Pleasures of the process. Prof. March on joy in leadership

I want to quote further from On Leadership, the little book from Prof. James March’s lectures I plundered in my previous post. For many years, Prof. March taught a course on organizational leadership at Stanford using four textbooks: War and Peace by Tolstoy, Don Quixote by Cervantes, Othello by Shakespeare, and Saint Joan by G. B. Shaw. The following argument was mostly developed in a lecture that drew from Don Quixote, although with an interesting digression about the Norse saga of Olav Trygvason (Olav was, apparently, a warrior who enjoyed fighting and killing his enemies very much).

Leadership and leaders are generally justified and understood in instrumental terms. Leaders evaluate themselves, are evaluated, and are (to some extent) compensated in terms of their contributions to organizational outcomes. At the same time, it is frequently noted that there are pleasures associated with the processes of leadership: the glories of position, the joys of commitment, the excitements of influence, the exhilaration of conflict and danger. These pleasures are, to a substantial extent, independent of their outcomes. […]

Leadership offers several types of pleasures:

  • The pleasure of becoming a leader, as regards both promotion and success in competition for the post.
  • The pleasures connected with the role (chairing meetings, being the source of approval, giving orders, taking decisions, receiving delegations, granting favors, managing crises), with being in the thick of the action (knowing what is going on better than other people, seeing the underside of cards, experiencing the theatrical buzz of meetings or negotiations), with an exciting life, and with the self-confidence derived from the value that people attach to the time and attention of a leader.
  • The pleasure of being recognized as a leader, connected with the confirmation of a prestigious status, with a flashy business card, with fame, deference (one becomes wise, sensible, clever, sexy), and treats (money, perks, first-class plane tickets).

It is often, therefore, easier to understand certain aspects of leaders’ behaviors by focusing on the pleasures that they can gain from their actions rather than on the consequences they achieve.

We are ambivalent about the importance of the pleasures of action, criticizing not only those who forget their long run goals and live “without a care for tomorrow”, but also those who only think in the long term and sacrifice all the pleasures of existence for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. […]

Throwing oneself into a role gives three types of esthetic pleasure. First, the direct experience of the joys inherent to our situation – the intoxication of power, the exaltation of being in love, the sensual pleasure of feeling alive. Second, the irony derived from enjoying the derisory aspect of this role, the fundamental ridiculousness of all our own pretensions. And, third, the affirmation, appreciation, and acceptance of our role. While being conscious of the limits and absurdities of our position, we discover its beauty and take on our responsibilities, our loves, and our life.

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