Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2 Sacred leadership?

The core problem with leader-centred perspectives on leadership is that they feed an existing tendency within people and societies to defer to authority. People’s attitudes to leadership seem to suggest that they prefer to detach themselves from responsibility for consequences, in organisations and in social life. Grint (2010) has made the case that leadership is approached by people as a sacred object: something most people think is beyond them. For Grint, sacredness is manifested through silence, which is valued by leaders because they hear less dissent concerning their ideas and approach to leading.

The other manifestation is sacrifice, which is a twofold phenomenon. Followers sacrifice involvement and voice in leadership. But on the other hand, such a sacrifice allows followers to abdicate themselves of responsibility when things go wrong: instead, they sacrifice the leader. Scapegoating leaders is a common practice in contemporary society.

Described image
Figure _unit4.2.1 Figure 3 In transformational leadership it is common for followers to scapegoat the leader when things go wrong

A good example of scapegoating can be found in the Batmanghelidjh case. Celebrated as a heroic leader in the ‘good times’, one could argue that Batmanghelidjh was equally vilified in the ‘bad times’. ‘They made me the Angel of Peckham and now they’re going to make me the Demon of Peckham’, Batmanghelidjh told BBC documentary maker Lynn Alleway (Camila’s Kids Company, 2016). What had changed appeared to be the attitude of her followers in the media, but her trustees and the politicians were also less willing to trust her.

A sacred attitude to leadership can also permeate societies more generally. We can return to the example of Tony Blair in relation to his use of the word ‘leadership’ to justify major military solutions to terrorist attacks (Smolović Jones et al., 2019) to illustrate this point. In retrospect it does not seem credible to suggest that there were no alternatives to the Iraq or Afghanistan military interventions, but leaders – particularly in times of perceived crisis – seem to gain extraordinary traction, permission and encouragement from people when they say that a country (or organisation) needs ‘strong’ or ‘decisive’ leadership. But does the responsibility for the concentration of power in the hands of individual leaders reside solely with the leaders themselves or should everybody take a little more responsibility to engage critically with calls for ‘leadership’ from individual leaders?

Activity _unit4.2.1 Activity 3 Removing leaders?

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Would removing Batmanghelidjh from Kids Company have solved the problem? Take a few minutes to think about this question.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


The trickiness of this question lies in the word ‘problem’, which remains contested. ‘What was the problem?’ might be a more appropriate question to ask under such circumstances.

The issue of child poverty in London and other inner cities is a hot and contested one, where people cannot even agree on the definition of the particular issues to be solved. If you thought that the problem was a lack of family support for these children, you could argue that removing Batmanghelidjh may have harmed the prospects of at least some of Kids Company’s clients. But if you believed that the main issue was the amount of money available to tackle the problem and the allocation of this money, then you might argue that taking money away from Kids Company and dispersing it more widely amongst local government and other children’s organisations would be helpful in the longer-term.

However, you could also take a step back yet further and claim that the problem was our very preoccupation with individual leaders. In this sense, a sensible step might have been to have pursued a less individual-dominated Kids Company, with an alternative figure, or figures, in charge. Having considered transformational leadership, the course now moves on to consider some of the ways in which you can avoid some of the problems that have been surfaced.