Today I am talking with Dr. Charles Yoos. Chuck, thanks so much for agreeing to be a part of my series of interviews in which I talk with people who have ideas that can be valuable to the legal profession. I am excited to have readers learn your thoughts on leadership. Back in 1984, you wrote a paper called THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS LEADERSHIP. I was quite intrigued when I heard the title. Would you tell us more about what you wrote in this paper with such a provocative title and perhaps some of what you have added to your thinking in the years since?
I wrote the paper to record correct knowledge … an urge of intellectual honesty. In the paper I quote Martin Luther, who reputedly advanced his theses against Church orthodoxy with the remark, “Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” (Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise). Me, too.
Another perspective on my position is that I am an iconoclast; literally, a breaker of (sacred) images. Leadership has become something akin to the holy grail of the applied social sciences. That’s as folly as the ancient alchemists, who proclaimed that base metals could be transmuted to precious ones, but failed to figure out how. Oops…
I suppose that under these circumstances, the title is provocative…after all, I’m tugging on Superman’s Cape. But what I want to focus on often doesn’t occur to the persons who are provoked by the title. They want to dispute it viscerally, stoutly maintaining that there IS such a thing, even if they can’t explain it. That’s called faith, and is properly applied
to a god concept. But I don’t think leadership is a god. Do you?
What I try to get them to think about–and most have never considered this–is that according to our methods of valid knowing, the question “is there such a thing as leadership?” is trivial–of course there isn’t! In formal knowledge terms, this is epistemology–how we know. Most who read my title believe there exists an objective reality, independent of our perception of it, and naively assume knowing constitutes discovery of its “truth.” Now, there may be an objective reality…a truth…but in our knowledge process, we have no access to it. What we do is speculate intelligently (theory), test our speculation (research), and see how it stands up. If it fails, we discard it; if it holds up pretty well, we use it for the time being. In both cases, we repeat the process, to improve knowledge. Think about it for a minute–if knowledge was presumed to result in truth, we’d probably still think that phlogiston was a material required for combustion–once upon a time, that was considered true! Scary, eh?
What’s that got to do with Leadership? Like alchemy or phlogiston , it is a basic error in knowledge to presume there is such a thing. And worse, if thinking there is such a thing causes you to continue to look for it, you are wasting precious efforts to know.
In the twenty-plus years since, my point stands–epistemology hasn’t changed. What I have added to my thinking is noticing that the so-called “study” of leadership even seems to have regressed. Once again, the search is on for the characteristics of “great leaders” or the principles they espouse. This occurred about a century ago, and lasted about fifty years. That’s futile, then and now, because you don’t get knowledge by presuming it and then looking for it.
I’ll close with the Parable of the Drunkard’s Search. You are walking down a city street late at night, and encounter a man on his hands and knees, groveling in the gutter under a streetlight. Concerned, you ask him what he’s doing. Obviously inebriated, he says, “Ah’m surchin’ fur ma car keys.” Anxious to be helpful, you ask him, “How’d you lose them?” He replies, “Uh…ah lost ’em somewheres down the street.” Befuddled, you ask, “Well, if you lost them down the street, why are you looking for them here?” He replies, “The light’s better here.”
Thanks very much, Chuck. You bring an extremely valuable degree of discernment to a word heard so frequently. Typically the call for leadership is heard when things are not going well, don’t you think? I don’t recall hearing anyone say, when times are smooth and successful, “What we need is some leadership!” What might the call be for be instead? If the words “leader” and “leadership” did not exist?
You’re welcome, Stephanie. As to your second question, I will respond to each sentence you wrote that ends with a question mark.
“Typically the call for leadership is heard when things are not going well, don’t you think?” Yes, the call is often heard then, but the so-called “study” of leadership, the attempt to discover what “it is” by those who mistakenly believe there is an “it” that “is,” typically focuses on things that went well, apparently presuming that knowledge of leadership can be discovered from such instances. I think that part of this is sheer egocentrism–people need to believe that things go well because people called leaders make them go well.
“What might the call be for instead? If the words ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ did not exist?” Well, I suppose “the call” might as well be for a miracle, or a stroke of good luck … sorry. Your question is prescriptive–if things are not going well, what should we do? Prescription only becomes possible when pertinent knowledge exists–your doctor can answer your call when you are sick because medical knowledge has been propagated, not presumed. So, I take your question to be, if not leadership, what valid knowledge exists that might be used?
The scope of the answer far exceeds interview space, but I’ll try to characterize it. There are many knowledge concepts in the social sciences that are not presumed to exist a priori, but rather offered as theories to be researched to see if they are useful, predictive, prescriptive (though not true). These ideas are often called “constructs”–I like that label because it reminds us that they have been con-struct-ed–literally, built by us as candidates for explanation and understanding. Again, the key difference is that, unlike leadership, they are not presumed to “really exist.” For examples, personality in psychology, power in social pyschology, norms in sociology, and culture in anthropology, are theoretical constructs, not presumed realities, that have been developed and researched to see if they provide insight, understanding and thus knowledge.
I have two questions as a result of what you said, Chuck. The first is actually a request. I would like to hear more about what you mean when you say: “I think that part of this is sheer egocentrism–people need to believe that things go well because people called leaders make them go well.”
Second, in the case of the doctor you mentioned, he or she is able to apply the skill of diagnosis to the reported or observed symtoms and then come up with a treatment. I would like lawyers and others reading this interview to be able to replace the space the construct of leader holds in their mind with some practical process of diagnosis and treatment when before they would have called for leadership. To see examples of how this audience is approaching leadership now, please take a look at this:
What can you recommend that they be doing instead, if anything?
What I mean is, in the domain of applied social science, there is an impetus to explain things with reference to the people involved, because it is people doing the explaining. Leadership is an honorarium, a coveted title to be bestowed. Let’s face it, explaining the Allied victory in WW II with logistics is hardly the right stuff. There’s an interesting model in organization theory called the “population ecology” approach, which holds that successful organizational forms are basically darwinian–variation is propagated, and a dispassionate, inhuman environment “selects” forms for retention and extinction. CEOs can’t buy that model, because it suggests that what they pride themselves on doing–leading the enterprise, in this case designing its form, is irrelevant, making them irrelevant. That can’t possibly be!
Well, the scamp in me wants to point out that since “the space the construct of leader holds in their mind” is vacant–remember, there is no such construct, by the definitions of leadership and construct–then any old process will be an upgrade! Sincerely, I don’t think I can supply such a process in the few paragraphs of an interview. I visited the site you provided below, and read that it’s very important for lawyers to be leaders. Since I’m not in the profession, I really don’t understand what that is thought to mean, and therefore what else to do.
If you are interested in a general diagnostic approach in the social sciences that doesn’t involve invalid labels like leadership, though, I recommend Mike Wenger–he’s the best diagnostician in the world. Unless he’s changed stripes lately, he’s an ethnographer, and could discuss that approach with you.
Thanks still again, Chuck. I will check with our mutual colleague Mike Wenger. When I saw him earlier this month, we discussed leadership and I am happy that he told me of your ideas about its not existing. For me, thinking about its nonexistence has stimulated my thought in a way that is still creating new directions and questions and some mischief. I would like to close with your explaining the assignment you give your students about what would happen assuming that there is no such thing as leadership. I did much thinking after you told me about it and the exercise was absorbing and stimulating. I invite readers to consider your assignment and see where their thinking takes them.
Not really an assignment, rather more a thought problem. I simply ask them what knowledge, what understanding, they could not convey if they were not permitted to utter the L word. Typically, they respond in one of several ways:
• Start to describe social science phenomena in more basic and valid knowledge terms…eureka!
• Stubbornly cling to the “reality” of leadership, nominating possibilities that “it” might possibly be, a sort of knowledge fishing expedition. They don’t see that’s still epistemologically backwards…
• Claiming that it is the successful combination of all other knowledge. The problem with that doesn’t occur to them…
I am very grateful for your time and contributions to this idealawg interview, Chuck. As I said above, the process has stimulated in me many thoughts, ideas, and questions about what is called leadership. I hope this interview will invite readers to bring the same sharp analysis they use in the practice of law to what they mean when they say “leadership.”
I have long believed lawyers can benefit by learning from other disciplines as we can do from you. (Here’s an article I wrote almost 13 years ago called “There’s Gold in Them There Social Sciences.”) One last time, a big thanks to you, Chuck.