Bell and Smith (2010) write that the idea of leadership as a diktat of birthright or cultural station is a “fabrication invented by those with personal need or professional reason to worship” (p. 5). This is not a new state of affairs. “Stated simply, [it is a] historically dominant concept [which embraces] leadership skills as a divine gift of birth, a gift granted to a small number of people” (Kotter, 1996, p. 176). The psychological underpinnings encouraging those in power to espouse (and enforce) the suggestion that leadership is an unattainable and beyond the reach of those being led are supported by eons of empirical evidence and observation
Early in Japanese history those in power, sans their own writing system, adopted the Chinese hieroglyph as their own and called it Kanji (Inamoto, 1993). Only the rich and elite male class (by birthright) were allowed to learn Kanji and therefore only the highest class of males could participate in the law, government, and commerce (all of which required Kanji). Only by birthright then could one be leader (or even scene to have the potential to lead). Everyone else was eliminated from the running by virtue of gender or class.
History has seen these same kinds of caste systems, eradicating competition for in-place leadership, replayed throughout the globe. The multi-caste cultures of India, Medieval Europe, and even today in modern Britain with an active Monarchy place leadership potential into the DNA of some of its members, and not others. By claiming that one is destined to lead (by birth or God), one also is attempting to mitigate arguments as to the validity of his or her rule, the value of his or her opinion/decisions, and the discouraging the questioning of his or her rule by virtue of it being supported by the natural order of things (or directly by God).
The Military’s Point of View
In this author’s eyes, this is certainly true for the culture of leader-worship within the U.S. military as well. Many times, those who have risen to the highest ranks are lauded with the same ceremonial vigor as if they were Hellenic heroes rather than humanly fallible men and women of tenure, who worked their way to the top, and deserve respect for that effort and success. With a strict hierarchical bureaucracy, the U.S. military lends itself to the crippling affects of leadership elitism like few other corporations. “Highly controlling organizations often destroy leadership by not allowing people to blossom, test themselves, and grow. In stiff bureaucracies, young men and women with potential typically see few good role models, are not encouraged to lead, and may even be punished if they go out of bounds, challenge the status quo, and take risks. These kind of organizations tend to repel people with leadership potential or take those individuals and teach them only about bureaucratic management” (Kotter, 1996, p. 166).
If one cannot lead from the heart, he or she is often found to be leading by the collar; this too is a form of pre-ordained leadership positioning rather than being recognized as a leader sans uniform decorations and military requirements. In these cases, position is mistaken for knowledge and leadership ability. Those in power, just like in India’s caste system or the Japanese elitist structure from centuries ago, must reinforce the notion that leadership is impossible to learn, or is unattainable by most, as a simple methodology of self-preservation as the good order and discipline required among the ranks (Grossman, 2009).
A serious shortcoming of this kind of thinking is it’s short- and long-term destructive tendency to the health of the organization as a dynamic, growing, and openly adaptive organism (3M, 2010). A danger to any business is when new ideas are stopped before reaching the boardroom table because an employee may feel he or she is discouraged from going against the in-place leaderships’ status quo or recommending a new course of action (thereby leading from within rather than the top) (Christensen, 2005; Walton, 1991).
Leadership From The Heart
Luckily, for the regular business environment, the “[i]mperial, feed-the-mushrooms-manure styles of management are dying out” (Kotter, 1996, p. 98). Effective leaders and managers know that the intellectual and fiscal maturity to have productive conversations about real change takes a culture of openness and frankness fostered in an environment where no member feels threatened by offering contrary opinions or suggestions (3M, 2010), this mean everyone should be able to lead when they are the best person for the job.
Leaders arrive absent of pedigree, financial pre-disposition, or being a member of the elite sovereigns of specific learning. Genuine grass-roots leaders can emerge at a moment’s notice from within the ranks of those individuals easily over-looked by the ring-bearers (Bell & Smith, 2010). What is quite remarkable about these men and women is how unremarkable they (as individuals) actually are. Effective leaders can be regular people, not demi-gods; they do not belong to a cast of untouchables or bloodline (or education-line) elitists. It is not to say that specific training and practice in leadership are not extremely effective vehicles for creating effectual leadership (3M, 2010; Kotter, 1996), the potential to lead does not require a diploma, birthright, a certain caste, only opportunity.
Maybe PT Barnum was right; a sucker is born every minute. The same then could be true for a leader. It is not that he or she is born of a certain set of parents or within a certain cultural scaffold though. Every rather ordinary person being born has the potential to be a great leader given the right set of circumstances requiring their personality, style, and specific attributes to fit into the solution formula at hand (Bell & Smith, 2010).
3M (2010, July 7). 3M in the United States. Retrieved from http://solutions.3M.com
Bell, A., & Smith, D. (2010). Developing leadership abilities (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Christensen, C. (2005). The innovator’s dilemma. New York: Harper Collins
Grossman, D. (2009). On killing. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
Inamoto, N. (1993). Colloquial Japanese. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co.
Kotter, J. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Walton, M. (1991). Deming Management at Work. New York: Perigee Book