Updated: Dec 6, 2021
This trend in research on leadership was noted by Yusuf M. Sidani of the Olayan School of Business in his 2014 article in the Journal of Management History. Social theories of leadership take account of the psychological dimension of leadership, the role of the people being led, and the context of the time and situation. However, he is absolutely right that this is not a ‘new’ theory of the nature of leadership. Sidani identifies the very important contribution made by Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun in his monumental work, The Muqaddimah, and his contribution to the development of sociological theory and thinking is increasingly receiving the recognition it deserves. I first came upon this fabulous text during the ‘Methods and Approaches’ seminars I attended as part of the first term of my Masters’ degree. The wonderful Dr. Teresa Morgan mentioned it in her talk looking at concepts of historiography. Khaldun explores why leadership is needed in societies, but also demonstrates that the dynamic between ruler and ruled is a two-way relationship and process. People need a social organisation based on cooperation, which is about restraint on human nature and need fulfilment. Leadership is needed to maintain and guide such a group. But a leader cannot lead without a sense of asabiya (group feeling). Leaders who do not understand this importance of this concept, will fail. (Sidani (2014) 6-7). It is a bond of collective character. Recognising the leader’s support of the group-feeling, they will be ready to support him and obey his counsels.
The notion of willingly supported leadership and the leader as a uniter of the group based on a common goal and common sense of purpose would certainly merit greater attention in so-called ‘modern’ theories. However, in my opinion it will derive even greater persuasive strength and urgency if we recognise it is not a new idea. That leadership should be viewed as guidance rather than dictatorship is in fact a very ancient observation based on a recognition of a societal need. Acknowledging the theory’s ancient debt gives it more authority, not less. It is not a ‘discovery’ about what people want in the workplace, it is actually about understanding what it is to be human. Ibn Khaldun I think undeniably bequeathed to us the earliest most fully developed exposition of this notion. But I would like to show that theories that portrayed the good ruler as a willingly supported guide and nurturer of his people’s needs and well-being, and of the bad as being forgetful of his duty to his people, focusing on ‘preserving the distinction of rank’ and indulgence (I apologise for my intentional misappropriation of Pride and Prejudice in this quotation) can be found in earlier texts.
One finds similar ideas in the Analects of Confucius. The theory is not completely the same as that of Ibn Khaldun, but the notion of ruling as a guide rather than using punishments to hold the people in place:
“The Master said: Guide them with policies and align them with punishments and the
people will evade them and have no shame. Guide them with virtue and align them with li
(ritual practice) and the people will have a sense of shame and fulfil their roles.”
Elsewhere, he exhorts his student to ‘treat the people as valuable’. He also perceived a connection between respecting the elders in one’s family and respecting a good ruler. We do not find the same discussion of collective and feeling and context as in the Muqaddimah. However, the basic principle of nurturing leadership which earns respect is to be found in both.
The same basic principle, that a good leader's support is willingly bestowed, is an essential part of Polybius’ description of the rise and decline of different politeiai and central to his criteria for judging whether a politeia is good or bad. The people's willing support becomes a va;lidating force. Kingship is born when a leader, who initially united his people for protection, then rules to preserve the social values of duty and gratitude that the people come to prize. As long as his successors continue to guard these values and live in a manner that does not visibly distinguish them from their subjects, they will receive the willing support of the people. When, however, they indulge in self-aggrandizement and their power is used to serve their own tastes and desires rather than those of their people. The people show their displeasure in uniting behind a leader or leaders who seek to end the damaged self-serving regime. Aristocracy (nothing to do with hereditary peerages in the ancient Greek context) follows. The decline into oligarchy follows a similar pattern. Democracy arises. It is at this point that Polybius makes a very interesting observation about the importance of memory in maintaining good leadership and it is not just true of democracy. When the people start to forget why they took over their own governance, ambitious, competitive individuals emerge who are unscrupulous in their bribery of the mass of voters, poorer, ambitious types, who have squandered their estates, become the demagogues who fan the envy of the poorer citizens against the richer, and an angry regime of mob rule ensues with factious leaders.
Polybius is obviously only giving a rough summary here, pertinent to his analysis of the stability of the Roman politeia. His ideas, nevertheless, emerge in his analysis of groups elsewhere, and are every bit as relevant to modern workplace leadership as they were to ancient cities. I should like to draw attention, before I end, to his comment about memory. Polybius says that if the true purpose of a good organisation has been forgotten, it will start to unravel. What if the leaders in an organisation have no idea or have completely forgotten about what it is to be on the ‘shop floor’, so to speak, or in the classroom? How can they maintain that connection with those they lead in terms of grasping their needs and valuing them?
Perhaps a little delving back into our ancient theorists can help to reopen and inform the leadership debate, and maybe even point us in the right direction.