Thinking Differently about Leadership
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Thinking Differently about Leadership

A Critical History of Leadership Studies

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.
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Chapter 6: Our modern era of leadership ‘science’

Suze Wilson


By this stage, it is quite evident that there are some common ideas about leadership in the discursive regimes of the Classical Greeks, 16th-century Europe, Carlyle and the trait theorists. The repeated positioning of leadership as something natural and, ergo, something good is just one continuity in thought. However, it may also be tempting, from the perspective of the early decades of the 21st century, to rationalize away the credibility of earlier scholars’ efforts to speak the truth about leadership as not having been grounded in ‘real’ science, by which is likely meant positivist methods of inquiry. It may be tempting to dismiss these earlier efforts as founded in mythic, religious and pseudo-scientific forms of reasoning, limitations from which you may assume we are now freed. In this chapter, however, through analysis of the form and formation of the major paradigmatic developments which have dominated leadership studies in the post-World War II era, the proposition is advanced that faith-based reasoning constitutes a central feature of current thought, despite its proclaimed scientific rigour. For each of the paradigms explored here, I begin my analysis by identifying the issues deemed problematic which I argue shaped that paradigm’s emergence. I then examine the key features of that discourse, its processes of formation, social function and subjectivity effects. In the latter part of the chapter I examine the underpinning assumptions shaping modern leadership science before turning to offer an overall assessment of the nature of that science.

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