Thank your for your subscribe
Oops something went wrong. Please check your entry

Myths, rituals and tribes: another face of leadership

What makes a great leader? The answer to this question has changed over time, as it refers to the way we form our representations of a company – a well conceived machine, a living body, a spirited team... Trends come and go, representations evolve, formulas change. Yet, the actual core of talent, or even the stroke of genius that makes a difference, seems to escape these formulas. So are management sciences condemned to mere prattle?

September 2013
lire en français
lire en français
Lire le résumé

What makes a great leader? For Claude Riveline, the answer to this question has changed over time, as it refers to the way we form our representations of a company – a well conceived machine, a living body, a spirited team... The great dream of rationality is still alive. But it now describes management processes more than refers to the leader as such. Modern leaders are often seen through categories such as charisma, vista, sometimes even genius. Obviously management and leadership are not purely rational activities. They require something else. Can this something be captured and understood, or should we give up and start believing in the magical powers of business gods?

ParisTech Review - You are one of the iconic figures of the Scientific Management Lab (Centre de gestion scientifique) at Mines ParisTech School, and in fact, its founder. So perhaps we could start this conversation there, with a question in the form of a provocative joke: isn’t the idea of a totally rational and strictly scientific business management simply a chimera?

Claude Riveline - In terms of the scientific organization of work, this is definitely an idea that has outlived its usefulness. Not that it was unrealistic at the time of Fayol and Taylor, but it has been referenced to only as a thing of the past for already several decades now. As early as 1985, Michel Berry had coordinated a special issue of La Jaune et la Rouge, the publication of Ecole Polytechnique, entitled “Management sciences: what happened to the dreams of the sixties?” It was already clear at this point that all that remained of these dreams – optimizing, streamlining companies, cities and society – was all but a field of ruins.

I had been asked to conclude that issue of the magazine. Not an easy endeavor! The breakthrough came with the formula of Descartes, who promises in the Discourse on Method, “never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such, that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice.” I realized that if the observed object is transient or is merely a matter of opinion, it doesn’t fall within science, as precipitancy or prejudice are unavoidable. This is what I have chosen to call “soft” as opposed to “hard.” In the great rationalizing dream of the 1960s, there was at once hardness and softness. Hardness won victories, science progressed, a form of rationality developed in businesses and in society. But softness amplified with the acceleration time.

Problems arise when you want to tighten up softness. It never works – even though it allows for rising some good questions. There is a poverty in hardened softness: take communism, millions died in the name of dialectical materialism, a soft thought that was mistakenly taken for hard, scientific thinking. As a matter of fact the same goes with neoclassic economics, in terms of blindness and claims to scientificity.

There is a lesson to be learned here: soft should only be hardened with caution. This lesson can help us outline the sense of what a “scientific management” could be. Not a practice that would establish itself as a science and erect a dogma, but rather an outlook focused on discerning and getting to the truth beneath appearances. In short, I would say that the hard portion that remains to be found in management today has to do with the fact that on the one hand, everyone optimizes the criteria on which he or she feels judged, and on the other hand that these very same criteria are held in place by rigid rituals. But these criteria are only local realities.

At first glance, management can be seen as something brutal, even violent. But behind it there is a structure. Appearances spark passions, yet reality is logic locally. The question is therefore to access this logic, and that is precisely what a scientific approach will seek to reveal. This involves wondering what hides the structure. Management science, as we understand it at Scientific Management Lab, therefore aims to identify what is solid, and valid, in management practices, without sticking to appearances.

Nevertheless, management practices are often embedded in seemingly rational discourse, which smoothes out the bumps and eventually ends up blinding us.

This is true, and it is probably a feature of the so-called “management science” to have obscured things so much, when it was precisely intended to cast light and inform practice. Two reasons for that. First, more than others, these sciences interfere with the field they are studying: the observer produces analyses that impact managerial practices. They may as well wind up as self-fulfilling prophecies, just like the great ideologies of the twentieth century did. The second reason is that these sciences are dealing with a material about which one never knows exactly how singular and how universal it is. All organizations follow a handful of simple and universal rules, and at the same time they are all unique.

A work organization is an already complex entanglement of things universal and singular, and this convolution is all the more elusive as it comes – is hiding – under the guise of a simplistic discourse. The company is more mysterious today than the human body was in medieval times, yet it is extensively orated about. And such discourses derive from a rhetoric whose poverty is simply appalling. What we have here is a three-holed flute, which always plays the same tune.

It is in this context that the project of a scientific approach begins to make sense, which will aim to identify hard within soft. But hard won’t necessarily consist of such or such given managerial theory. It may be something else. Let us consider an example. I recently received a desperate leader, and as he was trying to explain his problems to me I identified the real point: this was a conflict between sedentary and nomadic reflexes, that is to say, between the manufacturer, who is attached to continuity, and the trader, who is keen on motion. In this case it is categories derived from anthropology which help me understand the complex human reality with which my interlocutor was struggling. I could give you other examples – for instance a structural conflict, in a ministry, between the Cabinet and its Directions, a conflict that cannot be understood if one sticks to the rational reasons adduced by the parties, a conflict that can hardly be formalized within the scope of ready-to-wear management theories, yet can be understood by going beyond appearances.

This unveiling work, this attempt to understand the very structure behind appearances – may they seem rational –, is, I think, the real purpose of management science. In this respect it has an ambition which is much more descriptive than prescriptive: its aim is to understand, possibly to model, but certainly not to issue instructions.

Nevertheless, you are a professor yourself, and you have trained generations of leaders.

Of course, the point is not about hiding behind a scientific ideal to avoid contact with reality! But in fact, to have had the opportunity to train almost the whole Corps des Mines (an elite group to which many French CEO belong) is definitely humbling as to what can be taught in management. As a matter of fact, here is an opportunity to clarify my thinking.

Some of the leaders that I've known as students at the Mines ParisTech School have proved capable of extraordinary performances. In achievements, in bold and well defined strategies as much as in an extraordinary ability to maneuver ship in rough weather. Patrick Kron, head of Alstom, has had to lay off thousands of people when the company was bottoming out, and he pulled it off without seeing a single day of strike. I'm certainly not saying that layoffs are an ideal to emulate, of course! But in this case it had to be done to save the company and such a mission required exceptional expertise. Then how to describe these capabilities, these performances? In this case as in others, one could call it talent, or even genius – in my eyes the great leaders have genius. But such talent or genius is obviously very difficult to formalize.

One could argue that this is definition of talent: to overcome the fears of the common man. As for genius, it is my staunch belief that it doesn't derive not so much from a quality than from a stance : the genius does not accept the world as he found it. In elite training, somehow the question of talent is not an issue: not only are students very bright, but the very fact that they are accessing an elite curriculum rids them of most of the fears that paralyze or hinder most of us. The whole point then is to drive them towards genius. And with this we go back to this simple truth: everyone has something unique, singular. Genius is not something you learn, it cannot be formalized – all we can do is to encourage its development. For a teacher, it is a real luxury to work in an environment in which the active endeavor is to develop excellence in all, and not just to bring everyone to the standard. However it also requires a certain humility, because as a professor you know very well that neither your recipes, nor your methods, are what will bring about the future achievements of these men and women.

There is something lyrical about such a vision of the leader, and at any rate it is quite original. Could you have coined it in the 1960s – at a time when we dreamed of streamlining the world, where the ideal leader was some sort of super- engineer?

Probably not, because as you noted yourself what we want to do with the world is very different today. In the 1960s we dreamed to put it in order, and in this ordering the leader had a particular role: he decided a particular change and gave orders for its implementation. There was something sovereign in this position, and at the same time something quite impersonal about it.


Today, a leader is still defined by change, however much more is expected from him or her. The leader is he who invents the dreams of others. This has led us to develop a kind of mythology of the leader, in which the figure of Steve Jobs, Apple's former boss, sort of embodies an ideal: a visionary, capable of changing the world and creating dreams.

Let us take Jobs, actually. There was much talk about charisma, and his presentations were more often than not compared to high mass. In such quasi-sanctified figures of the “great leader,” don't we have something akin to religious elements?

Indeed. It is undeniable, and it constitutes one of the many facets of this evolution of the figure of the leader – much in the same way that the manager has turned into a group animator, tasked with breathing a soul (anima) into his or her teams.

But with this last point we get to what I think is just one of the darkest areas of modern business: its claim to assert itself not merely as an efficient organization, but as a spiritual community – one that we do not just work for or even strive for, but the values of which we adhere to. The proliferation of “charters & values” and the all-out statements of ethical principles confirm things are going in this direction.

Once more, we have hard and soft together. The soft part is obviously the whole “corporate communication” side of such a religious imagery, which in some ways is frankly ridiculous. The hard portion is much more interesting, and can be approached through the concept of “rituals”, a concept I think is very illuminating. If we approach business the way an anthropologist would, beholding a human community just like any other, we can describe its functioning as the functioning of a tribe, that resorts to myths and rituals to organize itself.

Describe businesses thusly allows to cast a different light, which may make one smile or frown – researchers in management science resent it as being insufficiently rigorous... and more broadly such a perspective has something about it that is offensive to a Westerner Cartesian mind. But we may well be witnessing the last days of the Age of Enlightenment, and it is time we realize that neither the world nor the spirit – nor companies of course – function the way we had dreamed them to do since Descartes. We have become intoxicated with mathematical thinking, and the current trend to quantify everything, which especially noticeable in businesses that are now monitored and governed by performance indicators, has certainly reached its limits. For more often than not, reality cannot be apprehended through mere calculation. The human being is not a “rational calculator”, or more exactly, only rarely does he get to correspond to one such thing. Actually, in a sense, one could describe the reflex of ever resorting to numbers as a modern rite.

For instance, an embarrassing topic for math brains is that of emergency. Economic calculation assumes that there is infinite time to choose. Yet most choices are made in an emergency, and emergency is often the only way to act, as it allows for drastic action taking, thus terminating contradictions. And this is precisely where rites are useful. Hospital doctors, for example, are continually faced with the urgency and the need to choose quickly, with very serious consequences. To address this emergency they have developed rituals, which are the only way to maintain efficiency and to deal with a reality that is both complex and challenging.

The power of gesture over thought – and this is quite the shocking truth – is considerable. Rites are gestures that take the place of thought, and supersede it. They are also what holds the tribe together, along with the myths. And over time I have become convinced that a great leader is not only a good calculator or a superior intelligence, but also, and perhaps above all, someone who is sensitive to rites and capable of mobilizing them. A strategy that does not rely on rituals has no hold over the men and women who make up the company.

Therefore a good leader won't necessarily have to be as charismatic as Steve Jobs was. Georges Besse, the man who saved the French carmaker Renault in the 1980s, was silent, austere – he was anything but a guru. But he was a great leader because he had this intimate understanding of what the company was, of the human ties that held it together. A good leader, thus, is someone who is well able to man his ship among rituals, myths, and tribes.

Claude Riveline
Professor of Management, Mines ParisTech, PSL Research University