Social Construction of Leadership

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Human Relations DOI: 10.1177/0018726705061314 Volume 58(11): 1467–1494 Copyright © 2005 The Tavistock Institute ® SAGE Publications London,Thousand Oaks CA, New Delhi www.sagepublications.com

Problems, problems, problems:The social construction of ‘leadership’ Keith Grint
The invasion of Iraq was premised upon accounts of the situation that have proved unsustainable, but that has not generated a change in the strategy of the coalition forces. Conventional contingency accounts of leadership suggest that accurate accounts of the context are a critical element of the decision-making apparatus but such accounts appear incapable of explaining the decisions of those engaged. An alternative model is developed that adapts the Tame and Wicked problem analysis of Rittell and Webber, in association with Etzioni’s typology of compliance, to propose an alternative analysis that is rooted in social constructivist approaches.This is then applied to three asymmetric case studies which suggest that decision-makers are much more active in the constitution of the context than conventional contingency theories allow, and that a persuasive rendition of the context then legitimizes a particular form of action that often relates to the decision-maker’s preferred mode of engagement, rather than what ‘the situation’ apparently demands. In effect, the context is reconstructed as a political arena not a scientific laboratory.

A B S T R AC T

K E Y WO R D S

contingency leadership problems social constructivism war

1467

1468

Human Relations 58(11)

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. (Attributed to Laurence J. Peter)

Introduction
The assumption that successful leaders are those who respond most appropriately to the demands of the specific situation is commonplace. When all is calm successful leaders can afford to relax, seek a consensus and make collective decisions at a leisurely pace. But when a crisis occurs the successful leader must become decisive, demonstrate a ruthless ability to focus on the problem and to ignore the siren calls of the sceptics and the cynics. Or, as Shakespeare put it rather more eloquently: In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage. (Henry V, Act III Scene I) Quite what that crisis might be seems to vary considerably, indeed, whether calling a situation ‘a crisis’ is necessarily the appropriate response seems to depend less on what the situation allegedly ‘is’ and more on how that situation can be handled most advantageously – or least disadvantageously – by the leadership. For example, the recent deaths of as many as 1000 Shia pilgrims on a bridge in northern Baghdad heading towards the Kadhimiya mosque, seems to have been caused by rumours of a suicide bomber in their midst. In retrospect, an attempt to deny that there was a ‘crisis’ and that everyone should move off the bridge in an orderly and controlled manner might have limited the casualties. This is not to deny that a suicide bomber is indeed a terrible threat, but rather it is to suggest that how we respond to particular situations is not determined by that situation.1 Similarly, when the share price drops it might be interpreted by stockholders as a crisis – but it may be that the CEO and the board would rather describe the situation as ‘unstable’ or ‘a restructuring’ or whatever it is that calms the nerves of the stockholder and persuades him or her to hold on to their shares. The idea that the situation either does or should determine leadership

Grint

The social construction of ‘leadership’

1469

is captured dramatically in Ibsen’s play, An enemy of the people, in which the apparent contamination of the town’s new public baths pushes Dr Thomas...
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