W makes the important point that definitions of leadership abound, and then uses this as a springboard in agreeing with Thornton (2013) whose thesis equates good leadership with ethical leadership. There is a certain appeal to this leap of faith: as we cannot know the constituents of leadership, it is best to rely on actions that have some basis in ethics. At least in this way, we cannot harm. However, her argument contains an irony; she asks readers to have an ‘openness to learning’ (p. 6) without providing empirical bases for her thesis. This irony, arguably, allows the criticism that her book is unethical as it presents ideology as ethics. (This criticism may also be levied at Steven Covey’s [who wrote the foreword] excellent 7 Habits, a work that has had an immense influence on me personally.) I would rather see the argument going in another direction.
Leadership theory contains so many dimensions, aspects, contingencies that the effect is to render grand theory model building meaningless. If everything in leadership theory is contingent, the predictive ability of a theory cannot return anything but the most basic information. The result is that leadership theory becomes an exercise in verbal posturing and learning how to legitimise one’s practice; that is, the demonstration of one’s knowledge is constitutive of leadership qualities and the generation of trust. In other words, being able to state the dimensions of leadership is the act through which leadership is demonstrated. And until empirical studies produce stable evidence to validate any particular theory, steering well clear of attempts at non-empirical theory building may be advisable.
In this light, we may see more clearly why a whole week of a doctoral level course may be spent on leadership. Our task is not to learn what are the qualities of leadership, for they cannot be established beyond the level of supposition; rather, we are tasked with surveying the topic and developing the ability to converse in the language of leadership. Those who have that discursive ability will be able to convince others more readily. The alternative is unimaginable: doctoral candidates being brainwashed or forced into accepting ideology as a substitute for genuine critical debate.
Another direction I would enjoy seeing the debate heading is in how leaders in education achieved their position. Such a study needs to avoid any presumption of effectiveness because an effective action—defined as successful using one metric or another—in one circumstance may prove ineffective in another. Furthermore, post-appointment success or failure must also be ignored because what is important is how those individuals rose to the status of leader and not their subsequent actions. Such a study may focus on the structural aspects of HEI promotion criteria, on notions of importance of research-service contributions, on personal qualities, on interpersonal abilities, on strength of ideas and so on. A model could be built showing the interactions of the variables, but it is likely (given the contingency aspect) that any single model would be too blunt for any situation other than the originating one. More helpfully, the model would inform potential leaders of the types of consideration necessary to become leaders. Very little of this, I suspect, would involve ethics except perhaps for posturing. Please remember that Hitler was an exceptional(ly unethical) leader (with apologies to Petros for contradicting his assertion).
Thornton, L. F. (2013). 7 Lenses: Learning the principles and practices of ethical leadership. Richmond, VA: Leading in Context