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Leadership and destiny: expanding our horizons.

"The longer one lives, the more one realises that everything depends upon chance, and the harder it is to believe that this omnipotent factor in human affairs arises simply from the blind interplay of events. Chance, Fortune, Luck, Destiny, Fate, Providence, seem to me only different ways of expressing the same thing, to wit, that a man's own contribution to his life story is continually dominated by an external superior power."|1~

Scholars have debated the issues for centuries: Just what role, if any, does destiny play in the lives of our leaders? Further, to what extent do our leaders perceive their behavior to be influenced by "outside" forces?

Answers to the two questions would certainly provide insight into the behavior of leaders, so we can only be surprised to find that upon review of current literature regarding leadership and its possible relationship to destiny, one finds the area unexplored. It is almost as if the subject were taboo.

At the same time, the topic of leadership has attracted the interest of hundreds of management sciences scholars in recent decades. According to author Warren Bennis, there are now well over 600 different definitions of the word "leadership."|2~ Trait theories, behavioral theories, contingency theories, and characteristics analyses abound. We have learned that corporate leaders may be "task oriented" or "relationship oriented." Models have been designed to explain how decisions are made. We understand when a leader should be "autocratic" and when he should be "participative." We know that one's power might be legitimate or charismatic, rewarding or coercive. Trust and vision and knowledge and empowerment have all been recognized as necessary attributes of any successful leader.

All of these subjects have been extensively explored. Of all that has been written; few studies have investigated the perceptions of leaders as to the extent external superior powers, to use Winston Churchill's words, influence their lives.

Some writers have come close, however. Author Jeffrey P. Pfeffer suggests that many factors outside a leader's control can affect organizational performance, even if the leader has complete discretion over major areas of the organization's decisions. He concludes that a leader's role is relatively minor when compared with the influences of external factors. While Pfeffer does not identify such factors as fate or destiny, he does suggest a particular leader in a particular situation may have only limited impact on the capabilities of an organization.|3~

Proponents of attribution theory argue that the causes of human behavior may be either internal (under the control of the individual), or external (under the control of the situation). However, external causation is limited to the contingencies of the situation. The theory does not propose that one's own contribution to his achievements might arise from chance or fate or destiny, as Churchill suggests.

Scholars within the social sciences affirm that an individual's locus of control may be, to a degree, either from within or from without. Internals are those who perceive that they control their lives; externals believe their lives are controlled by outside forces. Researchers within the discipline, however, have not included in their studies investigations that address the extent to which leaders perceive they are connected with external superior powers and the impact such connections might have on their achievements.

Perhaps our hesitancy to explore such possibilities is grounded in the fact that such words as "fate" or "destiny" smack of the "Great Man Theory." According to this theory, popular among the eighteenth century rationalists, the personal characteristics of leaders, coupled with luck, determine the course of history. The theory commands little respect today, for, as author James Bums correctly notes, the truth of the assumption has never been demonstrated.|4~

Nevertheless, I would argue that this should not be sufficient cause for us to eliminate the theory from consideration, for of all the assumptions made about leadership, few, if any, have reached the level of "demonstrated truth." As Pfeffer further reminds us, while there have been many studies of leadership, the dimensions and definition of the concept remain unclear.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to demonstrate the truth of the Great Man Theory. Nor is it to suggest that we in the management sciences should shift the focus of our research to explore the meaning of "fate" or "destiny" or "providence." These pursuits clearly fall outside the scope of our empirical methodology. Such investigation seems more properly the domain of theology or philosophy or mythology--disciplines suitable to the explorations of the metaphysical.

Its purpose, rather, is to propose that because at least some leaders seem to perceive that their leadership roles are in some way connected to forces outside themselves, or "an external superior power," we should focus on that relationship as part of our inquiry. We should attempt to determine how leaders identify with such forces and the extent to which they believe these powers influence their lives.

Greek Tragedies and Dragons

Certainly, there is considerable evidence that such perceptions do exist among leaders. For example, when discussing with U.S. News and World Report reporter Richard Chesnoff the rebellion in Czechoslovakia, then newly-elected Czech President Vaclav Havel commented: "The entire revolution is a peculiar drama, which no earthling could have written. It has features from all genres: It is an absurd play, it is a Greek tragedy, it is a Goldonian farce, it is a fairy tale. And I am only a second assistant to the director, or maybe one of the actors ... This was not my choice, it was fate. But I accept it, and try to do something for my country because I live here."|5~

Life magazine reported similar observations in an article highlighting the thoughts of monarchs who, for various reasons, had been stripped of their kingdoms. King Simeon of Bulgaria stated that he is cautious about resuming "the mission assigned me by providence." Prince Okhan of Turkey, whose grandfather was Abdulmeeid I, refuses to return to power stating, "To be Ottoman is to know how to breathe with time." Bao-Dai, deposed as emperor of Vietnam in 1955, remains optimistic. "Nothing can be done against the Dragon," he warns. "Cut up, taken apart, he does not perish and mends in time."|6~

"It was my fate." "Breathe with time." "Mission assigned to me by providence." "Nothing can be done against the Dragon." Aren't such comments evidence that these leaders perceive their personal characteristics to have been coupled with luck, which helped determine the course of history? Likewise, should we be surprised to learn that our captains of industry might share similar perceptions?

Bright Orange or Slate Gray

The exploration of such relationships properly falls within the domain of our inquiry into leadership, for, as author and researcher Morgan W. McCall Jr. suggests, there are at least two ways for us to approach our topic: "The first is from the emotional, experiential frame of reference which captures the colorful and dramatic flavor of myth and legend--of the fate of nations and the course of history. The second is an empirical approach based on research about this nebulous topic. If the former is bright orange, the latter is decidedly slate gray."|7~

I suggest that we not abandon the bright orange altogether. However, should we choose to limit our investigations to the decidedly gray, there seems rather fertile ground to be explored concerning how our corporate leaders perceive their relationship to the metaphysical. Do they think, as did Churchill, that they are sometimes being influenced by forces outside themselves? Do they ever acknowledge a connection between themselves, as leaders, and a superior external power? To God?

Blessed Impulses

At a recent conference on leadership conducted by Warren Bennis, I posed the following question to him: "In your many years of study, have any of the thousands of leaders you have interviewed ever indicated that they might attribute their accomplishments to fate or destiny?" Bennis' immediate response was, "Why do you ask the question?" I explained that I had worked with large numbers of students from Southeast Asia and had observed that many of them seem to make such attributions. Bennis then answered, "No, they have not." I pushed the point. "In your research, did you ever ask the question?" "No," he replied.

I was somewhat surprised by his response, for in his book, On Becoming a Leader, Bennis devotes an entire chapter to "instinct," making several references to Ralph Waldo Emerson's considerations of "blessed impulse," and how basic it is to our understanding of leadership. As a part of his discussion, he even notes that writer Norman Lear recognizes that there is something "divine" about the "inner voice," alleging that it is the purest, truest thing we have, and that it keeps coming back with an "alien majesty." But Bennis makes no connection between blessed impulses and fate. Instead, he describes the phenomenon as "whole brain" thinking.|8~

This is not to indict Warren Bennis. Without question, he is squarely in the mainstream of current thought regarding leadership. Nevertheless, if there is the slightest possibility that Churchill was even partly correct, then our present considerations of leadership fall dramatically short, and we must expand our inquiry.

The Fabric of Culture

Certainly, consideration of destiny's role in the lives of our leaders is rooted deeply within our culture. Churchill's statement, for example, would have been well understood by the early Greeks and Romans, who had little discomfort with the concept of destiny. To them it was all too obvious: The fates rule the lives of men. Accordingly, whether it be found in the tragedies of Sophocles or the philosophical inquiries of Heraclitus, consideration was always given to the proposition that the lives of humans are dominated by "external superior powers." For millennia philosophers, poets, playwrights, and novelists have woven innumerable threads of such thoughts in the fabric of our culture. Can we logically deduce that similar thoughts have been woven into the culture of our corporate boardrooms?

In contemporary Eastern cultures, it is not unusual to find business leaders who adhere strongly to the belief that supernatural powers influence their lives as they attempt to harmonize the yin and yang in order to assure themselves of good health and great fortunes. Symbols of such powers permeate the culture.

Several months ago while working in Singapore with a group of mid- to upper-level managers, I was enthralled as they explained to me the concept of feng shui. Briefly, it is the art of divining the future, with the fortunes of men, good or ill, depending upon how well their ancestors are buried and on how correctly their own dwellings are planned and constructed. Because everything in the universe is ultimately related, man can overcome his limitations only by uniting all the energies or forces of nature with that of the superior being. Feng shui (wind and water) are the natural and visible signs of the celestial yin and yang and are adapted to harmonize with the "cosmic breath." Buildings must face in certain directions; doors must be placed in specific positions; trees must not obstruct the entrances of spirits; water must be strategically located around buildings.

According to author Evelyn Lip, feng shui is currently practiced not only in China, but Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan. In Hong Kong, she notes, choosing a location and an auspicious date for a business to open through a feng shui expert, a geomancer, is practically mandatory. She cites such examples as Chase Manhattan's merchant bank in Hong Kong which floundered until an expert on feng shui was consulted, or the Hyatt Hotel in Singapore which prospered only after alterations were made to prevent undesirable spirits from entering a door that faced northwest.|9~

To my students in Singapore, such examples were most credible; they had little difficulty accepting the proposition that there are spirits all around us. They readily asserted that there was a direct connection between their roles as leaders and the influences of supernatural forces. In the West, however, we seem to relegate such phenomena to the realm of superstition.

A Matter of Faith

Connections with external superior powers would seem apparent if one accepts that "faith" might influence the behavior of our leaders. When one reads the biographies of corporate leaders, for example, it is not uncommon to find that many firmly believe they have somehow been directed by external powers. Whether it be the founder and CEO of a national hotel chain or the owner of a local automobile dealership who displays the sign of the fish on his logo, there are many who eagerly admit that the supernatural influences their lives.

Several years ago while discussing behavior theory with a friend who was the CEO of a major energy company, I asked my companion how he went about making his decisions, not those programmed decisions prescribed by procedures manuals, but those non-programmed decisions on which the future of a career often hangs.

"I go through the normal routine," he explained. "I gather as much data as I can. I then attempt to evaluate the information..." He paused and then said, "I go home and I pray." "To God?," I asked. "Yes," he replied. "And does He answer?," I asked in return. "Yes, I think He does."

Looking back, I regret that I did not pursue his response. What did he mean? How did he connect himself with the Divine in such a way that It answered when he called. Did he mean what Churchill meant? Was his own contribution to his life's course being dominated by an external superior power?

We in the United States should be especially open to the consideration of providence, or destiny, and the influences it might have on our leaders. Our political history is rich with examples. To cite only a few: Our currency declares "IN GOD WE TRUST." Our presidents conclude speeches with the expression, "And may God bless the United States of America." Our Pledge of Allegiance declares, "One nation, under God..."

The early settlers of our nation held most firmly to the belief that their lives and their work were the calling of providence. Led by John Winthrop, the Puritans did not question that their destiny was to defend goodness and to attack evil.

In his book, George Washington, William E. Woodward summarizes most clearly the destiny of the father of our country: "In the queer mess of human destiny the determining factor is Luck. For every important place in life there are many men of fairly equal capacities. Among them Luck decides who shall accomplish the great work, who shall be crowned with laurel, and who shall fall back into obscurity and silence."|10~

During the nineteenth century the credo of "Manifest Destiny" gave rise to the annexation of Texas and the country's subsequent expansion throughout North America.

Franklin D. Roosevelt believed strongly that his generation had a "rendezvous with destiny."

Nancy Reagan made frequent appeals to astrologists in order to help guide her husband through his presidency.

More recently, President George Bush acknowledged his reliance on divine forces as he made decisions regarding the war in the Persian Gulf.

Without question, our history includes a seemingly endless list of leaders who have defined their roles as being influenced by external superior powers.

Expanding Our Horizons

If we are to develop a clearer understanding of this most elusive topic, we must open ourselves to additional avenues of inquiry, for, there is far more to leadership than can be understood through a mere study of traits or behaviors or contingencies. Many leaders acknowledge influences beyond those that are currently being examined. Our culture, our history, and our heritage provide convincing evidence that our present approach to understanding leadership is less than adequate.

Chance? Fortune? Luck? Destiny? Fate? Providence? God? To what extent do our leaders perceive their behavior to be influenced by such forces? Indeed, the questions are legitimate. Let us not exclude them from our realm of study simply because they do not fit neatly within our current, and limited, scope of inquiry.

DAVID L. CAWTHON, Ed.D., is a professor of management and chair of the department in the Meinders School of Business at Oklahoma City University.

1 Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures, London, Odhams Books Ltd., as reprinted in Winston Churchill: Wit and Wisdom, London, Hyperion Books.

2 Warren G. Bennis, Notes of the author taken during the "Conference on Leadership," Stillwater, Oklahoma, November 16, 1990.

3 Jeffrey P. Pfeffer, "The Ambiguity of Leadership," Academy of Management Review, 2, January, 1977, 104-112.

4 James MacGregor Burns, Leadership, New York, Harper & Row, 1978.

5 Richard Z. Chesnoff, "The Prisoner Who Took the Castle," U.S. News & World Report, February 26, 1990, 33-34.

6 "Kings in the Wings," Life, 13, March, 1990, 35-45.

7 Morgan W. McCall, Jr., Leaders and Leadership: of Substance and Shadow, Technical Report No. 2, Greensboro, North Carolina, Center for Creative Leadership, 1977.

8 Warren G. Bennis, On Becoming a Leader, Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1989.

9 Evelyn Lip, Chinese Geomancy: A Layman's Guide to Feng Shui, Singapore, Times Books International, 1979.

10 William E. Woodward, George Washington: the Image and the Man, New York, Cornwell Press, 1926.
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Author:Cawthon, David L.
Publication:Business Forum
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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