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Best Leadership Strategies Are Pragmatic Rather Than Based On Ideology

Understanding Leadership - Understanding Ideologies in Leadership by Robert Bacal

If you want to learn more about leadership, or become a better leader, you have a wide range of leadership models, theories, and "expert opinons" to draw upon. That's both a gift and a serious challenge, since you'll often find conflicting opinions. Why is that? First, because we really don't know as much about what contributes to being an effective leader as we tend to think. One over-riding finding is that what may work in one setting or context can fail miserably in another, or even that one person may try to behave a certain way in his or her leadership role, and succeed, while another may try to behave in the exact same way and fail.

The second reason for all the different opinions and something all leaders should consider is that what someone considers as effective leadership is ideological. That is, a list of effective leadership behaviors will include some, and exclude others based on the list maker's underlying values and beliefs about people and organizations. Most importantly, most of these lists and opinions are not based on "what works" (because almost anything will work sometimes with respect to leadership), but what the writer believes SHOULD be the case, or what "should" work.

For leaders, it's important to understand that whatever current leadership approach is in vogue, that approach is only a partial and incomplete picture of leadership effectiveness. Which of course is obvious when you get down to the details and notice that a past historical leader who may be admired and "successful" actually used techniques that would be considered draconian or even cruel or unethical. In real life, leaders don't often fit into the current leadership ideology, but oddly enough we tend to ignore that.

Another issue with the ideology factor has to do with uncritical, and knee-jerk positions on what constitutes leadership effectiveness. For example, if you look at the many articles on myths about leadership, you may find something that suggests that "Leaders are born, not made" is false. And in some ways that is true. It can be false. But the statement itself is ideological, an outcropping of the democratic notion that everyone can be everything in any situation. That's clearly false, and it is ideological -- it has nothing to do with leadership per se.

If you strip away the ideology from the myth statement, what you'll find is that leadership success is, or at least can be influenced by personality and other factors that are not easily modified. Oddly enough, there are documents out there that promulgate the idea that leaders are not born, but made, but on the other hand suggest that personality, essentially an element influenced by genetics and early child experience is implicated in good leadership. That's an inherent contradiction. It's a contradiction that occurs as a result of holding an ideology of "democracy" that suggests everyone can lead, while at the same time ignoring the fact that some factors are fixed and not under easy control of the person.

Practical Implications For Leaders and Developing Leaders

The influence of ideology on what we consider to be effective leadership traits and behaviors is important, because the ideology is hidden from you. You won't see it unless you look. The risk is that if you don't look, you will adopt an understanding of leadership that is incomplete, partly incorrect, and excludes certain pathways to effective leadership.

For example, many leadership experts contend that leadership is not about power. Is that really true across all settings? No. It is an ideological position of today's current culture, but it is not reflective of how leadership has been though of in the past. Power is an important tool for leaders, and while it may be the case that leadership based ONLY on the use of threat, power, coercion and other currently out of favor tools, is exceedingly limited and hard to sustain, it's not to say that power and its use is irrelevant to effective leadership. It IS relevant.

The problem occurs when a leader throws out a tool that could otherwise be useful simply because he or she is influenced by the current ideology. Should a leader refuse to use his or her formal power and authority because experts explain that power and authority are not "part of leadership"? No. In fact, a leader who completely refuses to use formal power is going to be far less effective than a leader who uses power and authority when it is required.


The upshot is that leaders need to understand that our thinking (and the leader's thinking) about leadership is conditioned by ideology and values and beliefs, possibly far more than it is affected by what really works and doesn't work. When you read about leadership, it's good to ask: "What is this person's underlying set of beliefs and values (ideology), and how does it affect what he or she is telling me I should be doing to be a successful leader."

Do not prematurely exclude some leadership behaviors across the board without thinking about whether they may be appropriate in some contexts (however limited), and without thinking about how and when "disfavored" leadership techniques WILL work.


About Company

Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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