Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Thoughts about thought leadership in declaring war

On the day that Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry opens for business it’s worth reflecting on the work of Keith Grint. I find his work riveting and troubling at the same time – see ‘Problems, problems, problems: the social construction of leadership’ in Human Relations Vol 58(11). Grint takes a swipe at contingency theory. The theory holds that leadership is situational: that once a situation has been rationally assessed, the appropriate leadership response can be adjudged. In this view, George Bush’s ‘commander’ style happened to be the appropriate response to what he found going on in Iraq. But Grint says that the process actually works in the reverse direction: that decision-makers render their accounts of situations in such a way that the style of decision making needed is preordained and self-interested. So Hans Blix didn’t stand a chance. Bush was able to portray Iraq as an urgent crisis in need of strong command leadership. Opponents who wanted to ask questions, explore options, or try well-honed management processes such as diplomacy could be portrayed as weak, given that Bush’s description of the situation in Iraq (e.g. Saddam Hussein is a friend of Al Qaeda and has weapons ...) successfully overpowered other interpretations. A popular feature of leadership studies is belief that situations can be rationally assessed; but as Grint points out, they are the products of ‘social construction’. The ‘truth’ is simply how it can successfully be portrayed. That’s a step beyond ‘what we perceive it to be’: it’s how we sell it. The shadow side of leadership is alive and kicking!