A headline earlier today in a national daily read, “When is Canada going to start producing quarterbacks?”
Seems like a reasonable question when one surveys the history of the Canadian Football League, and the rarity of Canadian quarterbacks who achieved memorable success. Russ Jackson, leader of the Ottawa Roughriders, linked to running back Stewart and wide receiver, Tucker, inflicted considerable damage on opponents, while garnering a Grey Cup for their home city.
But that is eons ago. And Russ Jackson was a rare breed. He was a positive, motivated, highly charged and seemingly fearless LEADER. It was a recognizable mix of quality traits even to those of us who knew him only from television appearances on and off the field. And then he entered one of the more “political” and neurotic professions as a high school principal. Would have paid dollars to be a part of his teaching staff, if only to watch the impact a leader can and likely did have on those who worked with him. Of course, I expect he would have had trouble with those “hanging on” until retirement, or clinging to the Long Term Disability clause, or letting their students sleep through classes. Likely he would have found the most expeditious path to “reform or remove”.
The Royal Military College, in Kingston (as noted in another piece in this space) does not hire teachers in “LEADERSHIP”. They have assigned that responsibility to “Psychology” faculty. Undoubtedly, the business schools consider leadership under the rubric of “management” as another example of failed perceptions of both responsibility and opportunity. The schools graduating “administrators” have perhaps a single course in leadership, buried along with statistics, foundations and comparative education. And the instructors in those courses, while perhaps intelligent and adequate lecturers, value their academic discipline ahead of the more prosaic requirements of leadership.
On the other end of the vocational continuum, most cultures celebrate their poets, artists and musicians, for the expressions of their “art” without considering them as cultural leaders, except in “expanding and enhancing the ‘vision’ of their audience.
To be sure there are now a plethora of “executive” leadership seminars, workshops and retreats. Even athletic coaching is now a respected curriculum in some colleges and universities, and athletic coaching is endemic to leadership.
Underlying all of these splashes of colour on the canvas of leadership is the fundamental question, “Can leadership be taught?” (Or is it more likely to be “caught” like the kind of intuition displayed by people like Wayne Gretzky, in anticipating and “knowing” where the puck is “going to be” and not merely being mesmerized by where “it is”.
Clearly, creativity in whatever sphere of human endeavour, is displayed both by the highly formally educated, and also by those without so much as an hour of formal instruction and discipline. Ingenuity, like its sister creativity, too is highly resistant to the experimental regimes of formal science, with their null hypotheses, and their disproval of such premises. Replicable, measureable, document-‘able’ and reducible to empirical evidence, as in gravity, the speed of light, the actions and reactions of atoms, neurons, neutrons and ions, creativity is not. At least so far.
History books, including military histories are replete with both strategies and tactic that exhibit and exemplify ingenuous moves by highly “intuitive” generals, in their determination to “outwit” their opponents. And the “education” of those men and women has obviously included “adaptability” and flexibility, and ‘thinking outside the box,” the tattered epithet that seems to define the stereotype of the entrepreneur, the idol of the current capitalist-profit-driven enmeshment of the cultural mind-set.
Everyone seems to hire or develop, train or incentivize that kind of thinking, on behalf of the corporate monsters who have the bankrolls that sustain the employment picture. In government bureaucracies, such corporate motivation seems frightening, if not reason for dishonourable discharge.
Faculties of education, a potential source of leadership research and the literature that would undergird its developing body of work, seem more interested in the pragmatics of learning theory, theories of discipline and eco-influences on schools and on curriculum, as well as the multiple potentials for technology in “teaching and learning. Comparative studies of men and women, too, often fall under the “psychology” department.
So where does leadership belong? Under which traditional academic discipline, or perhaps does it finally merit its own department?
Doctors “running hospitals” for example, is an oxymoron. They have no previous training except the occasional coffee-break conversation with their predecessor
s in the department to which they have just been appointed to “lead”. Lawyers, too, as leaders, are empty of a kind of training and rigour in leadership, based as their profession is on case law, precedent and creative end-runs around the procedures of the system.
Accountants, too, have a high alacrity and precision with the patterns of figures, accounts, balances and the “story” that data can and might tell. Examining evidence, agreeably is one of the basic requirements of all leadership roles. In all of the quasi-military institutions spawned, unfortunately, by our dedication to our historical obsession with those processes we have designed and implemented, the hierarchical model of leadership, (and the exercise of power) rests on the shoulders of a single person, surrounded by a circle of acolytes, and occasionally rotating teams.
Occasionally, an orchestra or music ensemble, will choose to abandon the “conductor” role, and rotate those duties among the members of the group, as an exercise in both cracking the precedent, and likely also in saving the budget.
Not focusing on the importance of leadership, (as we do with parenting, a financial intelligence in families, and in “public health” and relationships between men and women, except in feminism studies) we avoid the requirement and necessity of having to debate the significant questions. We did this for decades around the emergence of psychology, as opposed to psychiatry) until the research and the journals that documented the evidence gleaned from “scientific research”.
The study of literature, possibly, has some of the benchmarks that might apply to the formal discipline of leadership, given the basic foundational requirements of a language structure, a world-view, an application of all of the creative human faculties and skills of generating something able to be perceived by those seeking to explore its intricacies. And, the cries of “Not on your life!” can be heard shooting up through the chimneys emerging from the English Departments in all of the universities around the world, at the thought of that “burden” added to an already overloaded faculty and faculty chair.
And yet, dear reader, please stay with me!
The arguments for such a proposal are numerous and significant.
Let’s start with training and disciplined discernment of the respective differences between appearances and reality, something seemingly undervalued in a culture that worships (literally and symbolically) empirical data. The whole truth and reality in any situation is hardly captured by the empirical data. And any culture, institution, family or person who operates exclusively (or overtly) on “what others see”(or hear, or touch, or smell) is relinquishing a large degree of both responsibility and the sharing of the power that comes from a consciousness of the invisible, the motivating and contextual factors, including the relational factors that impede, impact, influence and too often implode a situation.
Reading as an exercise in discernment, not in working out specific answers to specific questions, is a highly demanding as well as developing trait for all who aspire to leadership. And then discussing, and researching both the biographies and the literary criticisms of the piece of literature, only deepens the desire and the capacity to “interpret” both the available physical evidence, as well as the less visual or auditory clues. The exercise also increasingly relies on the experience of searching for and finding patterns, both as archetypes and as literary structure. Such a exercise, shared through seminars, papers, debates and lectures only enlightens the complexity of human life, through the various models that have spilled from the most creative imaginations in recorded history.
These skills and this experience, while conducive to a full consciousness of the depth, the resilience, the idiosyncrasies, the complex relations (both personal and institutional) from various locations and period of both history and meta-history. And as one corporate leader has already expressed, “Give me a graduate in Literature who knows how to search and to find patterns in the writing, and I will teach him/her all he needs to know about other matters important to the corporation.”*
Conflict resolution, endemic to any family or organization, and certainly evident on every football field and basketball court, (not between teams, but within teams) is a core requirement for all leaders, and while psychology offers some clues, literature includes the whole human being, as the starting point, not parsed into specific behaviours, actions, or convictions. All of these comprise the starting point of any effective perspective for a conflict mediator, arbitrator, and counsellor.
A similar observation could be applied also to many of the other “leadership” positions, including the quarterback on a professional football team. Yet, that would happen only in a culture that regarded leadership as a sine qua non of the successful operation of each and all of its many organizations and institutions.
And, in Canada specifically, we have the same attitude to “leadership” as we do to the study of the “future”…..not worthy of our time, commitment, money and human resources. So, it is no surprise that we are not producing quarterbacks, nor parliamentary leaders, nor ecclesial leaders, nor bank nor engineering nor hospital, nor educational leaders….who have the courage, the conviction, the creativity and the vision to develop to the full both the personnel in their circle nor the institution’s full capacity to grow.
And so, we “settle” for slipping downward to the bottom, comfortable in the maxim that change is too threatening to contemplate, or too costly to envision, or too complicated to institute. And we permit leaders to pad both the resumes and their investment accounts for moves like mergers, (with others’ money) and for slogans that burp out of their advertising agencies, and for cost-cutting measures that would make the Anderson Consulting Company (famous for cutting thousands of jobs in the 1990’s) blush….and we “think” or act as if we are witnessing leadership, when we are witnessing a parade of self-serving narcissistic ambitious, hard-working and earth-gazing drones, dressed in Saville Row suits, driving BMW’s and amassing fortunes that permit them then to “give back” through massive tax deductions to a society starved, raped and devastated by their “honourable” and highly valued “goal-setting.”