It seems self-evident that effective leadership is impossible without philosophy. Leadership is, after all, an abstraction. You cannot see leadership, rather you can see people interacting, or one can read a memo or directive. Neither can you smell, hear or touch it, but you can feel the impact of good and bad leadership. Leadership is not a quality that can be self-bestowed in the manner of the despot awarding themselves a medal. Rather true leadership is in the gift of the followers and more broadly by those observers and critics.
Like the tinpot despot, leadership is not necessarily bestowed by office and position. That is to mistake dictatorship for leadership. Leading is a social process that is much more than the brute force of coercion. However, too often leaders fail, because through fear, incompetence or laziness, they fall back on the coercive power of their position to effect change. In essence such leaders see leadership as encouraging their followers to deploy their practical knowledge – their know-how – to get a particular task done.
A narrow focus on tasks and equipping each employee with a series of practical tasks that need to be achieved, is essentially a dehumanising act. The employee is treated as a robot or machine. Their purpose is simply to undertake a small range of tasks, with no meaningful connection with a broader picture. It is all know how and no know why.
Mike Brearley, the inspirational philosopher/psychoanalyst captain of the England cricket team, was invited to reflect on the writer CLR James’ famous quote “what do they know of cricket, if cricket they only know”. He delineated three different forms of knowledge; practical knowledge – the know-how; critical knowledge – the knowledge of the coach or critic to discriminate and judge, as well as spotting talent. Finally there is what Brearley termed, reflective knowledge – the knowledge of how what one is engaged in is linked to bigger picture in life.
Brearley’s approach to leadership was to try to develop leadership in all of his players. This involved going beyond an encouragement to execute a narrow skill ever more effectively. He encouraged all of his players to contribute ideas about tactics and strategy. In other words he encouraged critical knowledge – developing the ability to discriminate and make judgments. He also encouraged reflective knowledge, in seeing the bigger picture, putting their current concerns and efforts into perspective.
As Brearley points out, no one in any organisation knows where the next good idea is going to come from. Consequently, developing a culture where everyone is encouraged to reflect beyond their skill sets, and to develop critical judgment and understand the organisation in the bigger picture is to show genuine leadership.