OPD Articles / Why do I need a theory of leadership?


Why do I need a theory of leadership?

by Dr Graham Little PhD AFNZIM MInstD MNZIC

Let's talk again about how we work as a species. The general theory of psychology offers understanding of our psyche based on what are called mental sets. These are sets of habits, thoughts, and feelings all integrated with some circumstances. So if we experience a similar circumstance, then the mental set tends to activate in our mind, and so we then 'see' and 'feel' according to the nature of the mental set. Sometimes we may have two quite different mental sets in relation to similar circumstances, then one or other or both may become activated and we 'see' the glass half full or half empty or we end up not being sure of either. If we group all the thoughts we have then we have all conscious thought and this is called a person's world view. Our world view is not continuous, by that I mean it really exists in compartments which are the mental sets; and we may easily have views about the same or similar topics that are quite contradictory. Understanding the idea of mental sets and world view is not hard, the complexity lies in the fact we have a very great number of such sets. A single mental set is simple to understand, hundreds of them, with some in conflict; then people become very complex, and even able to surprise themselves.

Let's now think of a single mental set and use a previous example. If you look at a house with a view to buying it you will see certain aspects of the house. Then if you look at it with a view to burgling it, you will see very different aspects of the house. Our conscious thoughts toward the house act as a sort of filter, they orientate us to the object, with buy and burgle illustrating this understanding and illustrating the power of what we think in dominating what we see. We do not see with our eyes we 'see' with our mind, specifically with the conscious thought that is that part of our world view in the mental set. To make all this simple, imagine you have a box of overhead transparencies in the front of our heads. So click one, and up comes buy, then click another and up comes burgle.

The box of transparencies is the structure of the model, what is on the transparency is 'us', some aspect of our personal world view our personal attitude or our conceptual orientation. So, we use transparencies, and what is on them then is how we 'see' the situation.

There is one very important box of transparencies that relate to 'us', call it our view of 'self', it relates closely to our self-esteem, and self-confidence. The whole box of transparencies that fall into this category I call our 'spirit' or the 'I of I', I am but the 'I of I' is the very centre of me. Now these are about as psychologically fundamental as I can imagine, yet, with care and reflection we can manage them, alter them and develop greater self-confidence, and greater self-esteem, and greater skill are managing various emotional responses in us, this is called emotional intelligence. We can change what is on the transparencies about 'us', and in doing so we can change 'us'. It is not easy, and it does not happen quickly, nor should it, but it can and does happen (for instance personal development courses operate in these areas of our psyche).

Moving to all other situations, I am, I exist independent of that situation, so I am not the thoughts I have, I am my spirit, and it 'see' certain situations through the structure of transparencies, and in particular through the content of the transparency, what is on it. My thoughts about some situation are not me, they are just the thoughts I have about some situation, and as discussed I can change those thoughts, since they are not me.

There is an 'I', it can be changed, so I change, but tends to be quite permanent over longish periods of time (years/decades). Then there is 'how I see things'. This can be changed and should be reviewed regularly. Can we assume that some set of ideas that we acquired during our youth necessarily equips us as adults…? No we cannot assume what we learned early in life will suit later in life, since we change, and the world changes, all of which requires how we view some situations to change.

Hopefully you can now see what I am talking about. How our ideas operate in us, and that we are typically distinct from our ideas and we cannot assume our ideas are necessarily accurate or the best or apt. What is it we can call the content of the transparency, the ideas on the transparency? I call it our model or theory, technically it is part of our world view, it is our conceptual orientation, or conceptual set; but these terms are too technical, so we will stick with transparency and model or theory.

I can now state that we all use theories or models all the time, we are as a species unable to do any different since this process is part of the very core of how we work as a species. A scientific theory is psychologically exactly the same; it is a device for orientating ourselves to some particular situation, namely the situation to which the theory applies. Scientific theories are just constrained by tighter rules of evidence than normally applies to our normal and everyday set of theories about situations/topics in our lives.

What happens for example, if some theory, model or point of view should be confused? Imagine driving the car using heads up display of maps, but there is in place several maps of different routes all at once. How clear do you think the view is now? How accurate do we see the direction? I suggest that depending on the exact content of those transparencies the view can be very, very confused and our actions in getting to our destination very hesitant and tortuous. Will we be effective in getting there...? No not likely

This is a general rule: The clearer and more accurate our models the more effective our actions. Get the concept right first.

Why should you be concerned with the model of leadership you use? To ensure it is as apt and accurate as it can be so that you are the best possible leader you can be and you get the best results you are able to get with your team.