3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Leadership is a myth

I was intrigued by the news that Continuum International (publishers of such fine books as Circles of Thorns, and If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him) have just been bought by Bloomsbury. Especially as the news was released three days after I had signed a contract with Continuum for them to publish my next book— how, I wondered, did Bloomsbury act so quickly, and why, I wondered, were they so desperate to get the rights for my work?

The answer is on the cover, he says, modestly. Next summer, Continuum / Bloomsbury will publish “You are the Messiah, and I should know: why leadership is a myth, and possibly a heresy”. Based on my PhD research at the University of Kent1, YatM looks at the way “leadership” is used as method of social control and is described as the universal virtue in our society. It is the panacea, the solution to every social problem, and there is no organization, business, group or nation which does not need more of it.

The problem is, no one can agree on what “leadership” is. In the academic and business literature there are X2 definitions of what constitutes “leadership”. There is even no agreement about how the various different definitions of leadership relate to one another. In any other field, such a mass of contradiction and confusion would lead to suspicions about the intellectual credibility of the subject: however, “leadership studies” is different, because there is always the opportunity to package the latest insight into “vital”, “necessary”, “cutting-edge” leadership, and sell it to the desperate business men (and they are usually men) who seek an advantage over their rivals: “Follow the ABC method”, “Use the K1P approach to dynamic, integrative leadership!” and share prices will soar and women will swoon.

But, if “leadership” is not a coherent and credible discipline, why is it so powerful in our culture? The answer comes from two insights: a) understand leadership as a “Myth” (a  story we tell ourselves to make sense of our world); and b) the most powerful mythic medium in our culture is Cinema, and, especially, popular Hollywood film. This means, in effect, it doesn’t matter how many text books on “transformative leadership” or “transactional followership” you buy, how many seminars on the “leadership lessons of Jesus Christ” you pay for, the dominating medium of leadership is film. You say “Mark Zuckerberg”; he says “Jesus Christ”; we all mean “John Wayne”.

I explore my idea in, roughly, the following structure3:

Section 1 The “Problem” of Leadership

 Is Leadership a Problem? :  How leadership is presented as a universal good, and yet how the secular advocates of leadership are unable to agree on a definition or even a family of definitions of leadership. How much is leadership a means of selling reassurance to worried businesses?

Jesus, MBA : How the Church in the late twentieth century began to incorporate the strictures of secular business consultants into church governance and ministerial formation. (I include a case study on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “sharia law” speech).

Leading and Leaving the Dead :  I examine the usual Bible passages usually described as the Scriptural justification for leadership studies and show that they are anything but.

 Section 2 The “Problem” of Myth          

The Morphology of Myth : I demonstrate that leadership is best thought of as a “myth”, and what this term might mean.

The Myths of the Mighty : Myths are always the expression of a particular society, and I explore what the myths of the dominant culture of our day, the United States of America, show us about the origins of leadership studies. R. W. Emerson’s role is explored.

 Section 3 Leadership Myths in Movies

 The Leadership Principle: Affirmation: I look at the films which advocate an uncritical acceptance of the “great man” model of leadership, and show how that is reflected in most popular thinking about leadership. Films include Patton, Triumph of the Will, and Star Wars.

Splitters! : Repudiation:  a group of films, mostly made in the 1970s and 80s, attempted to repudiate the older model of leadership, but in doing so, they merely perpetuated Emerson’s idea of the sovereignty of the individual which is the root of the “great man” model. ‘Don’t follow leaders, don’t be a follower’, was their message. Films include Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Apocalypse Now.

Citizen Soldiers : Resurgence : in the 1990s attempts were made to reintegrate a healthier model of leadership/followership in films. Given that we have to have leaders, how should they behave? Unconsciously, these films (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The West Wing) merely reinforced the older mythic idea of the separation of the leader from his community. John Wayne’s persona is the root of all these.

Section 4 Conclusion

Mythos and Anti-Mythos :  if leadership spills over into totalitarianism, then what is the Church to do? The life and ministry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the place to turn to, in his repudiation of “great man” leadership, and his modelling of the true Christian pattern of social organization, discipleship.

I hope that I will, as the autumn comes upon us, to give some taster of what this might look like in detail (I realise that this will incur further corrective expressions of disappointment from Archdruid Eileen). In the meantime:

  1. incidentally, the PhD is 11/12 completed, but won’t be submitted until the autumn. I am that rare creature, someone who gets a contract to publish his PhD before his PhD is even finished []
  2. number deliberately kept vague, as by the time this blog is posted, it will be out of date, by some order of magnitude []
  3. YMMV when it actually comes to the finished article []


  1. Crispin Pemberton

    14 July, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Read this and thought of you………………….

  2. Justin Lewis-Anthony

    14 July, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Quick glance… seems absolutely right (although I did read the address, to be begin with, as Good Guys Swear Back (“Well, take that! Mrs £$%&*&ing Miggins!”)

  3. Reservoir Dogs??

  4. So does that make ‘What is leadership’ a ‘What is art’ sort of question? Everyone knows it exists but nobody can say what it is.

  5. Justin Lewis-Anthony

    19 July, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Absolutely. It is an example what Walter Gallie called an “essentially contested concept”. What that means for the implementation of leadership, especially in the Church, has not yet been adequately explored.

  6. Randall J. Keeney

    1 August, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    I much prefer the Latin Graffiti Lesson.

  7. Justin Lewis-Anthony

    1 August, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    People called Romanes, they go into the house?

  8. I think I would like to see some sort of leadership taxonomy. Leadership seems to contain a factorial so the complexion looks different depending on what people leave out.

    If you are only interested in leadership you might leave out the judgment of motive, beneficent or maleficent really does not play a role. But can we be that objective? We still want to count our vote of support however ineffectual that may be. After motive is gone then whether the submission was willing or coerced, resulting from ignorance, deceit or expedience no longer matter toward the effected change. We look at potential, and it is raw and uncultured. Who wants to do this? Nobody, that’s who. Show me someone who can do this and I’ll show you a saint or a psychopath.

    The reason leadership is defined poorly is the same reason economists aren’t rich and psychology (minus the organic knowledge or patterns) is done with equal precision by bartenders and doctors.

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