During this week you will be introduced to the idea of leadership as embodied in the figure of the individual leader. This is the dominant approach to leadership in academic studies, despite the fact that such research is fraught with conceptual weaknesses. Traditional trait views of leadership are also problematic in the sense that they tend to promote a certain kind of leader, often masculine and white, over alternatives.
Despite its weaknesses, viewing leadership ‘as a person’ does involve a definite figure who you can identify, criticise or praise. As a result, this approach includes a certain amount of accountability which is missing in other accounts of leadership. With this in mind, we will encourage you to think about an ideal, albeit imaginary person evoked by your organisation and ask that you reflect on how (a) this person is brought to life through practices and processes and (b) how this image might be challenged, questioned and adapted.
After completing this week, you will be able to:
It is likely that you have worked with many leaders in voluntary organisations, many of whom may have built their organisations from the ground up. What is it specifically about these people leaders? Is it possible to come up with a set of leadership characteristics suitable for all voluntary organisations?
In the box below, jot down some traits that you think are important for leaders in the voluntary sector to possess.
Did you include any of the following traits? Intelligence; alertness; insight; responsibility; initiative; persistence; self-confidence; masculinity; adjustment; dominance; extroversion; conservatism; achievement; cooperativeness; tolerance; influence; dominance; drive; motivation; integrity; cognitive ability; task knowledge.
Or how about: energy, height (tall), weight (not too much); hair (baldness is out for leaders, apparently); clothes (business formal, naturally); aggression (you’re a winner!); enthusiasm (motivational speeches rule, OK); originality; sense of humour; sensitivity (presumably to compensate for the aggression); prestige; tact; judgment.
Finally, if these accounts do not satisfy you, how about: dedication; charisma; intelligence; love; championing behaviour; the ability to deploy convincing and persuasive argumentation.
Phew! Being a leader is truly a demanding task, it seems. The first group of traits just listed were compiled by Schedlitzki and Edwards (2014) from five major leadership studies dating between 1948 to 1991. The second group was compiled by Taylor (2015), based on trait theories of the 1980s.
Finally, the third group was compiled by the course authors having analysed a lot of the media coverage of Camila Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company. The case of Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company is an important one when considering leadership as embodied in a person (as it illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach) and we will use the case throughout this week and the next to help illustrate and reflect on the points made.
This opening exercise was almost a trick because everyone has their own definition of what makes a good leader, making the list in the comment almost endless. In fact, if you ever meet someone possessing all of the traits listed, it is advised that you immediately contact the intelligence services and military, as it appears that an alien invasion is underway; surely no human could ever fulfil such demanding criteria.
However, the fact that people in the west tend to have a very clear view of what makes a good leader is telling. There is something particularly individualistic about western liberal-democratic cultures that seems to result in people developing a fascination with those who hold leadership ambition – in public life, sport and business. In many ways this interest is quite understandable. Sole individuals provide someone definite and knowable when it comes to making judgements about the merits of a particular organisation.
The voluntary sector seems particularly smitten with individual leaders. There is a good reason for this, as it is often people with great belief, talent and drive who establish successful voluntary organisations in the first place.
Now watch the following video, an interview with Christine Pearce, Chief Executive of the Milton Keynes Centre for Integrated Living. In the video Christine describes some of the problems organisations face if they rely too much on individual leaders.
Christine is honest in the video about her big character, as well as her desire to be involved with lots of interesting projects. In fact, this drive to get involved with everything can be interpreted as a social pressure, particularly a pressure to control all processes and outcomes. Christine acknowledges that this is an unhelpful perspective and her solution is to involve people from the early stage of projects. There is a pragmatic dimension to this way of approaching leadership – people in formal leadership roles rarely have enough time. But there something more important at play: Christine notes that it is in the organisation and users’ interests for a diverse range of people to be involved in leadership, as they can bring a range of opinions and expertise to a problem.
The voluntary sector seems especially smitten with individual leaders. There is a good reason for this, as it is often people with great belief, talent and drive who establish successful voluntary organisations in the first place.
Another reason why people are bewitched by leaders is that the alternative is a much more complex consideration of an organisation as a whole, a complex grid of interdependencies and inter-relationships spanning a range of organisational factors, as well as the economic, the political, the professional and the ethical. You will now move on to consider the notion of leadership as embodied in a leader in the case of Kids Company.
Camila Batmanghelidjh is a driven person, driven by a sense of ‘vocation’, as she puts it. As The Guardian reported in 2013:
As a child, Batmanghelidjh would sneak food out of her home in Tehran and leave it on poor people’s doorsteps; aged nine, she announced she was going to found an orphanage; by 14, she had written the business plan for Kids Company. She was influenced by her grandfathers – one a paediatrician dedicated to healing the poor children in his neighbourhood; the other an entrepreneur who was a multimillionaire at 21. She remembers her grandfather and uncles sitting around the table at lunchtime, ‘and they would say, “let’s build the biggest ski resort in the world,” and within a month they’d started. So I had this model of people who made decisions and started on them. There was no barrier.’
This newspaper report, in common with many before and after the collapse of Kids Company, refers to Batmanghelidjh as possessing personality beyond what one would expect of a normal human being: ‘To describe Batmanghelidjh as a force of nature seems a bit inadequate’ (Saner, 2013). Batmanghelidjh is no charlatan – she is an expert in child development and psychotherapy, completing her masters in psychotherapy at Regent’s University. Prior to that she gained first class honours at the University of Warwick (Alexander and Batmanghelidjh, 2015).
Establishing Kids Company in 1996, Batmanghelidjh’s mission was to offer familial assistance to poor and vulnerable inner city children and young people. The oraganisation offered a mix of orthodox and unorthodox approaches to support: counselling, friendship, some (tailored) financial support and even massage therapy. The charity’s core offering was a drop-in centre model and by the time of its closure it had opened four such centres in London, worked out of other centres in Bristol and ran an arts programme in Liverpool. By 2013, the charity was spending £23m a year. Batmanghelidjh herself had raised £120m during her time in charge of Kids Company (Camila’s Kids Company, 2016). The charity employed around 600 members of staff.
The charity closed in 2015 because it simply ran out of money. A final government grant of £3m, some of which was used to pay its staff for the month, was not matched by private donors, many of whom were anyway turned away because the charity’s trustees had taken the decision to close (Cook, 2015).
A common theme of much of the analysis of Kids Company is that the charity is closely tied to the personality, strengths and weaknesses of its founder. Batmanghelidjh’s charity enjoyed financial support from a number of celebrities and successful business people. Author and journalist Harriet Sargeant (2015), who featured an anonymised Kids Company in her 2012 book on gang life, reported the following encounter in a Telegraph newspaper article:
At my first meeting at Kids Company, I watched [Batmanghelidjh] dazzle a group of businessmen with claims about the link between emotional development, brain size and violent behaviour. She talked passionately and with love, using not just the language of a mother – which has so charmed everyone from David Cameron to Coldplay – but a mother who had the backing of science for her method of loving.
In the middle of the meeting, she excused herself. One of her kids was having a crisis and needed to talk to her. The businessmen watched her leave admiringly.
One said, ‘Imagine a kid like that interrupting us in the middle of a meeting!’ They all shook their heads in envy. I marvelled at her cleverness.
Batmanghelidjh impressed successive governments (Labour and Conservative-led). An unnamed former government minister told the BBC that Batmanghelidjh had ‘mesmerised’ the Prime Minister, David Cameron (The Guardian, 2016). The National Audit Office (2015) found that throughout its life, Kids Company had received £46m of public funds.
Powerful and influential people were impressed by Batmanghelidjh’s abilities, vision and personality. Media reports referred to her as ‘captivating’, ‘charismatic’, ‘colourful’, ‘convincing’, ‘persuasive’, ‘dedicated’, ‘intelligent’, ‘passionate’ and ‘loving’. Ultimately, she manages to combine deep professional knowledge with forceful and persuasive personality attributes. You will return to Batmanghelidjh’s leadership traits, and explore them in more depth, as the week continues. The course now moves on to consider the theoretical background of the traits perspective on leadership.
The traits approach to leadership is usually attributed to Thomas Carlyle’s notion of the Great Man (sic) (see Grint, 2010; Spector, 2016). Carlyle (1795–1881) was of the ‘born, not made’ school of leadership. He believed that heroic leaders were a natural phenomenon but that simply being born with natural leadership talent was insufficient and that one also needed a certain drive to succeed, an ambition lacking by most ‘men’. Taylor (2015, p. 29) distinguishes three defining features of the traits-based view of leadership:
This evolutionary and biological view holds that those who possess the correct traits will rise to the top due to their natural brilliance, so leadership will inevitably surface. However, one might ask an obvious question at this point: if leaders are naturally made, then why is there not a profusion of excellent leadership?
Before you embark further on the critique of trait-based models of leadership, let us first spend some time reflecting on whether traits do, after all, do have something to commend them. You will do so alongside a deeper consideration of Camila Batmanghelidjh.
There is no doubt that individual leaders can bring a sense of drive and passion to a cause. As hinted above, this is closely tied to the fact that founders of organisations (charities, in particular), often possess an extreme sense of vocation – they are certain of their cause and unbending in their dedication to it. Batmanghelidjh was said to work 11 hours each day, six days a week. She also lived in a fairly modest two-bedroom flat. Despite numerous suggestions that the charity should have spent its money more wisely, there was never any suggestion that Batmanghelidjh enriched herself materially – quite the opposite, in fact.
Most organisations would be very grateful indeed for a boss routinely described in the terms enjoyed by Batmanghelidjh. Such drive can help organisations become noticed and, vitally, can provide much of the initial energy required to start a successful voluntary initiative. You could also state that having such a visible leader fronting an organisation provides a degree of accountability. As the leader is so central to the organisation’s identity, then it is to be expected that the leader will accrue significant credit when the organisation performs well and significant blame when the organisation performs badly.
In relation to the voluntary sector, is there a particular kind of leader who seems to be valued over other kinds of leaders? What do they look like and how do they behave? Are these leader characteristics a good thing, a bad thing or somewhere in between (and why)? Spend about 10 minutes jotting down your thoughts.
After reflecting on the above questions, visit the discussion forum thread for this activity and spend 10 minutes posting your thoughts. Then respond to the thoughts of at least two of your fellow learners to keep the discussion flowing and develop the course learning community.
Identifying the kinds of people who are valued as leaders is a valuable method of critical self-reflection. One influential body of leadership theory, rooted in social psychology, maintains that organisations and sectors tend to choose leaders who are typical of the broader group (Hogg, 2001; Hogg and Terry, 2000). For example, if an organisation seems to value risk taking above all other things, then there is a good chance that it will select people deemed to be successful at taking risks as a leader. Our tendency to appoint leaders ‘like us’ means that groups tend to select people who they think best serve their interests, but one implication of this is that such groups can be less open to change.
Having considered the theory behind the leadership as traits perspective, you will now reflect on some of the critiques of this position. It is good to consider these criticisms as they both enable you to be a more critical thinker at work but they also set you up well to reflect on alternative approaches to leadership.
Some problems associated with leadership trait theory are serious but perhaps also tolerable. Trait theory suffers from problems of accuracy and generalisability. Many traits are simply too context-specific and subjectively felt to be of more general applicability. Batmanghelidjh’s particular combination of personality, behaviour and intellect apparently worked in a particular place and time for 19 years. But you would find yourself in a precarious position if you argued that her characteristics could be generalised as a rule of leadership.
It can be argued, quite convincingly, that viewing leadership as embodied in the traits of an individual is elitist. They inevitably set great value against the personal characteristics of people in senior positions and so do tend to marginalise everyone else. Followers are not entirely invisible but they are translucent, only relevant in as much as they hold opinions about the leader.
One could also state that trait theory is fatalistic, in as much as the underlying commitment is to the natural superiority of certain people: the best leaders ought to simply rise to the top of organisational hierarchies, in this case, as a matter of nature and biology.
Finally, leadership trait theory suffers problems of gender and racial bias and prejudice. Note here that not all people who buy into person-based leadership are sexists and racists. Rather, the perspectives themselves are problematic because they very often reflect the prejudices of a particular society at any one time.
There is by now well established research that demonstrates the cross-over between traits people commonly associated with ‘leadership’ and with ‘men’. This is known as the ‘think male – think manager’ problem (Schein, 2006). Rosener (1995) highlights the problem well in her research when she demonstrates that words commonly linked with the concept of ‘leader’ (strong; rational; independent; linear thinking; aggressive; competitive) bear a close resemblance to words commonly associated with male (strong; in control/domineering; husband/father/brother; macho; power; rational).
We should be careful here, however, to not portray this as a sex-based argument, a male-female issue. Rather, it is better to refer to leadership as often evoking masculine connotations (i.e. not all men are particularly masculine, whereas some women are more masculine and macho than men), albeit that far more men than women appear to benefit materially from this masculine bias in leadership.
Watch the following video of OU academic Caroline Clarke, where she reflects on the problem of masculinity in leadership in more depth.
Masculine behaviours, as Caroline states, can seem very normal to us, as they are engendered in people from an early age. Masculine behaviours such as the need to control and hyper-competitiveness can lead to unethical practices, as people compete to outdo one another at work. It is worth recalling the statement from Christine Pearce in the previous video, where she stated that the desire to control everything as a leader is something that should be fought against, as it is hardly ever in the best interests of the organisation or the people who rely on the organisation. You can do something about overly masculine behaviours at work, as Caroline hints at in the clip. Organisations can choose what they reward and what they punish, so it is worth you thinking about the kinds of behaviours rewarded (or not) in your workplace.
Leadership, as well as being linked to masculinity, can also be fraught with race issues. The work of Ospina and Foldy (2009) and Ospina and Su (2009) has highlighted previous studies that demonstrate the tendency within the US and UK to view leadership as embodied in a white leader, with resulting issues for how people from racial and ethnic minorities are viewed and view themselves. Trait-based leadership tends to normalise a certain standard and set of behaviours so that it becomes difficult to see beyond these to new possibilities for leadership. In particular, the language of leadership in the UK has gathered momentum in the wake of a growing preference for individualism and competition over alternative values, such as community and collaboration (Ford, 2006).
Leadership can be co-opted by a growing individualising tendency in society, as a sort of currency of skills and achievements that sets people within and between organisations in competition against one another (Tomlinson et al, 2013). In other words, responsibility for organisations and communities becomes the responsibility of individuals, and their ability to self-master their potential (Clarke and Knights, 2015). We as individuals are the ones responsible for poverty, illness and poor education, rather than larger political and economic forces. The solution is always to conduct more work on the self, rather than to question and challenge how things are seen and done in the first place. The drive is to individualise problems rather than to approach them systemically and collectively.
When things go wrong with leadership, the temptation is always to fixate on the traits of the individual leader. Doing so can be far more straightforward than asking more difficult questions of the organisation or even our systems of thought that seem to place so much faith in individual leaders. In fact it is a major failing of the traits perspective that one of its results can be too much trust in individual leaders to make everything right in the world – in other words, people stop asking tough questions of organisations and themselves, as will become apparent in the next section.
Some of these issues with leadership were certainly highlighted by Camila Batmanghelidjh during the 2015 problems with Kids Company. In a revealing and compelling BBC documentary, directed and produced by Lynn Alleway (Camila’s Kids Company, 2016), Batmanghelidjh casts her problems as partially concerned with racist and sexist sentiment. ‘I’m going to be entirely Persian about it [attempts to remove her as the Kids Company chief executive]. I’m going to smile and accept my place as a woman on the sides, not knowing how to run a business’, Batmanghelidjh says mischievously towards the beginning of the troubles.
Indeed, to the casual British viewer Batmanghelidjh might well cast something of a counter-cultural leader-figure. For one, she is open in displaying her affection to staff and clients. She expresses her ‘love’ of certain clients and in fact love was taken as being a core value of Kids Company. As Batmanghelidjh explained to Glamour magazine in 2015, when recruiting staff, she:
[looks] for a capacity to love. I’m interested in their relationships with their parents, their loved ones, their friends. I also look for a quirky talent or gift – one of my best hires used to be the number one rollerblader in Italy. I look at individual presence and their humanity. I’m not interested in skills – you can teach those. In key workers, I’m interested in people with an ability to love.
In the Alleway documentary she openly expresses her love for her staff, greeting them with refrains of ‘lovelies’ and ‘darlings’.
The inferences of the documentary and Batmanghelidjh are clear. Precisely the traits attributed to her in positive terms when people were keen to celebrate her organisation’s successes were now portrayed as negative characteristics in times of failure.
Does Batmanghelidjh’s view that she is a victim of sexism hold weight against evidence within the sector? The 2016 National Council for Voluntary Organisations UK Civil Society Almanac (National Council for Voluntary Organisations, 2016) demonstrates that there continue to be more women employed in the voluntary sector than men (66 per cent against 34 per cent) but does not offer a view of how many women occupy senior roles compared to men. Evidence from 2012 indicated that women occupied 46 per cent of chief executive roles in voluntary organisations overall, whereas ‘just 27% of chief executives of [major] charities with an annual turnover of £10m plus [were] women, and in the top 100 charities by income there [were] just 26 women chief executives in post’ (Lewis, 2012, p. 4). Comparatively, the voluntary sector tends to come close to the public sector in terms of gender balance but remains far ahead of the private sector: the sector certainly suffers from some problems of gender inequality but these seem less pronounced that other sectors. That said, problems clearly do exist in the sector. We might note that counting the numbers of women in senior positions is only one indicator of sexism and that it is harder to account for women’s experiences of more everyday, casual sexism. Sexism remains a big problem for UK society as a whole and it should therefore not surprise that women in the sector face discrimination, as do women in all sectors of UK public and private life.
Do these significant problems with person-based views of leadership mean that thinking of leadership in person-related terms should be abandoned entirely? The course authors do think there is some value in thinking of leaders in symbolic terms and you will spend the rest of this week thinking in just these terms. Leaders can act as symbolic resources that allow you to critically analyse and think about the organisations in which you work. In other words, thinking critically about your leaders is one effective way of thinking critically about your organisation’s practices.
Every organisation is distinctive in its own way – its practices, ways of talking, habits and routines. This collection of practices adds up to a picture of what an organisation seems to value and what it does not value. The argument made earlier is that people who personify these values and practices often end up in positions of leadership. When people in leadership positions do not embody dominant organisational characteristics, conflict and/or significant uncertainty often ensues. These periods can ultimately, of course, be productive and necessary for organisations, as they adjust to new ways of working and thinking. Sometimes it can be impossible to see outside the dominant frames of thinking and speaking and outsiders are needed to shake things up.
Pay attention to the kinds of stories people tell in your organisation about its leaders, past and present. Respond to the following questions in your learning journal:
Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 2 Activity 3.
The activity asked you to engage with leaders as symbols of organisational practice. We also asked you to think carefully about the kinds of people your organisation tends to portray in a negative light.
This activity should have helped you think more critically about the organisation in which you work. Prioritising certain types of behaviour and people (for example, very caring people who like to spend significant amounts of time talking to others about their feelings and opinions), means that you diminish the value of other kinds of behaviour and people (for example, more distant and coldly analytical people).
Interestingly, the people organisations tend to vilify can be equally informative. This is because every identity is as much composed by what it is not as by what it is. We need negativity in order to establish our identities. You can only know someone to be accessible, for example, because you know what inaccessible people are like to work with. The negative is therefore as much a part of us as the positive. You will now conclude the week by considering the key practice of critical engagement, which has been a recurring theme throughout.
This week you have been engaging critically with leadership theory and with a case from the voluntary sector. Critical engagement is perhaps the important practice within leadership and it is something that we urge you to continue.
Danger for organisations emerges when people are unable to speak out in critical ways, because it may be held against them. Leadership scholar David Collinson (2012) has referred to this phenomenon as ‘prozac leadership’. Overly positive thinking in leadership practice leads to a synthetic high, a false positivity that passes over real problems that really ought to be addressed through good, critical leadership and followership. In fact, most of us will have worked in organisations where really bad ideas come to fruition simply because people were too cautious to speak up.
Critical thinking does not need to be purely negative, although sometimes engaging in purely negative thinking can be useful – sometimes ideas just need to be very carefully analysed and thought through. This is really about constructive critique.
Critical engagement means that we are participants, full members of our organisations. We have skin in the game. This means that we can think critically but with a purpose – the purpose being to make leadership in our organisations better.
This week you focused on the leadership as a person perspective, which is still the dominant way of approaching leadership in academic and popular culture. Specifically, you examined the leadership traits perspective. We offered a critique of this position as elitist and riddled with problems of reliability, generalisability and, most importantly, of prejudice. That said, we also introduced the idea of leaders as symbols of organisations and sectors: the notion that through thinking about, analysing and questioning who people choose (or reject) as leaders, you can more powerfully question your own practices and preferences. Finally, we underlined the key practice of critical engagement as something that should be threaded through all leadership practice. Next week, we move on to consider the most influential of leadership theories, that of transformational leadership, and consider some of the important power issues and their implications for the sector.
You can now go to Week 3.
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This free course was written by Owain Smolović Jones and Carol Jacklin-Jarvis.
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Extract: Saner, E. (2013) ‘Camila Batmanghelidjh: “I chose the vocation”’, The Guardian, 22 February, [Online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/feb/22/camila-batmanghelidjh-interview
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