This week you will analyse the most influential of contemporary leadership theories: transformational leadership. This is a very important account of leadership, one that has influenced organisations across sectors. Nevertheless, it is also a perspective on leadership which is fraught with problems. The focus this week will be on how to arm people and organisations against the creep of narcissistic, individual-focused versions of leadership. The week ends with a reflective exercise that seeks to reconfigure the ‘leadership as person’ perspective.
After completing this week, you will be able to:
James MacGregor Burns coined the phrase ‘transformational leadership’ in his seminal (1978) book, simply titled Leadership. He differentiated between transactional leadership, which he saw as leadership focused on self-interest and exchange, and transformational leadership, which dealt with people’s ethics and beliefs. Burns saw transformational leadership as an interplay, with leaders and followers engaged in leading one another to higher levels of ambition and moral development. If you have ever worked in an organisation where such leadership happens, you will know that these are energetic places, where colleagues challenge and support one another in equal measure and where there is a tremendous commitment to the goals and values of the organisation (rather than the leader).
The central core of transformational leadership was subsequently picked up and adapted by business school scholars from the United States. Starting in 1985 and continuing over several years, Bernard Bass and colleagues reworked transformational leadership so that, in the course author’s view, it became yet another traits and behavioural model of leadership. Bass and colleagues’ version of the theory suggests that individual leaders could be regarded as on a continuum of the transformational to the transactional. They proposed that transformational leaders do certain things, namely: offer intellectual stimulation to followers; tailor their approach according to the feelings and preferences of particular followers (individualised consideration); offer inspirational motivation with their words and deeds; and, act as a role model for followers, known as idealised influence.
Worryingly, Burns’ earlier emphasis on ethics was omitted (see Delaney and Spoelstra, 2015). In its place was an emphasis on a weak form of charisma. Leaders were supposed to work on the emotions and desires of followers, not just their material needs. Transformational leaders were to be the masters of their followers’ feelings. We now move on to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of transformational leadership in relation to Kids Company.
Batmanghelidjh did display a kind of leadership that stretched above and beyond the transactional and rational within Kids Company. She said to BBC filmmaker Lynn Alleway in a 2016 Panorama documentary, ‘Realism never got anyone anywhere Lynn. Aspiration and imagination got people to transcend barriers. To the last minute I have got to hold on to aspiration and imagine a better situation and bring it about’ (Camila’s Kids Company, 2016). The language here is evocative of breaking conventional barriers – indeed of transforming, how such an organisation should operate, as well as the lives of the children it serves.
The aspiration and imagination of Kids Company came packaged in a personalised approach to staff and clients. In Alleway’s film, staff were routinely greeted in affectionate terms (‘I love our staff very much’; ‘lovelies’; ‘darlings’; ‘You’re amazing’). It was clear that the staff (and clients) enjoyed significant intellectual stimulation. Batmanghelidjh was experimenting with and implementing a fresh and challenging approach to child protection and development. Batmanghelidjh was certainly a role model for her staff. Her long hours of work, optimism, faith in the organisational mission and care for her clients was palpable. Likewise, transformational leadership suggests that leading an organisation is not something that can be bracketed off as but one aspect of a leader’s life because it relates to people’s feeling and beliefs – transformational leadership requires the whole person to be present at all times.
This was a woman who exemplified the Kids Company ethos until the very end. In a striking monologue towards the end of the life of Kids Company, in response to a question from Alleway about whether she was to blame for any of the problems, Batmanghelidjh said:
Are you doing it to me as well? What would you like me to say Lynn? I am so sorry. But what am I sorry for? I am not sorry I gave the kids money. I am not sorry I bought the kids nice things. I am not sorry I fought for them. I am not sorry. The only thing I am sorry about is I didn’t raise enough money. What would you like me to be sorry about Lynn?
Here we get a sense of the passionate Camila, of the‘inspirational motivation’, to borrow a phrase from transformational leadership. She certainly inspired those who worked for her and her clients. During the BBC film, her staff are proactive in complimenting Batmanghelidjh and her approach to the camera. The documentary also shows an emotional address by Batmanghelidjh to staff, some tearful, as she is cheered on in the face of some clear organisational problems. Many of Batmanghelidjh’s clients clearly valued her a great deal. When Kids Company did close, emotional protestors gathered outside the charity’s headquarters, calling out Batmanghelidjh’s name repeatedly, through tears: ‘Camila, Camila, Camila, Camila’. This was a scene of genuine mourning for a leader they came to think of in deeply personal ways, as the dimension in transformational leadership of individualised consideration demands.
Camila Batmanghelidjh, in short, appears to be an exemplar of transformational leadership – both in its original and its later forms. She certainly led others to up their aspirations as far as children’s welfare was concerned but her brand of transformational leadership also makes apparent some of the underlying problems of Kids Company – specifically, perhaps, its over-reliance on a single leader’s vision. The course therefore now moves on to consider some of the benefits and problems with transformational leadership in more depth.
You will now consider the benefits and problems with transformational leadership using the Kids Company example.
There are some apparent benefits to transformational leadership. Do you have any ideas about what some of these might be? Jot down your ideas using the Kids Company example to back them up.
Transformational leadership, in looking beyond the transactional, does aspire to deliver a more personal and ethical working environment. Nobody really wants to work in a very impersonal organisation that is solely task-focused. This would be the perfect transactional organisation. Organisations where people connect and respond to one another’s values feel like positive and energising places to work. Ethics cannot be captured in transactions but require something above and beyond these.
Write down some suggested potential problems with transformational leadership, again using the Kids Company example to help you.
All of the main problems associated with transformational leadership concern the amount of power it grants and attributes to individual leaders. For example, in the case of Kids Company, the organisation simply was not sustainable because it was so closely tied to the personality of Batmanghelidjh. We will now move on to unpack some of these problems
Transformational leadership seeks a kind of holistic satisfaction of followers’ needs beyond the material (Delaney and Spoelstra, 2015). It aims to address the emotions and values of employees. In so doing it also manoeuvres itself into a realm of the employee’s life and world previously regarded as private and beyond the rights of organisations to touch (Tourish, 2013). The worker must now commit emotionally – even spiritually – to the job and the leader. In Week 1 you saw with Kids Company that the barrier between private life and work was blurred. In fact, investing emotionally in the client as family member was a cornerstone of the Kids Company ethos. Such workplaces can feel welcoming and homely but can also, if they go too far, intrude into private lives.
In its handling of charisma, transformational leadership credits leaders with great power and encourages followers to sacrifice their own discretion in favour of the leader’s powers of example setting and inspirational motivation. Transformational leadership suggests that charisma is something that can be possessed. An alternative view sees charisma as something that is negotiated between people – leaders and followers. What counts as charismatic in one context will not in another: would Batmanghelidjh have been regarded as charismatic in a staid law firm, for example?
There is therefore a danger with transformational leadership that it transfers too much deference and power into the hands of single leaders and you will consider these issues in the next section.
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.
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.
Would removing Batmanghelidjh have solved the problem? Take a few minutes to think about this question.
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 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.
Voluntary organisations often spring up and experience much success because of the brilliance, vision, drive and energy of particular individuals. We should not underestimate the power of such people to get things moving, particularly early on in an organisation’s life. That said, the problems we have highlighted with person-based leadership and transformational leadership should indicate that there are things we can do in order to ensure that this kind of leadership does not get out of hand. In particular, as organisations develop and grow, the person-based view of leadership becomes increasingly difficult to sustain or justify.
It is worth thinking about some practices that might encourage more critical engagement, rather than silence and sacrifice.
Can you think of any techniques or ideas within your workplace that would encourage people to speak up in contravention to the official organisational line? An example might be encouraging people to question a boss’ idea or speaking up in a meeting in a critical way. What might some of the benefits and risks be of such an approach? Make brief notes about this in your learning journal. Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 3 Activity 4.
Speaking up in organisations can be intimidating, especially when it means disagreeing with powerful people. Powerful people often do not like to be contradicted. Of course not all people in charge are like this – most are not, in all likelihood. That said, there could be some unique ways in which you could develop more of a culture of constructive criticism within your organisation. Such practices will surely appear differently depending on the context, as each organisation possesses varying degrees of formality and deference to authority. For some organisations, this might involve a quiet word with the boss in private, for others a culture of critique in meetings.
However, despite people’s best efforts, critical engagement with person-centred leadership can be ineffective. This can occur if the leader of the organisation has narcissistic tendencies. In the next section you will look at narcissism, and consider its significance in person-based leadership. You will once again examine this in the context of Kids Company.
Narcissism is a word and concept gleaned from psychoanalysis that is important for understanding and working with organisational leadership. In a nutshell, narcissism stands for extreme self-love. People are all narcissistic to a certain extent but most manage a balance between directing affections and drives out towards others and inwards. When the balance tips too far towards self-love, narcissism can create significant problems for organisations.
Narcissism is a seductive but ultimately corrosive phenomenon that can breed a toxic environment within organisations. Organisations can become more focused on the ideas, feelings and whims of its narcissistic leader(s) than on what is really in that organisation’s best interests. Differences between the organisation and the personality of its leader start to dissolve and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish one from the other.
Watch the following video, where OU academic Caroline Clarke addresses the issue of narcissism in relation to leadership.
Caroline makes the point that leadership is often connected to notions of the heroic, which is something that is re-enforced through popular culture and fiction. Some people desperately want to be the hero – and we could say that this kind of desire is linked to narcissistic tendencies. Equally, many people want to be ‘saved’ by leaders because being saved means that they can take less responsibility for an organisation’s problems. Narcissism, as Caroline states, can become hugely problematic for organisations, leading to coercive behaviours and bullying. Most importantly, however, narcissism diverts attention away from the needs of an organisation, instead resulting in attention being paid to the egos of leaders.
But how does narcissism begin to take hold in an organisation? Narcissists can appear bewitching to followers, who are moved by the leader’s self-confidence and inspirational message. Narcissistic leaders appeal as figures of freedom, dancing their way through life and work without the same worries or burdens as others (Stavrakakis, 2008). There is also a practical dimension to the rise and survival of narcissists. While people may be attracted to narcissists partly because they are somewhat narcissistic themselves, humans are also fragile and insecure, naturally worried for their jobs. It may seem like too much of a risk to cross the narcissistic boss.
When an organisation is really caught in the grip of a narcissistic leader, budgets may run out of control, and vanity projects may be funded. Allies of the narcissist may be rewarded at the expense of other, more deserving people. People can be psychically harmed, marginalised and bullied if they do not comply with the leader’s wishes. This happens because narcissists primarily care about their own egos and so all other considerations become secondary.
Did Kids Company fall victim to narcissistic practice? Certainly, aspects of its work did seem to creep fairly close to what could be deemed self-centred leadership. Indeed, in the Alleway BBC documentary (Camila’s Kids Company, 2016), Camila Batmanghelidjh’s personality is portrayed as inseparable from that of the ethos of Kids Company. She refers to ‘my extraordinary children’ (emphasis added), for example, in relation to clients. Kids Company’s problems were certainly framed by Batmanghelidjh in very personal terms. Negative publicity and moves against the organisation were referred to as ‘revenge’, as she was ‘supposed to be killed off’. When discussing the installation of a new chief operating officer, Batmanghelidjh’s response is to interpret this as an ‘amazing’ ‘disrespect’ to her. When asked about her removal being part of the agreement to maintain government funding for the organisation, Batmanghelidjh comments that she plans on ‘Tipp-exing’ (editing out) that part of the agreement.
The next section looks at how to survive working in an organisation run by a narcissistic leader.
Gabriel (1999, pp. 145–6) proposes four indicators that can help us spot narcissists at work and we commend them to you as a useful way of identifying trouble ahead.
Finally, we also need to consider what we regard as the irony of narcissism: narcissists tend to favour authoritarian leadership but struggle to cope when they find their own narcissism compromised by another powerful leader (Gabriel, 1999). This is a contradiction but a fascinating one. Its implications should be directed back towards ourselves. If you ever find yourself yearning for some decisive, strong leadership, it might be worth considering that this is your own narcissism speaking. Such narcissism can distract us from the hard questions.
Now that you have considered some of the characteristics of narcissistic leaders and some basic indicators of narcissism at work, you will now consider the issue of narcissism in relation to your own experiences.
Have you ever worked for or with someone you would characterise as narcissistic? Without naming names, what were some of the things this person did and said that leads you to the belief that they were/are narcissistic? What kind of strategies did you adopt to deal with their behaviour?
Make brief notes in response to these questions in your learning journal. Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 3 Activity 5.
Here are three basic strategies for dealing with narcissists at work:
Now that you have considered the benefits and problems of person-based and transformational leadership, you will now think of ways in which you can turn these approaches on their heads and engage differently with the idea of leaders in the sector.
To conclude this week of learning we are going to turn the tables on the leadership as person approach, reinterpreting its main features and arguments in a critical and reflective way. The purpose of this exercise is to see whether we might be able to construct and debate the kinds of things a great leader in the voluntary sector might stand for, say and do.
Visit the discussion forum and find the thread for this activity. Reply to the thread by finish the following sentence:
‘My ideal leader in the voluntary sector would … ‘
Justify your answer and provide some concrete examples of the kinds of things your symbolic leader would do: how would these characteristics manifest? You can even give your ideal leader a fictionalised name if you like.
After reflecting on your answer, post a response to at least two of your fellow learners and ask them some questions about their leaders. How would their symbolic leader handle a particular kind of meeting, or tricky conversation with a funder, for example?
The week concludes by reflecting on the key practice for the week, that of constructing.
For most of this week you have been considering different accounts of leadership and their problems. Further, you have been considering the role of people in the sector in terms of re-imagining the kinds of leaders you would like. Playing with what is acceptable and desirable in terms of leadership we label as a practice of constructing. Getting these thoughts out in the open is an important first step in changing the kinds of leadership experienced in an organisation.
We could equally have referred to this practice as crafting instead of ‘constructing’. In a face to face leadership development programme, at this point we would in all likelihood have brought out reams of paper, colouring pencils and pens, or even modelling clay. We would probably have asked you to draw your symbolic leader in the form of a poster and given you a few minutes each to explain this symbolic leader to your colleagues. Crafting and constructing are ways of making visible dominant organisational norms and, indeed, challenging such norms.
Asking people to construct things – images, models, short stories – can be a way of freeing the imagination from some of the constraints we routinely experience within organisations, usually caused by a dominance of task-focused activity.
The key point here is that we can be more deliberate about the kinds of leaders and leadership we pursue – we need not be the passive victims of larger cultural and political forces.
This week you have seen that transformational leadership has its flaws, despite being perhaps the most popular of leadership theories. You read a critique of the fall of Kids Company that highlighted one of the main problems – that ceding too much power and credit to individuals in charge has its dangers.
From here you moved on to consider people’s tendency to succumb to authority in their practice, drawing on the work of Grint (2010) on separation, silence and sacrifice. Underlying some of this ‘sacred’ pattern of leadership is the influence of narcissism – excess self-love – on the part of leaders and followers, and you learned about a number of ways to identify and combat narcissism at work.
You moved on to engage with an activity designed for re-imagining alternative leaders for the voluntary sector, as symbolic of how leadership might be pursued in the future. Finally, we drew attention to a key practice that you have been pursuing all week (perhaps without even realising that you had been), that of constructing.
As was apparent this week, leadership can throw up all kinds of tough ethical problems, mostly connected with power. Next week, you will consider ethics in leadership explicitly, reflecting on how the ethics of an organisation can do the work of leadership.
Now go to Week 4.
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This free course was written by Owain Smolović Jones and Carol Jacklin-Jarvis.
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3.1: extract from: Cluley, R. (2008) ‘The psychoanalytic relationship between leaders and followers’, Leadership, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 201–12.
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