A historical view on leadership and change

2019 Green Templeton Lecture Series on Leadership

Thursday 17 January 2019   18:00 to 19:30


Keith Grint, Professor Emeritus at Warwick University

In the first of the 2019 GTC Lectures, with the theme of leadership, Keith Grint provided a potted history of change in leadership approaches and theories from Plato to Brexit and considered different explanations for the changes.

Listen to the lecture:

Report by Carlos Outeiral, Doctoral candidate in Statistics at Green Templeton College:

On Thursday 17 January, Green Templeton College opened its 2019 Lecture Series on Leadership with an engaging and thought-provoking lesson on the history of leadership by Keith Grint, Professor of Public Leadership at Warwick University. The lecture aimed at delineating the development of organisational thought in the last two millennia, with numerous references to contemporary conceptions.

There are thousands of methods to improve and change an organisation, and their number increases every year. The overabundance of methodologies has led to aggressive, generalised restructuring activity. For example, in the last two decades of the 20th century, the UK government inaugurated twenty-five new government departments, half of which no longer existed in 2010. Similar futile reforming projects are present everywhere, from the NHS to university departments, even to the army. In the whimsical words of Professor Grint, we are “drowning in the waves of change”.

Where do all these change methodologies come from? Professor Grint leads us into an enthralling journey through two thousand years of leadership ideas, in pursuit of the patterns that give birth to this plethora of strategies.

Keith Grint Lecture (c) Green Templeton College

It begins with the most ancient leader: the Platonic philosopher king, meaning granting command to the wisest, the ones that knows best. Early leaders were often given an image of divinity, ranging from inviolability and immunity from prosecution, to actual God-like attributes like the royal touch – the monarch’s ability to cure diseases by laying of hands. Most importantly, the leader could not be questioned, since nobody could know more than the leader – followers’ purpose was to obey.

These omnipotent leaders often lead to incompetent followers. In 1066, the hardened Saxons did not give up after being defeated by the Normans, but they surrendered after their king was killed – there was no point fighting if the heroic sovereign had already been defeated. Even as recently as in the Second World War, entire battalions of the American army stopped fighting on D-Day after all their leaders – clearly less God-like, but still the only people who knew what they had to do – had perished.

On the other end of the spectrum, this can also lead to destructive consent when irresponsible, puppet-like followers comply to things they should not agree to: from medical negligence to war crimes. In a similar fashion, it was not until Yeltsin and Gorbachev started to undermine the “sanctity” of the Soviet Communist Party that it became publicly acceptable to even doubt the integrity of the USSR.

This classic vision of the leader, known in the current literature as the “Great Man” theory, following the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, is overrun by a cynic neoclassical view that considers the leader no more than a mere symbol. The main example is Lev Tolstoy’s comment in the epilogue to War and Peace, comparing a leader to the bow wave of a ship: it seems to be driving the boat, but it is only the visible result of a much larger action.
It was not only Andrei Bolkonsky who, lying wounded under the sky of Austerlitz, found Napoleon an insignificant man. In fact, Machiavelli, who spent most of his life advising Lorenzo De Medici on the art of leadership, wrote “no leader can plan or direct success, because events are too complex to plan or control. […] Fortune, a fickle woman, is the arbiter of success”.

The itinerary through the history of leadership continues with James Meindl’s late ’90s work on the romance of leadership. According to Meindl, in good and bad times people attribute responsibility to leaders, while in regular conditions leadership is almost invisible. A clear example is the soaring of George Bush’s popularity after 9/11, from 52 to 85 percent. Similar peaks can be observed after the invasion of Iraq and the capture of Saddam Hussain. Surprisingly enough, he did not only enjoy more popular approval but also strengthened support in completely unrelated endeavours, such as the economy.

This notion intertwines with the neoclassical idea of leader as a symbol since what is attributed to a leader is perhaps more important than its direct impact. Professor Keith commented the fact that, after the Battle of Britain in 1940, only the pilots were regarded as heroes – as in the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “never was so much owed by so many to so few” – even if the infantry suffered considerably larger casualties and worse conditions.

The next vision of leadership is the romanticised thought of Walter Benjamin, that equates leadership and art in that they are both unquestionable. Leadership is inherently good, and if it is not, then it is not leadership; in particular, coercive leaders are not truly leading. This leads to the notion of collaborative leadership, and “leaderful organisations” where it is not necessary to discuss power since everyone agrees in everything. Collective leadership represents the divine right of the people.

This brings us to the ever-present problem of populism. Voters are usually uninterested in politics, lack understanding of policy details and often vote against their own preferences. Their behaviour is irrational, and they punish candidates for uncontrollable circumstances such as droughts or floods. Often, there is a myopic retrospection: voters are sensitive to the short term and fail to see the big picture. Moreover, poor performance is often punished more than good performance is rewarded.

Keith Grint Lecture (c) Green Templeton College

There are lots of cases when crowds do not make wise decisions. In fact, wise collective decisions only occur when several factors concur: diversity of opinion, thoughts unaffected by others, especially welcomed knowledge and a process for collective decision – amusingly, the same four factors that make Who Wants To Be a Millionaire’s “ask the audience” lifeline so successful.

Teams sometimes work well and sometimes do not. In Professor Grint’s words, “often 1+1 is not 2, or even one and a half”. However, team failures are often blamed on individuals rather than teams. A widespread explanation of group inefficiencies is that groups have social needs – this is often explained referring to Donald Roy’s famous Banana Time paper, describing how groups of industrial workers in a factory improved their productivity when they were encouraged to build off-task relationships.

How do we make sense of all the visions of leadership described? Professor Grint suggests three approaches. First, we can assume that as time increases, so does rationality – from Carlyle’s “Great Man”, where history is moved by exceptional individuals, we move to more rational approaches of the leader as a symbol and further schemes that deepen our understanding by refining leadership schemes with new data.

A second approach is considering that leadership is dictated by the interplay of science and culture. The different schemes resemble a tennis match, in which the most recent ideas are consecutively closer to science or culture. Carlyle’s clearly cultural thought in the 1900s evolved into the more scientific Fordism and Taylorism in the 1910-1920s, and then again to the cultural terrain with Hawthorne’s human relations theory in the 1930-1940s.

Finally, it is also possible to relate the different schemes to the political and historical context – the Zeitgeist or “spirit of the times”. For example, it is not casual that Hawthorne’s experiments about charismatic leaders are contemporaneous to the rise of communism and fascism in the 1930s.

Our idyllic journey through the history of leadership is concluded by presenting the last vision of leader: the anti-hero, a leader that takes responsibility. If the medieval leader was a Messiah, the contemporary leader is the one that dies for our sins: the one that sacrifices him or herself to avoid a greater disaster, often at the cost of his/her career. These leaders hold that, in the words of Professor Grint, “leadership is about disappointing followers at a rate they can manage”.

The lecture by Professor Grint has set a very high bar for future speakers at Green Templeton College – it was witty, shrewd and full of references to universal questions in the social sciences. Overall, it was a brilliant account by a gifted speaker that has mastered both his discipline and the art of lecturing. We are very happy to have welcomed him, and we are looking forward to continuing exploring leadership in further lectures in this series.

Lecture location:
EP Abraham Lecture Theatre
Green Templeton College
43 Woodstock Road


Type: Featured