Leadership and the Humanities

Editorial

The making of Leadership and the Humanities

Antonio Marturano and J. Thomas Wren and Michael Harvey

Full Text

The editors welcome you to the inaugural issue of Leadership and the Humanities. With our partners, Edward Elgar Publishing and the International Leadership Association, we hope with this journal to fill an important lacuna in the existing literature on the study of leadership.

1 THE DEFINITION PROBLEM

We begin with first principles. The very definition of ‘leadership’ is contested, but in the pages of this journal we encourage a broad conceptualization that allows for the widest possible spectrum of analysis. We propose an understanding of leadership as an asymmetrical (albeit interactive and mutual) influence process that serves to articulate, clarify, and facilitate the accomplishment of a group's (organization's, community's, society's) objectives (including, importantly, survival). Thought of in this way, it becomes clear that leadership in some form or another exists essentially any time humans come together to accomplish things. Such a definition permits – indeed, invites – studies of the phenomena of leadership that include not only a fixed focus on ‘task accomplishment’ or ‘member satisfaction,’ but also the consideration of broader matters such as the dynamics of context, the philosophical ‘meaning’ and moral implications of leadership and its objectives, and the impact of leadership on people, both in groups and considered as individuals.

‘Leadership,’ the Pulitzer-Prize-winning scholar James MacGregor Burns famously observed, ‘is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.’ 1 While scholars from many disciplines, especially in the social sciences, have striven mightily to bring insights to the field, contributing many significant findings, Burns's paradoxical lament remains largely true, not so much due to a deficiency in research, as because of the complexity and variety of the leadership phenomenon.

In academic research, the field of leadership studies, particularly in the United States, has been dominated and shaped since the middle of the twentieth century by the social sciences. The disparate domains of the social sciences – anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, sociology, and related disciplines – comprise a multitude of different approaches and epistomologies. But it is fair to say that the main current of social science academic work self-consciously mimics (or ‘adopts,’ to use a friendlier word) the methods of the natural sciences, attempting to simplify complex social reality by isolating and identifying variables that explain as many observations as possible, and then developing generalizable, testable propositions. (The main dissenting social science tradition – post-modernist scholarship with its related critical studies – interestingly also looks for inspiration beyond the social sciences, to a radical post-empiricist perspective in the humanities). Social science fashions come and go: a former generation's Homo Economicus and rational actors have given way to contemporary interest in behavioral models and bounded rationality. But over time the social sciences have produced impressive understanding of many aspects of leadership dynamics, including the importance of the group context, dyadic relations and other intragroup interactions, perceptions and decision-making heuristics, emotions, gender, charisma, culture, communication, bureaucracy, and more.

Yet for all of the virtues of the social sciences in terms of methodological rigor, burgeoning models, theoretical formulations, and a steady stream of insights into leadership dynamics, we believe that a significant gap remains in how leadership today is explored, engaged with, and understood. And we believe that addressing this gap requires bringing the humanities in as a full partner in leadership studies. The disciplines of the humanities – to include (but not necessarily be limited to) history, literature, classics, philosophy, religion, law, ethics, languages, the fine and performing arts – have the potential to make an enormous contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon of leadership. For example, historical research allows us to investigate leadership in all its messiness: the swirling and dynamic interplay of constantly changing forces and occurrences, all impacting – and being impacted by – those most unpredictable of actors, human beings. In short, the study of history poses questions and investigates issues that reveal the complexity of leadership. Likewise, literature and the fine and performing arts explore the richness and depth of our common humanity, while philosophy and religion help us to confront our deepest moral questions and dilemmas as we face the challenges that leadership inevitably poses for us. Finally, the fine and performing arts remind us continually of two critical aspects of leadership: first, the essential cultural context within which leadership occurs, and which gives leadership specific meaning and significance in specific contexts; and second, the semiotic and symbolic dimension. Leadership is never reducible merely to power relationships or influence processes. It possesses a powerful symbolic and meaning-making element. From this perspective, as with our other perspectives, the humanities and the social sciences – especially sociology, anthropology, and psychology, with regard to meaning-making – both contribute to a deeper understanding of the leadership phenomenon.

The examples are as limitless as the humanities themselves: hence the need for a journal such as this to bring together such insights in an accessible manner. Our goal is not to replace or overthrow the social sciences, but to help argue for – and demonstrate – a new fusion of disciplines. Leadership is a collaborative, relational activity, and we believe that the study of leadership must likewise be a dialogue, especially a dialogue across lines often perceived to be rigid and impermeable boundaries.

That is the overriding aim of the new journal. The leadership phenomenon engages all aspects of the human condition, a subject that the humanities are particularly equipped to address. Moreover – and readers will inevitably see this as they peruse this and future volumes – studies that give us profound insights into the phenomenon need not have ‘leadership’ in the title, or, for that matter, address it as a primary theme. To take one example from this issue, Peter Kaufman explores how the legendary Roman leader Coriolanus has been portrayed by Plutarch, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and even modern film interpretations. In the depictions of his life, Coriolanus emerges as an enigmatic and controversial leader, but these later depictions are also to be understood as a function of the historical times and challenges of his portrayers, from Plutarch to the present. Thus Coriolanus has served as a leader whose relationship with the people has been hailed or despised by those chronicling him, in part due to the perceived leadership challenges of the contemporary moment of the evaluation. In this way, we – who are on the receiving end of such scholarship – can draw upon it to come to a more informed understanding not only of the many lessons Coriolanus has to teach us about the relationship between leaders and the people, but also the role that context and perceptions can play.

2 MANAGEMENT AND THE METHODOLOGICAL PROBLEM

The field of leadership studies as an organized and self-identified field is a relatively recent occurrence in academe. Burns's seminal work, Leadership, was published in 1978. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond was founded in 1992. And the International Leadership Association held its first conference in 1999. Prior to these recent 2 or 3 decades, when leadership was studied it tended to be studied most extensively and systematically within the field of business education, where ‘management,’ rather than ‘leadership,’ was the dominant term. The impact of this tradition of management education remains powerful. It will be useful to consider, therefore, whether a humanities perspective has anything to contribute not simply to contemporary leadership studies, but to the powerful tradition of managerial and business leadership research and education on which much of the modern field of leadership studies rests. If the argument can be made – as we believe – that the humanities have something to contribute even to managerial and business studies and education, then the case for the present enterprise will be even stronger.

Traditional managerial education, originating with the practical and engineering perspectives of Fayol and Taylor in the early years of the twentieth century, and reaching full development in the middle of the twentieth century, tends to view business and organizational leadership as a technical, quasi-scientific activity. The mainstream research supporting this view tends to root itself in a narrowly empiricist, ahistorical, and a-cultural frame. 2 But it is important to note a persistent, long-standing counter-theme in management education, which has repeatedly called for a broader, more humanities-oriented approach to the study of leadership and management, even in a business context. Peter Drucker, the key figure in the development of modern management research and education, was himself deeply educated in the humanities. Drucker contextualized his exploration of modern management by drawing not only on seminal human-relations-oriented management thinkers like Chester Barnard and Mary Parker Follett, but also on the relevance to modern management and leadership studies of a far older tradition of thought, stretching back to figures like the medieval political writer Sir John Fortescue, and even further back to Plato and Xenophon, whose Cyropedia, Drucker opined, was ‘the first systematic book on leadership, … and still the best book on the subject.’ 3 More recently, scholars like Joseph Badaracco, while working within a business school academic setting, bring a humanities perspective to the study of leadership ethics, and the power of narrative and literature to help explore leadership in different contexts. 4

In recent years, the call for a rethinking of management education and research has gained energy. In a study published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Anne Colby and her co-authors argue for a much greater and more rigorous integration of the liberal arts and humanities into business and managerial education. 5 ‘Rethinking undergraduate business education,’ as the title of their volume puts it, means asking whether the traditional structure of managerial–financial–business education really produces the kinds of leaders the contemporary world needs. Colby and her Carnegie co-authors call for a new perspective that includes complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity, and interdependence: it calls, in short, for the kind of exploration and discovery that the humanities enable.

The humanities especially matter to leadership studies, we believe, because they're about trying to explore, make sense of, and capture something about individuals' and communities' lives, strivings, aspirations, thoughts, and deeds. If you like, call it the John Dos Passos or Walt Whitman perspective – literature about people at work – because it's in artists like these that this exploration is easiest to see in its full agentic vigor. But this explorative quality inheres in all the humanities, even in more contemplative, interior, hesitant, or private work (Willa Cather comes to mind, among many other writers and artists). 6 We believe there is a vast, largely untapped opportunity for us to bring the lively energy and contemplative power of the humanities to the study of leadership.

And that, in closing, is our intention in the pages of this journal. We invite all academics to share their explorations, ideas, and discoveries. Leadership is a complex, indispensable, and above all richly human activity. To study it means to weave together disparate domains of knowledge, fields of practice, and distinct methodologies into an ongoing conversation among scholars. We hope to contribute important voices to that conversation. And we encourage you – as a reader, a commenter, or an author – to join in.

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