Rethinking Leadership in Risk
It is easy to put up a blog or tweet and just about say anything as if any ‘noise’ and enthusiasm are helpful. Somewhere along the line there needs to be a balance of listening, respect and conversation between the amateur and expert view or the alienation will achieve very little. In the risk and safety space, this means that professional bodies have to listen to the call for recognition by practical risk and safety people and that amateurs need recognise the need for greater learning, research and education in workspace.
Leadership whilst defined as the capability and actuality of social influence, has for years been about a discourse of individual attributes/traits of leaders. What some call the ‘hero myth’. Since the evolution of managerialist ideologies in the 1970’s and 1980s, leadership schools of thought, publications, MBAs, Six Sigma tools, CEO discourse and leadership/management ‘centres’ have exploded. The rise of management and leadership expertise is marked by such publications as Charles Handy’s Understanding Organizations (1979), Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (1982) and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People published in 1989 and selling 25 million copies. Primarily, the focus of management and leadership ‘schools’ and experts, has been individualistic. However, over the last 10 years with changes associated with social media and ‘people movements’ (eg. the Arab Spring) has seen a shifting of focus from the leader-as-CEO as demigod-hero, to an interest in followers. Neville’s (2012) work ‘The Life of Things’ has an excellent analysis of the myth of the hero. Negri (2005) in the ‘Politics of Subversion’ documents ‘people movement’ forms of leadership-power showing that new technologies have generated new dynamics in followership and new challenges to the ‘hero-leader myth’. What are the implications for leadership in risk?
Most of us can tick off the accepted and common projected attributes of an effective leader or have studied the nature of ‘charismatic’ or ‘transformational’ leadership. We are confronted with this hero-discourse every time there is an election in Australia or the USA. More recently the media and parties have sought to ‘Americanize’ the nature of politics in Australia, particularly, the emphasis on the individual leader. It seems there is now a direct correlation between the election of a leader and the amount of money spent on the campaign to sell the ‘hero’. However, when followers challenge the power of leaders, they then take the lead.
Whilst the media emphasizes the decisiveness of leaders, the followers will later ‘dump’ the leader at the polls for poor decisions. Yet, those who challenge leadership decisions are still viewed as mavericks and troublemakers, not mavens or change agents (Gladwell). Riggio (2008, p. xxv) in ‘The Art of Followership’ states:
Too often, followers are expected to be agreeable and acquiescent and are rewarded for being so, when in fact followers who practice knee-jerk obedience are of little value and are often dangerous. If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak the truth to power. We know that toxic followers can put even good leaders on a disastrous path – Shakespeare’s Iago comes immediately to mind. But heroic followers can also save leaders from their worst follies, especially leaders so isolated that the only voice they hear is their own.
What Riggio emphasizes here is the social relationship or contract between the leader and the followers. Leadership is about much more than the traits of the leader, somewhere along the journey managerialism discourse has lost sight of the follower, social contract and context. Leadership has most often become a study of the ‘man and the moment’ rather than a partnership with people. This is where social psychology enters the discussion and asks the question, ‘what are the social arrangements that complement effective leadership?’ Under the individualistic ‘hero’ discourse of leadership mostly projected by orthodox historians and leadership schools, the key to leadership is the acquisition of power by any means possible and the exercising of that power.
In order to understand followership we need to consider the relationship between the roots of self-categorisation, social influence and social power. Kellerman (2008, p. xix) in ‘Followership’ defines followers by rank as:
Followers are subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line.
However, followers can also be defined by their behavior, they ‘go along’ with what someone else espouses and expects. Unfortunately, as Kellerman demonstrates, the ‘leadership industry’ has perpetuated the myth that leaders are more important than followers. Further, the ‘leadership industry’ has also perpetuated the myth that leadership can be ‘taught’. Kellerman makes clear that focusing primarily on leaders has distorted our perceptions of power, identity, authority and influence. Kellerman discusses several examples where superiors follow and subordinates lead, these are: dissenters, whistle-blowers, and middle managers.
Unfortunately, there is a downside with ‘people movements’ and this is best discussed by Keen in ‘The Cult of the Amateur’. The down side of the people movement is a tendency to elevate ‘amateur’ knowledge and disparage professional or ‘expert’ knowledge. It is easy to put up a blog or tweet and just about say anything as if any ‘noise’ and enthusiasm are helpful. Somewhere along the line there needs to be a balance of listening, respect and conversation between the amateur and expert view or the alienation will achieve very little. In the risk and safety space, this means that professional bodies have to listen to the call for recognition by practical risk and safety people and that amateurs need recognise the need for greater learning, research and education in workspace.