If contemporary leadership theory has its historical roots in the Great Man approach of Thomas Carlyle from 1840, many current leadership scholars have long abandoned “the hero” as the framework for understanding the phenomena (Collinson et al., 2018), even as we curse the effects of contemporary “strong men,” such as Bolsonaro, Johnson, Kim Jong Un, Lukashenko, Putin, and Trump. So how do we square the circle of anti-heroism with the persistence of such leaders — all of whom, of course, are men?
One of the most influential critiques of the heroic leader was the work of Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003) who introduced a new phrase to the leadership lexicon: “the extraordinarization of the mundane.” It suggested that many of the everyday actions of formal leaders are actually quite mundane (chatting to people, listening to people, creating a good working environment, etc.,) but they were perceived as the acts of “leadership” — significant and remarkable — if leaders engaged in them. Thus, everyone at work listens to others, but when managers listen to their subordinates it is endowed with great symbolic significance — the “extraordinarization of the mundane” in their terms. As they said, “One important meaning of managers’ listening is that it conveys a feeling of inclusion, participation and social significance” (p. 15). Indeed, “the transforming of ordinary tasks into something extraordinary and significant, simply by the fact that managers perform them, makes them almost mysterious, as if managers possess some kind of magic formula of listening, unknown to those outside management…. When managers have problems exercising active control, listening becomes a favoured activity’’ (pp. 18-19).
The transformation of the mundane into the extraordinary by followers is reversed in academia by the division between teaching and research where the anything but ordinary task of teaching is devalued and transformed into the ordinary through a process of mundanization. Historically, the latter has been regarded as the high-status “heroic” occupation while the former is the mundane task that needs to be completed to ensure time and resource are available for the real job: the pursuit of knowledge in research. No matter how much your students appreciate you turning the “mundane” activity of teaching into droplets of gold for them, your dean will remain, at best, disinterested, if you cannot generate the really valuable commodity in university: research. This ultimately has led to the development of teaching-only contracts amongst many academic staff to the point where approximately 25% of British academics are currently on Teaching-Only contracts (McIntosh et al., 2021). Efforts have been made to boost the status of teaching — and promotion on the basis of teaching excellence is no longer impossible — but it was not so long ago that academics who were regarded as failing to generate sufficient research publications were “punished” by having to take on more teaching. Nevertheless, the persistence of the low status attached to teaching was noted by Bennett et al. (2018), and remains so today across the USA, the UK, Canada, and Australia (Rogers & Swain, 2022).
This devaluation and “mundanization” of the basics of academia has a long history in many other contexts as well, perhaps none more so than the division between “work” and “looking after children,” as if the latter is a simple and unskilled task, usually best suited to mothers and child minders, while everyone else can carry on with the really important societal tasks like making even more money, avoiding domestic responsibilities, and despoiling the environment. In effect, the devaluation and mundanization of these tasks impede the acquisition of equality and justice around them while masquerading as normality — a process that makes the division even more insidious. Even within organizational contexts it is often women who get assigned to or who volunteer for mundane — or “non-promotable” — tasks that provide the support and framework for less selfless others, primarily men, to continue with their promotion pathway (Babcock, et al., 2017). Just as the heroic leadership model stretches back into history, so too does the mundane model. Let me explore examples from the Second World War to further illustrate this claim.
The mundane work that makes organizations function and that is often attributed by followers to acts of “leadership,” (when done by positional leaders) seldom seems to be rewarded by those at the top of the organizational hierarchy when performed by subordinates.
First, let us consider occupied France, where, if we are to believe de Gaulle, it was the French Resistance and the Free French Forces originally stationed in Britain that liberated the country. Only six women were amongst the 1,038 people recognized as worthy of being designated a Resistance Hero and awarded the Companion of the Liberation Medal. Yet, Douzou estimates that between 12-25% of all Resistance members were women and 6,700 of them were deported from occupied France, the majority of whom for activities within the Resistance (The Local FR, 2023). Juliette Plissonnier, a regional commander in the communist resistance recalled the shock of a man discovering her position: “What! A woman here?” to which his comrade responded: “She’s not a woman, she’s the boss” (Quoted in Jackson, 2003, p. 491). So, what enabled de Gaulle to maintain that the Resistance was almost wholly a task undertaken by heroic men?
At the top end of the resistance hierarchy, women occupied a variety of roles, but the closer to the bottom of the hierarchy the more likely women were used as couriers, oftentimes because they attracted less suspicion than men who were increasingly under suspicion once the transfer of able-bodied men to work in Germany occurred. And sometimes the activities of women were easily overlooked because of their mundane nature. As a woman in Toulouse recalled of her parents’ activities in the Resistance:
My father was a resister and a Communist… so he received a lot of men and women in the house. People might say that my mother was not a resister. But who got up in the morning to look after the resister who had to depart before dawn? Who mended socks and washed the clothes of the resister while he was asleep? Who prepared the food he took away with him? Who received the police when there was an alert. I think therefore that my mother resisted quite as much as my father. (Quoted in Jackson, 2003, pp. 492-3)
Despite women’s willingness to fight, it was actually the male resistance fighters who chose to keep women out of combat. In late 1943 an order was issued that said using women should be avoided, and if they must be used, then it was preferable to use older women who were “less likely to be a source of temptation to colleagues…. Sentimental complications are always to be feared” (Quoted in Jackson, 2003, p. 494). Other women in occupied France and Belgium worked for the Resistance through much more mundane tasks than engaging in combat, for example, by secreting information into their knitting as they travelled by bus or car along the Normandy coast. Thus an apparently mundane error such as a dropped stitch might mark out a gun emplacement, followed by ten ordinary stitches to mark the distance to the next point of interest — a pearl stitch for an ammunition dump etc. (Zarrelli, 2022). But note that acquiring and sending information about gun emplacements on the coast was probably far more important to the war effort than killing an individual German, especially when the retribution of the occupiers was often ferocious.
It is significant that when considering “the resistance,” not everyone agreed that every act of non-compliance counted as “resistance.” Thus, the relatively mundane tasks of hiding, protesting, and printing leaflets against the Nazi occupation of Europe were seldom considered — by those wielding guns and explosives — as acts of resistance. But this ultra-violent definition of legitimate resistance has recently been challenged by the Dutch State Institute for War Documentation, in part because the occupiers regarded all these acts as acts of resistance, all punishable, and some by death. As Stoltzfus et al. (2021, p. 6) suggest,
Scholars have developed an expansive vocabulary for militarised resistance but none that applies to women’s networks of defiance. A primarily militarised vision of resistance obstructs a view of the range of resistance actions as well as the range of regime responses…. Not having access to bombs and guns, women were more likely to resort to collective public actions, such as protest.
Within the same context Stoltzfus et al. quote Zipporah Goldstein, working in Auschwitz sorting out the stolen fur coats. While male prisoners would unpick the seams before sending them back to Germany, so the coats would fall apart quickly, the women prisoners would place a note in the pocket saying, “German woman: know that you are wearing a fur coat that belonged to a Jewish woman gassed to death in Auschwitz” (p. 10). Nelson (2021, pp. 136-7), in her work on resistance during the Second World War, suggests that what counts as resistance has been distorted to omit many acts and actors: first, through the “narrow focus on military and paramilitary operations;” and second through the literary conventions at the time, which represented women as the romantic foil to their male — and far more heroic — partners.
If we were looking for the most heroic — and least mundane — icon of the Second World War it would surely be the fighter pilot, complete with an iconic white scarf made from white parachute silk and worn both by Errol Flynn in Dawn Patrol (1938) about WW1 fighter pilots, and by Cary Grant in Only Angels have Wings (1939) about interwar aviators in South America. Indeed, when interviewed several African American pilots spoke of these romantic images as being important in their quest to fly in the U.S. Air Force. The first Black pilots who managed to bypass all the obstacles placed in their way by the White political and military establishment in the early years of the war ended up as “Tuskegee Airmen” in a single African American fighter squadron — the 99th Fighter Squadron — (99th FS) which was deployed on 1 April 1943, almost 18 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. When the 99th left New York, under the command of Lt. Col. Davis, it was the first time that White troops were commanded by a Black officer, but the deck of the Mariposa had a rope across it, segregating the Black aviators from the 3,000 White soldiers (Holway, 2011, p. 58).
The 99th began operational duty flying P-40 fighters from Tunisia to attack German forces stationed on the Italian island of Pantelleria and were immediately censured for abandoning their bomber escort duties and attacking German fighters. In the next six months the Luftwaffe quickly retreated and the 99th, which was confined to escort and dive-bombing missions, never came across any enemy aircraft. That did not stop them from being censured again, this time for failing to chalk up a similar number of aerial “kills” to their White colleagues — who were given free rein to seek out and attack Luftwaffe fighters. The result was that the squadron was posted to convoy-escorting duties, and never saw any Luftwaffe planes to shoot down for months.
Only in March 1944 was the only Black Fighter Group, the 332nd FG (including the 99th FS) reassigned to bomber escort duties flying from Italy to Germany, Poland, and France as D-Day approached and the 8th U.S. Air Force (stationed in the UK) was redirected from bombing runs in central Europe to attacking German defenses in Normandy and the Calais region. The 332nd FG, along with six other White-only escorting Fighter Groups, were explicitly warned by the commanding officer of the 15th Air Force, Major Gen. Nathan Twining, that their duty was to protect the bombers, not to chase after German fighter aircraft, no matter how tempting it might be to go “happy hunting” and increase their “kill” rate. The newly promoted Col. Davis reinforced that message and warned his 332nd FG pilots: “Don’t come back if you lose a bomber” (Quoted in Moye, 2010, p. 112). No other FG commander seemed as keen to enforce this as Davis, who even quoted Twining to his pilots: “We don’t want aces. I don’t care if you never shoot down another airplane…. Don’t chase them” (Quoted in Holway, 2011, p. 146). Many of Davis’s fighter pilots were unhappy about this. Charles Bussey said, “We were damn unhappy, because the name of the game was ‘shoot down airplanes.’ This took some glamour out of being a fighter pilot, because the movies create this glamour with the white scarves and all that.” (Quoted in Holway, 2011, p. 147). Woodrow Crockett recalled the impact that one raid had on this policy, “A White [fighter] group shot down eight or nine enemy fighters but lost 17 bombers on the same mission. Each B-17 cost a half million dollars and carried a crew of ten men, or about 170 to 180 men in all. So that was not a very good trade off” (Quoted in Holway, 2011, p. 147) Despite this, the 15th Air Force kept records of how many enemy fighters each pilot shot down, but not how many bombers each group lost. Yet, as Holway concludes, there was a “clear trade off: the more enemy fighters killed, the more bombers lost and vice versa” (p. 207). Thus, of the 285 bombers lost in the 15th Air Force, the average loss for each fighter group was 46, but the 332nd only lost 9. In effect “the other fighter groups lost five times more bombers, on average, than did the 332nd” (Quoted in Holway, 2011, 207).
The important point here is to note how the heroic image of the fighter pilot — which is one reason why many joined the air force — was not what Twining actually wanted; he wanted the fighter pilots to conduct the much more mundane activity of protecting the bombers because it was the latter that would destroy the capacity of the Nazi war machine to continue the conflict. But, at the level of operational commanders, and in the eyes of many pilots, the real — and heroic — task was shooting down enemy fighters — even at the cost of losing bombers. In short, the mundane task was ostensibly more important, and it was that which the 332nd excelled at, but the honor, the glory — and the promotions — went to those White fighter pilots who ignored official policy and concentrated on what they wanted to do: become aviator aces and heroes.
I will conclude by noting that the mundane work that makes organizations function and that is often attributed by followers to acts of “leadership,” (when done by positional leaders) seldom seems to be rewarded by those at the top of the organizational hierarchy when performed by subordinates. Indeed, as the examples have demonstrated, it is not uncommon for work activities that had previously undergone the process of extraordinarization to be downgraded from heroic to mundane just as subordinate groups have the opportunity to and begin to demonstrate that they too can successfully practice “heroics.” Under this continual churn of extraordinarization and mundanization, subordinate groups can never be “heroes,” their work will continue to be devalued, and equity will never be achieved. Equally constricting, privileged groups face the flip side of this dilemma on their career paths. If they engage in those “mundane” tasks that keep an organization running and that are often essential to meeting its goals, rather than focussing on the visible heroics, they may not receive a promotion or protection.
And this gets us back to where we started. After all, the contemporary crop of political authoritarians did not get to where they are or were by making the coffee, being supportive of their subordinates, and helping followers in trouble, did they
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Babcock, L., Recalde, M. P., Vesterlund, L., & Weingart, L. (2017). Gender Differences in Accepting and Receiving Requests for Tasks with Low Promotability. American Economic Review, 107(3), 714-47. https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.20141734
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The Local FR. (2 March 2023). Out of the Shadows: Women in the French Resistance. https://www.thelocal.fr/20230302/out-of-the-shadows-women-in-the-french-resistance
Zarrelli, N. (16 March 2022). The Wartime Spies Who Used Knitting as an Espionage Tool: Grandma was just making a sweater. Or was she?’ Atlas Obscura https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/knitting-spies-wwi-wwii
Keith Grint is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University. He has held Chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was Director of Research at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University. He is a Fellow of the International Leadership Association (ILA) and Professorial Fellow of the Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM). He is also a founding co-editor with David Collinson of the journal Leadership, and co-founder of the International Studying Leadership Conference. He received ILA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. His books include The Arts of Leadership (2000); Organizational Leadership (2005); Leadership: Limits and Possibilities (2005); Leadership, Management & Command: Rethinking D-Day (2008); Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010); and Mutiny and Leadership (2021).