Worshiping Leadership

leader
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Leadership is a dominant idea in business administration taught in courses and prescribed as a normative role model for their alumni to become leaders of the future. While traditional political science is more ambivalent about this topic and less focused on soft-skill and impact classes and the accompanying rhetoric the notion of leadership dissipates from business and economic degrees to public policy programs. This comes in conjunction of larger pressures for social science programs to become more practice oriented, and for researchers to show real-world impact etc.

In my view, this is an extremely ambivalent trend. To be fair, to some degree such practices are necessary and perhaps helpful in positioning students in the job market. Such classes may help students monetize their degrees and will also give them skills traditional programs wouldn’t offer.

But they come with a very specific normative and cognitive template to live up to. In a typical modern society only a tiny fraction of the population are leaders of substantive sorts – despite the inflation of job descriptions such as manager of ‘X’ or director of ‘Y’. Perhaps the share of leaders is somewhat higher among people with tertiary education, but even here the overwhelming majority of graduates will become parts of middle management in big companies, the government or non-profit institutions, they will be self-employed or just ordinary folks like everyone else. Not everybody becomes an entrepreneur, a thought leader or policy pusher. (And, as a matter of fact, many entrepreneurs either never went to university, or were drop-outs.)

And this matters: universities should think about what kind of citizens they want to educate. They should train good, critical and cooperative followers instead of gazillions of would-be leaders who want to change the world single-handedly. Such graduates either may become constantly disappointed by their own (stagnating) careers failing to make big impact, or they risk becoming delusional, egotistical policy entrepreneurs who have unlearned how to cooperate in larger groups. Universities, and public policy schools in particular should establish an ethic based on educating good citizens, good bureaucrats, and, most of all good voters who know how to deal with information and don’t fall for populist leadership rhetoric. Good followers also need to know when and why to (un-)follow.

In this sense following templates from economics and business administration departments is a dangerous liaison for other social sciences. The glorification of competitiveness, individualism may or may not work for the business world, but in other parts of the social and political domain it fails abjectly.

There are also important psychological reasons why we should be careful to ascribe leaders too much influence and importance in important social changes across the world. True, as Marx argued sometimes historical personalities in their circumstances can have a huge (but not always positive) impact. But more often than not we just ascribe certain outcomes to people, because this makes for simple causal stories. Who really pushed the technical frontier in personal computing? Was it really Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, or the myriads of programmers and engineers that spent hours on the actual technological advances? Who really makes a democracy work? The elite or specific government leaders, or the millions of voters who are smart enough to vote wisely and with responsibility?

In this sense, social science programs should spent much more effort to focus on the large majority of contributors to social change than the tiny elites. Why not give, for instance, prizes to ordinary employees within an institution (say an NGO or company etc.) instead of its president, CEO etc.? Why not discard all this excessive leadership rhetoric for a rhetoric based on cooperative behavior, real team-work skills and real, if infinitesimally small contributions to society?

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