Skinnerian Behaviourist Leadership …

Just as military field decisions must be acted on without question because of embedded hierarchical assumptions, business has embraced the leadership training models offered to them by the higher authority of business schools. It is also my contention that the very word ‘training’, implying a skills-based, externalized and behaviorist approach to leadership development, reflects the extraordinary influence of Harvard Professor of Psychology B F Skinner who, in July 2002, was ranked by the American Psychological Association as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century (Sigmund Freud was third).

Skinner’s ‘radical behaviorism’ was based on a functional analysis of behaviour to produce ‘technologies of behaviour’ that ironically do not accept as behaviour private (or human) events such as thinking, perceptions and unobservable emotions.

This harks back to the French Enlightenment and La Mettrie’s (1748) L’Homme Machine (Man a Machine) philosophy, now largely discredited. Skinner’s only grasp of humanity’s inner world was box-ticking observations of external habits and behavior. Noam Chomsky famously remarked that Skinner was not a scientist as his methods were merely scientistic, mimicking science without submitting to scientific method.

The significance of Skinner’s pervasive influence might be measured today in the array of externalized, behaviourist formulaic training programs marketed by a global leadership industry, offered up as ‘leadership styles’, and the recent proliferation of quasi science and pop-psychology leadership and management books, such as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey, 2001), The 15 Secrets to Leadership Success (Biro, 1997) and online advice from Sir Richard Branson ‘The Five Secrets to Business Success’, listing at number four, ‘Be a Good Leader’.

Clearly, leadership development has been atomized, trivialized and commodified and any academic attempt to draw together the myriad strings of definitions would be futile. It is my view that the mere proliferation of leadership definitions indicates that leadership no longer has a definition, indicating a generalized lack of understanding of the ‘being of leadership’ in its historic settings relative to human development.