The cultural influences that shape how we lead (and follow)

By Martin Vogel

messiah therapist
Messiah and therapist.

Leadership is often viewed as a static or neutral concept – perhaps rooted in the traits of a particularly capable individual, or determined by the situation in which leadership is required. In fact, how we lead is profoundly influenced by our culture and it changes over time. The best evidence for this that I know comes in Simon Western’s Leadership: A Critical Text – a survey of the concept and practice leadership from the early 20th Century on.

Simon identifies four discourses of leadership that have been influential over the period: controller, therapist, messiah and eco-leader.

Controller came to prominence in the early 1900s, when factory production was dominant and alongside it a nascent “science” of management. The controller discourse emphasises efficiency and productivity. It views the task of leaders as managing people like any other production input – to be utilised effectively.

The therapist discourse arose from a critique of scientific rationalism after the Second World War. Events such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima and the Dresden bombings caused people to question the excesses of the technocratic mindset. The therapist discourse emphasises more human considerations such as relationships and motivation.

In the later part of the 20th Century, a view of leaders as visionaries came to the fore. The messiah discourse elevates charismatic individuals who seek to manage people by inspiring them. It emphasises the orchestration of an organisational culture which will encourage followers to align with the leader’s vision. It grew out of a critique of mid-century liberalism articulated by fundamentalist religious movements. This helps explain why it spawned a kind of corporate fundamentalism that has come to be known as neoliberalism.

The roots of the eco-leader discourse are found in the dawn of the networked society. Its characteristics are seen in protest movements that emerged around the turn of the century: the anti-globalisation movement, Occupy and the Arab Spring. It has a more social and ethical orientation, and emphasises influence through connections more than through formal channels of authority.

I trained with Simon Western a few years ago and use his discourses in my work. Their great strength is how well the discourses resonate with people: they recognise themselves and their colleagues in them. The discourses provide a language by which people can discuss what it is to lead. This is testimony to the fact that all four of the discourses remain at play in organisations today. And necessarily so. The controller discourse might have its roots in the rise of great manufacturing enterprises, but few businesses can survive long without some orientation to the controller, however networked or visionary they are.

That said, I find the identification of the eco-leader discourse more speculative than the other three. While the controller, therapist and messiah discourses are historical phenomena, it is still an open question what form the prevailing discourse that grows out of the networked society will take. Certainly a reaction to neoliberalism and globalisation is taking shape. The socially conscious, ethically informed discourse that Simon Western highlights may be in the mix but seems increasingly unlikely to prevail.

By linking each of the discourses to the cultural and political undercurrents that gave rise to them, Simon Western demonstrates how leadership is not a behavioural act of individuals but is formed socially. Leaders are shaped by their cultures as much as they shape them. And this goes for their followers too: the authority we give leaders is culturally formed.

As Chris Dillow notes, our constructs around leadership are freighted with moral meanings. The messiah discourse, which Chris calls the “great men” theory of leadership, explains things that otherwise don’t make sense – like:

“Why so many on the right are relaxed about inequality even though it often arises from market failure. It’s because success even in a rigged market is to be applauded. The general who wins a battle is seen as a hero even if the battle wasn’t fought on a level field. Why should things be different in other domains in which heroism is revealed.”

I would go further and say the cultural acceptance of the messiah discourse – that is, its becoming the received wisdom of its age – explains why elites were given so much latitude to embed incentives that gave rise to inequalities.

That ship has sailed and we are now dealing with the widespread reaction against neoliberalism, globalisation and possibly democracy.

The messiah discourse is indeed in the process of being superseded by a new discourse. But its successor is shaping up to be much darker than the cuddly eco-leader that had seemed possible only a few years ago.

Download Simon Western’s overview of the leadership discourses.

Take the WILD questionnaire to discover your preferences among the leadership discourses.