I'm still at the week long opening seminar for ACE fellows. We've now turned to the topic of "leadership", broadly defined so much of the afternoon was about what's a leader, how to lead and so on. One of our speakers this afternoon put up a slide that had a bullet point saying "assumptions about human nature" and suddenly I started paying very close attention. Though leadership studies people don't always recognize this -- the disciplines mentioned in today's talk on leadership were political science and business (mgt) -- political economists have been talking about similar issues for a very long time. Adam Smith at the forefront.
The passage from Smith that I think speaks most powerfully to the study of leadership is this (some of you know this already -- even so, it's fun to read!):
"The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour.The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance."
There will be plenty of opportunities to return to this passage. David Levy and I use it as part of the title of our forthcoming book, The Vanity of the Philosopher. For now, I want simply to point out that there's a great divide among us -- among the ACE Fellows I'm getting to know this week but also among the rest of us in the academy -- about the nature of what economists have come to call economic man, that relates to leadership studies. In the lingo of leadership studies, the divide occurs over whether we're all capable of being a "leader" (given sufficient training and so on) or not. The American Council on Education presupposes that leadership can be learned. But many of the fellows, I sense, as well as many of us in the academy, think that education notwithstanding some of us "ought" to lead because we're better at it than others.
FYI: a graduate student at GMU, Kail Padgitt, is conducting some experimental research on this question that we'll be presenting at the International Leadership Association 2005 annual meeting. Also, Terry Price at the Jepson School (UR) has some interesting work on ethical failures of leadership as they relate to the presumption that some of us "ought" to lead.