War and Sports – Problematic Models of Leadership

Tom GibbonsOrganization DevelopmentLeave a Comment

The landscapes of war and the fields of sport are breeding grounds for great leaders. Ask people who they would identify as great leaders and their list will be very well represented by those that fired their leadership sword in the heat of battle, real or play. They are real leaders and they also represent some of the most problematic aspects of the way we think about leadership today in our organizations.

The ‘science’ of management has long looked to the models of leadership found in war and sport to define what leadership is all about and what it should be like in organizational life. There is nothing inherently problematic with this. What is problematic is that these two models of leadership have come to dominate our thinking and leave little room for other perspectives. They are founded on assumptions about leadership that are now almost invisible, making it very challenging to examine those assumptions to see if they actually are the foundation we want to support what we think leadership should and can be.
Some of the key assumptions war and sport models of leadership are founded on are:
  • Leadership requires an event focus such as a battle or game.
  • Leadership resides within an individual.
  • Leadership is motivated by performance.
What might some alternative assumptions about leadership be that would contrast the above:
  • Leadership is a continual process. The present is valued and leadership is not a means to an end. Every interaction we have with ourselves and others is where leadership is, including, but not exclusive to the events we encounter.
  • Leadership is based on interactions. Leadership only exists in relationship to how others respond. The endless search to gather the individual qualities of a leader can make room for the search for meaningful interaction.
  • Leadership is motivated by the expressions of our identity. Because leadership is fundamentally interactive,our identity is continually emerging and it is this process of identity emergence where leadership finds its sustenance.

By including these assumptions in our thinking about leadership we have an opportunity to radically change how we measure leadership, from that of producing transactional results to include that of better understanding who we are in conjunction with others.


Inroads are being made, and they are being made with sound, scientific and case based evidence which is critical to changing the way the West thinks. You might want to explore these book resources further:

  1. The Emergence of Leadership – Linking Self-Organization and Ethics. Douglas Griffin – a view of the social emergence of leadership in complex environments.
  2. Changing Conversations in Organizations – A Complexity Approach To Change. Patricia Shaw – a view of change and leadership within the living present and not located outside of our interactions.
  3. Getting To Maybe – Westley, Zimmerman, Patton – A view of the hero leader as very much part of the process and how challenging that can be. There is space for many leadership assumptions in this book.


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