Followership and Discretion: Assessing the Dynamics of Modern Leadership

By Rosenau, James | Harvard International Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Followership and Discretion: Assessing the Dynamics of Modern Leadership


Rosenau, James, Harvard International Review


The nature and potential of leaders and leadership has long been a preoccupation of political activists and observers. Yet the complexity of present-day world affairs and the reduction of state authority by globalizing dynamics have made the analysis of leadership even harder. Many observers have thus turned to simplified analyses in which the course of events is only ascribed to the judgments, prejudices, and actions of state or international organization leaders. All too often they ignore the fact that leaders operate in a larger context that constrains their policies and limits their conduct. As a result, political assessments and agendas are today crowded with items that revolve around issues of leadership. In recent analyses, Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush have shared the limelight, with Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong-Il as secondary sources of concern. How, a reflective reader might ask, do such leaders manage to wield so much power and have so much influence on global affairs? If these leaders are deemed to have negative impacts, such a view can be confounded by recalling that less than two decades ago, the limelight was occupied by leaders like Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Each of them stood out at a crucial moment as a leader who elevated spirits, broadened horizons, and facilitated peaceful transitions, achievements that can be described as the servicing of triumphant subgroupism.

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How can such discrepancies be explained? Are leaders to be examined in terms of psychological traits they bring to their political offices? Are their worldviews shaped by salient experiences, ambitions, and commitments? Or are they best understood as products of their times and cultures? In short, how do we go about probing the dynamics whereby leaders lead effectively, erratically, or minimally? Such questions ought to pervade an ever-growing literature, and for good reason. Given the large degree to which the course of events may hinge on the nature and exercise of leadership by those who occupy high positions in the institutions of modern society, probing inquiries are needed to see how leaders cope with complexity and exercise their diminishing authority.

My response to the foregoing questions is rooted in a longstanding notion, that appropriate answers are best developed by explicating a multivariate conception of the nature of leadership in this period, marked by complexity and obscured by deeply felt convictions. Without an explicit approach to the subject, commentators are likely to rely on condensed analyses, such as rational choice models that view leaders as mere products of structural factors, or experiential theories, which stress the early formative experiences of individual leaders to explain their actions.

A deeper approach should view leadership as the result of three factors: extensive expectations, considerable followership, and limited discretion. This approach avoids both resorting to rational choice perspectives and downplaying the role of individuals by locating them among domestic and international dynamics that interactively shape and sustain the course of events. None of these three factors alone explains the success of any single leader, but taken together they account for how and why most leaders act as they do.

Extensive Expectations

Unlike artists, novelists, poets, musicians, and others whose status as leaders is based on individual talents and accomplishments, a leader of any organization is subject to both internal processes of the organization itself and external pressures from the outside environment, and thus occupies positions with extensive role expectations. These expectations reach beyond transitory concerns linked to specific issues; aside from illegal conduct, leaders can usually ride out any of the disaffection that may accompany particular actions in particular situations. It is when they continuously ignore, dismiss, or otherwise fall short of the basic expectations held by their followers that their occupancy of high office becomes tenuous. …

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