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Groups and teamwork
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5.2 Leaders and authority

Achieving an appropriate balance between autocratic and democratic leadership is no easy task, as this quote by McGregor illustrates:

I believed, for example, that a leader could operate successfully as a kind of advisor to his organisation. I thought I could avoid being a 'boss' … I thought that maybe I could operate so that everyone would like me – that 'good human relations' would eliminate all discord and disagreement. I couldn't have been more wrong. It took a couple of years, but I finally began to realise that a leader cannot avoid the exercise of authority any more than he can avoid the responsibility for what happens to his organisation.

(Douglas McGregor, founder of the 'Human Relations' movement; quoted in Handy, 1993)

Much of people's suspicion of the idea of leadership stems from a confusion between 'authority' and 'authoritarian'. What most people seem to want is to reject authoritarian leadership, but not be left in the mess that denying any form of leadership creates. The problem is how to throw away the 'dirty bath water' and keep the 'baby'. This is not a trivial problem because in our culture there has been a long association between leadership and authoritarianism. Tell someone that he or she is the leader and they immediately presume that they have to tell other people what to do or to control others. What is more, if we tell a group of people that this person is going to be their leader then they expect to be told what to do and to be controlled. This reflects one of the strongest sets of expectations that operate in all sorts of organisations. The expectations are largely a result of the way that we are all treated as children, especially at school. With a few exceptions, most schools operate on authoritarian assumptions, and these are the assumptions about all sorts of authority that we carry into adult life. The extract in Box 4.2 reinforces this point.

Box 4.2 Becoming a leader

Becoming a group leader almost inevitably brings about significant changes in our relationships with group members. People who previously reacted to you as a peer or friend suddenly have altered their posture towards you. You're 'up there' and they're now 'below' you; they 'report to you'; you're 'in charge'.

Even if you were brought in from the outside to be made the leader of your group, be prepared to encounter a wide range of unfavourable responses – suspicion, distrust, hostility, subservience, passive resistance, insecurity. And don't overlook the possibility that someone might even like to see you fall flat on our face in your new job!

People come naturally to these built-in patterns of negative responses: they learned them when they were children. The leader 'inherits' each group member's 'inner child of the past'. For each of us has a past history of being a child, intimately involved in multiple relationships with a variety of adults: parents, grandparents, schoolteachers, coaches, scout leaders, piano teachers, school principals, and of course the infamous assistant principal. All these adults had power and authority over us when we were youngsters, and most of them used it frequently. All children try out different behaviours to cope with these 'authority figures'. Some of their coping mechanisms prove effective, some ineffective. Those that work get used again and again, and so become habitual responses to all other adults who try to control and dominate them.

These coping mechanisms are seldom discarded when children pass into adolescence, or when they enter adulthood. They remain an integral part of the adult personality, to be called upon (or unconsciously triggered) whenever [he or she] enters a relationship with someone holding power or authority. So all adults in a very real sense [harbour] an 'inner child of the past' that will strongly influence how they react to leaders.

When thrust into each new relationship with an authority figure, people naturally employ those same coping mechanisms that were built in by habitual use throughout their lifetime. This is why a leader inherits the inner child of the past of each of his or her group members.

(Gordon, 1977)