Rethinking Leadership Development

I was invited to present at the recent launch of the Centre for Progressive Leadership (CPL) at London Metropolitan University. Linda Holbeche one of the Co-directors of the CPL is impressed with what we have been doing at the University of Hertfordshire (UH) in trying to rethink leadership development, not least by drawing on the complexity sciences in our sense-making. That is, the sciences of uncertainty and non-linearity, rather than the sciences of certainty and linearity privileged by mainstream discourse and traditional leadership development programmes. The original title that I had chosen for my presentation was Rethinking Leadership Development, buta request to alter this to Developing Progressive Leaders caused me to reflect on the term ‘progressive’. The only time that I’d previously encountered ‘progressive’ being linked to leadership and management was in a book that I studied during my research on the Doctorate in Management (DMan) programme at UH.

The book, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, is the work of Harvard Business School Professor, Rakesh Khurana; and in it he traces the interdependent histories of management as i) a profession, ii) a ‘science’, and iii) a university discipline. Khurana argues that in late nineteenth century America, the emerging class of workers that came to be known as ‘managers’ sought to legitimise their claims to control the newly-formed large publicly traded corporations ahead of other ‘competing groups, namely, shareholders, labour, and the state’.[i] To do this, they set out to position management as a profession (akin to medicine or the law), and to establish the body of knowledge associated with managing as a ‘science’. And the institution they called on to back these claims was the university, leading to the establishment of university-based business schools. The central tenet of the professionalisation process was the positioning of managers as stewards, with responsibilities to not only shareholders, but also to employees and the communities in which their organisations operated.

However, Khurana argues that since the inception of the first business school at Wharton (Pennsylvania) in 1881, the professionalisation process has been slowly expunged from business school curricular, to be replaced, initially, by the promotion of technical knowledge over professional knowledge, in the years following the Second World war, and more latterly by the rise of agency theory, following the financial crisis of the 1970s, when notions of stewardship were all but lost. Khurana contends that since the 1970s, managers have been encouraged to became little more than the ‘hired hands’ of shareholders, motivated by self-interest to maximise shareholder value – often to the detriment of employees and the wider community:

By demoting managers from professional stewards of the corporation’s resources to hired hands bound only by contractual requirements and relationships, business schools thus helped create the conditions and standards of behaviour through which the market-based mechanism of stock options was turned into an instrument for defrauding investors, jeopardising the livelihoods of employees, and undermining public trust in managers and corporations. [ii]

And note the time of writing, 2007 – pre credit-crunch.

When reflecting on the word ‘progressive’, what struck me were the parallels between now and the era when the Progressive Movement first came to the fore. By the end of the nineteenth century, when the position of managers as the legitimate controllers of large corporations in the United States was still contested and labour unrest was rife; the Populist and Progressive movements flourished. However, ‘while the Populist sentiment…sought to cripple and, indeed, dismantle large corporations, Progressive reformers tended to view corporations as a means of addressing some of society’s most vexing problems’. [iii] Progressive reformers advocated a form of moral management as a curb against the excesses of big business, and considered this an opportunity to quell labour unrest by breaking the conflict between labour and capital once and for all. I’m not convinced that the CPL’s use of the word ‘progressive’ has any direct connection with the Progressive Movement (indeed at the launch event there were several references made to ‘breaking shareholder capitalism’s stranglehold’ that were more Populist in tone), but I do think that the CPL shares the Progressive Movement’s desire to recalibrate the moral compass in some way; the inference being that, presently, the needle seems to be firmly stuck on ‘self-interest’.

So would I describe what we are doing at UH as Developing Progressive Leaders? Well, in our sense-making, we do pay attention to the morality of what we do, that is, we take seriously the ethical dimensions of what it is we are doing, and being asked to do, as leaders and managers as we go about our day-to-day exchanges with each other. Leadership development interventions at UH have become spaces for reflection, sense-making, and exploration. There is an invitation to participants to start with their experience, to confront head-on the anxiety of acting in conditions of uncertainty, and to explore and navigate a way through the often paradoxical situations in which we find ourselves. Mainstream thinking on leadership and organisation is no longer presented as neutral and/or natural – something that Edgar Schein, in the 1960s, described as a form of coercive persuasion [iv] when he compared the techniques employed on corporate training programmes with the techniques used to brainwash political prisoners – but rather we encourage participants to engage with a range of perspectives and to develop their capacity for reflexivity. That is, to think about how they are thinking. However, this is not to idealise reflexivity and/or engagement with complexity or critical perspectives. The leaders with whom we work might a) consider the models of leading and organising contained in the dominant discourse to be natural, ethical, and useful, or b) they might question the ethics but continue to manipulate those who work with them out of self-interest, or indeed, c) they might well question the ethics/usefulness but continue to collude with colleagues in order to avoid some form of sanction or exclusion.

Khurana concludes that a return to the professionalisation project and an overhaul of business school education is called for; ‘not simply by echoing or reproducing the dominant market logic, or challenging it only at and from the margins, but rather systematically interrogating it from the standpoint of alternative models’. [v] To paraphrase Khurana, what I think we are doing at UH is rethinking leadership development; not simply by echoing or reproducing the dominant discourse on leadership and organisation, or challenging it only at and from the margins, but rather reflexively interrogating it from the standpoint of personal experience and alternative ways of thinking. Why bother? Well one reason is to help managers avoid the corrosive effects of what Alvesson and Spicer term ‘functional stupidity’. Alvesson and Spicer define functional stupidity as an ‘inability or unwillingness to use cognitive and reflective capacities in anything other than narrow and circumspect ways. It involves a lack of reflexivity, a disinclination to require or provide justification, and avoidance of substantive reasoning’. [vi] They site the bubble and the recent financial crisis as examples of functional stupidity; occasions when many individuals placed irrational faith in the ‘potential of online ventures’ and ‘complex financial models’, respectively [vii]. In developing the capacities of reflexivity and practical judgement we are trying to ensure that managers don’t get caught up in modes of thinking that leave them trapped in modes of acting that may no longer be serving them, and those around them, all that well. [viii] Progressive? I’ll leave it for you to decide.

Kevin Flinn, Head of Leadership and Organisational Development, University of Hertfordshire

[i] Khurana (2007) p.10

[ii] ibid. p.375

[iii] ibid. p.38

[iv] Schein (1961)

[v] Khurana (2007) p.365

[vi] Alvesson and Spicer (2012) p.1201

[vii] ibid. p.1198

[viii] Stacey (2007)


Alvesson, M. & Spicer, A. (2012) A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organizations, Journal of Management Studies, 49:7, pp1194-1220.

Khurana, R. (2007) From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The social transformation of American business schools and the unfulfilled promise of management as a profession, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Schein, E. H. (1961) Coercive Persuasion, New York: Norton.

Stacey, R. (2007) Strategic Management and Organizational Dynamics (5th Edition), London: Financial Times/Prentice Hall