A Brief history of leadership

October 21, 2007

glass_spiral_staircase.jpgLeaders and leadership continue to capture the public imagination. But there have been few attempts to trace the history of leadership to its earliest manifestations. What can be learned from the hard-wired behaviors of insects, the territorialism of reptiles, the disciplinary schooling of horses, and the social capitalism of chimpanzees?

This post [under development] is based on a presentation to Manchester Business School Alumni in October 2007. You can access the presentation entitled A brief history of leadership here, [accessed via my slideshare powerpoints. Be patient. It does load, in about 15 seconds from my PC! ].

The lecture sets out the case for learning about today’s leadership dilemmas by reference to animal behaviors. This is in some ways a well-trodden path since Desmond Morris reminded us of our kinship with other animals as a naked ape.

The approach has to beware the pitfalls of anthropomorphism (attributing human behaviors to other animals). These challenges have been examined by John Stodart Kennedy as the new anthropomorphism.

These scholars have continued the debate on instinctive behaviors that followed the work of pioneering ethologists such as Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz.

Drawing on these sources, the lecture argues that our modern concepts of leadership draw on residual ancient forms. Furthermore, our shared concepts and folk-memories contribute to universal archetypes.

It is suggested that as humans, through consciousness and learning, we become and create ‘the leaders we deserve’

Other points of interest: By re-evaluating the role of instinct in behaviors that are considered to exhibit leadership qualities, we approach the ancient question of whether leaders are born or made.

To go more deeply

In preparing the lecture, I drew heavily on the work of Richard Dawkins, and particularly The Ancestor’s Tale.

Anyone with strong creationist beliefs will probably have problems with the Darwinist treatment.


Bush Brown Mills & Boon

July 29, 2007

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Tony Blair was said to have had an unhealthily close relationship with President Bush. The new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, meets George Bush this weekend. But are we at risk of making sense of their first encounter in terms better suited to romantic fiction?

The widespread view over here is that Tony Blair became too much in thrall to George Bush. The ‘poodle’ metaphor might have become clichéd, but it has outlasted other more nuanced terms. Maybe there will be a historical revision, but for the moment the story has been established, and the ending settled in the public’s recollections of both leaders and their relationship.

Gordon Brown became Prime Minister after a long and bitter succession battle. Maybe, again, the official line will soften the accepted version of the story. The official line is that the two men had a long-standing friendship which carried them through the long period of Blair’s dominance as Prime Minister, and Brown’s not inconsiderable political influence as a highly effective Chancellor of the Exchequer. In this version, any discussions between them did not amount to a deal that Brown would not complete with Blair for the top job after the sudden death of Labour’s leader John Smith. Blair would smooth the way for Gordon’s succession, but not with a time-scale attached to the arrangement, which as I have just said, was not in any way a deal.

In the version presented through the media, there was a deal, and in time Brown became increasingly convinced that he had been conned, and would not be given Blair’s support in a future leadership contest. The Blair/Brown relationship was to become as dark as the Blair/Bush one was to burgeon into an idyllic friendship of sweetness and light.

That was then

Gordon eventually takes over and ‘sends out signals that changes are on the way. It’s tricky because he can’t change too much of the things he was assumed to be partly res;onsible for. He might be accused of being Blair’s poodle! would be then accused of heavily involvement in under Tony. But it is thought that he will meet those two Kiplingesque impostors of threat and opportunity . over Iraq, and thus inevitably the Anglo-American relationship

Now Gordon journeys to Camp David to meet Blair’s old buddie. The meeting has attracted a little attention in the UK political circles, less so in America. The White House press machine seems to have reached an embattled compromise with the media in its standardized delivery of standardized news stories. The travelling members of the Washington Press Corp dutifully attends at Camp David and reports on the information provided. The item will slot into the back end of news reports in its rightful place after the breaking news of personalised tragedies, and the doings of celebrities from the overlapping celebrity worlds of sport, entertainment, and violent crime. No big deal. Gordon gets his allotted coverage, roughly that allocated to the meetings of the last and next international visitors with the President.

Does it the meeting matter?
Interested journalists seem to think it does.

Maybe this is so, although I am inclined to think the idea is too close to that romantic tale of a first encounter, and of the critical importance of first impressions. A misunderstanding leads to many a twist and turn before the two principal characters find their true relationship. Its too close to Mills & Boon, as we like to say.

First impressions are important, not least in the world of business. Rickards and Clark cited several examples of the importance attributed by business leaders to first impressions. It’s up there with other assumptions, such as the idea that trust, once lost, is never regained. That’s a more deterministic version of the ‘first impression’ assumption.

Here we have a chance to evaluate these notions in a well-documented (if well-packaged) form, as well as the suggestion that a new leader can expect a honeymoon period. In Gordon’s case, this is measured by the so-called Brown Bounce in opinion polls.


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