Sunday, 17 January 2010

Does the "Great Man" theory of history work?

In a recent Church Times Simon Parke wrote about salary differentials.  The day I read it I had been talking at lunch with some friends about how university rankings are different, now my children are applying, from when I applied.  Then Paul Vallely wrote about "Great Men" (sic) (may not be available free until later).  This set me wondering what difference good leadership makes.  Why is it that some universities have got better and others have got worse (or have they?  Is it just that some have got better?).  The same of course applies to all institutions - how much difference can the person at the top make?  Certainly the press seem to think that the "right" person makes a difference - stories of strong leaders appointed to turn around failing "whatevers" abound.  And I suspect most of us will recognise the reverse, stories of companies, churches, schools where the appointment of a new leader has lead to a rapid decline in performance.

In my time in industry I worked for the same company for about 20 years (not the same PLC, the same Ltd) and during that time saw fluctuations in our performance - received wisdom was that the industry was cyclic.  Significant capital investment was required in a market where sales had been gently declining for years.  The simple explanation was that when times were good external entrants saw a good return and entered the market - however more capacity meant a reduction in prices (simple economics), until the pain became too great and somebody removed capacity from the market, boosting profitability again.  For many years we assumed that we were prey to external forces, until latterly one of our leaders started looking for ways to manipulate the supply in the industry.  I think the jury is out on whether it succeeded in the long term - but it is an example of someone changing perception.

The alternative view however, is expressed by David Taylor and Peter Rollins.  In "The Fidelity of Betrayal" (reviewed here) Peter Rollins discusses the idea that the role of a leader is to refuse to lead!  That there is a need for a leader, because without one someone would step in and lead, but that their role is to not lead.

Similarly in the "Naked Leader" David Taylor encourages leaders to give power away.  To the extent that he suggests leaders should always give the credit to their staff and take the blame on themselves.

Of course the two ideas are not in conflict!  After all, the idea of managing supply need not have come from the person at the top, the management slogan "free brain with every pair of hands" has been around for ages, and refusing to lead encourages others to take responsibility themselves rather than waiting to be told what to do.

So where does that leave the idea of the "Great Man"?  Perhaps the answer is that one person can make a difference, but not by being a "Great Man", but by releasing the power and creativity in others.  Perhaps the reason that things can so quickly go wrong is because the desire for control (referred to in yesterdays post about euthanasia) restricts the ability of everyone to contribute.

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