Philosophy Leadership

Towards a Philosophy of Leadership


By Leif-Runar Forsth

Artikkelen har vært publisert i:

Forsth, L. R. : Towards a Philosophy of Leadership, Philosophy for Business Issue 2 30 November 2003


1. Introduction

Almost everybody agrees that leadership is important not only for the people and organizations that are lead, but for the future of humanity. It is also easy to agree that good leadership is important. But there the agreement stops. There is no common agreement on what is good leadership or even of the meaning of the word “leadership”. Rost (1991:70) examined 312 books and articles on leadership and found 110 definitions of leadership. Some examples from Rost (1991) illustrate the great discrepancy between the different definitions.

“The ability to impress the will of the leader on those led and induce obedience, respect, loyalty and cooperation.”

Moore (In 1927)

“A process of mutual stimulation which, by the successful interplay of relevant individual differences, controls human energy in the pursuit of a common cause.”

Pigors (In 1935)

“Leadership is a process of influence which involves an ongoing transaction between a leader and followers.”

Hollander (In 1978)

One reason for this confusion is that many different professions have contributed to the field of leadership with their special points of view. Examples are anthropology, biology, economy, marketing, medicine, philosophy, physics, psychology, sociology, religion and zoology. Another reason is that many definitions are strongly ideological biased. A third reason is the enormous amount of literature on leadership. Bass (1981) gives 4.725 references to works on leadership in the twentieth century. Since 1981 the number of works has exploded. Burns (1979:2) concludes in his book “Leadership” which won him the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award:

“Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth”.

Burns (1979:2) also concludes:

“Without a powerful modern philosophical tradition … we lack the very foundati­on for knowledge of a phenomenon – leadership in the arts, the academy, science, politics, the professions, war – that touches and shapes our lives”

We have no modern tradition of philosophy of leadership. In the later years some modern philosophers have started to take interest in leadership. Examples are Koestenbaum (1986 and 1991), Kirkeby (1998 and 2001) and Forsth (2002). Traditional philosophy has however a strong influence on leadership. Examples are Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu.

What then can the contribution of modern philosophy to modern leadership be? A first task is to help leaders, theorists and practicians, to find relevant philosophical works from our rich traditional literature. Modern theories of leadership are much concerned with the same questions as are treated in traditional philosophy. The second is to bring attention to many works in modern philosophy that might be relevant in modern leadership. The third is to understand and treat the phenomena of leadership from philosophical points of view. The most important contribution might be to develop a modern philosophy of leadership based on the contributions from all the other sciences that study leadership. This means for philosophy to take back its traditional role as the science of sciences.

An important step in this process is to try to understand the concept of leadership or the meanings of the words “lead”, “leader” and “leadership”. The discrepancy in definitions causes many problems to authors in leadership and others who try to understand what leadership is. Many authors start on a quest to find the “real meaning” of the words and usually end up more confused. Others find some rather special definition as indicated above. In this article we will try, by a philosophical approach, to find what the words “lead”, “leader” and “leadership” mean. We will also try to find the roots of confusion and suggest what can be done to it.


2. Intuitions on Leadership

We all have a sufficient good understanding of the words to understand sentences as:

– By his famous speech, Martin Luther King became one of the most influential leaders of the movement for human rights.

– By being an example, Gandhi was a leader for many nonviolence movements in the world.

– Thursday 2. of August 1934 Hitler was appointed Reichskansler and he also became the leader of the armed forces of Germany.

– Abel and Ann competed for being the leader of the groups of friends.

– They followed the lead of the man in front.

– The old female was the leader of the pack of wolves.

– Bees lead each other to the food by signalling by their wings.

– He led his son by hand.

– Entering the last curve of the race, Mick was in the lead.

– Leadership is a position within society.

– Leadership is the result of an ability to persuade or direct men.

What is common in these examples? This leads us to the question: What was the original meaning of the words? Rost (1991:38) says:

“The verb “to lead” comes from the Old English word leden or loedan, which meant “to make go”.”

Rost says that the words “lead”, “leader” and “leading” have been used from about 1300. The word “leadership” is of a later date and is first found from the first part of the nineteenth century in texts on the British parliament. The old Norwegian word “leida” was used long before that. It meant “to make go” and could be used like “leading the goat by a rope” or a “leading a child by hand”. Similar meanings can be found in old German. The basic word is then the verb “lead” which the other words “leader”, “leading” and “leadership” are deduced from.

This shows that the words in some contexts are still used in their original meaning. But in other contexts they are used more as metaphors or analogies. This explains the many different usages of the word as indicated above. Most of the different definitions might hence be acceptable as correct uses of the words in direct or metaphoric ways. Our main interest is however not the use of the words, but their meaning in the special contexts of leadership theory and practice as indicated in the quotation from Burns (1979:2) given above. The philosophy of language might help us.


3. A Philosophy of Language Approach to Leadership

Frege (1892 1970) developed his philosophy of language for scientific purposes. An important goal was to find ways to decide if a sentence was true or not. By knowing this we will be able to extend our knowledge and understanding. In our context we want to know if (or in which contexts) a sentence like “Leadership is nnn” (where nnn gives  a definition or an explanation) is true or not. Freges philosophy seems to  fit our needs. According to Frege (1970:59) we have our ideas of words from:

“an internal image, arising from memories of sense impressions which I have had and acts, both internal and external, which I have performed.”

These internal images, Frege calls our ideas of the word. These are strictly subjective, each person might have his own image different from the images of others. But parts of the private ideas are similar to others ideas. If not, we would not be able to communicate. This common part of the ideas Frege calls “sense” (“Sinn”). The word “leadership” also refers to something outside us, in Freges language called “reference” (“Bedeutung”). Freges philosophy of language gives one explanation of why we have so many different definitions and explanations. People have so many different experiences of leaders and leadership, that they do not have sufficient in common to have a common “Sinn” or even “Bedeutung”. This would leave us with the wide use of the words as indicated above.

Our next try is Kripke (1970 1994). Kripke (1994:195) agrees with Frege that “there is some sort of looseness or weakness in our language”. A reason for this is that the reference of a word:

“is determined not by a single description but by some cluster or family”.

This surely is a good description of our case. One important point of Kripke is that the meaning of a word is not only determined by our own experiences with the use of the word. The word might have a long history of use in our language that is not known to us. Some of this history cling to the word without us being conscious of that “added value”. We might believe that we have got the understanding of the word by the ways we have experienced it, but this is not always the case. Kripke (1970:210) says:

“On our view, it is not how the speaker thinks he got the reference, but the actual chain of communication, which is relevant”.

The users of the word “leadership” then have not only learned the word in different situations. In addition they have learned them in different historical chains. This historical chain depends not only of the historical use of the word in that country. In fact even neighbour organizations in the same town might have quite different histories of leadership within their organizations. We then got no further to agreed definitions by help of Kripke, but at least we got a better understanding of the complexity of the problem.

Putnam (1973 1990:308) starts with the assumption of Frege that

“meanings are public property – that the same meaning can be “grasped” by more than one person and by persons at different times”.

But as our problem clearly shows us, this assumption is not always right. Putnams (1990:312) answer is to introduce his “Hypotheses of the universality of the division of linguistic labour”. According to this the linguistic community as a collective body have some understanding of the meanings of special words like “leadership”, but the exact understanding and mastering of the concept might be limited to those experts who have got a professional knowledge. Most people interested in leadership would agree that some people understand it a lot better than others. But who? It is quite clear from the literature on leadership that even the most celebrated authorities do not agree.

Davidson’s (1977, 1984, 1990 and 1999) contribution to the theory of language might clarify our problem a bit more. According to his theory we learn the language in a triangle situation: Situation, speaker and listener (learner). By hearing the world “leader” used in many situations we understand not only the meaning of the word but also when sentences containing the word are true. According to Davidson  (1999:17) the reference itself is not the important point:

“There is nothing for true sentences to correspond to, neither is there anything for them to represent”.

This does not mean that Davidson denies a real world, only that, Davidson (1990:325):

“The ultimate source of both objectivity and communication is the triangle that, by relating speaker, interpreter, and the world, determines the contents of thought and speech.”

And in Davidson (1977:199):

“In shearing a language, we share a picture of the world.”

For Davidson we do not only learn a language by the triangle situation, we learn the thinking itself. This means that words like “leader” that has clusters of triangle situations, might be strongly integrated with our way of thinking and our concepts of reality. This suggest that the discrepancies in the definitions and understandings of leadership might be even deeper than they seem at the first glance.

Grice (1957 1994) gives us quite another approach to our problem. In his theory the meaning of a word is not defined strictly but its reference but by what result the speaker intends to get in his listeners. Grice (1994:28) says:

“Only what I may call the primary intention of an utterer is relevant to the meaning of an utterance”.

In the leadership literature the intentions seem not only to be objective definitions or explanations. An important intention is to make the readers into better leaders (better in the opinion of the author). This is sometimes done by excluding the unwanted ways of leadership by excluding them from being leadership at all. An example is Burns (1979:2):

“But Hitler, once he gained power and crushed all opposition, was no leader – he was a tyrant. A leader and a tyrant are polar opposites.”

In Burns’ (1979:27) opinion Gandhi, Lenin and Mao were leaders.  Rost’s (1991:102) definition is also clearly normative:

“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.”

This discussion suggests that the problem of definitions of leadership is not a problem of language or of definitions of words. The philosophy of language shows the complexity of the problem. It also suggests that the problem is more normative than descriptive. This leads us to the question: What is the purpose of leadership?


4. The Purpose of Leadership

Why do we have leadership? Why do we have leaders? This leads us to the question of why human beings (and many other beings) organize themselves in groups, organizations and societies. This again leads us to classical philosophy. According to Aristotle, it is natural and necessary to gather in groups and societies. It starts with man and woman that unite to get children (Politics 1252) and ends in a state (Politics 1275):

“A state is a body of citizens sufficing for the purposes of life.”

But society has a purpose that transcends this material purpose (Politics 1281):

“Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of living together.”

The purpose of the leader is also made clear by Plato. In (Republic 347d) Socrates says:

“The true ruler is not meant by nature to regard his own interest, but that of his subjects.”

What then is the purpose of a philosophy of leadership? The leadership philosopher Koestenbaum (1991:303) answers:

“What is philosophy? Philosophy deals with the purely human, with the eternal questions, and, in the language of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, with immortality, love, justice, that is, with God, meaning, and consciousness. Philosophy represents the in-depth mindset required for leadership.”



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