books by Robert Spillane and Jean-Etienne Joullié, Philosophy of Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Philosophical Foundations of Management Thought (Lexington). The premise of each is this: the roots of our thinking about leadership and management reach deep into ancient times, and we can lead and manage better if those roots are exposed. Alas, they never explain the difference between leadership and management, leaving us to wonder why we have two books rather than one. And, by the end, we wonder why we have even one.
The authors are contemptuous of leaders and managers. Leaders, they darkly complain, have a “consistent history of mystical propaganda, widespread corruption, arrogant stupidity, and mass homicide;” and managers, for their part, “have bad tempers, do not like their colleagues, and do not care about their anxieties or aspirations.” They preach that both can receive salvation only by baptism in philosophy.
I am not a convert, but I do find an opportunity here to reflect upon how to do better what they do so poorly, namely:
- How to think about leadership.
- How to think about management education.
- How to apply the history of philosophy to leadership and management.
First, how shall we think about leadership? Their leadership book yields, with much patience, a sort of analysis of leadership. They say that a leader must have two things: specialised knowledge and rhetorical skill. These two things can influence some people to give authority to — to authorise — the leader. People do this to achieve two goals: to grow the specialised knowledge, and to use it in a way that benefits the group. Given that so little of The Philosophy of Leadership is devoted to the philosophy of leadership, that is all there is to say.
The authors are right to prioritise social authorisation as a source of formal leadership. But they leave vast gaps, including these:
- They baldly claim that there can be no leadership without authority. But there are widely discussed cases of leadership — which Ronald Heifetz aptly designates “leading without authority” — in which an emergent leader, who has no acknowledged leadership rights or responsibilities, plays a major group role. This is an important category, one that can result in the eventual authorisation of the leader.
- The authors underestimate the importance of group goals for leadership. They only allow for knowledge-related goals. But a group can have any number of different goals — from safety, to wealth creation, to public service, to fun. Knowledge is always of pragmatic value, but it is seldom the primary goal, except in educational and research organisations. In most cases, knowledge is strictly an instrument for advancing the chief goal.
- Their account misses the most important aspect of leadership. Followers are not looking for someone upon whom they can bestow authority; they are looking for someone who will take on responsibility — in particular, the responsibility for envisioning and advancing the group goal. It so happens that it is also a good idea for them to give authority to the leader, but only because it is hard to carry out responsibilities without rights. Conceptually, the rights flow from the responsibilities. This crucially fixes, as the basic principle for good leadership, this: focus first on carrying out your responsibility, not on amassing and wielding your authority.
Second, how shall we think about management education? In the management book, the authors often adopt a prophetic tone, calling down fire and brimstone upon the purveyors of modern management education. It is a calamitous mistake, they say, to believe that management is a science requiring the mastery of a special body of knowledge. This folly can be traced back to Plato, whose Academy was the first management school—a school that promoted “ideas that are morally and intellectually corrupt” and that trained “self-righteous autocrats.” They proceed to denounce everyone from Descartes (who has, regrettably, given us Taylorism and Michael Porter) to the British Empiricists (who, sadly, laid the groundwork for positivism and scientism).
In one of this book’s startling incongruities, they prescribe as the remedy for these philosophy-induced ills…philosophy! Replace the management curriculum with general education in philosophy, and all will be well. And how has that worked out so far?
Another stunning incongruity is produced by their denunciation of the idea that management requires mastery of a specialised body of knowledge. Recall that leadership—which they hint is the real aim of all management—has been defined in their leadership book by the leader’s possession of specialised knowledge. The authors never try to reconcile the conflict, nor even seem to notice it.
There are less oracular, and more salutary, ways to think about the future of management education. Any professional practice, including law, education, medicine, social work, and management, culls relevant basic knowledge from the general disciplines and applies it to life. In each case, we know that a good professional education has three elements:
- A solid foundation in general skills and knowledge, including philosophy (often established as an undergraduate).
- A solid foundation in the real life professional practice (often established as an intern).
- A bridge that connects them.
Each professional discipline has developed a set of principles that helps students cross the bridge. It is an evolving set of principles, and benefits from informed and reflective criticism. Unfortunately, I do not find anything informed or reflective in the philippics of these authors.
Third, how shall we learn about leadership and management from the history of philosophy? Intellectual history, the main project of both books, can be gripping and edifying—but only if it adheres to a few rules, all of which are flouted by these authors:
Be clear about the topic itself. Management is never defined, leadership receives only a vague and inadequate analysis, the two are never distinguished, and where we can infer some sort of distinction (as with the role of specialised knowledge) it is not credible.
Adopt clear principles for the selection of historical thinkers. No principle of selection is evident. Each book provides a quirky selection of white male European thinkers. For no apparent reason, some philosophers are covered extensively in one of the books but ignored in the other. Three philosophical giants who never make the cut are Mill, Wittgenstein, and Rawls. Yet, one who merits coverage in both books is General George Patton! The best example of their slipshod structure is the chapter on ancient Cynicism. All indications are that it was written for the longer management book but transplanted without editing to the leadership book to balance the two lengths; it only discusses management, never leadership, the term “leadership” occurring only in the chapter title.
Show respect for the thinkers selected. Too often, the authors inject abrupt and sometimes mocking dismissals of their subject’s so-called errors, confusions, or lies, in a style best described as overweening woolliness. The leadership book, to cite only one example, limits Plato to a page and a half; his rich and important notion of philosopher-kings is briskly banished on the grounds that “they must tell lies.”
Focus on the aspects of their work that are relevant. The authors have produced a series of loosely related idiosyncratic encyclopaedia articles, with no argumentative arc nor much assistance for the reader in sifting among the essential and the accidental. There is page after page of ponderous prose about thinkers and views that can only be connected to that book’s topic by the slenderest of threads. And the stew is seasoned heavily with trivia. I do not know why we need a description of the Brazilian national flag, a plot summary of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, or reference to the adulteries of Marcus Aurelius’s wife. Everything is ultimately connected to everything, of course; but most of us would prefer to read everything on our own time.
“This reminds me of that” does not count as relevance. Yet this is the link the authors like best. They connect Peter Drucker to Achilles, for example, not because Drucker’s ideas were inspired by Homer, but because they both focus on getting the job done instead of the inner life. But elsewhere they connect Drucker to the existentialists, who are famous for prioritising the inner life. Similarly, Taylorism is blamed on positivism in one book, but in the other is blamed on Descartes, whose rationalism is antithetical to positivism. Any river of ideas can have multiple tributaries; but noting that a river and a higher stream both contain water does not prove that the one feeds the other. Superficial resemblances are best explored when a project is being brainstormed and researched. The reader should not be asked to take it from there.
In the introduction to the leadership volume, the authors write, “We have written this book to arouse philosophical curiosity, not to satisfy it.” In both books, they abundantly achieve the second part of that goal, but not the first.
- This blog post is based on the author’s paper Leadership, Management, and the History of Ideas, in the journal Philosophy of Management (March 2017), in which he reviews two books by Robert Spillane and Jean-Etienne Joullié: Philosophy of Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Philosophical Foundations of Management Thought (Lexington).
- The post gives the views of its authors, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image credit: The Swedish book corner (cropped), by ami photography, under a CC-BY-SA-2.0 licence
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David Carl Wilson is Dean Emeritus, Senior Advisor, and Professor of Philosophy at Webster University. He served for fourteen years as Dean of Webster’s College of Arts & Sciences, which comprises 45 programs at 32 domestic and seven international campuses. He teaches in both the Management and the Philosophy Departments at Webster, concentrating on the nature of leadership and the social responsibilities of leaders. He earned his PhD in philosophy from UCLA, where he then taught for many years and rose to the level of Associate Provost before moving to Webster. He is the author of the acclaimed McGraw-Hill book, A Guide to Good Reasoning, and serves on the executive editorial board of Philosophy of Management. Wilson has served as a board member for many organizations throughout the St. Louis region, and has been engaged in national higher education issues as a long-time board member for the American Council of Education’s Council of Fellows.
Managers are not Popes..
Performance Appraisal : Loyalty Versus Performance, a tug of war ?
No great management thinker can authoritatively say that one is better than other when it comes to appraising people. One seems to be the better than the other and vice versa on different cases under unique circumstances. The objective here is to some light on a modern day corporate world and to ask ourselves which has more consideration while appraising people. I am referring to extrinsic rewards i.e., increase in monetary compensation which normally happens once in year.
In most of the cases loyalty acquires preference than performance. Corporate politik or affairs mostly managed by or fall in the purview of Robert Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power”. And the rule which is of paramount importance is “Never outshine our master”. At any cost do not try to prove your master (manager) as an idiot. In reality he might be worse than idiot but please don’t make him feel that he is one. I have learnt from my learned friend that in a booming economy like India any body can become managers at a very young age, this may not be case in most of the western economies. The one who can survive this dirty state of corporate politics can survive in Amazon forest too, that seems to be quite an extreme comparison but believe me that is the truth.
You see your companion and it is an established fact that he/she is indeed mediocre in his performance and he/she lacks what are called bare minimum skills. But when it is the appraisal time, he benefits the most. And your expression might be: What the heck, I am not even getting nuts? So you go back and ask for an explanation from your manager about this step motherly treatment. You would surprised to hear the ‘A’ word i.e., I am referring to Attitude. You might have managers speaking as if they have discovered Attitude like Einstein discovered gravity. But there is no choice but to listen to that rubbish, of course you should have patience. I am not sure if it is Swami Parthasarathi who said all successful managers need hanumans for them to be successful? Correct me if it is not Swami Parthasarathi.
At times there might be no reason to find fault with intentions of CXO’s of the organization but it is only the Mid-level witless managers who while implementing the noble intentions apply the discretion indiscriminately and favor the stooge but not the performer, because he has outshined him. I do not deny that loyalty is an important component which must be honored, but not definitely at the cost of performance because performer’s performance is needed for the organizations to survive in a red ocean. When you see organizations boast that their culture as one that is liberal and open, but when it comes to actual practice you do not see all that is happening what is written on your company’s intranet pages.
Yes we can talk about all this since the advent of this IT and ITES, but in the manufacturing domain that is simply not possible. But people outside of this white collar industry do not know that bigoted and personal tyrants do exist out here too as they do in other colored collar industries like blue or yellow for example. You can flout all the stated rules if your manager is in your favor, that’s why I say don’t outshine him. That means do not tell him that he is an idiot. It is horrible when you work under managers who have Theory X assumptions and not to mention the parental ego, you can literally feel that you are in a holocaust like environment.
Just to quote an incident or example which Douglas McGregor refers in his book “The Human Side of Enterprise” where a new manager walks in to a production plant and pulls up a machine operator and says “When I manage the shop it is I who actually runs the shop”, the operator stops the machine which he was operating and asked the manager to run it. Actually the whole plant was stopped to see how this manager could run it. This is the manifestation of ego. Another shocking fact I have noticed is that you could earn the ire of your master because of your performance as well. So all High performers it is not enough that if you stop yourselves by performing alone and not be loyal, at least pretend. This is for those who are badly looking for extrinsic reward. Let me see how many are going to refute what I am saying here.
Published in dsathyana.wordpress.com