A Cognitive View Of Leadership

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Which of the scholarly disciplines "owns" leadership? Traditionally, the study of leadership has been considered within the purview of political science. Political scientists have considered leadership from the point of view of the power held by leading persons and institutions, the policies that are implemented, and the interests of various publics within a society. Other disciplines have had their say from time to time. Representatives of my discipline of psychology, for example, have examined the personalities of leaders and have considered the unconscious needs of leaders as well as the wishes of those who are led.

A lag usually obtains between the time when disciplinarians first plough new territory and the time when those outside the discipline become aware of a paradigm shift. Such is the case with psychology. For much of the public, psychology still means psychoanalysis, a la Freud or behaviorism, a la B.F. Skinner and Hans Eysenck. But by general agreement, during the last few decades, the major energy in psychology has come from cognitive studies. Stimulated by the groundbreaking work of scholars like Donald Broadbent, Jerome Bruner, Philip Johnson-Laird, Jean Piaget, and Anne Triesman, psychologists have studied the changing ways in which individuals represent knowledge and the roles of those representations in determining belief and actions.

Traditional understanding of leadership can be significantly enhanced by the adoption of the lens of the cognitivist. Donning this lens, I construe leadership as a transaction that occurs within (and between) the minds of leaders and followers. A leader is an individual who creates a story--a mental representation--that significantly affects the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings--the mental representations--of a significant number of persons (termed followers). Since followers invariably know many stories, a leader can only be effective if his or her story is powerful, if it can compete successfully for influence with already prevalent stories. On my analysis, the most powerful stories turn out to be ones about identity; stories that help individuals discover who they are, where they are coming from, where they are, or should be, headed. A crucial element in the effectiveness of a story hinges on whether the leader "embodies" the storywhether the leader's own actions and way of life reinforce the themes of a story that he or she relates.

On this definition, Margaret Thatcher emerges as an effective leader in recent times. Mrs. Thatcher had a clear-cut story to convey: This story chronicled the decline of Britain from its former grandeur, the need to carve away the excesses of the socialist state and free the energies of the marketplace; if one pursued this vision, a new, stronger, and more vibrant nation could emerge. This "Labor Party is not working" story competed successfully with the "counter stories" of trade-union socialism and of various Tory-Labor political compromises in the postwar period. Though Mrs. Thatcher herself benefited from having a wealthy husband, she was able to convince millions of Britons that she embodied the story she told; that she had used her considerable wit and energy to accomplish things in her own life and that she contributed personally to the reinvigoration of Britain through her courage during the Falklands War and in the wake of a terrorist bombing at the Conservative Party congress in Brighton.

In Leading Minds, I studied 21 leaders, ranging from those who began as scholars (anthropologist Margaret Mead, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer), to those who led large but circumscribed organizations (Pope John XXIII, Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors) to leaders of nations (Margaret Thatcher), to those who attempted to lead beyond national boundaries (Mahatma Gandhi and Jean Monnet). This study revealed certain intriguing features that characterize effective leaders: for example, the importance of gifts in oral language and in understanding the motivations of other persons; the determinant role of travel in early life in developing a more inclusionary sense of identity; the capacity in early life to challenge individuals in authority but to do so in such a way that one earns respect rather than wrath.

Perhaps most revealingly, the study called attention to the differences between addressing a relatively circumscribed group, which has common knowledge and values, and a heterogeneous group, such as the citizens of a nation. To the extent that one is addressing a circumscribed group--Margaret Mead talking to fellow anthropologists, Alfred Sloan addressing managers at General Motors--one can develop a relatively sophisticated story. To the extent that one is addressing a more heterogeneous group, it is necessary to begin by telling a very simple "unschooled" story --generally speaking, a kind of "Star Wars" saga that pits "us," the good persons, against "them," those who are misguided or evil. Margaret Thatcher (and her American counterpart Ronald Reagan) excelled at creating a stark contrast between those who joined in their market revolution and those who provided obstacles or just "didn't get it."

The visionary leader must begin with a simple (if not simplistic) story but need not end there. What distinguishes Mahatma Gandhi and Jean Monnet from most other leaders is that, over time, they were able to convince their followers of a more sophisticated story. Gandhi convinced Indians and citizens of other nations that conflict need not be violent and that both parties in a contest can be strengthened by a properly enacted struggle. Jean Monnet convinced French people as well as citizens and leaders of other nations that Europe need not remain as a collection of ever-hostile states; there can be power, profit, and peace in dissolving or attenuating the boundaries between European states. Gandhi and Monnet suffered many setbacks, but, as Monnet once put it, they regarded every defeat as an opportunity. And by keeping their sights on the same target for 60 years, while being ever flexible in methods, they made some progress in changing the dominant mental representations of millions of individuals.

A leader in the contemporary era must be cognizant of, and somehow balance, three sets of concerns:

First of all, a leader needs to understand the constant features of leadership. These include the need to construct and convincingly communicate a clear and persuasive story; the capacity to embody the story in one's own life; an appreciation of the nature of one's own audience(s), including constant and changing features; a willingness to invest energy in the building and maintenance of a supportive organization; the skill to make use of, without being overwhelmed by, increasingly technical expertise.

Second, a leader needs to anticipate and deal with new trends, which will necessarily nuance leadership in the coming years. Nowadays, any leader must confront the possibilities of immediate or gradual world destruction; new forms of instant, copious, and often overly simplified forms of communication; the virtual demise of any sense of privacy; the proliferation of entities that transcend national boundaries; and the perhaps predictable reactions to such unsettling trends, in the form of heightened tribalism and fundamentalism.

Third, leaders need to appreciate central paradoxes in the practice of leadership; and to the extent possible, should educate their followers about these problematic situations. If they consider issues of leadership at all, much of the lay public either assumes that anyone can be a leader, or that leadership involves mystical powers. Leaders who would be effective in the future need to be able to communicate a more complex set of propositions: the tension between technical expertise that is necessary for sound judgments and a concern for larger goals and values that can never be dictated by techne alone; the potential of stories either to broaden or fragment a sense of community; the fact that all leaders are flawed but that such flaws need to be kept in perspective; the desirability of a synthesis between rational analyses (… la Monnet) and spiritual concerns (… la Gandhi); the need to aid leaders, or share their burdens, rather than simply to criticize them and undermine their authority; the truth that all leaders eventually encounter failure but that they should be judged by whether they have attempted to lead in a proper direction.

The scheme and suggestions are intended to apply to all leaders in all kinds of domains, including education. Some educational leaders provide indirect leadership, through the powerful symbolic products that they create. We think of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Henry Cardinal Newman, and John Dewey in this vein. Other leaders provide direct leadership, through the stories that they communicate to students, faculty, and other constituents. In the past, these two forms of leadership were often able to reinforce one another, for example, in the teachings and writings of Maria Montessori or A.S. Neill. Nowadays, however, the administrative and public demands on direct leadership--be it as head teacher in the primary school or as chancellor of a great university--are such that they rarely allow time for the reflective and creative processes entailed in indirect leadership. Indeed, my decidedly traditional view of leadership as embodied in a single individual substantiates the postmodern critique of leadership in at least one respect: The "story" of the omnipotent and omniscient leader may be a relic of the past.

Vol. 15, Issue 02

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