To understand the power and durability of the myth of leadership ”why it has such a strong hold on our imagination ”we need to examine its assumptions about leaders and followers. We must begin by recognizing that these assumptions are not absolute, universal truths ”they have a history. This history has helped establish the now implicit justification and legitimization of our current rank-based notion of leadership.
Three events, beginning in the seventeenth century and maturing in the nineteenth century, have contributed to the acceptance of the myth in modern organizations:
The triumph of Newtonian science and its accompanying worldview
The understanding of human nature inherent in Enlightenment philosophies
The reaction to Enlightenment rationalism in Romanticism, creating the modern concept of individual genius and celebrity
Each of these events has worked its way into modern business assumptions about leaders and followers, affecting the way we organize work and relationships. They have led to rank-based organizations that overestimate the senior executive and underestimate the rank-and-file employee. They have introduced rank-based thinking into business in a way that makes work less than meaningful for the majority of individuals involved. Table 1 outlines some of these rank-based assumptions and contrasts them with peer-based assumptions that can lead to more successful relationships and more successful organizations. We will discuss each of these contrasts in detail.
Employees are lazy
Employees are productive
Employees are selfish
Employees are caring
Leaders are heroic individuals
Each individual is unique
Leadership command and control
General input and participation
Knowledge at the top
Knowledge at all levels
The influence of science on business is a key factor in our first rankbased assumption.
Employees are by nature lazy and need external motivation.
Employees tend to be productive and self-motivated.
In most business organizations, employees are treated as costs that have to be justified. They are just parts, expensive parts , of the machine of business that must be operated as cheaply as possible. Where did this view of individual employees originate? Most organizational theorists agree it was in science, specifically Newtonian science. Newton introduced the most comprehensive and powerful explanation of how natural systems behave the way they do. His fellow scientists wept when they read his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), thinking that it was now all over, that there was nothing great left to discover. He "proved" that systems were composed of bodies, and those bodies were governed by basic forces. Bodies were inert and would change course only if acted upon by these basic forces. His system of natural science soon shaped the way we viewed human systems, organizations, work, and hence the leadership of work performed in organizations.
Newton's model seemed to justify its imitation in all fields of human endeavor, including management science. Just as nature had been mechanized and reduced to nothing but bodies in motion, labor was thought to be nothing but bodies in motion that had to be coerced through external force. Without an outside push or pull, the "Newtonian" employee would remain inert; that is, lazy and unmotivated. Frederick W. Taylor was the chief promoter and practitioner of this view, albeit motivated by socially admirable goals. His time and motion studies reveal the belief that a rigorous mechanical approach to organizations would bring superb results in the scientific management of workers.
Taylor believed that leadership must be imposed from the top down in a command-and-control manner. The brains and intelligence of a company resided at the top, while the muscle for doing the actual work resided at the bottom. He made two critical assumptions: (1) brain work should be taken from the shop floor and placed in the executive office, and (2) management should take all relevant knowledge and reduce it to rules, formulas, and laws for the rank and file to mindlessly follow.
In this system, employees were reduced to machines competing for scarce goods with other similar, yet separate, machines in an alien and often hostile workplace. This mentality was soon applied to organizations, people, and the environment without differentiation by the new scientific business leaders, not all of whom, by the way, shared Taylor's high ideals. They believed that to motivate they must push or prod a worker into action, overcoming the worker's inertia by the sheer force of their own bullying . For this, they found complete justification in science.
Now there is general agreement that the understanding of the nature of reality in classical science is not only wrong with regard to the natural world, but is detrimental to organizations as well. The majority of processes and systems found in nature cannot be reduced to nothing more than the behavior of inert bodies in motion. Similarly, employees are not machines, but living, open systems capable of self-renewal and self-direction. While natural science, with its self correcting method, has moved beyond this limiting belief about natural systems, management science has all too frequently remained bound to this inaccurate assumption about human systems. Today the belief that employees tend to be lazy and require external motivation is part of the unconscious fabric of leadership thought and practice. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy , where seeing employees as lazy and unmotivated creates an organizational culture where the employees become lazy and unmotivated.
When managers treat their employees as unmotivated "cost centers" who require constant supervision, employees become defensive and respond by doing the bare minimum to avoid making mistakes or standing out. It doesn't take long for an employee who started out with great enthusiasm to become dependent on the rank-based leader's management of all important decisions, until soon the employee loses all initiative. New hires in a rank-based organization come to work full of innovative ideas and energy only to retreat into a compliant "just doing what I'm told" mentality after repeatedly being put in their place by some threatened rank-based manager.
The second rank-based assumption finds its roots in the nature of the individual as described in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes.
Employees are by nature selfish and self-seeking and therefore need external control to keep them in line.
Employees tend to be caring and willing to cooperate.
Hobbes argued that individuals are naturally in constant anxiety motivated by two basic emotions: (1) a negative emotion, the fear of death, and (2) a positive emotion, desire for all material goods and the domination of others. These two motivations put us into constant agitation with an insatiable craving for material wealth and, at the same time, a fear of death in a world that will not satisfy our infinite wants and constantly threatens to destroy us as well. In this world only the paranoid survive. As autonomous individuals constantly responding to these two emotions, individuals are in a state of a constant war of everyone against everyone. As Hobbes (1982) pointed out, in this environment, "life is poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (92).
Hobbes, like most Enlightenment philosophers, wanted to discover how and why individuals join together in organizations. Organizations will only come into existence, he argued, if autonomous individuals consent to organize for their own protection against each other and thus sacrifice certain freedoms to the organization and whoever controls it. In this view, individuals give up much of their freedom and enter organizations via common agreement (the social contract) in order to escape their natural wretched condition. Even as they enter organizations, they still retain their basic motivating emotions of fear of death as well as the insatiable desire for material goods. The purpose of any organization, in this view, is one of protecting people from each other as each struggles to acquire as much wealth and power as possible. ( Certainly , this is a view of organizations expected and favored by market analysts.) These assumptions place the individual in constant opposition to others in the organization. They permeate through all our organizational thinking, planning, and communication, leading to the all-pervasive us-versus-them thinking that poisons relations between the company and its employees, or management and labor.
No one has captured the ironic nature of this conflict better than the writer Franz Kafka. He depicts the perplexed individual trapped in a maze not of his own making ”the more he struggles, the more entrapped he becomes. The protagonist in my favorite Kafka story, The Metamorphosis (1915), is a young office worker by the name of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning after unsettling dreams to discover he has turned into a dung beetle ! Stuck on his back, unable to move, he fails to make it to work for the first time in his career. Gregor has been the ever-faithful employee even though trapped in a menial and boring job. He has accepted his fate while never once coming to work late. But guess who shows up rather quickly to evaluate the situation? It's none other than his manager, who immediately casts suspicion on his honesty and work ethic .
"Mr. Samsa", the manager now called, raising his voice, "what's the matter? You barricade yourself in your room, answer only ˜yes ˜ and ˜no, cause your parents serious, unnecessary worry, and you neglect ”I mention this only in passing ”your duties to the firm in a really shocking manner. The head of the firm did suggest to me this morning a possible explanation for your tardiness ”it concerned the cash payments recently entrusted to you ”but really, I practically gave my word of honor that the explanation could not be right. But now, seeing your incomprehensible obstinacy, I am about to lose even the slightest desire to stick up for you in any way at all. Your performance of late has been very unsatisfactory; I know it is not the best season for doing business, we all recognize that; but a season for not doing any business, there is no such thing. Mr. Samsa, such a thing cannot be tolerated." (Kafka 1981, 99)
In this passage we see the first two assumptions of the myth of leadership: (1) employees are naturally lazy, and (2) they are naturally prone to dishonesty and self-seeking behavior ”even to theft against the employer. Kafka's antiheroes are always getting caught in the absurdity of command-and-control hierarchies that threaten their wellbeing for seemingly trivial reasons. Here, with the anonymous and unpredictable power the manager and head of the firm hold over Gregor's head, his fear of failure is heightened. Today, with almost constant layoffs and restructuring, which seldom actually improve organizations, this nameless and capricious power held by leaders over their followers is incredibly harmful to our social fabric.
A rank-based organization informed by the myth of leadership tends to limit the creativity of employees to the narrow confines of their job description. What these rank-based assumptions overlook is that most people work for a broader reward, including at least the following three things:
A chance to develop skills and new talents
The opportunity to contribute to a cause larger than themselves
Employees bring their whole person to work, but the rank-based organization seeks to limit their involvement to impersonal tasks . This tension between individuals as whole persons and the limited organizational role assigned them often leads to employees just putting in their time at work before getting to do what's really meaningful for them after work. This doesn't have to be, for most employees seek first to find meaning and value at work, but it is too often denied them.
The third rank-based assumption has given the leadership myth its potent emotional appeal .
Leaders are heroic individuals who have risen above the masses ”possessing either an innate or learned genius. They are better than those beneath them, thus have the right to control decision making in organizations and do all the commanding and controlling.
Leaders are no different than employees ”they each have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.
I once worked with a leader who had quickly climbed to the top of his organization. When we first talked soon after his promotion, he was anxious to tell me he wasn't surprised by his meteoric rise, "for the cream will always rise to the top." This, I believe, captures an essential part of the leadership myth, namely, that those at the top of the organization are somehow better, or more deserving, than those beneath them on the organizational chart. What are the roots of this conception ?
The Renaissance saw the rise in the fame of artists , but it was Romanticism, with its belief in creative genius and the romantic hero, that gave birth to personality cults and the appeal of the leadership myth of the twentieth century. From Romanticism we get our idea of the superhero, the master-of-the-universe type, who single-handedly controls others and the elements to achieve his desires and set the course of history.
Two books on the subject, both of which were tremendously popular when published, were pivotal. One is a series of lectures by Thomas Carlyle published in 1841 as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. The other, published in 1850 by Carlyle's friend and correspondence partner Ralph Waldo Emerson, is entitled Representative Man. Both books promote the greatness in men and provide the arguments for the importance and presence of "great men" in society and business. Carlyle wrote:
We discourse here on Great Men, their manner of appearance in our world's business, how they have shaped themselves in the world's history, what I call Hero-worship and the Heroic in human affairs . A large topic; indeed, an illimitable one; wide as Universal History itself. For, as I take it, Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modelers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators , of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world. (1)
If you believe, following Newtonian science, that the majority of people are by nature lazy and need external force to motivate them ”and if you believe, from the selfish individualism of Hobbes, that people will give up their freedom and join organizations because they are coerced and controlled by their own or others' self-seeking fear and greed ”it is an easy step to assume that it could only be through the heroic efforts of some creative genius, a leader , that such an organization could be established and made successful. This "Great Man" (or today, perhaps "Great Woman") has, through his own wit, work, and luck, climbed to the top, assumed his destiny as the leader, and can now benefit the organization. His position at the top enables him to reap huge rewards, command large organizations, and demand that others give up their freedom to his judgment.
Of course, the reality of this heroic leader frequently resembles the "emperor's new clothes." The executive I mentioned earlier, who quickly climbed to the top of his organization, was not respected by those beneath him in rank. As I learned more about him and his successes, I discovered that he often claimed credit when others had done the work. I also found out that many of the contracts and partnership deals he arranged in his quick rise were poorly structured and fell apart soon after he was promoted to his next leadership position. The senior executives had so thoroughly bought into the assumptions of the myth of leadership, however, that these failings were blamed on his replacements , and his image remained untarnished.
The fourth rank-based assumption is that the corporate leader, as hero, must also have nearly superhuman capabilities.
The heroic leader can control a complex organization from the top down, can accurately predict what is going to happen in the future, and should therefore be making all the critical decisions.
Only with input and participation from all levels of the organization can leaders make effective decisions about current and future business conditions.
This leader becomes the indispensable avenue for every significant action in the organization; indeed, it wouldn't happen without her. Such a leader will be suspicious of, and unwilling to delegate any important decision to, anyone who does not see things her way. As a leader, she of course has vision, and those who follow her will be on the front wave of future success. Those who disagree with her vision, or, if they're without vision, will not progress within the leader's organization. In this view, decisions can be made only by the leader and not by the mass of people in the organization, who cannot be trusted to share the genius of the leader.
This rank-based assumption not only keeps decision making at the top of the organization ”thus robbing the organization of the intelligence and talents of the vast majority of employees ”it also corrupts communication. A rank-based leader will see his position as more important than the positions of those lower in rank. Because of this perception of superiority, the leader will not seek input or, if it is given, not take seriously the input of someone lower in rank.
This view of genius in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Romanticism merged with Hobbes's belief in the nature of the individual, and the belief in how they interact from Newtonian science, and created the myth of leadership in twentieth-century organizations to justify rank-based forms of social arrangements. It is a belief that must be constantly justified in organizations. The justification is enforced through the tight control of information via closed books and closed meetings; through the media's obsession with celebrity and emphasis on leaders as larger-than-life individuals; and through the plethora of popular books on leadership.
In the fifth rank-based assumption, knowledge and understanding are also considered to be the domain of the few.
Employees tend not to know the best thing to do, while leaders do know.
Individuals closest to where the work is done have a good grasp on what needs to happen.
Numerous books on leadership promise to reveal the leadership secrets of Attila the Hun, Moses, or Abraham Lincoln, or even Jesus as a CEO. They attempt to justify an implicit theory of motivation and human nature where only a few great individuals can lead ”and if you want to lead, you have to be just like them. Not surprisingly, it is also a theory that tends to reward only a few with tremendous benefits in salaries and other bonuses; for if it takes superhuman abilities to lead, then it also requires superhuman salaries to reward these few "Great Men." So, the myth in many ways justifies the great disparity between salaries paid to senior executives and the wages of the majority of people-in organizations. It certainly helps drive executives' compensation way out of proportion to their actual worth to organizations.
In fact, some recent studies show an inverse relationship between executive compensation and profit performance of the company. A report issued by Scott Klinger (2001) of United for a Fair Economy showed that over half the companies in the top 10 percent in executive pay had a stock price that underperformed the S&P 500. In addition to the poor profit and stock performance, companies with the highest paid CEOs were more likely to announce significant layoffs within three years of their CEO appearing on the top paid list. An interesting aspect to exorbitant executive pay is that if minimum wage had increased at the same rate as executive pay since 1990, which was at a rate of 571 percent, then it would be not $5.15 an hour, but $25.50 an hour .
More often than not, celebrity CEOs are a product of their organization and not its cause. Very few find similar success when they go somewhere else, though they do pull in quite substantial compensation packages. Not surprisingly, the myth is supported by those who have been anointed leaders as well as by those who would like to be anointed leaders and reap the huge monetary and social rewards.
Paradoxically, our present myth of leadership, which arose from currents of thought that stressed individualism and individual greatness, has resulted in organizational managers turning into carbon copies of one another. In the words of Edward Young (1683-1765), "Born originals how comes it to be that we die as copies?" Further, what Vaclav Havel (1994) observed about political leaders could be said as well for CEOs of organizations:
He becomes a captive of his position, his perks, his office. What apparently confirms his identity and thus his existence in fact subtly takes that identity and existence away from him. He is no longer in control of himself, because he is controlled by some thing else: his position and its exigencies, its consequences, its aspects, and its privileges. (73-74)
The myth of leadership also creates several mistaken assumptions about ways to motivate employees. For instance, many leaders assume that the chief way to motivate employees is to give them more money. However, research conducted by Fred Emery has shown that money, while a work satisfier, is not a work motivator (Weisbord 1991, 167-168). Understanding the difference between work motivators and work satisfiers is important in creating a successful organization. What will motivate employees is to give them greater control and influence over their work; however, this is something a leader who accepts the myth of leadership will never do.
It makes it almost impossible for people in organizations to focus on results such as increasing profitability and decreasing costs because results are only valued insofar as they sustain a person's position against other individuals in the company. This leads to withholding information and resources from others, as well as trying to control others, even while blaming them for any failures. Workers who don't treat others the way they should can justify their behavior by buying into the myth. It also makes it nearly impossible to organize true teams when the implicit assumptions are that only the very few are "management material." It makes it seem as if an employee's character were fixed in a way that somehow predetermines his or her level in the organization, with only the "cream" rising to management position.
The sixth rank-based assumption concerns how to manage employees.
You must manage (manipulate) employees to get them to do what you want.
You don't manage peers; you cooperate with them.
I was once asked by a regional vice president to deliver some out-of-the-box leadership training to a group of salespeople. They all worked for the company that created the training I was to deliver. In fact, they sold the training to companies on the East Coast. I was told that most of these sales leaders had not had the opportunity to see the content of the training, so the objective was for them to have a "live" workshop experience. So that's what I prepared. Unfortunately, it was only after I began the training, and they all started vigorously protesting, that I realized we had been set up.
It seems that the regional VP perceived this group of sales representatives as troublemakers who asked too many questions. The VP figured that by attending a leadership seminar together, they'd learn to be more compliant to his wishes, but he knew they'd never agree to come to such an event. So, he told them it would be sales training, while hiding this important point from me. When they saw they were not in sales training, that they had been misled, I became the scapegoat for the absent VP who was two thousand miles away. The VP, in classic rank-based fashion, knew he could not win support for himself or his ideas through discussions, so he would have to resort to manipulation and some trickery instead. I felt sorry for this man. Though he felt superior to these sales reps by virtue of his position, he was also afraid of them and afraid to speak to them as peers, out of concern that his own lack of competence would be revealed ”bursting the illusion of his leadership.