Existential Leadership

David M. Boje

January 13, 2001

Behind every great inspirational leader is:

A. A great PR machine.

B. A bullet-pocked wall. Only martyrs are inspirational.

C. Another great inspirational leader waiting for a turn.

Joke source

Scholarship has gone down a road much too polite and static to capture the existential being and nothingness of dynamic leadership. The world is living, full of human, animal, and plant life and we humans are aware of what we lack. Leadership is a human activity, a transformation of transactions of the living world through the internal struggle of the will to serve and the will to power, in what I will call the “study of leaders in their historical and social field.” The leader is by definition able to surpass the given historical situation of being and act upon the self in the present to transform the future by passing from one being of leadership to another one, each time desiring for what we are not. Therefore the study of history and our existential being and nothingness is absolutely critical to any real understanding of leadership, especially a leader who changes modalities of being this character which he or she is not, and being another leader over time. 

If we put leaders in context and tell the story of their struggle to change material conditions in society while changing their very being into what they are not, we find the struggle of the desire for will to serve and will to power. Crafting analytic myths about leader-objects as beings without what Nietzsche (1883-1888)  called will to power does not help us breath life into static typologies of leadership, until we recognize the leader is in angst over what he or she is not, over the lack. For example, the infamous leaderly grid formed by crossing the concern for people to concern for task dimension with the transaction to transformation one is to me, slightly off. From the concern for people to concern for task, along that dimension of Hershey and Blanchard (or call it consideration and initiating structure, its Ohio State name), even when crossed with the more recent fashionable dimension extending from transaction to transformation, this is only part of the story. Two contributions need to be made. First, to let the leaders out of these two by two prisons by an appeal to Sartre's existential philosophy, and second to admit the Nietzschean dimension of will to power is a fundamental attitude of leadership explaining more than will to task or will to people.

My thesis is that in the existential world, leadership extends from the will to serve (including both a concern for people and concern for task attitude, but also much more) all the way past the current transactional to transformational affair to the Nietzschean will to power. I argue that leadership theory, as currently advocated, ignores will to power, trying to contain leadership too safely in will to serve. In this essay I apply the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (1963, 1956) to the problem of why and how leadership theory has exorcised not only Nietzsche, but Machiavelli (1610).  Both Machiavelli and Nietzsche knew leaders exercise a will to power. Previously I have posited leaders as a set of conflicting archetypes, the eight displayed in Figure One. 

What is the difference, say between Prince and Superman? The difference is that the Prince is more covert about power than the overt Superman. Both pretend to serve, yet are further along in their realization of power.  The result of ignoring Machiavelli and Nietzsche is a field of leadership that treats will to serve (be it transactional Bureaucrat or transformational Heroic, even a charismatic one, or the more benign concerns for people and task). Each of the eight types (and more I am sure) is an existential struggle of inner enemies.  For when I stand in any one modality, I am aware of the others, I am aware that I am not fully the one I am in, and I am aware of my desire for the others.  It is what I call the struggle of my inner enemies. Note, this is quite different than traditional leadership theory, that assigns me a category and convinces my with empirical observation that I am just that type and only that type, or that some situation determines the type best for me to be.  Rather, I am saying that I am all the types, and not able to realize fully any one of them. 

I therefore propose this existential philosophy of leadership that focuses on the individual's struggle with inner enemies (will and servant) and their manifest practical action and movement (by transaction and transformation) within a living collective (family, organization, society, global economy) where I have a voice and I entertain others' voices (mono and poly). In this last attitude, I call Z, I am interested here in both the inner dialogue of conscious voices and the concrete and living actualization of leader behavior within some collective of voices. When I realize participation with the polyphonic, I realize I lack my own commanding voice (mono).  And when I engage in monophonic leaderly voice, then I am aware I lack the participation of other voices, some internalized and others' in my factual world that is not as democratic as I would like it to be. 

Leaders change the living world by inscribing that world with their own human action and an imagination fraught with struggle of the inner voices.  The leader is never just one modality (e.g. the eight in Figure One).  The leader is able to move from concrete to abstract and from global to local, from past to future in affecting change of self, by desiring what it is not. As such I am aware of my lack, I am aware of my being less than what I desire, and as Sartre says, I am aware of my nothingness. This is not nothingness, in the sense of being empty of consciousness, it is an awareness of how I nihilate my being any one mode, by being aware that I am not fully that mode I desire to be.  Abstract and dead leader concepts which assign me to one category, miss my struggle of being and nothingness, and their typologies have no meaning in the existence of real people changing their existential and social field in the living world. Real people wield power, while they aim to serve, and leadership academics assume power away as outside real leadership, but wishing it away does not make it so.

Most of all I want to stress that real people struggle within their conscious being, and change from one modality of leadership to another over time.  But at each point, I nihilate my being that leader, and reflect upon my lack of what I desire to be. I reflect on my facticity, my being in the world and realize what I am not; I am aware of my nothingness. 

Figure One: Various types of leaders in 3 Dimensions

My 3D diagram in Figure One depicts the three main dualized dimensions of the leaderly phenomenon. It would be a better display if all the modes were in motion. I will let you perform that simulation.  

For example, this construction woman, who waves her arms, is a simulacra. Each modality should be fully animated, dancing about with all the other modes. And each aware that it is but the crescent moon, desiring to be the full moon, aware of its nothingness, desiring to be more than itself. 


These three attitudes of leadership (X, Y & Z) define temporary modalities of leaderly consciousness and action. The figure includes what has been left out of leadership theory and consigned to nothingness, the will to power where the Superman/Superwoman and Prince reside.  This is the upper part of the Y dimension, the Will to Power. Also consigned to nothingness is the inner struggle of my being.  Each attitude is a duality, the extremes of which is fought out in my head, and I think in the struggle of leaders.  A little about each dualized dimension, before we resituate them. 

X dimension (Transaction - Transformation) - For James MacGregor Burns (1978), MORAL VALUE LEADER - emerges from, and always returns to, the fundamental wants and needs, aspirations, and values of the followers (p. 4). The servant leader, say in bureaucracy, the bureaucrat (or in quest, the hero) has the moral obligation to serve and in an ideal world, moral ends are valued over means. For Burns his project is to "deal with leadership as distinct from mere power-holding and as the opposite of brute power" (p. 4). The transactional leader (bureaucrat) according to Burns, approaches followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another: jobs for votes, or subsidies for campaign contributions. The means are valued over the ends. 

Y dimension (Will to POWER - Will to SERVE) - For Nietzsche and Machiavelli, the leader is driven by much ambition, and acts beyond simplistic dualities of good not evil. The Prince is a a transactional leader, given to use any means to achieve a better bargain.  And the Superman/ Superwoman leader (see green arrow in Figure One) for Nietzsche is the ultimate transformer of society. Burns and most of leadership theory since, restricts the use of power to the lower half of Figure One, to only the Will to Serve others. Leadership is split between those who serve the ambition of power and those who serve the people. Jennings (1960) looked at the Prince and Superman/ Superwoman, and Hero, but ignored the Bureaucrat. Actually if one reads carefully, the Bureaucrat is there in Jennings' interpretation of the Organization Man, the corporate executive director who is the epitomy of the transaction leader. 

Z dimension (MONO-phonic to POLY-phonic) - We hear a lot about voice these days. The bureaucratic and heroic leader has a single voice (monophonic). The opinion and revolutionary leaders who worry about and sometimes include many voices (polyphonic). Boje (2000b) provides a review of the four voices of leadership.

The Leaderly types depicted in Figure One (color coded by their arrows) are listed below in Table One. Note these are the ideal types. The point to be made is rarely does the bureaucrat stay in the ideal, and to transaction instead of transformation, or serve people instead of power, or stay monophonic figurehead rather than involve other voices.  The leader is always switching from one modality to another 

Table One: Leaderly Types across Three Dimensions

TYPE of Modality X dimension Y dimension Z dimension


Transaction Serve Mono


Transaction Power Mono


Transformation Serve Mono

Superman/ Superwoman

Transformation Power Mono


Transaction Serve Poly


Transaction Power Poly


Transformation Serve Poly
Revolutionary Transformation Power Poly


    Dualities - X, Y, and Z in Figure One and Table One present the basic dualities along three attitudes, I wish to deconstruct.  And after deconstruction, our next task is to make them doubles. By doubles, I mean the masking of one as the other and the derivation of one as its opposite. For example, since executives in corporate bureaucracies are supposed to serve the will of the people, be they investors, customers or associates, the use of the Will to Power is not socially acceptable.  The collective conspires to insure their executive exhibits the Will to Serve. Nevertheless, look around and your will see, the bureaucracy is full of Princely leaders, each amassing power, ambitious for power, and happily constructing fiefdoms within the Weberian rational-legal authority structure that was meant to stop such feudal practices. In this sense, I hypothesize the each leader struggles with the the X, Y, and Z dualities; am I being Will to Power or Will to Serve, Transactional or Transformational, Mono-voiced or Polyphonic? It is this existential struggle that has evaded leadership theories, that have simply assigned a leader to one category or another, without investigation leaderly consciousness, to trace how the leader is playing the doubles, along several attitudes. 

    Modalities - How do I know what leader I am being.  I have an intent to be a Heroic Leader character, but my Will to Power modality is also apparent. I desire to pass from some other Leader modality of my being to another one; at each modality, I do not quite realize it, and when I reflect upon that being, I nihilate it, in favor of the Others.  Say, for example, I want to pass from a cowardly to a courageous leader. Am I able to escape my current modality of being a leader? I try to apprehend myself as no being cowardly.  I tell myself, "I am not this cowardly leader." I deny the thoughts empirical actions and character qualities   that possess cowardice and can not see clearly what being I am.  I begin to constitute the leaderly being I am not, in this example, the courageous Heroic leader modality. I am in what Sartre (1956: 67) calls the "perpetual nihilation" since my non-being is "perpetually in question in human reality." I am not yet capable of determining my self as courageous, but nevertheless escape my cowardice at every moment; I nihilate cowardice and my Heroic Leader escapes at every moment.  The sincerity of my Heroic character must be in bad faith, since I know what I am, a coward. In truth my Heroic character has not persuade me inner self that I am more courageous than cowardly. I look for an act of Heroism to affirm my being-in-the-world. 

    In Figure One, each arrow points to a modality that is in perpetual nihilation. The leader at each point in time is simultaneous being that modality and not being what they are.  My modality of leadership stands in relation to the other modalities of being  that I am not. I struggle to attain a modality of being and am prevented from within from attaining it. I am on a continual journey from one modality of leaderly being to a leaderly modality that is not what I am.  Yet as Sartre argues throughout Being and Nothingness, "I am what I am." And from time to time I self-reflect and confess to myself which modality coincides with my being. 

    The collective has said that being a Prince or Superman (Superwoman) is evil. The social critics demand that I confess and disavow all will to power. If you are in the will to power, you reap a terrible judgment of the collectivity. The Prince, for example, will say, "I am not the Prince, I am the Hero."  If I sincerely confess my will to power, I can see myself as an object of power, and move along to a more socially acceptable character (or modality in Figure One). I seek to change my story of myself to myself and to the collective.  I do this by changing my thoughts, my actions, and seek new habits and character that define for me a new destiny. I constitute myself as a manifest object of power in order to become a servant of the people (so I tell myself). 

    Indeed my Jain name is "Arihanta" meaning "conqueror of inner enemies" and my inner enemy today is my will to power which is in perpetual battle with my will to serve.  As a leader I play one attitude of myself against the other, in each dimension (X, Y, and Z). I play transaction against transformation, power against serve, and mono-voice against inviting a poly of voices into my leaderly circle. I acknowledge my will to power so I might become a leader with a will to serve.  I acknowledge what I am in order no longer to be what I am. I am will to power, but I lay claim to will to serve. And when I become will to serve, I lay claim to will to power. Wherever I stand, I am nihilating my self with the "sow and reap" principle. I sow a thought to become an action that is out of character. I sow this action often enough and it becomes a habit, and soon I reap another modal character, which becomes for me a destiny I have chosen to become. This is how I lay claim to a new modality, and move from one to another in Figure One.



Sow a thought, reap an action

Sow an action, reap a habit

Sow a habit, reap a character

Sow a character, reap a destiny



    Doubles  - To sow and reap is to recognize the doubles on each dimension in Figure One.  The Reform leader is the double of the Revolutionary (one serves the people, the other is the will to power). The Prince is the double of the Bureaucrat, pretending not to be the Prince. Take the leader who acts as the conquering hero, when his or her role is mainly ornamental. The Government leader is supposed to serve the people and be above seeking power from Opinion leaderly behavior, but is this ever the case? Will to Serve is what society has socially constructed their leaderly performance to be. But as Sartre (1956: 63) reminds us, let us not forge that each modality of leadership is realized by our consent, where one modality is selected over another. The Prince and the Superman are the doubles of the Bureaucrat and the Hero, each arrived at by consent.  Both the Prince and the Superman are socially consigned to nothingness, but their doubles point to their very existence. Do leaders distract themselves from conscious awareness of their Will to Power? Or is pretending not to have Will to Power a conscious strategy, a move in politics of corporate power?  The Will to Power is a pleasure, leaders and followers have been socialized to dread.  To masquerade as Hero instead of Superman/ Superwoman is the more socially acceptable path.  Yet, if we look around, the strongman is everywhere. 

    Why does the Prince pretend to be a servant leader? This masquerade is staged in the hopes that the collective will suspends its surveillance of leaderly power wielding. And there is that internal struggle, our internalized spectator, who gazes our being, castigating our will to power, demanding I be the servant leader.  There is no reason to assume that the Servant Leader, even a spiritual one, does not have a will to power. My theory is that there is a dimension of leadership extending from will to serve to will to power, and leadership scholars look at only half of the leader stories (restricting it to will to serve and the attitudes of concern for people and concern for task). 

    And this brings us to a method issue for the field of leadership. Since the Princes disguise their will to power (to self and others), who can fault leadership theorists for confusing the theatrical mask of will to serve for the face that is hidden from plain view.  I will argue that leadership has crafted an existential theory and practice that has a huge blind spot. In practice, princes disguise their will to power by wearing the mask of the will to serve. By studying the mask, most of the phenomenon of leadership is without serious scholarship. 

    Facticity - Sartre (1956: 83) writes about "Facticity," as only being one indication that I give myself of the being, in my case, the leaderly being I unite in order to be what I am. Facticity is one part of the pre-reflective cogito. Sartre (1956: 83) contends that "it is impossible to grasp facticity in its brute nudity, since all that we will find of it is already recovered and freely constructed." I could determine myself to be born a "Bureaucrat," a slave to the university hierarchy, and resist the idea that I am the "Prince." My facticity does not support me being Superman. I must play at being this or that leader in order to be one, and when I reflect upon the facticity of my leadership, I see several masks and what Sartre calls the "evanescent contingency of my situation" (p. 83-84).   I can not be any kind of leader without playing at being some kind of leader.  yet when I reflect upon the leader modality I am playing, I get engulfed in nihilating that mode, reflecting on how I am not that, or not fully that role.  Her and there I see that facticity, but I constitute the evanescent unity of my leadership through not only facticity but intuition and even spiritual reflection. 

    Nihilating Act - It is in the nihilating act of reflection that I grasp my being leader.  I hold in consciousness my being and not being leader in whatever modality and along whatever attitude.  

"Thus consciousness holds within itself its own being-as-consciousness, and since it is its own nihilation, it can refer only to itself; but that which is [nihilated] in consciousness-though we can not call it the foundation of consciousness-is the contingent in itself (1956: 83, addition as suggested by translator). 

I reflect upon my leadership as plurality, on that has its meaning in its contingency, and into enters being and also nothingness in acts of nihilating reflection. I nihilate the being of each modality in Figure One, and am partially aware that I switch masks, and conscious awareness from one scene change to the next. The nihilating act is part of being leader. It is an ontological act. It is the putting into question my being leader, and thus sustains my being leaderly. My leadership can not have being since I do not see it; it is nothingness, a simple faith that persists my nihilation. My leadership is both multiplicity and this unity.

    How Can We Study the Condemned Half of Leadership, the Will to Power?  First, we must study the acts of censorship that edit out will to power from leadership discourse and in its place substitute the will to serve. Second, because censors must be partially aware of the will to power   in order to know what to edit and repress, we can study their clippings on the edit room floor. I propose to do this by taking an existential look at several editions of the Handbook of Leadership

    Editing out Will to Power from the Handbook of Leadership. My hypothesis is that if we lay the various editions of Stogdill and then Bass' Handbook side by side, we can trace the editing out of Will to Power. A corollary is that Handbook editors establish over time, a veritable duality between the uncensored and censored portions of this text. Yet the censored half and the half that remains constitutes the whole textual system of the Handbook. The marginalized half is disguised, repressed, and otherwise marginal to the privileged half.  This then is what Derrida and Sartre term a "double action," the repression and attraction, of a text, in this case the Will to Power. 

    I am tracing the historical roots of this double, this cleavage of the field of leadership into its main duality.  For me, the trace leaders to James MacGregor Burns' (1978) seminal work on leadership.   Burns did not view Will to Power as a rightful heir to the term "leadership." Tracing his steps in forming the duality of transactional and transformational leaders, there is a second, less obvious dimension of the Will to Serve versus Will to Power.  For Burns, leaders must be moral agents with a Will to Serve, not power-wielders, or those who write of them, such as the likes of Nietzsche and Machiavelli (See Boje, 2000a).  His initial chapters work through the basis of his duality by showing the corrupting moral influence of ambition.  As Bass (1985) develops his rendition of the Burns' duality of Transaction versus Transformational leadership, the hidden moral dimension, of Will to Serve versus Will to Power is carried along with it. 

    From the 1st to 2nd and subsequent editions of the Handbook of Leadership, there is a masquerade to mask the Will to Power by banishing it from the text. But, the text has left existential traces of its presence. Sartre (1966: 64) argues the censor may be conscious of the drive to repress. The Handbook of Leadership has to locate what it is about to conceal and then disguise and repress. "Each of the two aspects of this activity (locate and repress) is complementary to the other; that is, it implies the other in its being" (Sartre, 1966: 64). The Handbook editors must have some awareness of the tracks they are leaving. 

    So here we see the problem in two connected arenas. First, in the practice of leadership, where the Prince pretends to be a loyal Bureaucrat. Second, in the theory of leadership, where the Prince (and Superman/ Superwoman) is assumed away, concealed, and repressed. The problem is how to study a phenomenon that disguises and passes itself off as the whole that is but half (i.e. what is uncensored plus what is censored constitutes the whole textual system).  How do censors "locate" the Will to Power that they are motivated to "disguise" and "repress"? How does the marginalization of the Will to Power work its sleight of hand? "Each of the two aspects of this activity is complementary to the other; that is, it implies the other in its being" (Sartre, 1966: 64). 

The Analysis is perpetually under Re-Construction

    The analysis of the Handbook of Leadership in its varied editions will allow us to trace where the Will to Power gets located, denied, and then marginalized. And, it will let us explore the hatred of Will to Power in leadership theory. 


Existential Web Site   

Ionesco - Leadership of the Absurd - Boje


Bass, B. M. (1981) Handbook of Leadership: A survey of theory and research. NY: Free Press.  

Boje, D. M. (2000a) Theatrics of Leadership Model. 

Boje, D. M. (2000b) Four Voices of Leadership

Burns, James MacGregor (1978) Leadership. NY: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Jennings, Eugene E. (1960) An Anatomy of Leadership : Princes, heroes, and supermen. NY: McGraw-Hill Publishers. 

Machiavelli, Niccolo (1610) Prince. Amsterdam/NY: DA Capo Press Theatrvm Orbis Terrarvm Ltd. English version 1968.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1883-1888) The Will to Power. Translated by Walter Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale. NY: Vintage Books (Random House). Source for Superman & Superwoman theory of leadership. English 1967.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1963). Search for a Method. Translated from the French by Hazel E. Barnes. NY: Vintage Books (A Division of Random House).  

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. NY: Philosophical Library. This is the first English Edition of Sartre's L'Etre et le Neant and includes sections of Existential Psychoanalysis. 

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1966) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. NY: Washington Square Press, Inc. This is a post-1956 edition whose pages have become unglued.