As part of my studies towards a formal qualification in “academic practice”, I was required to compose “a personal reflection on leadership styles and approaches to leadership in higher education”. The following screed resulted.

There must be such a thing as leadership style, since anybody in a position of leadership (whatever that means) is going to discharge the duties of that position after his or her or their own fashion. But I am suspicious of those who claim to have abstracted a limited set of discrete, countable leadership styles. When I Google leadership styles, I am informed that:
People also ask
What are the 4 basic leadership styles?
What are the 5 leadership styles?
What are the 12 leadership styles?
What are the 10 leadership styles?

This result does not assuage my scepticism. Pithy typologies are popular with qualitative social scientists (and the authors of viral “listicles”): three theories of learning, four learning styles, five character traits, seven basic plots, Maslow’s eight basic needs, the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, “Six Types of Single People: Which One Are You?”. At best, these things serve a general need; they condense wildly heterogeneous, multi-dimensional and fuzzy phenomena into convenient, memorable archetypes (Collier et al., 2012). Typologies need not be crudely reductionist; they may be judiciously modest in their ambitions, claiming to characterise only one or two dimensions of variation without pretending to exhaust the entire space of possibility. But at their worst, they promise far more than they can deliver, blighted by sloppy definitions, oversimplifications, unacknowledged normative assumptions, a lack of comprehensiveness, and other methodological weaknesses.

If I suspect that the available typologies of leadership style belong to that benighted latter group, it is not least because they are treated so uncritically by so much supposedly scholarly literature. Indeed, they smack of what the philosopher Susan Stebbing called “potted thinking” (by analogy with potted meat; Stebbing, 1941). Potted thinking, she explains, arises from our “not unnatural desire to have confident beliefs about complicated matters” and from the fact that “the difficulty in mastering the evidence upon which [our] beliefs ought to be based is burdensome; consequently we easily fall into the habit of accepting compressed statements which save us from the trouble of thinking”. Potted thinking is “easily accepted, is concentrated in form, and has lost the vitamins essential to mental nourishment.” It is not necessarily worthless, just as “potted meat is sometimes a convenient form of food; it may be tasty, it contains some nourishment. But its nutritive value is not equivalent to that of the fresh meat from which it was potted.”

The unaccountably famous Daniel Goleman informs us that there are in fact six leadership styles: coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pace-setting, and coaching (e.g., Goleman, 2000). Many scholars have taken him at his word, analysing this or that institution through the “framework” of these “approaches”. It’s not difficult; one just has to pretend not to notice how muddled and overlapping the categories are, how anecdotal their supposed justifications, how weak the supposed statistical demonstrations of their validity and influence (e.g., Goleman, 2000), how predictable and shallow the supposed insights that result from them. Somehow I can’t bring myself to do it. Goleman may be a popular writer but his “theory” of leadership rests on well-attested misunderstandings of research in the psychology of emotional intelligence, which he promulgates by distorting evidence and misrepresenting theory, seeming to “care more about selling books than advancing science” (Antonakis et al., 2009) and often doing “more harm than good” (Mayer, Salovey and Caruso, 2004; Daus and Ashkanasy, 2003).

Never mind; even potted thinking may contain some nourishment; we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There must be something — some original nutritive value — behind all this talk of leadership style. Perhaps a brief foray into history will help us find it. The term itself, leadership style, may have taken off only in the second half of the twentieth century (Google Ngram Viewer, 2021), but the idea that there are better or worse ways of being a leader is obviously much older and more distinguished; it permeates the entire western canon (one thinks of Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Montaigne…) to say nothing of the Edicts of Akosha or the Analects of Confucius. And no wonder; there have always been “leaders” — both in the factive, neutral sense of the term, in which it can be applied to anybody at the helm of any social hierarchy, regardless of their personal qualities — and in the normative sense of the term, in which “leaders” are those imbued with a kind of inspiring personal greatness that entitles them to the loyalty, even the obedience, of those they lead (it is in this latter sense that a recently elected Member of Parliament declared, “Mr. Johnson, you are no leader!”; Murray, 2021).

Only relatively recently has the idea taken hold that leadership in the professions is or ought to be of the latter kind, something rather exalted, requiring valuable specialist skills, virtues, and dispositions (Fitzgerald, 2021). When the valorisation of “leadership” began to spill into education from the business world, at least some critically minded people raised the alarm immediately (e.g., Sergiovanni, 1979) but they were unable to stem the tide. In the last few decades, the term “leadership” has increasingly replaced “administration” and “management” in our institutions (Fitzgerald, 2021), seeming to endow senior bureaucrats with a certain heroic mystique. One need not be a Marxist to question the motives behind this change. Whose interests are served by calling bosses “leaders”? Whose interests are served by using such an equivocal term, whose normative sense is probably still more common in everyday use than its descriptive one? Is it not telling that university managers, when asked to justify the ridiculously high salaries paid to Vice Chancellors, prattle about the supposedly superlative “calibre of leadership” demonstrated by these men and women (Grove, 2017), typically without producing any evidence in support of these self-serving rationalisations except the fact that V-Cs at other universities are similarly well remunerated? May we not suspect that the whole idea of “leadership” in higher education is a kind of façade designed to justify and reinforce power structures that serve nobody better than the supposed “leaders”, who are drawn overwhelmingly from the same old social elites?

Still, there’s no getting around it: there is such a thing as leadership style; managers behave one way or another as a function of, among other things, their personality (which, of course, may never really change despite all the “leadership training” in the world). But after much ferreting about in the literature on “leadership styles” and their supposedly measurable effects, I remain unconvinced that anything true but non-platitudinous can be found there; everybody knows that sometimes you have to be caring, sometimes coercive, sometimes communitarian, sometimes controlling, etc. It makes no sense to give a prescription without a diagnosis. So I shall not profess any particular leadership style; I shall just try to be a good and dependable colleague and not to shirk responsibility. In any case, I am at the beginning of my career; I wield little power over anybody (I added my dog to the list of personnel in my research group just to bump up the numbers). I hope I will never be so conceited that I think of myself as a “leader” merely for doing my fair share of bureaucratic work, for serving the communities that sustain my job, for advancing my field of research, or for looking after the people who work under my tutelage and care. Toni Morrison, a leader if ever there was one, showed the way: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game’”.

References

Collier, D., LaPorte, J., & Seawright, J. (2012). Putting typologies to work: Concept formation, measurement, and analytic rigor. Political Research Quarterly65, 217-232.

Fitzgerald, T. (2021). Leadership, Leaders, and Leading: Myths, Metaphors, and Myopias. In: F. English (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Educational Leadership and Management Discourse, 1–12.

Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review 78, 78-90.

Google Ngram Viewer (2021).  https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=leadership+style&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=0&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cleadership%20style%3B%2Cc0. Accessed 20th January, 2022.

Grove 2017: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/salary-increases-russell-group-v-cs-beat-staff-pay-rises-again

Murray 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/17/friday-briefing-lib-dems-rout-tories-in-north-shropshire-byelection

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1979) Is leadership the next great training robbery? Educational Leadership 36, 388-394.

Stebbing, L.S. (1941) Thinking to Some Purpose (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books).