Book Review: Clearings in the Forest: On the Study of Leadership

Russ Volckmann


806harterimageNathan Harter, Clearings in the Forest: On the Study of Leadership. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.

Books on the study of leadership, rather than advice to those who want to be leaders, are rare. To find one that is aware of the multiple aspects of the study and practice of leadership is also rare. The work of Zacarro on executive leadership and a few others are exceptions.

While not integrally informed or build on integral theory, it is my contention that there are some integral thinkers out there who just haven’t discovered yet the power of integral theory for their work. Harter was one of those. I say was, because since completing this book I know he has been exploring that perspective. But don’t wait until the next book. This one is worth the time spent as it is.

Statements like this reflect the perspective that I find of so much value in this work: “Leadership is but a moment in the flux of our social lives, so to be students of leadership we must figure out how it is’embedded’ into the rest of that world.”

Harter uses a metaphor of traveling from within the forest in the valley to the top of the mountain to explore the subject of leadership and leadership studies. He begins with definition – a rare excursion in the literature on leadership – and offers a set of perspectives on the meaning of leadership:

  • Leadership is a sociological form
  • Leadership is an interpretation of events
  • Leadership is a kind of influence
  • Leadership is an organizational tendency toward change
  • Leadership is part of the process by which the elite arise to dominance
  • Leadership is an art
  • Leadership is an exercise in power

Using a holon to map these perspectives is awkward in that each has elements in more than one cell of the holon. Consequently, one must break each down by its component parts before rebuilding an integral perspective on leadership.

Harter proceeds by indicating the core elements of a definition of leadership:

  • Leadership must be interpersonal. Most if not all people imagine at least two persons in some kind of relationship.
  • It must involve attribution. The one person in the relationship wwhom we label as the leader causes of influences the follower to do something he or she would not otherwise have done, regardless of how we define interpersonal causation. We commonly attribute leadership to a leader.
  • It must result in change. Without change, there is no leadership. There has to be some influence by one person upon the others.
  • It must change in a specific direction. That direction goes by many names, such as goal, objective, mission, or vision.

[p. xx]

He closes this section by pointing out that leadership has to be understood in context and states, “Leadership is but a moment in the flux of our social lives, so to be students of leadership we must figure out how it is ‘embedded’ into the rest of that world.” How integral can you get?

The author takes us on a journey from the forest to the mountain top in exploring the nature of leadership and leadership studies. While in the forest he explores different theoretical orientations of leadership, the role of theory, experience, symbol and image, He then discusses leadership as sociological form. Here he argues for multiple perspectives and illustrates this with examples drawn from leadership theory. He states:

Perspectivism encourages humility, since each perspective is limited and only part of the truth…None of which is to suggest that perspectivism in the same thing as dreaded relativism, as though I have the truth and you have yours. There is one paramount reality out there. We must collaborate in order to understand it better.

[p. 101]

Harter then turns his attention to such subjects as power, morality, ethics and elite formation before engaging in an exploration of influence. He recognizes the existence of multiple leaders in any system and the mutual influence of leaders and followers. Leadership involves a web of relationships. And these relationships exist within systems. Using Voeglin’s ladder he offers a “stage” model in three dimensions, person (individual), society (collective) and history (that neglected variable in AQAL mapping). Like an integral approach,

Voeglin’s ladder makes room for many “viewpoints” so long as no one view presumes to exclude the rest. Leadership, as a phenomenon in reality, can be studied profitably at any one of the levels, from multiple perspectives, although the academic community is charged with integrating these findings periodically and keeping them in good order. This it has not done adequately, which is why all of the interest lately in spirituality has forced the issue.

[p. 172]

It is in the discussion of spirituality that Harter has reached the mountaintop. While treating spirituality as something difficult to define, he points out that spirituality informs ethics and that is at the heart of not only understanding the nature of leadership, but offers a requirement for its development and practice.