Rather, it could be argued that leadership is a continuum based upon an ever changing social process in which leaders develop from the interactions within groups of people (Barker, R 1997). Therefore, the outcome of a situation in which a leader has been influencing behaviour cannot be used to determine the qualities of that leader. Instead, the influence that the leader exerts is continuously interacting with the environment and other social variables. If this is the case, then the relevance of traitist approaches is no longer substantial and it is required that we move on to discuss leadership as a social process. This process involves the perceptions of followers, and reciprocal relationships between those followers and their leaders.
As Machiavelli ascertained; ‘it is not necessary for a prince to have all of the aforementioned qualities, but it is very necessary for him to appear to have them’ (1515, cited in Grint, K.1997 pp63). In the same way, it could be argued that potential leaders do not need to possess certain qualities; instead the desired qualities may be attributed solely from follower perceptions. In other words, followers need to perceive someone as having a desirable trait before they accept them as their leader. Bryman (1993 pp50) suggests that followers form an important part in the emergence of charisma.
He stated that if charismatic leaders do not bring benefits to their followers, their claim to charisma may be entirely diminished. Thus there appears to be a relationship of interdependence between the charismatic leader, and his/her followers, and a capacity for charisma to be partially, or indeed entirely, socially formed. Similarly, various authors such as House (1977), Conger and Kanungo (1987) have suggested that leaders can be created through the imitation of perceived leader characteristics.
Therefore leadership qualities are attributed to those persons who can effectively enact perceived leader behaviour. Thus potential leaders can model themselves in order to represent the values and beliefs that will allow them to be viewed by followers favourably. This not only suggests that followers are integral in the acceptance of leaders, but also that traits can be imitated and modeled, thus proving them to be a construct formed from the followers needs rather than a congregation of the innate qualities of the leader.
Furthermore, Fiedler (1965) suggested in his contingency theory that a situation can be assessed objectively in order to determine what type of leader will be affective in that specific situation. However, it could be argued that situations are perceived subjectively, cannot be objectively measured, and hence there can be no correct ‘type’ of leader to deal with it (Grint, K. 2005). As Grint, K. proposed ‘the environment is not some objective variable that determines a response’ (2005, pp1470) and therefore a leader cannot be ‘picked and chosen’ due to attributes. Rather, it is the leader’s perception of that situation that determines his/her response, and not the situation itself.
Grint’s view brings us even closer to the argument that leadership is socially constructed as he is suggesting that leadership involves the ‘social construction of the context that … legitimizes a particular form of action’ (Grint, K. 2005, pp1471). However, he does not discuss the reasons why society feels the need to attribute qualities of leadership upon a leader figure, or indeed why situations are perceived as the type that legitimize the need for a leader.
Weber believed that people followed leaders on the grounds of their faith in the leaders extraordinary personal qualities (Gerth, H. Mills, C.W. 1946), however the reasons as to why followers may need to discover a faith in someone was not discussed. Glassman and Swatos (1986) have approached this issue by suggested that modern people long for a charismatic leader due to them becoming ‘increasingly isolated from the mediating structures of family, community, religion, and even friendship’ (Glassman, R. Swatos, W. 1986 pp6), and consequently people feel a great need to be connected to a leader who unifies them into a society.
Gemmil and Oakley (1992) suggested something very similar by proposing that people use leaders as an object upon which to project negative feelings that emerge from working with others. By projecting these negative feelings upon a leader figure, individuals are essentially emotionally deskilling themselves in order to escape from anxieties incurred from distressing situations. This form of projection allows people to regress back to a comfortable and familiar status quo within the recognized hierarchy (Gemmil, Oakley, 1992. Barker, R. 2001). Therefore, Gemmil and Oakley’s (1992) theory implies that leadership is socially constructed for the purpose of maintaining a status quo, and is a social process that means individuals become willing to be led and act as mindless ‘cheerful robots’ (Gemmil, Oakley, 1992, pp115) under the power of their leaders.
However, this emotional and intellectual deskilling that Gemmil and Oakley (1992) refer to is not solely the result of anxieties within individuals. Rather, these ‘projection’ behaviours are reinforced by a societal myth that leads people to believe they need a ‘messiah’ to alleviate them from their problems. Gemmil and Oakley (1992) suggest that, through the process of reification, people give this social myth an ‘objective existence’, and thus they are led to believe that there is a direction of causation that links leaders with auspicious social progress. Furthermore, they propose that the result of this reification is the consequence of cultural programming, therefore implying that the leadership myth has been socially constructed based on the history of social organization and societies cultural norms.
It could be suggested that the cultural programming associated with leadership is integrated within the archetype of modern leadership theory, which has been built around the historical foundations of feudal law (Barker, R. 1997, 2001), Christianity, and the ‘great man’ model. Cooper and McGaugh (1963) supposed that Carlyle’s Great man theory has been the focus of much attention in Western society due to the ‘intellectual elite’ from upper societal classes who have ‘sought to show natively determined characteristics as responsible for the occupancy of leadership regions’ (cited in Gibb, C.A 1696 pp246), therefore the majority of history has been written by this ‘intellectual elite’ around particular leaders. The rhetoric on leadership that has survived throughout history has been based on these writings about particular leaders and therefore the need for modern day leaders has been constructed on these foundations. These foundations set up predefined patterns of conduct within institutions (Luckmann, Berger. 1966).
Furthremore, ‘Institutions always have a history, of which they are products’ (Luckmann, Berger. 1966 pp72) and therefore the construct of leadership is a social process that is maintained as the result of institutional history. It is these institutions and social organizations that people are born into and experience from an early age, and according to Yukl (1981) individuals develop expectations about reciprocity and social exchanges relatively early in their childhood. Thus it is a consequence of social experience that individuals expect certain regions within social organization to wield power (Cooper, J. McGaugh, J. 1963), and therefore may demonstrate another reason why people search for leaders; because they expect them to be there
Overall, there seems to exist a social myth that is deeply rooted within people, and has been given an objective existence that leads individuals to believe that a leader can take them to a better place. Therefore, when people are feeling anxious and vulnerable, they look for a leader figure to take these negative feelings away. If the focus on the leaders abilities and traits serves only ‘two social functions: hope for salvation and blame for failure’ as Barker (1997 pp348) suggests, then indeed it can be supposed that the point of attribution theories, irrespective of whether the follower is doing the attributing or not, is so people can create/find a leader relatively easily when they feel negative.
However, this social myth is not only there to protect people from their own feelings of desperation and stress, but also because society is constructed around a history of hierarchical superiority and literature objectifying the actions of well known leaders. Hence, I would argue that the implausibility of escaping the industrial system and its hierarchical foundations leaves people to see leaders as a means of safety until they themselves can reach the point where they are in that higher position.
Therefore, this essay suggests that the phenomena of leadership is partially constructed and maintained due to the nature of society and the need for a leader to take responsibility over affairs that are not understood, but also through history, and the cultural norms that have arisen from such history. Hence, as Marx ascertains in the introductory quote; ‘our relations in society have to some extent already begun to be established before we are in a position to determine them’ (1835. cited in Reiss, E.1997, pp44).
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Barker, R. 2001. ‘The nature of leadership.’ Human Relations pp.469
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Conger, J.A. Kanungo, R.N 1987. ‘Towards a behavioural theory of charismatic leadership in organizational settings’,Academy of Management review. pp637
Cooper, J. McGaugh, J. 1963 ‘Leadership: Integrating principles of social psychology’ Schenkmann Publishing Company.
Fiedler 1965, ‘Leadership – a new model’ Discovery, April Edition