According to the definition given by Thomas Maak and Nicola Pless, responsible leadership is “the art of building and sustaining morally sound relationships with all relevant stakeholders of an organization” (1). Their model is based on the idea that a responsible leader fulfils specific roles. In this article, we confront it with the case of a leader who is a “sore loser.”
1. The Maak and Pless model
Based on the relationships between leaders and stakeholders, Maak and Pless propose a “roles-model” of responsible leadership. It is based on the following theses:
(a) leadership is moral and value-based by nature;
(b) a responsible leader is a moral person, not in the sense of having high moral qualities, but in the sense of upholding and realising moral values – he or she “should be led by desirable virtues and principles, such as respect, care, honesty, accountability, humility, trust and active citizenship” (2);
(c) responsible leadership is relational, as a leader intervenes in a complex network of relationships involving stakeholders – responsible leaders “engage stakeholders in an active dialogue, include different voices, take their interests and needs seriously and assess them in a thorough reflection process” (3);
(d) in particular, a responsible leader must “foster collaboration and […] mobilize and align these stakeholders (with different backgrounds, values and sometimes conflicting interests) with respect to a commonly shared vision” (4);
(e) a responsible leader assumes two categories of roles in his or her relationships with stakeholders: those based on values, which have a normative content (steward, citizen, servant and visionary), and those of a more operational nature (architect, change agent, coach and storyteller) (5); these roles “describe different characteristics of a responsible leader” (6);
(f) they form a coherent and integrated whole, a gestalt: they “overlap and do not reflect different persons, but one integrative person” (7).
The following quotation summarises and clarifies the content of the roles included in Maak and Pless’ model:
“The various roles which will be outlined below are part of an integrated whole. They are neither isolated from each other, nor do they reflect a different action logic. […]
Leaders need to exercise certain roles: being a steward and as such a custodian of values and resources; a good citizen and thus an active and caring member of communities; a servant to others; as well as a visionary by providing inspiration and perspective with respect to a desirable future. […] Connected to these roles are the more ‘‘operational’’ ones of being the architect of inclusive systems, processes and a moral infrastructure; change agent and transforming leader; coach by supporting followers; and storyteller and meaning enabler, that is the creator and communicator of moral experience and enabler of shared systems of meaning.” (8)
2. A leader who is a sore loser cannot be responsible
The theses of Maak and Pless’ model seem to exclude the possibility that a leader who is a sore loser – a sore loser who is not ephemeral but stubborn, trapped in a quasi-permanent state, obsessed by his or her resentment, as could be the loser of economic competition or, in the political field, that of a presidential election – could be considered responsible. Clearly, it does not satisfy theses (a), (b), (c) and (d).
One can always try to argue that such a leader occasionally plays one or more of the eight roles described by Maak and Pless. This may be only marginally successful. But it will lack the moral foundation that is present in the performance of each of the roles – and, more broadly, in the definition of responsible leadership recalled at the beginning of this article.
Let’s take two examples. The first is the role of steward. Maak and Pless “suggest to think of a responsible leader as someone who understands herself as a custodian of social, moral and environmental values and resources” (9). But a leader who is a sore loser cannot have this view of himself or herself. This would require a change of mind-set and a sincere admission of defeat – abandoning the role of a sore loser.
The role of coach leads to a similar conclusion. It also has a moral basis. Indeed, the leader as coach “ensures that the interactive processes are fair and inclusive, so that people from different backgrounds feel recognized and respected and encouraged to contribute to their highest potential” (10). But how can a leader who is a sore loser – whose behaviour is biased because he or she does not acknowledge his defeat – work for fairness and recognition of others?
After extending this analysis to other roles, it would be easy to conclude that the sore loser cannot, without contradiction, assume the roles characteristic of responsible leadership. He or she is prevented from doing so by his or her attitude, state of mind or even turn of mind. Our question “Can a sore loser be a responsible leader?” must therefore be answered in the negative.
3. Justification: the quest for personal significance
One difficulty remains to be clarified. In the model of Maak and Pless, the moral component of responsible leadership, which is common to all eight roles, helps to bring them together into a coherent whole, a gestalt (11). However, we assumed that the mindset of a sore loser leader was robust enough to prevent him or her from acting in the way that a responsible leader would. The cause of this robustness deserves to be rapidly explored.
Our previous article discussed the theory of causal attribution to explain the behaviour of the sore loser (12). But other explanations can be found in political psychology. They aim, in particular, to account for the difference in the way winners and losers in an electoral competition react – the “winner-loser gap” (13). The general principle is that “people prefer winning to losing” (14). Psychological explanations focus on the emotions caused by winning or losing, as well as on cognitive processes such as cognitive dissonance. In the latter case, losers (specifically those who voted for the losing candidate) experience inconsistency in their beliefs and attitudes, and seek to regain cognitive balance.
The search for balance is also referred to in the quest for personal significance theory. In the words of Arie Kruglanski and his colleagues, who developed it, “the quest for significance is the fundamental desire to matter, to be someone, to have respect. [It] constitutes a major, universal, human motivation variously labeled as the need for esteem, achievement, meaning, competence, control, and so on” (15). The meaning targeted by the quest for significance relates, in the words of Estelle Morin, to “the experience of coherence, cohesion, balance, even plenitude” (16). The search for significance is triggered by two types of situations: the loss of significance and the opportunity to gain significance (17).
The theory of the quest for personal significance was invoked in 2020 by Katarzyna Jasko and her colleagues to explain the behaviour of voters following the 2016 US presidential election. The authors were particularly interested in “the extent to which a defeat in elections induces a loss of personal significance should motivate voters’ subsequent political actions” (18). Their assumptions about the defeated camp are strikingly topical:
“Among those whose candidate lost the election, we predicted that the greater their experienced loss of significance, the lower their willingness to accept the election results. They should be less likely to engage in post-election rationalization [an after-the-fact adjustment of their beliefs to the outcome of the election] and less willing to perceive the electoral process as fair and justified. Moreover, we predicted that the more losers would feel they are personally humiliated by an unsatisfactory outcome, the more motivated they should be to regain significance through political action against the elected president.”
These hypotheses (which have been verified) also concern, mutatis mutandis, the defeated candidate. This is all the more the case when the defeated candidate is the outgoing president, since he is twice the loser: the election was unfavourable to him and the power conferred on him by his status was withdrawn.
It is understandable that the state of mind of the sore loser leader is incompatible with the prescriptions of responsible leadership. It is not a question of degree, rather a difference in structure – or gestalt, as Maak and Pless put it. The character and conduct of a leader who is a loser must be seen as a coherent whole, a totality, reflecting the character and conduct of a responsible leader. In a strong sense, he cannot be a responsible leader.
(1) T. Maak & N. M. Pless, “Introduction: The quest for responsible leadership in business,” in T. Maak & N. M. Pless (eds), The responsible leadership, Routledge, 2006.
(2) T. Maak & N. M. Pless, “Responsible leadership in a stakeholder society: A relational perspective,” Journal of Business Ethics, 66, 2006, pp. 99-115.
(5) See also N. M. Pless, “Understanding responsible leadership: Role identity and motivational drivers,” Journal of Business Ethics, 74, 2007, pp. 437-456. Pless adds a ninth operational role: networker.
(6) N. M. Pless, 2007, op. cit.
(7) T. Maak & N. M. Pless, “Responsible leadership: A relational approach,” in T. Maak & N. M. Pless (eds), The responsible leadership, Routledge, 2006.
(8) T. Maak & N. M. Pless, “Responsible leadership in a stakeholder society: A relational perspective,” op. cit. Defined by James McGregor Burns, the transformational leader “revitalises an organisation and seeks to transform employees through vision, charisma, style and purpose, stimulating their team by encouraging employees to transcend their personal interests and, above all, by having a deep and lasting influence.” (J.-L. Plane, “Leadership et management dans un monde qui change,” in Théories du leadership. Modèles classiques et contemporains, Paris, Dunod, 2015.)
(9) T. Maak & N. M. Pless, “Responsible leadership in a stakeholder society: A relational perspective,” op. cit.
(11) These are “virtues and principles of value” that guide the practices of the responsible leader, according to thesis (b) above.
(12) See for instance E. McAuley, D. Russell & J. B. Gross, “Affective Consequences of winning and losing: An attributional analysis,” Journal of Sport Psychology, 4(1), 1983, pp. 167-76.
(13) See C. Anderson, A. Blais, S. Bowler, T. Donovan & O. Listhaug, Losers’ consent: Elections and democratic legitimacy, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.
(15) A. W. Kruglanski, M. J. Gelfand, J. J. Bélanger, A.Sheveland, M. Hetiarachchi & R. Gunaratna, “The psychology of radicalization and deradicalization: How significance quest impacts violent extremism,” Political Psychology, 35(1), 2014, pp. 69-93.
(16) Estelle Morin, « Sens du travail, santé mentale et engagement organisationnel », Rapport R-543, IRSST, 2008.
(17) According to Julie Caouette, “the loss of meaning can be caused by various situations that lower the individual’s self-esteem.” (J. Caouette (ed.), La science de la radicalisation et de la déradicalisation : une synthèse des connaissances permettant de détecter, prévenir et d’intervenir sur la base des données probantes, Rapport de recherche, 2018.)
(18) K. Jasko, J. Grzymala-Moszczynska, M. Maj, M. Szastok & A. W. Kruglanski, “Making Americans feel great again? Personal significance predicts political intentions of losers and winners of the 2016 U.S. election,” Political Psychology, 41(4), 2020, pp. 717-736.