28th October 2019

Seeing Like A Leader

Jack Corbett

Iguana in Fiji
Image: Iguana in Fiji

Are leaders born or made you might be thinking? It is a debate as old as the study of leadership itself. So far, the search for a single distinct leadership ‘variable’ remains elusive. All leaders are a product of the attributes and resources they were born with, and the experiences and choices they made to maximise them. Given this, how can we use empirical research to uncover where leaders come from? This question is central to DLP’s work, one of four research questions which will be explored over the next three years.

In a recent Foundational Paper, I argue that the best way to understand where leaders come from is to adopt a methodological approach that, with apologies to James Scott, will enable us to ‘see like a leader’. Specifically, I argue that we need to focus on the choices leaders make about how to utilise their unique combinations of attributes, resources and experiences to maximise opportunities to initiate change. By ‘seeing like a leader’ we can explain why some people seem able to defy barriers and obstacles to obtain positions of leadership, and others do not.

Seeing like a leader requires a particular methodological approach. The leader-centred approach I advocate for does exactly what the title implies: it focuses on the leader rather than the interaction between the leader and context or the leader and their followers. It acknowledges that all empirical projects have to start somewhere, and if we are studying leaders, it makes sense to start with them. This does not mean the approach ignores context. Rather it recognises that how leaders see the context in which they operate, including the resources they have at their disposal, is often central to their leadership vision. Thus, we cannot ‘read off’ their understanding from actions or the response of followers. You might ask how this impacts on the way we collect evidence in future research?

Well, the best way to ‘see like a leader’ is to ask them, usually via repeat interviews. We can also study their speeches, observe their everyday lives, read their memoirs and so on. These approaches allow us a glimpse of their inner world and how it shapes their actions and behaviours. Some critics argue that this type of research is flawed because leaders lie. Sometimes they do. There is always a ‘hidden transcript’ and silence that can be as revealing as what is said. Making these judgements is the essence of good research. Other critics argue that this type of research is flawed because it does not compare leaders with non-leaders, thus isolating what makes leaders unique. But, if the search for a leadership variable is in vain then such methodological gymnastics are not required. Indeed, they are an intellectual dead end.

The payoff of this type of research is that it allows us to answer key questions that are central to DLP’s agenda, including understanding:

  1. the choices leaders confront about how they accrue and make use of resources;
  2. the pathways in and through leadership positions;
  3. how the personality traits and styles of leaders inform the choices leaders make; and
  4. how leadership development occurs, thus informing donor interventions.

A leader-centred approach also allows us to compare across contexts because the starting point is always the individual and the decisions they make. Context may vary but key questions about leadership—how to cultivate allies and mentors; build alliances etc.—are universal. By focusing on the personal stories that have given meaning to these choices we can gain a nuanced and plausible account of how leaders see the world and act in it.

For the full Foundational Paper: Where Do Leaders Come From? Download below.


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Jack Corbett

Jack Corbett

Professor of Politics, University of Southampton.

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Where Do Leaders Come From?

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