The Dialogue of Disciplines
Edited by Michael Harvey and Ronald E. Riggio
Chapter 6: Of History and Leadership: The Discipline of History and the Understanding of Leadership
J. Thomas Wren Leadership studies has long been dominated by the social sciences, which simplify complex reality by identifying explanatory variables and developing generalizable propositions. Yet there is something to be said for messy reality – and thus there is something to be said for history, and the study of the swirling and dynamic interplay of constantly changing forces, events and people. Like all scholarly approaches, history can take us in dangerous or misleading directions; but if we identify the challenges of historical exploration, we can discern what history’s contribution can be to a truly interdisciplinary study of leadership. THE PROBLEM WITH LEADERSHIP Historians have long resisted the siren call of leadership studies, and have long been wary of marrying their discipline to it. This is not due to inherent crankiness among historians; they have good reason for their stance. The application of history to the study of leadership threatens the core presumptions of the discipline. This requires elaboration. There are various strands of the historians’ critique. First is that history resists generalization; it is interested in particulars. Richard Ekman, former president of the Council of Independent Colleges and a historian by training, frames this concern well: “The cautionary argument about history,” he writes, “is that there is no guarantee that a pattern of the past will remain a pattern in the future. Historians even say that to expect to find patterns is likely to turn a person’s approach from a historical perspective into one that is anti-historical.” “That is,” he...
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