Thinking Differently about Leadership

Thinking Differently about Leadership

A Critical History of Leadership Studies

New Horizons in Leadership Studies series

Suze Wilson

This book is a critical historical analysis of leadership thought in the Western tradition, examining Classical Greek, medieval and modern social scientific theories of leadership, focussing on the assumptions and effects which arise from these ways of understanding leadership and offering a new basis for leadership theory-building.

Chapter 4: The 16th-century European truth about leadership

Suze Wilson

Subjects: business and management, business leadership, politics and public policy, leadership


The focus turns now to examine a very different episteme, in which the truth about leadership was proclaimed by reference to medieval Europe’s standards, values and concerns. Specifically, I trace here the final stages of the medieval discourse on leadership and the emergence of an alternative based on Enlightenment thought. This case study, therefore, offers further evidence of the contingent, constructed and ultimately fragile nature of the truth about leadership and its processes of invention. Over the course of around 900 years, medieval Europe developed a comprehensive body of leadership knowledge which sought to prescribe how princes ought best to carry out their responsibilities. A specific genre of texts known as ‘mirrors for princes’ set out this knowledge, and princes themselves were its intended audience. Gilbert estimated that around 1000 such texts were written between 800 and 1700. These texts were so popular ‘throughout Western Europe for centuries that it is difficult to imagine a renaissance library wholly without them’. This chapter examines the form, formation and demise of this medieval truth about leadership, with a particular focus on texts from the 16th century. This body of knowledge is predicated on the fact of inherited, monarchical rule which was, at the time, the most dominant form of government and was understood as being both natural and desirable. Talk of leadership at this time thus pertains exclusively to the person of the prince and his activities.

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