Leadership Part I; by David S. Gjestland


Leadership: what an enigma! The phenomenon has fascinated scholars and laymen alike for centuries. Indeed, what is a leader? What distinguishes leaders from others? What if anything do all manner of leaders have in common? These are but a few of the queries that arise concerning the ominous often threatening and intimidating but sometimes inspiring power of leadership.

Leadership - the enigmaThe importance of understanding leadership hardly needs reiteration, particularly in view of its extended range of impact and its frequent potential for long-term consequences. Although a vast body of work has been written about the subject most of that literature has been provided by business or management specialists, by sociologists, social psychologists and other scholars. However, almost without exception these works have been marred by at least one overriding failing: the tendency to assume leadership only occurs after someone has ascended to a formal position of power/authority. Further, many of these studies have been chiefly concerned with matters pertaining to “efficiency” or “motivation of employees” and similar factors. It is hardly surprising therefore to find that misconceptions about the nature of leadership abound. While many other short-comings no doubt plague leadership studies, the concern here is not with these shortcomings: rather it is to discover what the barest minimum requirements for leadership might be.

The Situation for Leadership Emergence

What leads to the emergence of leadership? One cannot assume the existence of an organization. Certainly, Lenin, Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, Sukarno and many others were not initially supported by some form of organization. Logically, the emergence of Leadership cannot occur in isolation. The “Emergence of Leadership” must be linked or occur in connection with some form of social structure, followers, either individuals, groups or an organization. Moreover, it must arise with respect to some situation and point in time. That thus, implies at least two phases for Leadership Emergence: i.) The Situation for Leadership Emergence; and ii.) The Exercise of Leadership.

So what leads to the Emergence of Leadership? It must be remembered that the starting point for any and all activity is that the “situation” confronting an individual, or everyone, for that matter must be defined. Definition of the Situation is the most basic, most fundamental precursor to all action, word or deed. We cannot do anything without first telling ourselves what we are seeing and then choosing a course of action which we deem appropriate for dealing with the situation. (Stebbins 1967: 148-164) The Definition of the Situation enables us to choose what to do about the situation. We are constantly performing the act of defining the situation—at every waking moment we are repeating the process so we can logically decide what to do. It is clear then that defining the situation involves two entirely very distinct and separate mental processes. The first, means taking an imaginary snapshot photo of what appears to be the most significant issues, activities or events in the situation about which an individual is cognizant of being confronted with at that moment in time. The second mental process requires choosing a course of action—a response of some kind.

The First Key to Leadership Emergence: Defining the Situation:

Logically, the first action for Leadership emergence is to define the situation being confronted in order to be able to define a response—a course of action to be taken: whether to do nothing or to do something. Either way a choice has to be made regarding the situation. The reason is simple and logical enough. People do not follow some other person simply because of their good looks or some other personal trait. They follow a leader because he/she is able to offer them something tangible—something they need or something they come to believe they need. Of course an emerging leader cannot identify every conceivable factor that impinges on a situation at any one moment. Nevertheless, an emerging leader and everyone else for that matter is capable of identifying what appear to be the most salient issues, problems or conditions that are being faced at that moment in time while defining the situation. That however, poses an enormous problem, because as we know everyone’s perspective will be different. Therefore, to understand what enables someone to emerge as a leader when possibly a multitude of people may be facing a similar situation each drawing their own conclusions in defining the situation, it is first necessary to understand patterns people tend to employ in defining the situation.

Patterns of Situational Analysis

The manner in which situations come to be interpreted has been ably described by Herbert Blumer (1962: p. 179-192), in his elaboration of George Mead’s views on symbolic interaction. According to Blumer: “Anything of which a human being is conscious is something which he is indicating to himself—the ticking of a clock, a knock at the door, the appearance of a friend…”

Individual behavior accordingly, is not the result of such things as environmental pressures, stimuli, motives, attitudes and ideas”, but arises from the way these objects, factors or issues in the situation are interpreted and handled by the individual in preparation for the action being contemplated as a consequence of that “situational interpretation”. Naturally, these actions and processes by an individual occur within some “social context”, such as a group or organization as a result, “group action necessarily takes the form of fitting together of individual lines of action”. Blumer added that most situations people encounter in society are defined or “structured” through previous interaction. Thereby, people “develop and acquire common understandings or definitions of how to act in this or that situation”. “These common definitions enable to people to act alike”, and when such “ready made and commonly accepted definitions (of a situation) are at hand; little strain is placed on people in guiding and organizing their acts”.

The reason is that social order comes about in part through the “translation of cultural values into social norms which become the rules by which behavior is governed at the level of interaction”. Theses norms can be viewed as concepts which “…become the concrete means and ends of action and a source of identity between member and the system. Social order resides in this identity”. People come to be committed to a social system through that identity, they call themselves members and their behavior coheres. Moreover, “…norms establish the ground rules and a social system is stable when these norms are effective in governing interaction. (T. Parsons 1937: 76-77 McHugh 1968:15-16);. However, there are many situations when such ready made definitions are not available “or do not fit together readily, and so collective action is blocked”. It is in the case of such “undefined situations…[that] …it is necessary to trace and study the emerging process of definition being brought into play.

In a further elaboration about defining a situation, Robert Stebbins (1967 and 1972) described three major patterns people employ in “defining the situation”. These he labeled: “Cultural Definitions; Habitual Personal Definitions; and Unique Personal Definitions”;. Emerging Leaders therefore, would surely employ similar processes in Defining a Situation.

i.) Cultural Definitions

Cultural definitions Stebbins explained are the “standard meanings of events…that we learn either through primary or secondary socialization or both”.(1) Typical examples may be the way some people slavishly copy fashions set by others or the way people come to follow a fad of one kind or another. An amusing example might be the case of “The Beatles” who came to town with long hair even wearing a pony tail which then became very fashionable for men to do, or for men to wear ear rings or nowadays the penchant for tattoos. Other examples of “common understandings or definitions of how to act in this or that situation” include stereotypic views of people of other cultures or races, genders, and causes homophobia and or xenophobia which often leads to racism or religious fanaticism or other forms of discrimination against the target of stereotypic views. Additional examples of situations in society that are previously defined or structured include, when being introduced to a person one normally extends the right hand to shake the other persons hand or in some countries when driving a car one is expected to keep to the right, in other countries one has to keep to the left. There are a 1001 such situations in society., Similarly, there are any number of situations in society where people learn from parents, school and their religion the rules of behavior that are expected of them in different situations.

The discovery of “Cultural Definitions of situations” is an important finding because it appears these Cultural Definitions have an impact on behavior corresponding closely to the effect that the notion of “informal organization” has on people as the Hawthorn experiments so cogently demonstrated (F.J. Roethlisberger, 1941). The consequences of such culturally defined behavior can be utterly tragic as Irving Janis (1972:76) so graphically described in explaining why the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was such a surprise—and disaster. The common frames of reference manifested by the American naval Officers at Pearl Harbor were described at a naval board of inquiry by Admiral Leary who reported: “the prevalent opinion in the fleet among the Higher Command was that the situation permitted of emphasizing training at the expense of security”. Admiral Kimmel, (Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time of the attack) in defending his actions concurred with Admiral Leary, by saying: “we all felt that the contingency (of a Japanese surprise attack) was remote and the felling strongly existed that the fleet would have adequate warning of any chance of an air attack”. The Admiral’s testimony was further substantiated by Captain J. B. Earle, Chief -of-Staff, Fourteenth Naval District. Referring to a naval report which warned of the dangers of a dawn surprise attack launched against Pearl Harbor from one or more Japanese Aircraft Carriers Earle explained: “we considered this point but somehow or other, we always felt that ‘it couldn’t happen here’ …we didn’t believe the Japanese would take that chance”. A more recent tragic example of such “culturally derived decisions” may have led to the disaster of the space-ship Columbia which burned up on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. No doubt the U.S. going to War in Iraq is another example. Such “commonly defined” responses to situations are so normal so much a part of daily life, it’s hardly necessary to reiterate the point.(2)

ii.) Habitual Personal Definitions

Robert Stebbins also pointed out that Habitual Personal Definitions are characterized by almost no reflection at all because there are no, recognized, new elements, in the subjective situation to define. In other words, the situation being faced may in all probability, have already been encountered many times in the past. For example, when one enters a dark room one hardly needs to reflect before reaching for the light switch. How many other examples can we think of where e.g. we put down our reading glasses but then can’t remember when and where, or going to the refrigerator but then when we get there can’t remember what we went to get. Perhaps you attended a meeting and on the first occasion you took time to select a place to sit but on all future occasions you sought to sit at the same place but got miffed when someone else took “your” place. A thousand–and–one examples maybe described about our daily lives where such habitual actions take place. These are Habitual Personal Definitions of Situations. Notwithstanding the frequency of such responses to situations they are a necessary part of our daily lives since many of our activities do not require extensive pre-analysis preceding an action.

iii.) Unique Personal Definitions

These definitions refer to situations: “rarely if ever encountered before and so far as the individual is concerned knows of no cultural or habitual interpretation of the situation that may exist” which will give guidance on how to respond to the situation. For example, consider the little boy who when he saw lightening for the first time ran into the kitchen shouting Mommy! Mommy! the clouds are taking pictures. Perhaps it’s the young man or woman who on a first date who hardly knows what to say or do and fumbles around for words to say or where or when to touch the other person. And so is obliged to very carefully select the appropriate words to say and how to say them. Likewise, meeting the Boss for the first time requires very cautious behavior and circumspect language in an attempt to find the correct course of action/behavior to follow. Thus, the individual must “improvise his own synthesis based on the nearest personal or collective equivalent” of how to deal with the Unique situation being confronted. (Stebbins 1967)

iv.) Innovative Mode of Situational Definition

Surprisingly, the innovative mode was not described by Stebbins. Yet man’s ability to reason is by far man’s most significant most distinctive characteristic. Our ability to reason separates us for all other forms of life. More significantly, in terms of leadership studies, the innovative “Proactive” mode of Situational Definition has received little if any attention in the literature. Thus, in contrast to “Cultural and Habitual” perspectives, an Innovative “Proactive” Mode of Situational Definition demands an extremely detailed, careful, thoroughly reasoned analytical investigation of a situation in order to comprehend to the extent possible the nature of a situation. Above all, the analysis must avoid jumping to ill-informed conclusions about the situation. Similarly, as is typically the case in “cultural and habitual” methods of situational analysis assumptions about the nature of the situation must be avoided at all costs. Rather, exhausting research and intense reasoning and analysis about the situation is required to minimize the danger of making assumptions about the situation and to ensure that as accurate as possible an assessment of the situation has been reached. Typically the Innovative mode of situational definition tends to reject the “cultural” and the “habitual” mode of situational analysis for being inappropriate or unacceptable, precisely because the definitions are culturally or habitually derived and hence are viewed as being automatic and/or unreasoned responses to the situation. Cultural or Habitual definitions can be expected to generate enormous stress for an individual, especially when a person’s own interpretations tend to be diametrically opposed to the prevailing “common frames of reference”.(3)

In a most persuasive essay On Being Mindful of Man, Hubert Bonner (1965) described some of the most salient features of human creativity. He specifically argued not only that a substantial majority of people operate almost exclusively in a “cultural” and “habitual” vein, but few of us ever come to realize that an innovative mode exists.(4) Moreover he stressed over and over again, that unless we dare to exercise our creative ability to chose, unless we dare to be what he called “Proactive” we will forever remain inextricably bound by “cultural group” or social norms and to habit, in a manner that leaves us virtual automatons or robots, even almost comatose no matter how much we protest we are acting rationally.(5) Exercising our analytical “Proactive” powers Bonner (1965:98) elaborated, frees us. “It is the root of purpose and for each of us. In order to understand man, it is more important to know what he chooses, what this commitment’s are, than to have detailed knowledge about his past performance.

It follows; the first step to leadership arises through an innovative “Proactive” definition of a situation. There are several reasons: foremost, is that it shows initiative. Secondly, whomever attempts to do is immediately set apart. Further, a “Proactive” approach immediately draws attention to the new perspective, if for no other reason that that it is in fact new, different and innovative. Actually, the new definition may often be regarded as exciting because it is different. Significantly too, in terms of leadership a new definition is a ready rallying point around which people tend to congregate. A new “Proactive” definition is, doubly noteworthy for leadership because of people’s predilection to be “culture” bound and because of their willingness accept guidance from someone else. At the same time in contrast, any others seeking a leadership role would typically be defining prevailing conditions in a traditional manner relying on tried and true standard “cultural or habitual definitions” of matters at hand so there is nothing remarkable about these attempts. Consequently, “cultural or habitual” perspectives hardly draw much attention. Alternatively, the new definition may be challenged as unacceptable precisely because it is different and out of the “status quo”. Frequently, that leads to conflict because it may be viewed as a threat to the “status quo”. Thus, a new definition does not guarantee the emergence of leadership; however, it is an early first step.

Since Defining the situation is merely the very first step, it must be followed by a proposed response to the situation. A course of action—some form of response must be devised. In fact, drawing attention to a new “Proactive” perspective is essential as it lays the groundwork for the second vital key to Leadership: Defining a Response or Goal. Here then a second potentially distinctive feature of leadership emerges, predicated on the response or GOAL that is proposed. However this time, the GOAL would be derived from an innovative reasoned definition of the situation—not one that is simply an assumed “culturally or habitually” defined one to fit the situation.

Read on in Part II

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Foot notes:

(01) Cultural definitions are the same as the “common understandings or definitions of how to act in this or that situation” described by Herbert Blumer.

(02) Perhaps more recent examples involved General Motors Corp and many other U.S. Corporations notably the steel industry.  Starting in the early 1970’s these companies started losing market share to the Japanese, the Germans and industries from a number of other countries.  Still the U.S. industries kept on doing the same thing over and over either ignoring or failing to understand why they were losing market share.  Instead, they sought better tax rates, or shipped jobs overseas to their own manufacturing plants where they could hire workers at much lower salaries.  None of these efforts succeeded.  Few U.S. industries survived.   It was a classic example of a fundamental failure by the leaders of these corporations to properly assess the situation.  The situation they confronted was fundamentally a lack of demand for U.S. products (because better quality and cheaper foreign products were readily available) which they failed to recognize or refused to acknowledge or hoped would be rectified by lower taxes and outsourcing.

(03) Consider the example of a person who has lived without being subjected to racist attacks in their own country but on traveling to another country where such attacks are the norm, discover that they suffer daily even grievous harm.

(04) Huber Bonner in fact may have been the first person to coin the term “Proactive Personality” in describing the type of person who eschews cultural or habitual definitions in favor of more analytical methods of situational analysis. See “The Proactive Personality” by Hubert Bonner in J.F. Bugental ed.: Challenges of Humanistic Psychology (McGraw-Hill 1967:61-66)

(05) As early as 1961 William J. Lederer, published his: A Nation of Sheep He depicted just how slavishly people follow trends and fads that may currently be the vogue suggesting just how “culture” or “habit” bound, people tend to be. Of course there’s also Irving Janis’ description of “Groupthink” that he described so well showing how common and typical it is of human behavior.