Clearings in the Forest: On the Study of Leadership. By Nathan Harter

Book Review

Clearings in the Forest: on the Study of Leadership. By Nathan Harter. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2006. Pp. 218. $29.95
    According to Nathan Harter, leadership is a difficult concept to understand, but William James can help in the endeavor. Harter is a professor of Organizational Leadership and is part of a new and emerging discipline, called leadership studies, which is struggling to define itself. According to Harter, “leadership studies is not a distinct field, like a sub-discipline, so much as it is an application of existing fields to a particular set of predicaments” (p.1). In Clearings in the Forest, Harter describes a journey through the study of leadership, using the metaphor of a forest to depict the terrain. The journey begins by descending to the base or valley where he focuses on the experience of leadership and then ascends upwards towards an attempt to understand the meaning of leadership. Harter contends that leadership must be understood as part of a complex world of social relations, and to help explicate this he draws upon the pragmatic ideas of William James.
    In the second chapter entitled, “Pragmatism in Leadership Studies,” Harter claims that pragmatism offers a suitable framework within which to understand leadership, and within the framework of pragmatism, he focuses on James. He lists what he takes to be the five central features of pragmatism: radical empiricism, a pluralistic universe, antecedents and consequents, the method, and oscillations. Setting aside the question of how correct or exhaustive these features are, the importance and centrality of James should be apparent. Harter captures the essence of James’s open-ended pragmatism and applies it to understanding leadership when he says, “The goal is not to discover the one immutable truth about leadership . . . According to pragmatism, the goal is to make continual progress toward a more complete and realistic understanding that makes a difference.” (p. 30). He also offers a succinct and pragmatic definition of leadership when he says, “Leadership exists where people infer that one person brought about change in another person or persons in a specific direction.” (p. 68). Such a definition clearly captures James’s idea of a “difference that makes a difference.”
     Harter also discusses additional pragmatists including Peirce, Rorty and Bernstein, as well as thinkers from other disciplines, to help explain the study of leadership. He proposes blending pragmatism, phenomenology, and perspectivism. The result is a way of thinking about leadership that he attempts to illustrate with his metaphor of the journey through the forest. One must descend to the valley, into the thick of the forest and be an involved participant in the intricacies of the complex social relationships that constitute leadership. One must also ascend to the summit of the mountain in order to survey the expansiveness of the meaning of leadership. Harter argues that a proper understanding of leadership requires multiple perspectives. Here he echoes Bernstein’s warnings against a relativism which takes perspectivism to mean that we can all go our own way, content with our own perspective. Instead the goal is to bring our various perspectives into accord with one another as much as possible.
    In the attempt to define leadership, Harter returns again and again to the thesis that leadership is about relationships. Harter finds it useful to think of leadership not as one thing, but as an idea comprised of many facets intersecting at different places in different and interesting ways. However the intersection or relationship between leader and follower is one that gives rise to difficulties. The biggest challenge for Harter revolves around the issue of elitism, in that the notion of leadership seems to be inherently elitist. He concedes that both leadership and elitism rely on the notion of inequality and differences in individual abilities. However according to Harter, elite theory reinforces this inequality, while leadership attempts to minimize the differences. Harter argues that an elite attempts to distance himself or herself from the masses, while a leader tries to relate to the masses. While this distinction is helpful, it cannot completely overcome the inherent inequality in the idea of leadership. This becomes clear when Harter discusses the relationship between democracy and leadership. He ends the section by saying that we need to examine ways to reconcile democracy and leadership, but he does not make any substantive suggestions about how to accomplish this. The book ends on an open-ended, pragmatic note, claiming that the ambivalence and uncertainty surrounding the nature of leadership itself can not be resolved, but this view is subject to change in the future. 4
    While James is only the focus of one chapter of the book, his influence is discernable throughout. To this extent, Harter’s book will be engaging for those interested in seeing how Jamesian pragmatism can be applied in a new and emerging field of study that seeks to understand the complex and practical relationships between people in society. 5
Mark Sanders
Department of Philosophy
University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Leave a Reply