Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Year of Magical (Leadership) Thinking

Bert A. Spector

Many commentators were stunned when, in his acceptance speech at the Republican national convention, Donald Trump insisted that “I alone” can fix the “crisis’ that besets the United States.  Things “will all change when I take office.”

Although it isn’t easy or comfortable, let’s put aside for a moment the specifics of his indictment of the American condition (“violence in our streets and chaos in our communities,” “180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens”; and so forth).  It’s the “magical thinking” of his solution – “A change in leadership is required to produce a change in outcomes” – that I want to focus on.  My point is that, other than the bold rhetoric through which Trump asserts his thesis, there is really nothing unusual here.

In Discourse on Leadership, I trace the origin of contemporary concepts of leadership back to the famous series of lectures delivered by Thomas Carlyle in Victorian London.  His veneration for the “great man,” those individuals sent by God who would heroically cure the world of its ‘ills”,  set the tone and shaped the direction of leadership discourse for decades to come.  And the influence of this magical thinking, the idea that an individual leader can set things right for the rest of us, still exerts considerable sway.

For many, perhaps most, leadership theorists, Carlyle and his “Great Man” – and for him it was indisputably and inevitably a man – theory is an unwelcome anachronism.  It lacks the scientific “rigor” of contemporary approaches.  Well, maybe.  But there’s no denying its appeal.  Even after the collapse of the financial industry that plunged much of the world into a deep economic recession, the continued appeal of leader/saviors within business corporations is apparent.  Just look at the still-rising compensation packages put together to attract these superstar  CEOs.  When their magic wears thin and  their results disappoint, it’s time to search for another “great man,” although that man is (still too) occasionally a “great women.”

I don’t think we should be so shocked, in other words, when a politician seeking our votes appeals to our desire for an individual leader who will cure our ills.  People often attribute success or failure of institutions, societies, and any other group to the actions of individuals.  Scholars can and should surface the more complex story of interactions, but we can never deny the appeal of individual attribution.  To understand the world, we construct narratives and tell stories.  Inherent in that mode of understanding is the romantic drama is the hero’s transcendent journey.  That hero may succeed or fail in our narrative, but as an individual, she or he resides at the core of the story and the center of our hope.

The Trump claim – that “I alone” can fix what is supposedly broken – may seem extreme.  Of course it is.  BUT we should also recognize that leadership discourse has regularly trafficked in and, as a result, reinforced this desire for heroic individuals.

Discourse on Leadership: A Critical Appraisal by Bert A. Spector 

About The Author

Bert A. Spector

Bert A. Spector (PhD, American History) is Associate Professor of International Business and Management at Northeastern University's D'Amore-McKim School of Business. His research ...

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