The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership)


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A New Pursuit of Happiness

Is she a good orator? Is he gay or Catholic or elderly or childless? Is she tough, compassionate, experienced, moralistic? You may be a traits analyst without knowing it. When you apply for a job you expect to answer questions about your background, experience, and skills while being evaluated for such intangibles as dependability, empathy, initiative, fortitude, ambition, and the like—traits you assume relate to the tasks you would be taking on. This seems just a matter of common sense.

Why should an employer not want someone with such traits? Uncommon sense suggests that some of these qualities may be irrelevant to what you will be doing, but a good deal of quantitative research backs up the usefulness of this kind of traits approach in predicting performance at school or work.

A multidimensional aversion to leadership

How does traits research help us to understand the sources of leadership? Much of the work on traits was done by analysts ferreting out qualities that undergird leadership skills. These traits are heavily management-oriented because they were drawn mainly from extensive studies of corporations. A comparable study of political leadership might be less comprehensive, more guarded and nuanced, and subject to greater cultural differences. Humans have always needed heroes to deify or destroy, as all-powerful causes for success or as scapegoats for failure.

Children are brought up on tales of warriors, outlaws, martyrs. Bookstores are filled with glossy accounts of corporate titans, military geniuses, political giants. Just as Great Men often stumble, so did the Great Man theory.


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We may see those choices as our own, drawn from needs and hopes in turn drawn from years of thought and growth. If in our youth we were controlled by family and peer and school pressures, we may feel that increasingly we were able to take our lives into our own hands. Is it so simple as that? Each of us is born in a certain place, of certain parents, in a certain neighborhood, into a particular social class, religion, belief system. Whatever choices we had fell within a relatively narrow frame. Experience may have stunted our life-chances and alternatives rather than broadened them.

And if we enjoyed a sense of freedom or even self-esteem in having decided to be, say, a leader, an activist, a change maker, in school or workplace or community, how much latitude did we actually have? We exist in multiple situations—which ones are more important? Can one situation, such as living in an affluent family, override another, such as belonging to a discriminated-against race? Can dire poverty overcome high intelligence, or vice versa? We may be able to change a particular situation, such as a job, more readily than we can change a particular trait, such as sociability, but in changing jobs are we not still controlled by broader environmental factors?

If these are unsettling questions in our private lives, imagine how complex and urgent they can be in society as a whole, and how potent in their implications for leadership. Vast numbers of people exist in common circumstances of geography, race, religion, class, illiteracy, ill health, ignorance. Dire conditions create dire wants that in turn create opportunities for political leaders to mobilize those in need for the cause of transformational change—or, alternatively, to exploit them. The potential for real, intended change that addresses the deepest human needs turns crucially on the extent to which humans are able to separate themselves from their confining social roots and growth experiences and thus manage to control their destinies, to act creatively in pursuit of real change.

Leadership studies

How far are we able to act as free agents in pursuing liberty, opportunity, happiness, for ourselves and for others? Few in all of history have done more both to clarify and to confuse these issues than Karl Marx. Both a philosopher of change and a revolutionary strategist and activist, Marx dramatically embodied, on a grand scale, the age-old debate over the roles of individuals and situations.

The difference was that those who followed and obeyed them had none.

The great were one-eyed men in a land of the blind. While agreeing that history was driven by impersonal forces, Marx insisted that these were not spiritual but material, grounded in human needs. Marx pushed situationism to its most extreme form. Humankind moved through repeated and determined stages of class formation, class deprivation, class struggle. No need to search for leaders because the dialectical process of class struggle was ineluctable, invulnerable to conscious human shaping.

No need to look for fancy theories of causation in history; to Marx, epochal changes lay in the unfulfilled needs of the masses. This was the British social philosopher Herbert Spencer. Living in the age of Darwin, Spencer applied the exciting new ideas of evolution to the marketplace.

The most eloquent—and most savage—rebuttal to determinists on the left and the right came not from another philosopher but from a writer who had long pondered the question of historical causation, Leo Tolstoy. Free will was no less a delusion than simple determinism. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events.

Instead he sought to accommodate both: men felt that they were acting freely—making history—because the causes that in fact determined their actions were infinitesimal and infinite, forever beyond their comprehension. Of one thing, however, Tolstoy was certain: none of us, no general, no leader, could control events. All of us, in our own way, are theorists of causation. Perhaps we ask ourselves whether or not our traits—our initiative, creativity, self-esteem—can free us from situations we abhor.

Throughout his life Marx stuck to his deterministic theory of historical materialism.

But he also had to recognize the central role of activist human beings in forging their own history. They have a world to win. In the century and a half since Marx, no theorist, no practicing revolutionary, has eclipsed him in grasping the fundamental social and historical forces underlying change and causation in history.

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Values in leadership: design your own compass for creating change

Yet no one has solved the fundamental problem that Marx developed so well but did not resolve. Read the full text. Tools Request permission Export citation Add to favorites Track citation. Share Give access Share full text access. Share full text access. Please review our Terms and Conditions of Use and check box below to share full-text version of article. Citing Literature. Volume 40 , Issue 1 March Pages Related Information.

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The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership) The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership)
The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership) The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership)
The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership) The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership)
The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership) The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership)
The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership) The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership)
The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership) The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership)
The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership) The Values of Presidential Leadership (Jepson Studies in Leadership)

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