The Gift of Leadership

By Dunne, Stephen; Spoelstra, Sverre | Philosophy Today, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Gift of Leadership


Dunne, Stephen, Spoelstra, Sverre, Philosophy Today


The pure type of charismatic rulership is in a very specific sense unstable, and all its modifications have basically one and the same cause: The desire to transform charisma and charismatic blessing from a unique, transitory gift of grace of extraordinary times and persons into a permanent possession of everyday life.

Max Weber1

When someone is given power, for instance, when President Clinton was inaugurated as President of the United States of America, has he received anything? No, nothing, except perhaps for a sheet of paper, a handshake, or the secret number for some military advice.

Jean Luc Marion2

Gift, leadership, economy: what, if anything, is the nature of the relationship between the three? And how might this relationship be thought? In this essay, we describe leadership as a phenomenon that requires social scientists and philosophers alike to think the philosophical-phenomenological discussion of the gift alongside the sociological-economic analysis thereof. The paper, to be clear, is not as much an attempt to comment upon the interrelationship between a philosophy and a socio-economy of the gift as such, so much as it is an attempt to illustrate how a particular phenomenon, in this case leadership, demands the inauguration of a deliberate and ongoing dialogue between social science and philosophy, on the topic of the gift.

This dialogue is easier spoken about than spoken within. Part of what we want to suggest is that the very possibility of such an interdisciplinary discussion gets routinely foreclosed, thereby establishing, maintaining and naturalizing a sort of chasm between the concerns of social science proper, on the one hand, and those of philosophy proper, on the other. So for the social scientist, the socio-economic model of exchange is routinely privileged at the relative expense of the seemingly irrelevant and certainly indulgent phenomenology of the gift. Similarly, for the philosopher, socio-economics is as inappropriate as it is vulgar on the question of the gift.

Here we will argue that it is precisely this idea of a fundamental distinction between a socio-economy of the gift, on the one hand, and a philosophy of the gift, on the other, that needs to be suspended in order to properly grasp the phenomenon of leadership. This very suspension, for its part, has already occurred, albeit not in the name of philosophy, where its occurrence might have been expected. It has rather occurred in that seemingly most intellectually vacuous of areas: popular management literature. There, the purely economic and everything that can be understood as beyond economy walk hand in hand. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari famously (and angrily) argued that the concept has become the concern of marketing and advertising.1 Here, we would like to demonstrate how the notion of the gift beyond economy has become similarly seized by both scholars and gurus of business leadership.

After a brief introductory section, we discuss Max Weber's work as an exemplar of how to approach leadership as a gift that oscillates between the economic and the extra-economic. We then continue with a discussion of Marcel Mauss, Jacques Derrida, and ultimately Jean-Luc Marion's phenomenology of givenness, inasmuch as he offers a profoundly anti-economic account of the gift. Next, we demonstrate how this image of the absolute outside of economy functions for the sake of economic ends within the scholarly and popular literature on leadership. We conclude by arguing for an approach to the gift, in this case the gift of leadership, which keeps the economic and the philosophical in tension with one another, rather than seeking to purge the economic of the philosophical, or the philosophical of the economic.

Between a Philosophy and an Economy of the Gift?

Is it the case that philosophical research into the phenomenon of the gift necessitates a demonstrable degree of hesitation, even hostility, towards the very possibility of favorably embracing the many gift specific insights offered by social science and economics? …

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