A Fresh Perspective: 21st Century Leadership An Interview with Joseph Rost

July 2005 / Fresh Perspective

Russ VolckmannJoseph RostIt seems unusual, on the surface of it, to reach back more than fifteen years for a “Fresh Perspective.” However, I think you will find that the work and the thinking of Joseph Rost fifteen years ago and today are, indeed, fresh! Joseph Rost is a professor emeritus of leadership studies in the School of Education at the University of San Diego. Some of his publications are referred to in the interview.

Q: I would like to begin by talking about what I have described to others as an extraordinary piece of work: your book, Leadership for the 21st Century. I find it extraordinary first because of your extensive review of the leadership literature while searching for definitions of leadership and second for the conclusions that you reached. Would you summarize the major themes from that work?

A: I’ll see if I can. I looked through a number of books and articles. I did not use textbooks in my review except for one. I used books and articles written by academics and by what I would term practitioners, people who are writing from a more practical context because they’re in the field doing what they call leadership. Many of these works did not give a definition of leadership – a disconcerting large number, from my point of view. I concluded that these works were written by people who either didn’t think that a definition was important, because they presumed that everybody knows what leadership is, or they found that defining leadership was too difficult and constraining. They didn’t want to define it because they wanted to have the freedom of writing about leadership any way they wanted. This means, of course, that they could use the word leadership in one chapter one way and use it in the second chapter another way. So, the purpose of this review was to try to see what the nature of leadership was in the 20th century up until 1989, which is when I wrote the book.

The second major theme of the book was to describe what I thought the nature of leadership would be in the 21st century. I created or developed a definition of leadership that was substantially different from that used in the 20th century.

These two themes are developed in the first and second halves of the book.

Q: You looked at the leadership literature in terms of all the different kinds of leadership theories; traits, skills, influence, role, as well as transactional and transformational notions of leadership. You offered a definition that seemed to represent what leadership has meant to people in the 20th century or in the Industrial Era, in particular. It reads as follows, “Leadership is great men and women with certain preferred traits influencing followers to do what the leaders wish in order to achieve group or organizational goals that reflect excellence defined as some kind of higher order effectiveness.” And, as I understand the implications of that definition, you basically concluded that for the Industrial Era leadership is defined as good management.

A: Your question raises two points. The first is that the long definition gathers together all of the major movements–theories, if you will–of the leadership literature in the 20th century. By including them all in a single sentence—a single definition—I made a statement that these models or views of leadership are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they fit together in an integrated whole quite easily and comfortably. It didn’t take any difficult or artificial word manipulation to put the whole output of 75 years of leadership studies into a succinct statement that says it all.

Then, the second point is this: If you analyze that sentence for its essence, the definition is all about good management, good in the sense of being effective, successful or well done, not in the sense of being morally efficacious. I might add that no one, prior to the publication of my book, had articulated a common or unifying theme of the leadership literature of the 20th century. On the contrary, the common wisdom throughout the latter half of the 20th century was that it was impossible to make sense of leadership studies, as there were so many different and conflicting views or understandings of what leadership is. So, I view the first half of the book as seminal and groundbreaking, as it destroys the myth that there is no common understanding of leadership in the literature. A lot of people don’t get this because, I suppose, the myth is so well accepted that it is very difficult for people to accept a different overarching concept that contradicts the myth.

Q: Did you have any response to your summary definition that was remarkable in any way?

A: Yes, the reaction to the first part of the book was fairly negative and markedly so. Readers say that it is too academic and boring. Who cares about all these definitions? What sense does it make to have readers trudge through all that past history? Trudge—isn’t that a great word?

The opinions about the book seem to change when they start reading chapter 5, which begins the discussion of leadership in the 21st century, the title of the book. That half of the book has been much more favorably reviewed.

Q: It seems to me that the point you are making in the early chapters is that how we define concepts like leader and leadership are fundamental in shaping the ways that we approach, not only doing it, but developing it.

A: Exactly. That is what I was trying to say. People don’t want to hear that message. They don’t want to read a book that goes over in minute detail the impact of defining or not defining leadership and what kind of developmental process we have had in the leadership literature over the last 50-75 years.

One of the reasons why leadership studies as a discipline hasn’t developed very well is that we have failed to learn from our mistakes. We failed to narrow things down to know what we are talking about. So, the sky remains the limit and leadership books in 2005 can range from psychological babble to the latest management fad. If we narrowed things down to a precise definition and only used the word leadership to write about what it is and how it’s practiced and so on, we would grow developmentally both as academics and as practitioners. Leadership as a discipline would develop exponentially.

Q: The Foreword to your book was written by James MacGregor Burns. He suggested that you didn’t emphasize the role of values, ethics and morality enough. In later writing that’s a subject you’ve addressed, that is, the role of conflict in “great leadership” as he used the notion. He notes that you tend to lean towards more of a consensus approach that he thinks would erode great leadership. I’m wondering if you have any comments about that.

A: Yes. Burns and I have talked about it several times. His view of conflicts in the process of leadership is very clear from his book. He believes that’s what energizes the process. To his credit I think we have to understand that Burns’ book is about political leadership. All his work in that large book is centered on politics, political organizations and governments. In that kind of organization conflict is more natural, because there are different parties and there are conflicting issues that are always on the agenda.

My view is that our political process would be better served if politicians and the many other people involved in a political issue would emphasize more consensual or collaborative processes than just the conflictual ones. Maybe one of the reasons why so many people are turned off about the political process these days is because of the intense conflict in politics, especially conflict motivated by partisan advantage or to get re-elected. I understand Burns’ point of view and he is accurate in summarizing mine. The model of leadership that I’m proposing is more consensual and collaborative than conflictual. I think that collaboration is much more energizing and enabling in solving serious problems in the 21st century.

Q: And the ethics piece?

A: The ethics issue involves a fairly clear distinction. In his definition of transformational leadership there is an ethical requirement that leaders raise other people up to higher levels of motivation and morality. My response is, who determines what the higher levels of motivation and higher levels of morality are in any particular issue?

Generally speaking, we can recognize Hitler and his collaborators as lowering motivation and morality because of all the horrible things they did. We can recognize Churchill and his collaborators as elevating morality, because they were fighting for freedom and civilization. But those historical examples are not very useful, because they don’t take into consideration any particular issue. Actually, if one delved into particular issues, Hitler and his people may have done some morally good things and Churchill and his allies may have done some morally bad things. But, in general, it is easy to evaluate Hitler as bad and Churchill as good if you collapse ten or more years of history into one sentence.

One of the innovative concepts I have brought to leadership studies is to view leadership as an episodic event (or series of events). From that point of view, the ethics of leadership has much more to do with process and product of a particular, significant change in an organization than it has to do with the personal morals of a leader. The process of making a change is an ethical issue because power and authority, especially if exercised in authoritarian and dictatorial ways, undermines the integrity of human beings, individually and as a group. The product of a significant change is also an ethical issue because doing the right thing is often difficult to determine. Thus, the ethics of an episodic event (a significant change) is much more complex than most people are led to believe.

There are hundreds of issues in today’s world about which people have serious differences regarding the ethics of various initiatives or solutions. Several examples are: keeping dying people alive artificially, retirement payments, drug research and availability, taxes to pay for social services, rich nations helping poor nations, gay marriage, sexual behaviors, privacy, minimum wages and health benefits, initiating a war to prevent terrorist attacks, stem cell research, death penalty, civil rights, copyright contracts, and so on. On these and other issues thousands and millions of people have diametrically opposed views as to what the right thing to do is.

In the end, I believe that creating an ethical imperative in an understanding of leadership is not acceptable. Does that summarize it?

Q: Yes, very well. In 1999, you gave a presentation to the Annual Conference of the International Leadership Association in Florida. In that presentation you were talking about ethics and morality while using the Clinton-Lewinski example. You made what I thought was a very interesting distinction about the role of ethics in leadership.

A: I was trying to say that people who may be leaders have a personal life and have a professional life. It is pretty cut and dried that if a leader steals money from the organization that this behavior is unethical. But it is not cut and dried when a leader of an organization during her/his personal time does things that some people do not approve of. If leaders do that, does that make them unethical leaders? In that paper, I argued that the ethics of leadership has more to do with what happens when the leaders (and collaborators) are doing leadership (that is, intending or making a significant changes in an organization) than it does with how they live their private Lives.

Q: A dilemma with the Clinton example, of course, is that Lewinsky was in effect his employee. And that introduces some ethical issues within the organization.

A: Well, that certainly complicates the managerial and professional relationships that are supposed to exist between employers and employees. I don’t approve of adultery. So, I don’t approve of Clinton’s behaviors in this instance. But, the ethical issues of Clinton and his collaborators have more to do with how they responded to the massacre in Rwanda or the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the armed services—to name two examples of episodic leadership events—than they have to do with Clinton’s (or his collaborators’) sexual proclivities.

Morally good people don’t equate to morally good leadership and morally bad people don’t equate to morally bad leadership. Bad people can sometimes do very good leadership (episodic) acts and good people can sometimes do bad leadership (episodic) acts. There is no consistent correlation between personal goodness and leadership goodness.

Part of the problem here is equating leadership with leaders. If one does not buy into that equation, in other words, that other people beyond leaders do leadership, then the ethics of leadership becomes immensely more complicated.

Q: This relates to a concept that you’ve already mentioned that is very important in your approach to leadership. It’s one that I really resonate with. I described in one place, a leader as being a snapshot and leadership as a movie. The snapshot is an episodic event and the movie is an ongoing process over time. Leaders can pop up from many, many places over time. I noticed in your work that you used this idea of leadership as an emergent property of a system.

A: Those aren’t the words I would use, but yes, that’s what I’m suggesting. In my recent work, I have suggested that leadership exists in that organizational space wherein relationships develop and operate to effect significant changes. To that extent, it is systemic, especially in the organic and postmodern sense of that word. So, one has to repeat over and over again, leadership does not reside in a person or even several persons. Leadership resides in a relationship among people.

This understanding of leadership requires organizational change at the structural and systemic levels. Many organizations need a big dose of democracy so as to create that space where relationships can develop and flourish.

You asked earlier about more recent thoughts on leadership after the book was written. One that I could point to is the concept of the episodic nature of leadership. There is nothing explicated stated in the book about the episodic nature of leadership. There are some implied ideas, but the reader would have to read between the lines.

Subsequent to writing the book, I became very enamored with the concept of the episodic nature of leadership. People don’t go around doing leadership twenty-four hours a day. If they did, they’d go crazy in less than a year. One of the background assumptions I hold dearly is that the notion of leadership needs to be limited and boxed in more tightly.

People have thought of leadership in the past as being all things to al people. Leadership is not that all encompassing.

So, we have to ask how we can distinguish between leadership and all those other things that make the world go round. That means we have to limit what we are studying and what we are researching and writing about. A definition of leadership must limit what is leadership and what leadership is not.

If you think of leadership as an episodic series of events intending significant change, there has to b e other things that people in groups and organizations do besides leadership. The episodic nature of leadership indicates to us that leadership is embedded in certain activities done by people about a certain issue.

Q: You have suggested that the industrial paradigm in which leadership definitions are couched is losing its hold. As you would say, in people’s minds and hearts there is a post-industrial culture that is rising. You described yourself as a futurist. Could you say more about that and how you see the postindustrial era unfolding?

A: The futurist part of me has been developed in the last 20 years by going to futurist conferences, reading futurist books, teaching a course called “Leadership in the Future,” and other activities in which I have collaborated with other futurists. My tendency in teaching was to get students in the frame of mind that what they were learning had to be usable in the future, not just in the past. Out of that developed my interest in what leadership would look like in the 21st century. Is it going to be the same as it was in the 20th or not? This really needs to be discussed more than in a single graduate class and so we tried to make that a theme in all of our leadership classes.

Q: What is it about the shift into the 21st century? What are the variables in this postindustrial era that you think are significant in terms of redefining leadership?

A: I can point to two or three things. The first and most important one is I don’t think that serious problems are being solved in most of our organizations. In order to solve them, fundamental changes have to be made in how organizations govern themselves and the dynamics of leadership in an organization. This applies to business, nonprofit and governmental organizations. I don’t see any essential differences in these organizations, except that I believe that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that political organizations find it difficult to solve major problems.

The second thing is that the people in the Western world, in particular, are less willing to play a follower role and just do what other people say they should do. They are more interested in being part of a process that gives them some influence and impact on major decisions being made in organizations. What we used to have in the early and middle part of the 20th century, when people generally were submissive, has changed dramatically in the last 25 years. These changes will grow exponentially in the 21stth century. A model of leadership that emphasizes the top person or the one person doing leadership no longer resonates with people in general.

The third thing is that values are changing, both societal and individual values. There are signs pointing each way, but the positive view of the world is towards more emphasis on wholeness or sustainability in solving difficult issues and making progress. The negative view is that individualism is rampant and people are as corrupt and dishonest as they were a hundred years ago. The great leader approach is still popular. We need strong individuals to maintain order and control. I suppose it is two different worldviews. The worldview that emphasizes the individualistic and personal importance and rights of people is losing its hold in societies.

The fourth one would be various disciplines are having the same problems and are thinking along the same lines as futurists in leadership. Medicine would be a good example where old paradigms are not adequate to deal with health problems of the modern age. You have all these different things happening in medicine. There are new paradigms in the natural sciences, psychology and religion.

Different people can see different things when they try to describe worldviews. I look at these different disciplines and see that they’re looking towards new ways of thinking to help understand what’s going on in the world. Leadership as a discipline is following suit; it is having the same problems with the old language and the old assumptions.

Q: There is clearly evidence of growing movements in cross-disciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to go along with what you are talking about.

A: When we studied history in the 1950s when I went to college, it was a study of European history. But now, history is a history of the world, including non-developed countries, social movements and other things besides wars. If you look at how history is being taught in 2005, it’s very, very different. This new approach is not an accident or just evolutionary. It was planned, fought-over, fundamental change that involved a lot of historians.

Q: So these changing circumstances require a different way of thinking about leadership. I’m going to read your definition of leadership in the post-industrial era that you offered in the book. We can compare and contrast this with the earlier definition, if you like. “Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and collaborators who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” How would you comment on that?

A: This definition is directly the opposite of all popular definitions of leadership from the 20th century, which emphasized power and control, individual leaders doing leadership and followers doing followership, and the view that the top-level decision-maker is the only person who does leadership. The long definition that you referred to earlier in the interview summarizes this industrial understand of leadership.

The collaborative definition requires four essential elements to be present if a series of activities are to be labeled leadership. The first is that the activities be influential, that, is, noncoercive. The second is that the activities be done by people in a relationship. The third is that the activities involve a real significant change. And the fourth element is that the activities reflect the purposes of the people in the relationship, not just a single person. All of these standards insure collaboration rather than the notion that leadership is a great leader doing great things.

Q: You indicated earlier that the response to this part of the book where you are elaborating that definition was different from the first part of the book. Would you care to comment on that?

A: Yes, I’d like to very much. As background for this answer, I’d like to say that authors don’t get a huge response about what they write. I’ve talked to other authors about this experience, and they all said the same thing. Perhaps writers of books that make the New York Times bestseller list have a different experience, but I haven’t talked to any of them. Thus, our ability to understand how people respond to what we have written in a book is very limited.

With that proviso in mind, the limited feedback I have had from readers is very positive about the chapters in the book that develop the definition of collaborative leadership. The response is actually overwhelmingly enthusiastic. I should also state that the most ardent supporters are those who are in some kind of group that traditionally lacked power and authority or that have been discriminated against. That response is quite understandable since collaborative leadership reflects, for want of a better term, a bottom-up approach.

An alternative response has been quite consistent also–the response of the realists. Agreeing with the collaborative approach to leadership is easy. It is much harder to put it to work, to practice it. So, the skeptics respond that it is a wonderful idea (or even worse, that it is nice and good as a theory) but it won’t work in the real world of organizations. Unfortunately, the experience of the last 15 years favors the skeptics. My view is that the difficulty in practicing collaborative leadership is probably as hard in 2005 as it was in 1990 when I wrote the book. This situation bothers me a great deal, and it is the source of some discouragement. I had hoped that we would be further along on the road to collaboration than we are.

However, my view is still the same. Collaborative leadership is the wave of the future. I agree that collaborative leadership is hard, but I do not agree that it is impractical or, worse, impossible. I might not see it in my lifetime, but I think that our understanding of leadership has to change. The revolution of people power is too strong.

For the full interview click here.