One of the most interesting studies that recognizes that leadership 'incompetence' is far more likely to derive from emotional rather than intellectual deficiencies is NF Dixon's classic book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. Basically, what Dixon found was that incompetence in military leadership went way beyond notions of stupidity or incompetence, though both these qualities were real and obvious enough; what he found was consistent patterns underlying the behaviours of some of history's most spectacular leadership failures.
The relevance of his findings to business and management are evident in his own account of why he chose the military as the sphere for his investigation: military mistakes through poor leadership are far more serious in their consequences than poor leadership in other areas of life. But the kind of underlying obsessions that produce weak leadership can occur in any field of endeavour, including business, management, education and health - to name but four!
Dixon argued, that what he called 'authoritarianism' was effectively a form of psychopathology, which hereditary factors may well be part responsible for, but which he himself explored within the framework of personal and social development, especially relating to childhood. A number of important and clarifying points need to be made about what he found.
He made a distinction between 'autocratic' and 'authoritarian' behaviour; the former was acceptable and could be effective; the latter was a disease - a psychopathology, an obsession - that inevitably led to incompetence. Moreover, the notion of such psychopathology repudiates the idea that people can be relied upon to act rationally. The concept of hereditary factors is not developed much within the book, but does have interesting consequences for both personality and learning: authoritarians, he found, are produced by parents with anxiety about their status in society.
But to return to the psychopathology of authoritarianism; for these people, whatever their personality traits or their motivational profile, there is a bigger agenda that must be followed. Perhaps a good word for this would be obsession - an obsession that destroys reason, logic and all internal coherence.
Dixon's wonderful book has a useful section on the difference between the autocratic (which can sometimes be justified) and the authoritarian leader, which is psychopathological, and cannot.
The behavioural characteristics of the authoritarian personality, Dixon says, are:
1. conventionality - usually a rigid adherence to middle-class values
2. submissiveness - to the idealized moral authority of the group with which s/he identifies self, and to higher authority
3. aggressiveness - towards those who violate conventional values
4. anti-intraceptive - opposes the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded
5. stereotypy - disposition to stereotype and think in rigid categories
6. power - preoccupation with 'strong' leadership, exaggerated assertions of toughness
7. cynical - frequent vilification of others
8. projectivity - the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses, so that the world is constantly interpreted as being a dangerous place
9. 'puritanical' prurience - exaggerated concern with sexual 'goings-on'
This is a list which is useful precisely to the degree to which we can measure ourselves along the nine axes. The point is: when we encounter these behaviours coming at us with storm force, few systems of support and explanation are going to help us deal with them!
Thus, one major implication of all this is, surely: the idea of mere training producing great leadership qualities is dubious at best. If we are to develop people we have to go to a deeper level - and enable them to explore what is within, rather than acquire a checklist of pertinent skills.
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