Drucker and Heroic Leadership

Contributor: William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted:  01/03/2011  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags: Peter Drucker | leadership | William Cohen | Business Strategies

In 1978, James MacGregor Burns published his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Leadership. In it he classified leadership into the categories of transactional and transforming types. Transforming leadership was the preferred process in that it was more potent, engaged the full person of the follower, and leaders and followers stimulated each other to advance followers into leaders and might even convert leaders into moral agents.

The transforming approach clearly has much to recommend it. These include significant positive change in people and organizations, changes in perceptions and values, and changes in the expectations and aspirations of those led. In short, transforming leaders are idealized because they are not focused on benefits to self, but on benefits for the organization, its members, and those they serve.

Transactional leadership is based on the exchange relationship of simple reward for obedience or punishment for disobedience. Many have criticized Heroic Leadership on this basis. There is even a “Post-Heroic Leadership” recommended by some leadership experts today in which organizations now supposedly operate, or should operate, which espouses a lack of hierarchical control in which members essentially lead the organization themselves and the leader is mostly a figurehead and cheerleader. How did Drucker see it?

The Origin of Heroic Leadership

To fully understand Drucker’s views, we need to look at the origins of Heroic Leadership. Interestingly, it was the same Burns who introduced the concept of Heroic Leadership. But it wasn’t as some think. Perhaps misled by a misunderstanding of what the name represented, some have corrupted Burns’ concept of Heroic Leadership such that it has become the ultimate representative of the less desirable transactional type and for much that has gone wrong within organizations in recent years. Yet Burns introduced Heroic Leadership not as an example of transactional leadership, but as an example of the preferred transforming type.

Drucker’s Complaint

Drucker did not agree with the interpretations of Heroic or Post Heroic Leadership. For example, he wrote and taught that there is no such thing as successful laissez faire leadership, and that there must always be a leader responsible for directing an organization. That is, someone in control. Even participative leadership was not a universal cure.

Referring to Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, Drucker maintained that while the participation of members in decision making was desirable in many instances, there were times when Theory X (a directive style) was more effective rather than Theory Y (a participative style). Limited time for action might be one example. He pointed out that McGregor himself had written that he had never intended to recommend one theory over the other, only that management should analyze and determine in which situations each theory might be best applied.

Things Go Awry with Laissez Faire Leadership

Drucker wrote that his friend and leadership expert, Warren Bennis had tried implementing Theory Y in a more or less laissez faire fashion in an attempt to raise achievement at the University of Buffalo during Bennis’ tenure as president. As Drucker relates, “There was tremendous excitement but also total failure. Instead of achievement, there was lack of direction, lack of objectives, lack of controls, and frustration . . .” While pointing out that simply adopting Theory Y was not what was intended by McGregor, Drucker also stated that by itself Theory Y was inadequate and was not necessarily a new, better, or morally superior way of leading.

Drucker Takes Lessons from the Ancients

Drucker further showed that the concepts of transformational leadership were known and practiced by the ancients several thousands of years ago. They confirmed Burn’s concept regarding the categorization of Heroic Leadership as a transforming type. Drucker looked to historical documents for confirmation.

One example was Drucker’s favorite leadership book, Kyropaidaia, which is sometimes translated as The Education of Cyrus the Great. Drucker described it as the first systematic book on leadership and still the best. The book was written by Xenophon, a Grecian general turned historian and author about 2000 years ago. It is full of examples of how to lead using the metaphor of Cyrus the Great of Persia learning and practicing leadership some two hundred years earlier before Xenophon’s writings.

Cyrus the Great of Persia was an absolute monarch. Yet Xenophon wrote that Cyrus chose not to motivate primarily by the “carrot or stick” method; that is, the exchange method which defines transactional leadership. According to Xenophon, Cyrus’ father asked Cyrus what he thought was the best way to motivate his followers. Cyrus answered: “After reflecting about these things, I think I see in all of them that which especially incites to obedience is the praising and honoring of one who obeys and the dishonoring of the one who disobeys.”

Cyrus’ father agreed that this was the way to gain obedience by compulsion, but he told Cyrus that there was a far superior way in which human beings would obey and “with great pleasure.” He told Cyrus that when people think that they will incur harm in obeying, they are not so ready to respond to the threat of punishments or to be seduced by gifts. Moreover, this other method of attaining voluntary obedience worked even when there was danger.

Cyrus’ father told him that the method wasn’t even very complicated. He only had to look after his subordinates better than they would take care of themselves and to ensure that he took care of them even before his own welfare. Who would not want to follow and obey a leader who would look to one’s interest more than an individual would or could himself? Do you think that employees in any company might feel the same way and support a leader and an organization’s interests which did this? No exchange concepts here.

Xenophon suggested other aspects of good leadership which are suspiciously like transformational types. Among his advice was:

1. You set the example. If you are downhearted, your men will become cowards. If you yourselves are clearly prepared to meet the enemy and call on your soldiers to do their part, you can be sure they will try and be like you.

2. You need to hold yourself to be braver than the general mass of men, and to be the first to do hard work.

3. Get your soldiers thinking about positive action each must take to be successful, otherwise they will think about "what is going to happen to me?"

The Importance of Control

Xenophon also recommended to his readers: “Be in control and exercise discipline, for when no one exercises control, nothing useful ever gets done.” Detractors of Heroic Leadership sometimes use the term “command and control” in referencing the type of leadership that should be avoided. Yet both Xenophon and Drucker maintained that control as a necessity for good leadership.

The term, “command and control” is a military one even though it has nothing to do with leadership. Its official definition is “… the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of a mission.” It refers to a military commander’s authority to have his legal orders obeyed.

However, it has little to do with leadership. It is simply one source of power, as is position, expertise, likeability, etc. Organizational leaders in civil life have similar authority. Among non-military laymen the term “command and control” leadership has come to mean a leader who leads through simply giving orders and ensuring their obedience. By this definition it refers to a leader who uses a single behavioral influence strategy, direction, and has an authoritative, as opposed to a participative, style.

According to proponents, the so-called “Post-Heroic Leader” operates in a role set in which there is little direct control. Instead, the Post-Heroic Leader leads only through influence. This is simply a misunderstanding of Heroic Leadership. The Heroic Leader always leads through influence, whether that influence is direct or indirect or through the use of some other strategy. Direction is necessary, for example, when time is a major factor or direction may be the only effective influence behavioral strategy that is likely to work. Yet a Heroic Leader may also use indirection issuing no direct orders at all in leading.

Using Indirection to Save a Life

I heard a story once about a woman who was poised on the suspension of a bridge, determined to commit suicide by jumping into waters far below. A policeman called to the woman to persuade her to climb back to safety. He tried logic and failed. He tried to order her down. That didn’t work either. All attempts failed and spectators realized that the woman was determined to jump.

Finally, the policeman called to her and said: “Lady you can jump if you want, but I sure wouldn’t want to jump into that dirty water. It’s full of sewage and garbage, and smells awful.” The woman hesitated, and then climbed back to the safe part of the bridge. Eventually others were able to get her to safety.

Drucker’s Heroic Leadership

Drucker did not use the term “Heroic Leadership.” Yet his numerous writings and speeches made it clear that the right kind of leader was someone special, someone who would put subordinates, customers, and mission before himself to ensure that in leading the leader would be fulfilling Drucker’s own definition of leadership: “. . .  the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a man’s personality beyond its normal limitations.” That’s Heroic Leadership.

Contributor:   William Cohen, Ph.D.

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