Integral North: Dispelling the Leader Myth

Column / October 2012

Mark L. McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

The responsibility falls to George Washington. The vision of this exceptionally courageous leader standing tall in the longboat with the nation’s new flag symbolically flying behind him is a powerful image. It effectively cemented the image of the leader at the helm, in command and, because we know the outcome, as perennially victorious. Because of this image and other leader profiles like it, the expectations we hold for our leaders became inflated and as a direct result seemingly forced our leaders into a victory or death mantra. It is all very dramatic as the winning leader always found the way to save the day – to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Everybody loves a winner. Everybody needs a hero. The leader myth was born as the image of this and other undefeatable leaders became the iconic symbol of leadership. These leaders won through courage, clarity of purpose, strength of personality and the willingness to sacrifice themselves. This iconic leader carried the mantra of ‘never surrender’ and as a direct result risk and sacrifice became the expectation. Even in defeat the image of this profile would remain untarnished as he would most assuredly go down with ship – no matter what, no surrender.


Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), by Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

I must report, quite sympathetically, to today’s leader that through the evolving image of Washington crossing the Delaware the leader bar was set impossibly high.  Regrettably, I have seen more than a few leaders martyr themselves in the spirit of this image. With each passing decade this leader image continued to grow and became more and more mythical in its proportion to reality. It appears now as if the only successful leader in this mythology is the one who remains undefeated or has sacrificed themselves for our greater good. As a child I became enamored with this image as it was fed to me, time and time again, through the performances of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry just to name a few. Furthermore, this myth was drilled into me by my grandfather, my uncles and even my older brother. The leaders sacrificed themselves for the good of the men they led towards some greater ideal – simple as that. It became a standard impossibly hard to achieve, but it was our culture – our way of being as men in this society. It was our red badge of courage.

The evolution of leadership studies tends to both confirm and glorify this image. While it was not initially framed as such, the early history of leadership studies was held firmly by the Great Man theoretical movement. It simply stated that great men, great leaders, were born to this world. It was largely a historical examination of the leadership of our first hundred years. It was the history of George Washington, the minutemen, the pioneers, the Alamo, the taming of the West, and the cowboys. It was largely a tale of heroes, freedom, and of a chivalry that was to become the building blocks of the values held by our great leaders. And, while women were more typically seen as tending to the hardness of domestic life at the time, a subterranean flow formed for them as this same leader image was held up by the likes of Betsy Ross, Abigail Adams, and Susan B. Anthony. As our culture matured so, too, did this image as women took on the mantra in the fictive likes of Rosie the Riveter during World War II. The great leader myth became the standard for leadership for men and women.

History is always evolving. In the winter of 1777-1778 the continental army under General Washington was reeling from the power deployed by the British to crush the revolt. If we had the opportunity today to wander amongst the soldiers in the winter camp at Valley Forge one might come away with a different view of our nation’s Father and, therefore, a more complete understanding of the nature of leadership. Here we would find men freezing from a lack of shelter, hunger gnawing at their purpose, and defeat the only visible outcome for the future ahead. The return of British rule would seem inescapable – morale was collapsing. Taking out our recorder we might try to capture the moment by asking a group of minutemen what they thought about our now prototypical leader. “What do I think of General Washington?” a soldier asks through chattering teeth. The others in the group moan with a laughter that would deny us our leader image.  “Oh yeah…”, chuckles one nearest us as he looks over at General Washington, the soon to be iconic symbol of the leader, huddled near a too small fire. “…Washington, hell of a leader!” It was only the cold and the reality of their situation that held down the laughter. The irony poisons our image.

Now, I am not trying to dispel the importance of George Washington or by any means tarnish his image. I still want to hold on to my image of the unconquerable General Washington riding through camp on his symbolically correct white horse completely unyielding to the cold of deep winter. I want to be among the men rising in respect on frost bit feet as he approached yelling “hooray…hooray”. And, if I was there in that camp I could likely find some truth in this image; but the greater portion of this myth had yet to be created at that time. General George Washington was still just a man at this time attempting to hold an army together and the dream of a new and free nation. Our ideal of the leader was still at risk in the winter of 1777 – 1778.

In all actuality, the real nature of leadership is contained within the experience of Valley Forge. It is just that it was less about Washington and more about men and women of that day holding a common purpose that collectively gave them the courage to overcome long odds – even the sting of deep winter. It was a collective sacrifice deemed worthy in order to achieve the dream of freedom. By all historical accounts Washington deeply cared for his men and was sickened by the chants of “We want meat. We want meat” heard throughout the camp from half naked starving men. He was a good leader, I have no doubt about that, but he wasn’t alone. Washington and his men were in it together, for better or worse, trying to potentiate a different future for themselves and their families.

So, how did that reality of deep winter, looming defeat, and common purpose transform into this image of the iconic lonely leader now imbedded into our national consciousness? What did time do to this image? Did we politicize it? Did we dismiss the deeper reality of the common purpose that was holding our fledgling nation steady? Did we miss an opportunity to engage a deeper understanding of leadership standing ready for us within the purposes of our enduring relationships? Margret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.  Perhaps her declaration was more centrally in play during that winter at Valley Forge than was our hero image. Perhaps what warmed the souls during that winter weren’t so much the Generals as much as it was the call of freedom and of the relationships that form when a common purpose meets its antagonist. Maybe the real nature of leadership was held by that dream – a dream being driven by potential and faith.

Leaders, Leading, and Leadership

What the above discussion does is create just a bit of confusion when it comes to understanding the nature of leadership. While most of us might have difficulty articulating the ramifications of this confusion we have certainly felt it, worked with it, and attempted to deal with it in working with and leading others. Much of what has diluted the elegance of leadership springs from the mythological image of great leaders and the resulting confusion it presented in the related words of leading and leader. It is an established fact that many writers and researchers in leadership studies fail to draw a crisp distinction between these concepts by failing to provide any real form of definition of leaders, leading, or leadership. As Joseph Rost revealed, it had become acceptable for leadership scholars and writers to not know what leadership is or to define its scope in any real or credible fashion. Perhaps they found the nature of leadership too confining or difficult; or perhaps the leader myth was just too compelling to dismiss. What would replace it? Finally, as Rost again asserts, perhaps they wanted to maintain their freedom to write about leadership in ways that best suited their bias – which normally contained the elements that supported the prevailing myth. They assumed we all understood the nature of leadership as they understood it and as such it needed no defining. A gentle separation of leaders, leading, and leadership is in order if we are to engage the deeper understanding of the nature of leadership as was reflected in that collective purpose that warmed the winter camp at Valley Forge.

The Leader

The leader, as a concept, is easily understood and defined. In lay terms, a leader is one who is in charge, out front, the boss, director, etc. There are no moral conditions that must be achieved prior to becoming the leader. It is a position, a job, a role to be played. That it has become confused with leadership is really quite tragic in terms of our ability to actualize the full potentials contained within ourselves and those we would lead. In addition, this confusion kept us from a more holistic and powerful understanding of leadership. Certainly we have heard of or even experienced leaders who have displayed the metamotivational and potentiating values of leadership, but, owing mostly to our inability to recognize leadership as a developmental construct, these individuals surfaced in spite of our efforts and not because of them. Their rarity is as much about the crisis of lost human potentials, too common in the world, as it is the missed opportunity to redirect the purpose of leadership towards the full actualization of human potential. More commonly we find leaders creating altered or artificial potentials emanating from the prevailing myth and producing crude or twisted individuations of themselves and of those who would follow in their footsteps.


Leading, as a concept, further confuses the nature of leadership. It implies that leadership is an action, an event, or a product to be fashioned. Leading is not formed around a relational construct, a potentiating construct, but around outcomes – products. That leadership has been conceptualized as a product of leaders springs largely from the outcomes of what is perceived to be good leading. Such constructs only maintain the leader myth and as a direct result place the full onus of leadership upon the backs of our leaders through a demand for quantifiable results. In the end the products of leading cannot effectively measure leadership as a metamotivational or potentiating value. Leading without potentiating tends to focus upon the bottom line and almost always becomes confused with the nature of good management. As Warren Bennis so accurately declared, “Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing”. Good management can be measured effectively by the products of managing. To effectively measure leadership requires not only a deep seated understanding of its products, but also of its possibilities, processes, purposes, and potentials. Collectively these are the right things.


When confused with “leader” and “leading” leadership becomes nothing more than a shadow of its potential reach. It forms and maintains a social myth or social fiction.  Leadership, taken as a social myth, forms a “false consciousness”.

Some of the confusion around the concept of leadership seems to stem from the process of reification. Reification is a social process which converts an abstraction or mental construct into a supposed real entity. Through reification the social construction of leadership is mystified and accorded an objective existence. (Fromm p. 114)        

Such attributes do not describe the functions of a potentiating integral leadership but end in a description of the processes of cultural programming. Integral approaches to leadership, as articulated by Russ Volckmann (????), “offer ways of organizing our knowledge about leadership so that we can see it as a whole and as a part of something larger.” Volckmann’s approach intentionally opens the aperture of the relational lens for world of leadership studies to consider.

Under this construct leader and leadership become inseparable. Our personification of leadership results in a shallow understanding of the realities in play and treats human potentials no differently than a lump of coal – potentials are not to be developed but consumed. It deconstructs the greatest possibilities of our nature by surrendering them to some cultural and mythical standard. In essence we surrender our responsibility for our own potentials. Leadership then is reduced to an artificial reality constructed to represent an all-is-well mentality. Leaders become that representation and we measure them by their skill at keeping us numb to the terrible trade we have made; security over creativity, order over freedom, classification over beauty, structure over imagination, conformity over elegance, and standards over potential.

The evolution of leadership studies appears to be a map of the evolution of this myth. What was the purpose of the trait theorist if not to perfect the recipe of these mythological leaders? Why did we need the behavioral movement of leadership studies if not to disclose the best way to behave while leading? Of what relevance did the situational-contingency models hold beyond the actualization of products by the most effective means possible? And, finally wasn’t the whole of the excellence movement an attempt to institutionalize this notion upon the backs of the willing leader (although they were speaking of course of the super leader – an even larger myth)? None of these theoretical movements held incentives to potentiate because leader, leading and leadership were seen as one and the same. Any thought of unmasking this truth was squashed by the ego-minded leader whose value was measured by their ability to win.

The problem held within the prevailing social myth is that by swearing allegiance to this fictive image of the leader we traded away our ability to accept its potentiating possibility. Our leaders hold no ability beyond a tolerance for self-sacrifice, hyper-responsibility, and seem suited only for solving yesterday’s problems. The irony is that not only are the people of the organization recognized as merely cogs in the organizational wheel in the grand scheme of leading but so too are the leaders. Primacy was granted to the organizational ‘it’ as it evolved into the ‘they’ and ‘them’ at which we leveled our complaints. Bureaucracy was born and with it a twisted and disempowering bureaucratic codependence. It bred mediocrity.

We were taught to mind our manners, to take our turn …to follow the leader. So what happens when manners have slipped our minds and heavier propositions prevail? What do we do when our turn never seems to come and a nagging fatalism slips into our consciousness? What do we do when our leaders fail to show and a great sense of urgency lands in the middle of our responsibility? What do we do then? How long do we wait?

Every parent, teacher, and leader knows full well that as we wait our challenges continue to mount. They grow in strength while our ability to address them declines. Shouldn’t we do something?  We have a growing and uneasy sense of urgency – we must act. How do we act? Waiting seems like a fool’s game especially when waiting only gets us more waiting and more problems. Perhaps we were wrong to believe in the intellectuals…in our leaders. Perhaps their advice here is lacking because it is no different than the common man’s. No different from ourselves. Maybe they are waiting for us. Maybe there are no leaders left. Maybe they were always a myth. Perhaps this myth has grown to the point that our mythological leader became real in our own minds allowing us the perceived luxury of stepping away from our own responsibilities to a leadership of purpose and possibilities. What are my responsibilities?

Leadership, in a transformational view, is held as relationship among leaders and the people they would lead. While the transformational movement of leadership studies brought us to the threshold of dispelling the leader myth, it left too many stumbling blocks and too few stepping stones for aspiring leaders. The traps remained. Integral Leadership presents a fuller exploration of these relational models and in addition adds depth to their purpose. Volckman’s (2012) discussion on integral leadership and diversity is constructive in further dispelling the leader myth. The Integral Leadership movement, as it is informed by Volckman’s careful distillation of leader, leading and leadership, would yield an understanding of the personal relationships existing between leaders and those they would lead as well as the larger and expansive relational constructs of transdisciplinarity, multiculturalism, systems thinking, integrative processes, as well as the functional aspects of recognizing and actualizing human potentials. Integral Leadership presents the leader a much fuller toolbox that would include a deeper understanding of the nature of “relationships”. One that is rich with potential. Dispelling the leader myth is an important task in bringing the potentiating promise of Integral Leadership fully alive and, therefore, fully mobilized to address the challenges of today’s world. Too few are answering the call to be leaders because the leader myth is simply impossible to actualize. We need to be calling for something else – something that works.

We need have no fear that our choices or actions restrict our liberty, since choice alone cuts us loose from our anchorage. …so freedom flounders in the contradictions of commitment… Shall I make this promise? Shall I risk my life for so little? Shall I give up my liberty in order to save liberty? There is no theoretical reply… But there are these things which stand, irrefutable, there is this person whom you love, there is these men whose existence around you is that of slaves, and your freedom cannot be willed… without willing freedom for all. But what is required here is silence, for only the hero lives out his relation to men and the world… ‘Your son is caught in the fire: you are the one who will save him…. If there is an obstacle, you would be ready to give your shoulder provided only that you can charge down that obstacle. Your abode is your act itself. Your act is you…. You give yourself in exchange…. Your significance shows itself, effulgent. It is your duty, your hatred, your love, your steadfastness, your ingenuity…. Man is but a network of relationships, and those alone matter to him’. (Merleau-Ponty, 2002, p. 530)


Bennis, W. G. (1989).  On Becoming a Leader.  Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from Freedom. New York: Rinehart & Co.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge

Rost, J. C. (1993). Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Volckmann, R. (2012). “Integral Leadership and Diversity—Definitions, Distinctions and Implications”. Integral Leadership Review; June.

Volckmann, R. (2010). “Integral Leadership Theory” in Richard M. Couto, Ed. Political and Civic Leadership. Los Angeles: Sage.



One thought on “Integral North: Dispelling the Leader Myth

  1. Barbara Brown

    Some of the Jungians say these mythic leaders are not even real. They are simply the nearest person on whom the collective projection of the group’s psyche will glue itself.
    So if they look at Hitler, they say he simply represented a personification of the mass psychosis that gripped Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s. If Hitler had not stepped forward, then some other figurehead would have emerged to catalyze the same self-destructive actions that the dysfunctional German angst called forth. Churchill, on the other hand was able to mobilize Britain to resistance with nothing but “blood, sweat, toil and tears.” Post-WWI, the British psyche had been nearly as dysfunctional as the German, although perhaps not quite so dark. It might be interesting to think about why the roots built on the Magna Carta allowed both Washington and Churchill to pull forth from the depths of despair this vision of right actions of free responsible men.
    When all is said and done, it’s not about the sacrifice of the leader. As Tolkien says, “when things are in danger someone has to be willing to give up everything to preserve them.” Great leaps in history often come when large numbers of followers are willing to give up everything for a vision of a better world, even if it’s only for their children.

    There is a yin/yang effect around the ability to draw forth positive (hope, personal responsibility, determination) and destructive (fear, anger, violence) from a set of life conditions. The observed fact is that it’s just much easier to catalyze the dark side than it is to mobilize groups for hard, positive actions.
    The classic Robin Hood (Flynn) movie has a line that speaks well to this. Richard asks Robin if he blames John for all the destruction in England during Richard’s absence. Robin replies, no he blames Richard for not tending to his most important duties at home. We see the interplay between leaders (Richard and Robin) who have the power to catalyze the best in their followers and those like John and Hitler who leave only massive destruction in their wake as they bring out the worst in the human psyche. Like Washington, Richard left a long legacy which led England to the Magna Carta after his death. That spark took 500 years to flame into the Declaration of Independence.

    In our haste to develop a more inclusive version of human history that takes into account the view of the losers, as well as the victors that write the histories, we may have lost a valuable perspective. It is common these days to criticize the British Empire for it’s arrogance and mistreatment of indigenous peoples. Yet, if we look at Arab slave traders, the Caste system in India or slavery in Spanish colonies, we see the same primitive attitudes. It is important to ask what about the Anglo-Saxon psyche produced Washington in the West and Gandhi in the East as continuing legacies of the Magna Carta. Yes, the Enlightenment burned first in Italy and continental Europe, but the concept of responsible, free men is uniquely English. If you look at the French and Russian revolutions, you see the same dysfunctional mobs that destroyed Hitler’s Germany, not really by Allied bombs, but from rot within.

    I’d suggest that Gandhi and Martin Luther King succeeded because they so fully understood the traditional British heritage of responsible, free men performing right actions. Images of British soldiers beating unarmed, peaceful protesters simply couldn’t be ignored by a British public that prided themselves on being on the side of “right”. KKK violence in the US gained support for the civil rights movement from northern middle class Americans who simply couldn’t identify with such savagery.

    So let’s continue to ask ourselves – what precisely is this concept of “responsible, right action of free men” and how do we all catalyze this around us in our daily lives. I’d challenge that it’s not about protest, it’s about doing the right thing, regardless of personal cost. A part of the concept is clearly saying NO, but that is never enough. There has to be an alternate, positive vision that we can continually project. Not utopia, but simply a better way through lots of small, right actions.

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