December 6, 2006

Richard Sambrook referenced an article by David Owen based on the good Lord’s soon to be published book In Sickness and in Power. I had in parallel been thinking about leadership, partly for the book, partly for the article that Mary Boone and I have been writing for HBR. On that subject, the saga of edits and simplification required for a HBR artiucle will be a subject for a future blog. Two questions come to mind, the first is the degree to which leadership is a consequence of a situation or its cause, and secondly if hubris is an inevitable end state for those in leadership positions. I think we can throw some light on both of these questions. The first by considering the leader as an emergent property, and subsequently as a modulator of a complex adaptive system; the second by understanding the way in which stories pattern human perception.

Owen sees hubris as arising from excessive self-confidence in leaders, and believes that an explanation for it will be found in neuro-science. The article is worth reading if you have a working knowledge of British Politics over the last thirty years. The descriptions of Thatcher are illuminating and his summary of the position of Blair and Bush and the impact of one on the other is masterly. There is of course a certain irony in Owen writing about hubris and making reference to Blair as Bush’s poodle. British readers may remember the famous Spitting Image image that destroyed David Steel by portraying him as a glove puppet in Owen’s top pocket during the days of the Lib-Lab pact. Owen himself resorted to setting up his own political party rather than fight his ground in the Labour Party.

British politics aside, the question of hubris is an important one for leaders in organisations as much as it is in politics. Richard makes the valid point that we over celebrate the achievements of individuals and under value the works of teams. By implication (I think) he is saying that the leader often gets the credit for something which they have at best directed, influenced or supported. I have previously referenced Gabriele Lakomski’s scholarly but very readable Managing without Leadership in which she takes the position that leaders are in effect an emergent aspect of a complex system which they at best influence but cannot control. To some extent this is a slightly more extreme version of Richard’s position, with an emphasis on the situation as a whole.

This leads us into the first question, namely is leadership consequence or cause? If we take a complex systems perspective on this I think we can make this a both/and rather than an either/or. I would hope that the idea that leadership is contextual would be accepted without argument. Rudy Guiliani’s directive leadership towards the end of his term as Mayor of New York City but it proved popular and effective post 9/11. There is an old military adage that it takes a year of war for the peace time generals to die, so the war time generals can come into their own. In these cases the situation creates a need into which provides an opportunity for an individual. If their seize the day, then their leadership stabilizes or directs the development of the system. People like to follow. Of course the outcome can be different: a situation can throw up a Ghandi or a Hitler after all.

Now if we the interaction of various agents, including the proto-leader, with each other and with the environment, as a complex adaptive system the as behaviors stabilise around the leader they in effect become a strange attractor, an emergent evolutionary property of the system that once it forms, acts as a modulator of the system. The quality of the individual or team can act to amplify or dampen the effect of the modulation. If the leader’s position is amplified and the the other modulars are dampened then the system becomes highly stable and can be directed by the leader. However over time this stability will increase tension in the system until it suffers catastrophic failure. This sort of understanding (I will amplify this in the book) if gained by a leader, namely an awareness of themselves as an influencer of emergence in the system, and the dangers of excessive stability might create a more resilient model of leadership, and less hubris.

Of course one of the things that prevents this degree of self awareness is the interaction of stories with the leader. The subject of my second question. Think of what happens when a leader takes up position – either as a politician or as a leader in an organisation. They may just have been lucky, they were in the right place at the right time; they may have exhibited good judgement, people skills or the ability to communicate. Whatever they are deemed successful and they now have power. In the early days they have diverse stories to here from many sources, they are not yet confident. However, unless they are grossly incompetent, then this diversity reduces. People around them learn what type of stories they want to hear, what ways they can be influenced. All leaders create myths, exceptional ones ensure that they are disrupted, bad and average ones allow the myths to be reinforced. The problem is that stories are resonant in nature. As one story is successful more stories follow the same form. Eventually the leader is wrapped up in their own myth and insulated from reality. Their aides and associated sycophants maintain the myth as their power comes from its existence. The leader may even write a book about their qualities with the odd set of platitudes strung together as a recipe for leadership success for a gullible readership. Sooner or later however the myth is shattered by encounters with reality.

So is hubris inevitable? Probably yes.

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