Challenging Leadership: Epistemological And Theoretical Problems

Year: 2015

Author: Lakomski, Gabriele, Evers, Colin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Descriptions of organizational success or failure are commonly presented as resulting from good Leadership, bad Leadership, or missing Leadership. It seems we cannot get by without invoking the L-word in attempts to explain organizational functioning. Specifically, a causal link is drawn between the abilities and actions of individual leaders, and organizational outcomes. This is thought to apply to school leadership especially, possibly the result of long periods of leadership focused reform.

In this paper we want to lay out the main philosophical-theoretical reasons for why such an a priori assumption is indefensible; that is, why invoking leadership as the default explanatory category is unwarranted. Our argument, which counters with the complexity of organizational life and its contexts, and the fallible nature of social science knowledge that attempts to account for these features, is based on three distinctive features of our research program: (1) Epistemology, as it shapes the content and structure of (education) leadership theories; and (2) naturalistic coherentism, the theory of knowledge we prefer, as it is constrained both by results of natural science and theoretical criteria of coherence. The third feature derives from adopting (1) and (2) and consists in working out what the consequences are for leadership.

For example, recent neuroscientific knowledge of cognition as embodied, embedded, and distributed (“grounded cognition”) challenges the presumed doctrine of methodological individualism that lies at the heart of leader-centric explanations. Cognition is more realistically described as a property distributed over a network of individuals and their interactions, and is shaped by context and its affordances, and by time. Moreover, recent mathematical modeling of how distributed networks function, concludes that while strong leadership can speed decision-making, it also compromises organizational learning, inhibiting the correction of decision errors by promoting confirmation bias. As a result, we recommend adoption of a much broadened view of organizational functioning, akin to an emergent, self-organizing property of complex systems. Leaders are just part of the bigger picture that comprises consideration of both individuals and of organizational structure.

While this will not show that leadership is irrelevant to all contexts of organizational functioning, it will deny it the most privileged place in the pantheon of explanatory resources. In common with every other resource, it needs to earn its explanatory keep, something that will vary from context to context. Use of the L-word will not fade away over night, but like all pretenders to ubiquitous relevance, its use will eventually be confined to those contexts where it is endorsed by better understandings of real organizational functioning.