Henley Business School - Big "L" Leadership
29 March 2017
Posted in by Dr Chris Dalton

Big “L”​ Leadership – the root of all evil?

I’ve been thinking about leadership recently. I’m wary of the concept and tend not to use it at all in the Personal Development module, which may be a bit odd for someone who works in a business school, which can be seen as a temple to the religion of the L-word.

And yet I cannot deny that events over the last 6-12 months have given me food thought about what the word means and whether or not, in the immortal words of 1066 And All That, it’s a good thing. Now that the ego has well and truly landed in Washington and we begin to try and make sense of what leadership means in a Trump/Brexit era, it’s certainly a good time to ponder the whole thing.

What is leadership?

Small “l” leadership

First, I think there is leadership with a small “l” and Leadership with a big “L”, and they are not quite the same thing. Small-l leadership, for me, is just a handy way of framing and categorising a set of questions that occur naturally in every organisation in order for them to sustain themselves over time.

Examples of this type of question would include:
Who’s in charge? (hierarchy and ownership reality-check)
What could be? (creation and evaluation of planned change)
Who has followers? (litmus-test of willingness and motivation to act)

There will certainly be others, and the point is that this type of question is emergent. The organisation will ask them (or the context of the organisation will) quite organically, and how or if they are answered will be as unique as the set of circumstances present in a given company at a given time. They represent a tremendous opportunity for the organisation to become more self-aware.

If these small-l questions somehow get blocked from being asked in the organisational system, then that system will stutter and stumble and be out of balance. And each such question is useful only insofar that it is in tune with the relational glue that holds the organisation together. Because each question is capable of yielding a definitive answer, if no definitive answer comes, then that is a definitive diagnosis for the organisation to respond to. Small-l leadership fits well with a systemic view of work and when answers are fully acknowledged, the organisation can flow. One does not need a model for this. In fact, to “fix” leadership to any one aspect, or embody it in any one person, would be a huge error. Small-l leadership is always, therefore, phenomenological.

Big “L” Leadership

Big-L Leadership, I’m going to say, is different – and I may be sticking my neck up over the parapet and straight onto the chopping block. It owes its existence to whatever have been its own presuppositions. Big-L Leadership theories or models usually come capitalised (e.g. Situational Leadership, Transformational Leadership, Leadership Styles, Blue Ocean Leadership…. and so on, and on) and are born in relation and in reference to all other definitions, models and frameworks. Few retain more than an experimental nod to the nature of those primer questions above about the nature of an organisational system. Big-L Leadership is, above all, theoretical in its ambition, the Study of Leadership has long toyed with being judged as a science, with science’s mandate to explain, predict and find axiomatic statements. Social science struggles to overcome epistemic relativism, which means that while the validity of your argument is arrived at from your underlying view of what constitutes knowledge, your view can and probably is different from someone else’s underlying view. The effect of this is that theory gets entangled in other theory and social science becomes the process of slugging it out with others’ ideas.

Big-L Leadership theorists are rather like academic botanists and zoologists who take specimens from the jungle (or examine dusty specimens previously collected) in order to draw conclusions about their function. They do this by describing and naming the individual plants and species, dividing them into constituent parts, but they really miss wood for the trees. When we separate the construct so much from its natural environment, it’s a bit like we’ve put Leadership in the zoo. Big-L Leadership models cannot define the relational reality of the jungle eco-system, and our understanding of objects found in an eco-system is useless without that. Our understanding is limited by the glass through which we peer and by our attempts to re-create the natural habitat of small-l leadership in the enclosure (classroom).

I’m over-stating and exaggerating a bit, but will the inevitable tsunami of books, articles and journal papers about Donald J. Trump in the coming months and years fall into the trap of self-referential models of Big-L Leadership? Or can we actually learn much more by being out in the field?

Originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse

Dr Chris Dalton

Chris is Associate Professor of Management Learning and Subject Area Leader for Personal Development at Henley. He has over 24 years of experience in management education and training. Chris teaches on the MBA and runs corporate workshops and seminars related to management development in many parts of the world, including South Africa, central Europe and the Middle East. His research is focused on the use of Reflection in Personal Development in post-experience Management Education.
chris.dalton@henley.ac.uk

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