Why are academics so fixated on the study of leadership? And despite this, why have scholars been so consistently unsuccessful at conclusively defining what makes a good leader? Nancy Harding and Jackie Ford and Sarah Gilmore summarise their recent paper which reflects on the ongoing scholarly attempts to develop a definitive theory of leadership, using Lewis Carroll’s poem the Hunting of the Snark as an analogy.
Leadership is very much in the news at the moment, with praise heaped on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the admirable way he’s steering his country during war-time. At the same time, the instigator of that war - Vladimir Putin - is being criticised for his toxic leadership. If either man had consulted academic studies of leadership before the war started, would history have been different? Would lives have been saved and the devastation caused by armed warfare avoided if these two leaders had followed academic advice on how to hone their leadership styles? The answer, unfortunately and perhaps surprisingly, is no.
The never-ending cycle of leadership theory
The reason we're surprised is the sheer amount of academic effort that has been invested in studying leadership. An astonishing number of articles about leadership have been published: a Google scholar search using the term ‘leadership’, for example, returns more than 5 million results. In 2021 alone 64,500 publications appeared with ‘leadership’ in their titles or keywords. Many millions of hours will have been invested in understanding leadership in the 150 years that it has been studied. It is impossible to compute the brainpower that has been devoted to this topic. Yet all this investment seems to have been largely in vain. The history of leadership research is one in which a new theory emerges, rises to prominence, is much studied, and then is critiqued, its weaknesses are revealed, the theory is undermined, the space is opened for a replacement, a new theory emerges: the cycle is repeated. There is little evidence of much impact, if any, upon leadership behaviours, and challenges large and small remain uninfluenced by a “transformational leader”, or “an authentic one”, or “a charismatic one”, by “a Great Man or Woman”, or by “distributed leadership”, or any of the perspectives on leadership that are widely discussed.
Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark
There is something highly illogical about this. Why is so much academic time and ingenuity invested for such little output? A somewhat unusual source offers an answer to this question - Lewis Carroll’s magnificent nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits (or ‘The Snark’), published in 1876. Its playfulness disguises a political intent - Carroll was concerned about the pursuit of scientific knowledge at any cost. Its ludic, if not ridiculous, content disguises a keen understanding of how people can set off on an all-consuming quest for an elusive, hybrid ‘something’ - the Snark - for reasons perhaps barely known to themselves.
The Snark has eight ‘Fits’, or stages. It describes ten characters who gather to seek the elusive and indescribable creature, the Snark. Along the way they encounter other fantastical creatures, all of which are the inventions of Carroll’s imagination. They are neither defined nor described; shape and substance are given to them only in the mind’s eye. The Fits describe the coming together of a group who travel by boat to hunt for the Snark. Their totally incompetent leader, The Bellman, who cannot steer nor sail, somehow guides the boat to an island where, their map indicates, the Snark is to be found. There is much talk, some of which frightens the more timid members of the crew, but little action. The Baker faints away when warned that the elusive Snark may be the dangerous Boojum. Threatening creatures stalk the paths the team must follow. The Butcher and Beaver set out to walk into a dark valley but on hearing a scream – is it a Jubjub’s? – they return to the camp. The Banker, newly brave, runs ahead of the others as they venture out, but is rendered insane after being grabbed in the jaws of a Bandersnatch. As it grows dark, the gathered crew see the Baker, ahead of them on top of a crag, ‘erect and sublime, for one moment of time’. In front of their eyes he plunges into a chasm but all they hear is ‘It’s a Boo…’. The Snark was a Boojum, you see.
That elusive transformational object
Carroll does not explain what it is that motivates the members of the crew to set out on their expedition, overcome numerous fears and undertake their search, but what he does offer is a series of clues to understanding the never-ending search for new theories of leadership, and it is those clues that first attracted our attention. They do not, however, offer an easy path to solutions: Sphinx-like, they need interpreting.
We found a key to interpretation in psychoanalytical theory. Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, often turned to literature and the arts for insight, so in many ways we did nothing new in combining poetry with psychoanalytical theory. Object relations theory provided the insights we needed. This argues that buried deep in the unconscious is an undeveloped knowledge that there exists, somewhere, an object with the power to transform the self. All our feelings of our inadequacies and failings may fade away when we find that object. Every person is therefore driven by an unconscious desire to find that highly elusive object. Many readers will know that familiar feeling of dreaming about attaining something and how, when we achieve our goal, we find it was not enough. We must therefore carry on searching (or writing the next 4* paper).
This sums up the search for the elusive transformational object and describes beautifully the motivation that Carroll ascribed to the hunters of the Snark. The Snark, never described, has the power to transform its finder but it remains elusive, just out of reach. Carroll’s nonsense poem, in anticipating object relations theory by many decades, led us to conclude that leadership theorists are caught up in a search for an elusive something that will, when found, transform them/us. Rather than run-of-the-mill academics we will turn into intellectual power-houses; our ideas, instead of languishing in dusty tomes or unopened files, will change the world.
The search is the thing
But still, surely somehow in all those years of studying leadership, a definitive theory should have emerged? Setting out on a search for something, however elusive, should result in finding it. If we cannot find it we should eventually admit that, like ether, it does not exist and we should abandon the search. Carroll’s poem explains why this is not the case, and why the search for an all-encompassing theory of leadership continues. That is, what is most important is not the object that is sought but the search itself. The search is necessary to drive us forward, to keep us animated and engaged in the world. If we find that elusive object then there would be little point to life. This is why the Snark is a Boojum: finding it would destroy our academic life’s meaning.
That, we suggest, is why - despite a rational, conscious knowledge that after 150 years of searching it is time to look for something else - the search for the next new theory of leadership continues. Those of us who work in leadership studies cannot give up the search, because to give it up would be to give up on (academic) life. So what appears to be, like Carroll’s tale, sheer nonsense, is also, like Carroll’s poem, a container of deeper truths.
Thank goodness President Zelenskyy did not seek academic advice on his leadership style.