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Reflections on the Roots of Democratic Leadership



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It appears axiomatic to argue that leadership is important in organizations, in policymaking and policy implementation, and in democratic politics more generally. Indeed, shelves of books have been published providing guidance and supposed “easy steps” to secure “leadership results” for individuals working in all three sectors of our political economy. However, just what constitutes effective civic and public leadership, especially for change—a question of great moment to those of us working at the Institute—remains a contested proposition. If there is a tendency, not to say a consensus, concerning this question in the literature on leadership, it likely would be to view “transformative leadership” and its close brethren of servant leadership and adaptive leadership as appropriate lodestones.[1] These approaches all share a normative frame or assumption set that often goes unstated, but that nonetheless presumes that leaders will behave with ethical and moral probity, that they will seek to inspire those with whom they work to develop their own capacities and that they will consistently act unselfishly. This vision of leadership emerged in the Post-World War II period and, as is perhaps obvious, it asks a great deal of those who seek to realize it. It also posits that virtually anyone can be a leader and, correspondingly, that leadership can be developed.

Nevertheless, most people do not have to think very long about their experiences to recall one or more individuals who have used leadership roles to aggrandize themselves, or who have actively harmed others so as to maintain a socially or organizationally preeminent or privileged status. Some do so artfully, and bob and weave in institutional or partisan politics to attain personal power and ascendancy because their egos demand it; scholars have dubbed these individuals, often well perceived because of their ability to feign empathy, “pseudo-transformational” leaders. No part of what they do is undertaken for anyone’s sake except their own, but they are supremely clever about hiding that fact and appearing to act with concern for others. Other people seek power precisely because it lends them the capacity to wield it. This sort of individual is often feted in our celebrity-drunk culture, and the 1980s witnessed a variant of this propensity when pundits and business analysts created a virtual cult in praise of “The Tough-Minded, Downsizing CEO.”

In short, even if the academic field of leadership may be said broadly to espouse an ennobling idea of the leader, it does not follow that all leaders will so behave, or that popular or social aspirations associated with such leadership will always or often be attained or embraced, even by those who devoutly seek them. Indeed, as Joshua Rothman has recently observed, a book by Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership ‘BS,’ has identified,

… five virtues that are almost universally praised by popular leadership writers—modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness and selflessness— and [Pfeffer contends] most real world leaders ignore these virtues. (If anything, they tend to be narcissistic, back-stabbing, self-promoting shape-shifters)[2]

In this view, the entire field of leadership studies today is Orwellian in that it serves only, or at least principally, to obscure the depravity and cruelty of which humans are capable in their pursuit of status, prestige and personal power (however fleeting that perceived standing may actually prove) by convincing others of their high motives and genuine fealty to empathy and other-regardingness, while behaving in exactly antithetical ways. There is a reason, one supposes, that Dante, in his Divine Comedy, reserved a special place in the Inferno for those who, as leaders, deliberately misled others or preyed on them selfishly to accrue or maintain personal power or wealth.

As the academic debate concerning what should constitute leadership and how it is actually manifest rages, public and civic organizations (the Institute’s primary concern), whether domestic or international in character, must nevertheless seek to realize their aims. Likewise, communities must organize to address their shared challenges. None of these entities are likely to lead themselves, and so the question of how to equip individuals for such roles is a deeply practical one.

As I have noted previously, the Institute has, for some years now, hosted an interdisciplinary group of graduate students and faculty, members of a close-knit intellectual community from multiple colleges, called Community Voices, which seeks to investigate the question of democratic leadership and social change. The group meets weekly during the school year to discuss scholarship relevant to these concerns, with the aim of identifying ways and means by which to engage populations at diverse analytical scales in crafting their common futures. Community Voices invites guests who have worked in civic and public leadership roles to campus several times a year to speak. Visitors also participate in roundtable discussions regarding their experiences and share those, too, with students who conduct interviews with them for the Institute’s podcast series, Trustees Without Borders. The talks, dialogue and podcasts constitute a living archive on issues of leadership and change in democratic societies, and this summer the Institute will publish the first book of essays using this record as an empirical foundation.[3]

The question of how individuals may lead democratically is one of the central ongoing interests of the Community Voices team. That is, the group is exploring how leaders may honor the dignity and agency of citizens in democracies or in democratizing contexts and nonetheless play the sense-making roles so often assigned them by those with whom they work. This is an endlessly complicated concern mediated by a wide array of factors that together suggest it is situated at the nexus of structure and agency, and that it may evolve dynamically in time. Moreover, broader cultural, social, economic and political conditions may make the resolution of this dialectic “sticky” for considerable periods. This orientation raises the vexing question of how to join disparate sources and forms of knowledge while dignifying all in the exchange, since democratic freedom ultimately arises from social devotion to the liberty of the individual.

Given this enduring puzzle, and on the basis of the experiences and insights shared by some 31 Community Voices guests to date, I have concluded that while the intentions of public and civic leaders may not be determinative in the varying contexts in which they find themselves working in democracies or democratizing polities, it is nevertheless critical that they approach their roles and responsibilities seeking to listen actively to those with whom they work, so as to help to identify paths that serve those individuals’ best interests. This orientation should be foremost in leaders’ minds as they go about addressing their responsibilities. This concern is age old and a reminder that democracies may founder when demagogues are able to exploit those they serve, whether by appeals to prejudices or emotions, or by means of false claims and subterfuge. As it happens, this question is especially salient in the West’s mature democracies, as Donald Trump commands a lead in the race for the Republican party’s presidential nomination in the United States, and a number of very similar authoritarian and nativist leaders have emerged in Europe as well. All of these individuals are appealing to the fears and emotions of the populations of their respective nations in ways likely only to undermine self-governance and freedom.

In short, while there remains much to learn and explore about the always vital question of democratic leadership, my engagement with Community Voices suggests to me that it makes sense to expose future public and civic leaders to transformative and ethical conceptions of leadership, and even to proselytize for these as potential ideals toward which each should strive in their future professional and political roles. It also appears prudent to warn them of the ways in which leaders and followers alike will almost certainly compromise such leadership, so as to ensure they are able to address the enormous complexities and challenges their roles will evidence.

While Pfeffer is surely correct that leaders may fall short of fully and consistently realizing the normative claims of current leadership theory, it seems short-sighted to fail to offer individuals a sense of the “democratic possible” simply because it will not always be realized. One should not, in this critical domain, advise would-be leaders to jettison their highest aims, when retaining them as iconic claims represents a far more appropriate social aspiration. Indeed, it seems willfully ignorant not to acknowledge how often democracy falls short of its ideals, but it appears more reckless not to maintain those hopes as social ambitions. The consequences of failing to do so are potentially too high for democratic legitimacy and freedom. Would-be democratic leaders must employ ideals to guide their practice, but also must be deeply aware of the frailties of humankind as they contemplate their roles and responsibilities. They require an ethical integrity and emotional and intellectual toughness born of a keen sense of the realities in which they shall work coupled with an abiding devotion to the preservation of human dignity and freedom. Those involved with Community Voices at the Institute will continue to explore the many facets of this vital democratic imperative.

Sincerely, Max Stephenson Jr.


[1] Burns, James MacGregor. Leadership. Harper Classics, 2010; Greenleaf, Robert K. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2002; Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership without Easy Answers. Cambridge: Harvard (Belknap) University Press, 1998.

[2] Rothman, Joshua, “Shut up and Sit Down: Why the Leadership Industry Rules,” The New Yorker, February 29, 2016, 64-69 at 68, Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership BSFixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. New York: Harper Business, 2015.

[3] Forthcoming: Stephenson, Max Jr. and Lyusyena Kirakosyan, Eds., Social and Political Imaginaries, Cultural Claims and Community Change. Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, 2016. The archive of Community Voices talks may be found here:

Publication Date

March 31, 2016