Micha Popper. Fact and Fantasy About Leadership

June 2012 / Leadership Emerging

Micha Popper. Fact and Fantasy About Leadership. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2012.

Here is a book aligned with some of the thinking of folks like Barbara Kellerman and others who see the leader-follower relationship as essential to understanding either. The author states,

[W]e can visualize leadership as fire — a metaphor borrowed from the researchers Katherine Klein and Robert House, fire that is fed by three components: fuel (the followers), oxygen (the environmental context) and the spark (the leader).

Here we see, once again, individuals in the field of leadership seeking a more comprehensive way to appreciate the crucial elements of this social phenomenon that can best be understood by a transdisciplinary and integral approach. His frustration with the field is apparent:

Almost every discussion on leaders involves expressions like charisma, vision, trust, hope, faith, value and commitment, keywords that are often voiced at graduation ceremonies of officers’ courses, leadership courses in schools of management, and also in descriptions of historical leaders. On the face of it we may infer that “leadership is leadership is leadership.

Evidence of the integral pull on this author’s thinking is his clarity, not just of the roles of leaders and followers, or the psychologies of both, but also of the cultural contexts. He cites the work of the Dutch scholar Geert Hostade:

Beliefs regarding leaders represent a dominant cultural part of a society or a given country. Asking people’s opinions regarding the qualities of good leaders is like describing their culture. The leader is a culture hero in the sense that he constitutes a role model.

Popper’s approach focuses on the psychology of leadership. He clarifies this,

[T]he book deals mainly with leadership as a psychological phenomenon and therefore the discussion in it addresses a specific component within the broad discourse on culture. This component is people’s relations with others, and more specifically, how they relate to the person who represents authority [Note Kellerman’s emphasis on authority in the interview published in this issue of Integral Leadership Review]. Leadership is a certain kind of authority [that are] grounded in cultural patterns…

More pointedly,

[T]he tendency to glorify leaders and relate in depth only to certain aspects while ignoring the totality, especially the link between the various aspects – is this tendency a pattern imprinted in the followers and also in leadership scholars? Is the tendency to mythologize  leaders simple a result of the cognitive and affective complexity involved in the understanding of the phenomenon?

This is the focus of his sociopsychological approach.

In concluding this brief review, let’s take a look at his conclusions (among others) about the development of leadership in organizations. After all, this is the heart of what Kellerman refers to as “the leadership industry.” The question is leadership development just “another expression of cultural bias or simply a passing fashion: “[W]hat in the leadership development process is generic, crossing border, cultures and contexts, and what is local and perhaps dependent on time and cultural fashion?”

Popper begins by noting that the role of the leader involves a large measure of tacit knowledge based on experience gained since early childhood. “Thus, the universal component in leadership development is development of the ability to explore and identify this tacit knowledge.” That is, with reflection and introspection. I am struck by the image of many in management roles I have known who rarely admit to a great deal of reflection and introspection. However, integral development requires it. But Popper’s point is that at the heart of what I prefer to call leader development is the development of self-knowledge. And that development involves lifelong learning. Stopping there, however, would be reductive.

Much to the potential chagrin of those in the “leadership industry,” Popper is arguing, “the essence of learning on leadership is related to the generic ability to extract knowledge for action from the variegated experiences that the learner associates with his or her leadership.” These are drawn from a full dimension of life experiences. “In this perspective, leadership development, especially in organizations , is simply the development of exploratory abilities of this kind.” I would further argue that integral approaches to leader development leverage those abilities.

The author further asserts that in addition to experience and introspection, social learning – learning by imitation – is equally important. That is, learning drawn form “observation and internalization of the behaviours of figures who are reported by leaders to be admired” is a critical factor in leader development. The learning of leadership is context bound. The author closes by emphasizing the importance of learning about followers, as well as leaders.