Is leadership an endangered culture?

Jan Ketil Arnulf

In Norway, the term “leadership” has been with us for seventy years. Is it on the way out? ponders Professor Jan Ketil Arnulf. He invites you on a contemplative journey.

A few years ago, I travelled to map how leadership development has been practised around the world. I wanted to write a book on the subject, but quickly discovered something important: Leadership development has not been practiced everywhere.

“Leadership” turned out to be a new term, which has been adopted in many, but not all places.

Many languages do not even have a word for the American term “leadership”, for instance French or Italian. In Japanese, no words exist for neither “leadership” nor “motivation”. In these languages, the American words are used without any translation. Norwegians have a hard time to grasp the difference between the American English words “leadership” and “management” and tend to confuse them.

“Leadership” describes a form of authority that is based on financial, political and technological structures in a modern society. Past cultures did not share these structures, but were characterised by their own traditional forms of authority. Examples of these are terms for warlords and nobility, such as the samurais in Japan or the earls in Norway. They were titles restricted in time and space, military, religious or feudal organizations with local boundaries.

Words that come and go

It is possible to trace how the interest in “Leadership” grew with the modern capital markets, and describes a sort of accountability for acquired capital and ensuing profits from investments in labor and technologies. “Leadership” was introduced to Norway by the US management guru George Kenning in 1955, leaving the Norwegian definition that “Leadership is to obtain results through the [work of] others”.

The development and definition of “leadership” as a role has been refined through 150 years of corporate governance in conjunction with political and technological developments. In that sense, “Leadership” is not something one may see as cross cultural. Rather, it is its own culture, superseding the old, traditional cultures.

The tasks bundled in “leadership” can be constructed in other terms, which is why many languages can do without the word. Examples of such terms are e.g., business development, managerial economics, negotiation techniques, industrial design or portfolio management. In practice, many leaders will use the word “leadership” as a buzzword without thinking too much about what it means.

Words that come can also go. Being themselves products of social developments, their value changes as society evolves. The Norwegian language first developed its own intranslatable term “disponent” (literally someone who has the capital of others at his disposal) as a sort-of-equivalent to “general manager”, and has seen legal documents such as the Stock Exchange Act require a change into the term “daily leader”. Descriptions of roles, work tasks and forms of authority change and are exceedingly difficult to translate across cultural boundaries such as languages.

The belief in leadership development

Is it possible that “leadership” can become an endangered culture? There are signs pointing that way. The term “leadership development” originated in the heyday of industrial hierarchies and large scale manufacturing. Previous president of General Electric (GE) Ralph Cordiner made leadership development important in the fifties claiming that corporate growth was limited by shortage of leadership, and not by geographical or financial barriers. His successor Jack Welch was asked which business GE was “really in”, and is supposed to have quipped: “We’re in the business of creatin CEOs.”

Since then, things have gone downhill, not just with GE, but also with the belief in leader development. Today, the interest in “leadership” and “leadership development” seems stronger in the public sector, rather than in business. This may be caused by how the public sector has many large organisations like health services, the police and welfare institutions, still organised like old-fashioned industrial enterprises.

Three developments can make leadership less important

In my latest book, I have looked at three developments that may make “leadership” less important:

  1. Modern organisations consist of less people with higher competencies and fewer co-operative contracts than before. Google, Apple or Schibsted handle way more capital per worker than traditional companies like GE or Norsk Hydro of 1950. They may look at other cool labels to explain growth and development that are less manpower-dependent than leadership.
  2. Technology plays a new role. Technology used to provide benefits in terms of scalability, but today technology is more likely to change organisational structures with regard to terms like “business model”. Again, leaders may not so much lead people as abstract systems.
  3. Traditional industries were dependent on societies that made capital, education and work capacity come together, like in the US pre-World War II and in post-war Western Europe. Now, mega-cities are constructed where capital, technology and competency are built into the infrastructure.

The buzzwords of tomorrow

A sign of this is how modern companies developed a steady stream of new, so-called “CXO”-titles - “chief-something-officer” (responsible for culture, for digitisation, for games), new and cooler forms of authority that claims to “eat strategies”, and perhaps also “leadership”, for breakfast.

Nobody can predict tomorrow’s buzzword, but my money is on the term “developer”. I often hear that young people do not view “leadership” as a necessary career path. Small, dynamic organisations with a different role understanding can be difficult to understand with hundred-year-old labels.
The single sure-fire thing in this world, is change. If leadership is a threatened culture, other values may also be endangered. Words describing success and renewal are spreading as models of authority in other parts of society, as well.

The term “leadership” presupposes an approval from others - owners, markets and workers. A growing number of dictators in the world is a reminder of how “leadership” also has unpleasant alternatives.


Jan Ketil Arnulf (2018): En kultur kalt ledelse. Om ledelse på tvers av tid og sted. Universitetsforlaget.
This article was first published as an opinion piece in Kapital nr. 5-2018.

Published 16. March 2018

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