Over the past two decades, the field of management has been swamped with books with "leadership" in the title. Leadership training, leadership seminars, leadership gurus are everywhere in organizations and throughout the business culture. I was part of this growth industry as a presenter for one of the largest leadership training companies in the world. As I traveled extensively giving leadership seminars , I slowly began to realize the limited value derived from the huge sums of money companies spent on creating leaders . What I observed was that results, if any, seldom lasted beyond the short term . Individual lives were sometimes touched, but organizational dynamics remained unaffected. Good managers stayed good managers, and poor managers stayed poor managers ”there were few if any transformations. What could be counted on to change was an increase in the cynicism of rank-and-file employees , who viewed the training as a distraction at best and managerial manipulation at worst. But the fundamental rank-based thinking remained unchallenged.
Physicist and social thinker David Bohm in his On Dialogue (1996) said, "Now, the whole of society has been organized to believe that we can't function without leaders. But maybe we can" (15). His statement struck me like a bolt of lightning and made me reflect on the nature of leadership and its role in organizations. It reminded me of the critique of the nature of power by French philosopher Michel Foucault. He examined the way we passively allow ourselves to be classified by the various power structures in society. [ 2] We acquiesce and allow these rank-based structures to categorize us and define our identity ”and then determine, if we want to be a leader, what we had better be like and what habits we ought to possess.
In this climate, we become so "neurologically hardwired" to see relationships as being rank based that it becomes very difficult for us to believe it could be any other way. Most people would have a difficult time even imagining an organization, or a world, without rank-based leaders.
[ 2] Michel Foucault said there are three ways of becoming classified or defined in modern society; the first he called "dividing practices," where some social or political authority classifies individuals and places them somewhere in a political hierarchy. The second he called "scientific classification," where a science authority classifies people in terms of scientific categories. Both of these methods are passive and inauthentic. The third method he termed "self-subjectification", where an individual actively defines him-or herself and is a meaning-giving self. See Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings , 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (London: Harvester, 1980).