Leadership Philosophy Illustrated by the Example of Robert Owen, Pioneer of the Cooperative Movement


What are your beliefs and perspectives regarding leadership? What do you think makes an effective leader? Illustrated by the example of Robert Owen, the acknowledged pioneer of the cooperative movement, a leader’s goal, effectiveness, and fellowship is assessed. The brief analysis bases on evidence from research in relevant leadership theories.

General Definition of Leadership

Many of the greatest villains in history were, in some way, successful leaders when the definition of leadership is considered independent of good or evil intentions [1]. In that sense, leadership is generally defined as the “ability to inspire confidence and support among the people who are needed to achieve organizational goals” ([2], p.2). In a capitalist economy, the most basic organizational goal is to compete for profits. Socially responsible and socially irresponsible behavior both are equally present in corporate environments as either of them is exerted only as long as they are underrepresented and therefore providing for a competitive advantage [3].

Robert Owen: Father of the Cooperative Movement & Transformational Leadership

I have chosen British man Robert Owen, who acknowledgedly spurred the cooperative movement as a visionary of cooperative values to address societal issues [4], such as improving labor conditions, reforming education, and banning child labor in factories [5]. Rather than relying on authoritarian power to keep people complying with leadership [1], Owen emphasized benevolence and the desire to promote the welfare of others [5]. Owen’s leadership style was, rather than transactional, much more transformational, i.e., visionary and appealing to people’s good nature [6]. Owen may be even an example of an authentic leader. Authentic leadership is one of the latest theories in the field and focuses leaders authenticity of values, trustfulness, and open communication [7].

Leadership as a Context-sensitive Process

While earlier leadership theories studied individual traits and behavior of leaders without appropriate attention to context [6], modern leadership research integrates bidirectional processes between leaders and followers that are context and time sensitive. [8]. As a reformer and pioneer of socialism in Britain, Robert Owen non-violently led change [9] that may have informed later human resource development (HRD) approaches towards fair and nurturing workplaces [10].  Owen’s communitarian society experiments like ‘New Harmony’ in the US became, albeit not directly achieving its aspirations, valuable for progress in scientific research and the co-operative movement. Owens inconsistency between his optimism to radically change society on the one hand, and his sense for the need of gradual change on the other hand, helped him to inspire a broad variety of different people over time [11]. Because of his persisting beliefs despite failure [11], his courage to lead, his rhetorical skills, and his progressive view on the determining impact of the environment on character contributed positively to Owen’s persuasiveness [12].

Leadership Grandiosity and Followers’ Motives

Some researchers put leadership facets like grandiosity into the context of a narcissistic personality type that is characterized by the belief of superiority in achieving social needs through the self-motive of helping others [13]. The propagation of the advent of a new moral world by the second coming of Christ as a common transatlantic aspect of Owenism [5] may have resonated with followers desire for psychological safety [14]. Other motives to follow the Owenite movement were community creation, self-employment, and exclusive and profitable business opportunities [15]. Figures like Ernestine Rose, an American representative of the women’s rights movement of the 19th century, became followers of Robert Owen because he helped them to reinforce their belief in the possible change towards a more just society [16].

Photo credit: Eliens (pixabay.com)


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[2] DuBrin, A. J. (2015). Leadership: Research Findings, Practice, and Skills (8th ed.). Cengage Learning.

[3] DeMaCarty, P. (2009). Financial Returns of Corporate Social Responsibility, and the Moral Freedom and Responsibility of Business Leaders. Business And Society Review: Journal Of The Center For Business Ethics At Bentley College, 114(3), 393-433.

[4] María Fernanda, L. G. (2013). La teoría sobre la naturaleza del hombre y la sociedad en el pensamiento de Robert Owen como base del socialismo británico (1813-1816) / Robert Owen’s Theory on the Nature of Man and Society as a Base for British Socialism (1813-1816) / A teoria sobre a natureza do homem e da sociedade no pensamento de Robert Owen como base do socialismo britânico (1813-1816). Historia Crítica, (50), 213.

[5] Harrison, J. C. (1968). THE OWENITE SOCIALIST MOVEMENT IN BRITAIN AND THE UNITED STATES. Labor History, 9(3), 323.

[6] Doyle, M. E., & Smith, M. K. (2001). Classical models of managerial leadership: Trait, behavioural, contingency and transformational theory. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/leadership/traditional_leadership.htm

[7] Billsberry, J., & North-Samardzic, A. (2016). Surfacing Authentic Leadership: Inspiration from “After Life”. Journal Of Leadership Education, 15(2), 1-13.

[8] Dinh, J. E., Lord, R. G., Gardner, W. L., Meuser, J. D., Liden, R. C., & Hu, J. (2014). Leadership theory and research in the new millennium: Current theoretical trends and changing perspectives. Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 36-62.

[9] Sirucek, P. (2015). Polozapomenute postavy ekonomickeho mysleni–Robert Owen. (Half-Forgotten Personalities of Economic Thought–Robert Owen. With English summary.). Acta Oeconomica Pragensia, 23(4), 78-85.

[10] Hatcher, T. (2013). Robert Owen: A historiographic study of a pioneer of human resource development. European Journal Of Training And Development, 37(4), 414-431. doi:10.1108/03090591311319799

[11] Mclaren, D. J. (1996). Robert Owen, William Maclure and New Harmony. History Of Education, 25(3), 223-33.

[12] Lambert, P. (1966). A New Light on Owen and Co-operatives of the Pre-Rochdale Type. Annals Of Public & Co-Operative Economy, 37(3), 305.

[13] Humphreys, J. )., Hayek, M. )., Pane Haden, S. )., Williams, J. )., Novicevic, M. )., & Gibson, J. ). (2016). Disharmony in New Harmony: insights from the narcissistic leadership of Robert Owen. Journal Of Management History, 22(2), 146-170. doi:10.1108/JMH-05-2015-0167

[14] Raes, E., Decuyper, S., Lismont, B., Van den Bossche, P., Kyndt, E., Demeyere, S., & Dochy, F. (2013). Facilitating Team Learning through Transformational Leadership. Instructional Science: An International Journal Of The Learning Sciences, 41(2), 287-305.

[15] Thornes, R. (1981). Co-operation and the English Working-class movement 1816-44. Bulletin — Society For The Study Of Labour History, (43), 4-5.

[16] Anderson, B. S. (2017). The New Moral World. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199756247.003.0003