Leadership as a Political Process

By Weaver, David R. | Michigan Academician, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Leadership as a Political Process


Weaver, David R., Michigan Academician


There is a common implication, in scholarly as well as popular literature, that although the leadership process may sometimes be political in nature the best leadership is somehow above politics. Indeed, the argument that leadership may be essentially and inherently political in nature has not been advanced in the scholarly literature. It is not surprising that this attitude should exist, since very few writers and scholars studying leadership are political scientists. But, even they are not as clear on the role of politics in leadership as they sometimes are on the role of leadership in public politics. Of those political scientists who do study and write about leadership most are constrained by disciplinary predilection to focus on leadership as elite behavior within established institutional frameworks such as the American presidency. Few approach leadership, as I will do here, as a political process occurring within human societies at all levels and in almost all (if not all) forms of society. Many recog nize that leadership often involves political characteristics, and, certainly, eminent political scientists have focused on leadership as a critical element in the success or failure of governmental office holders, party officials, and the like. Scholars in other disciplines conclude much the same thing in their studies of nongovernmental leaders, but no one has unambiguously argued, as I propose to do here, that the conceptualization of leadership may be redirected and refined with recognition that politics is the central, common element in all leadership.

To be sure, as concepts, both politics and leadership provide fertile ground for dispute and confusion. To consider them together requires a merger of disciplinary perspectives that may challenge some conventional ways of thinking. Such a merger requires some revisiting of well-worn ideas and some reinvention. It maybe fair (some may contest this assertion!) to say that most students of leadership have an inadequate appreciation and understanding of politics and most students of politics have a similarly inadequate appreciation and understanding of leadership. Although the latter may be in general agreement that politics, generically, is a social process through which contested values are distributed, they rarely pursue the implications of this basic conceptualization into the informal or nonpublic realm. The crux of the matter is that conceptual clarity and precision is at the heart of any theory, and leadership is a highly abstract concept extremely difficult to make either clear or precise. The latter is particularly significant because no attempt at conceptual clarity for leadership seems possible without dealing with other such concepts, such as politics, in the process.

ON POLITICS

It is difficult to imagine two concepts more abstract and illusive than leadership and politics, yet we must deal with each and join them in productive and parsimonious ways if a conceptual basis for theoretical development is to be established. A start may be made by restating a defining conceptualization of politics and then proceeding to construct a conceptualization of leadership on that foundation. David Easton's now classic definition of politics may be taken as starting point. Easton proposed what became a landmark definition of politics in asserting that "politics is that social process through which values are authoritatively allocated for a political system" (Easton 1971, 143-44). That definition has been criticized for being too "system oriented" in that it fixes the processes in question in the working of established, sovereign, governmental systems. Much of that criticism can be met by broadening the concept to consider politics as a generic phenomenon that occurs within all social structures or systems, however informal. As Adrian Leftwich put it, "the fact of the matter is that, unless one adopts a very narrow view of it, politics is a pervasive feature of collective human life" (Leftwich 1990, 3). …

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