In this chapter, we'll discuss why we have a penchant for the depiction of leadership through the stories of individual leaders and why that tendency poses serious challenges to understanding leadership. One of the key distinctions in this collection of essays is the one between leaders and leadership. Following James MacGregor Burns, Richard Couto has tried to focus scholars and practitioners on the dynamics of leadership rather than on the lives of leaders. It may well be a losing battle. We'll try to explain why.
Our discussion proceeds as follows. First, we will discuss the ways human wiring leads us from infancy forward to focus on other people, and then how that focus leads us to be extraordinarily intrigued by leaders. Second, we will discuss some of the systematic biases in our perceptions and evaluation of leaders, and the challenges these biases pose for understanding leadership through biographies. Third, we will explore how the focus on leaders combines with basic aspects of social perception to see leaders as by far the most important element in group activity and success. This happens to the near exclusion of other important dynamic elements in our thinking about group performance. Finally, with these problems in mind, we will explore the leadership of four U.S. presidents in the area of equal rights for African Americans and how their efforts and actions have been understood by various historians and biographers.
Copyright © 2010 SAGE Publications, Inc. This book chapter first appeared in Political and Civic Leadership.
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Goethals, George R. "Biography and the Social Cognition of Leadership." In Political and Civic Leadership, edited by Richard A. Couto, 1040-048. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2010.