General Observation of Leadership Themes in Turkey
by Marie Farley, PhD Student, Catholic University of America
What does it mean to be a Turk? Because of the tumultuous cultural and political upheaval of the early twentieth century, Turks possess a national identity that grasps both for tradition and modernity. This paradox places difficult challenges on Turkish leaders, who are expected to care deeply about the rights and welfare of followers while also maintaining conventional autocratic authority. One possible solution to this dilemma is to introduce a servant style of leadership. Servant leadership theory posits that servant leaders emphasize grassroots change, teach followers to help themselves, and allow their followers to achieve greater self-determination. This includes determining what it means to be Turkish and how Turks should be led. By following servant leaders like Fethullah Gulen, Turks will have a greater ability to decide what it means to be Turkish.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Turkish national identity is that it draws both from a 624 year empire and a more modern heritage that largely rejected those six centuries of identity formation. A national identity is feeling of belonging to a certain nation based on shared cultural, political, and economic practices. Presently, as Ed-Richard Tapper notes, “Turk’ designates an ethnoreligious characteristic of the political community—an attribute which is found among some of the citizens, albeit very few.” During the early twentieth century, a drastic change in the Turkish political condition gave the new leader, Atatürk, the opportunity to redefine what being a “Turk” means. Atatürk and his followers, the Kemalists, set out to alter the Turkish national identity in an attempt to westernize and modernize Turkey. Though Atatürk officially described a Turk as “someone who feels the bonds and benefits of citizenship,” the feeling of this inclusion is highly dependent upon accepting a string of identifying factors such language and religion. Thus, anyone who did not meet these characteristics—for example those who self-identified as Kurds—was not treated equally. Therefore, in his attempt to modernize Turkey, Atatürk introduced and emphasized social differences.
In many ways, the Ottomans were more modern in their approach to leadership than the 20th century Kemalists. As George S. Harris, author of Turkey: Coping with a Crisis notes, “A distinguishing feature of the Ottomans was their gift for government organization.” The Ottoman delegation of powers permitted the inclusion of various ethnic and religious groups, which allowed for greater toleration and stability between various groups of people. In diplomatic terms, the Ottomans demonstrated much greater maturity in balancing international power plays than the twentieth century Kemalists. Rather than attempting international isolation, the Ottomans desired to be engaged with, as opposed to dependent on, the west in order to balance alliances in Europe and the Middle East. Hence, the Ottoman Empire could exist at a cultural crossroads for such an extended period of time.
When Atatürk remade Turkey in the 1920s, he did not completely abandon the Ottoman past. Rather, he chose what he wished to save based on a semi-formulated theory of leadership and government: he chose to emphasize what would make Turkey seem more historically important and powerful. Atatürk removed traditional and historical elements central to Turkey’s national identity in order to westernize and modernize Turkey. Generally, as Graham Fuller notes, westernization is not about becoming like the west, but rather becoming powerful like the west. As Joshua Walker comments, “Imperial identities that are supplanted by national identities carry with them the expectations of international prestige and great power status that characterized the former grandeur of the empire.” Therefore, to make Turkey powerful in its own way, Atatürk had to remove any obstacles that stole the allegiance of the Turkish people away from the state, namely Islam. Atatürk removed the Islamic caliphate, dissolved Islamic courts, banned religious brotherhoods, moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara, and forbid certain types of clothing, such as the fez. In a highly Rousseauistic line of thinking, Atatürk sought to remove or wean the people off of religion so that secularism and Kemalism, which essentially preached dedication to Atatürk and the state, could become the new religion. In fact, as Sami Zubaida notes, secular voters regard Atatürk as the first among the great men of all time, even before the Prophet. Hence, Atatürk secured the allegiance of the people by making loyalty to himself and his government an integral part of the Turkish national identity. As Eric Rouoleau notes, “the principle of secularism, or the separation of church and state, has been replaced by a system that places Islam under the control of a secular government.” So, in effect, the Turkish sense of identity is one that struggles with placing centuries of religious dominance under a false secularism that essentially preaches idol worship with a great leader as the national idol.
In a similarly Rousseaustic vein, Atatürk chose to continue the Ottoman tradition of emphasizing the military in Turkish society. To this day, the army is the primary guardian of the Kemalist legacy as it was designed to protect the country from a return to an Islamic-based polity or the promotion of non-Turkish ethnic identities. As Jeffrey Haynes notes, “despite Turkey’s current status as a ‘partly free’ country in Freedom House terminology, implying that the political system is characterized by a fair degree of democracy, the military retains high political salience in Turkey, which may put in doubt the country’s long term democratic consolidation.” This creates a paradox within the role of the military in Turkey: the military attempts to further democracy through non-democratic resources and methods. Indeed, the armed forces see it as their responsibility to monitor political developments so as to preserve national security. Since the military is loyal to Kemalist principles, the role of the military is to maintain the broken national identity that is still so problematic in Turkey today.
Still, all of Atatürk’s efforts could not completely destroy the Ottoman cultural elements that were essential to maintaining a lasting empire. Though the Ottomans thought highly of distinguished social hierarchies and classes, they valued (for the most part), toleration in order to maintain their empire. It was much easier to maintain the allegiance of distant towns by tolerating their cultural differences rather than by purposefully alienating certain groups in order to attain greater social cohesion among the large ruling group—or, in terms of leadership theory, the “in-group.” The “in-group” is a term that derives from Leader-Member-Exchange (LMX) Theory. LMX Theory essentially postulates that by attempting to unite the followers most directly associated with the leader, the leader isolates others followers who are unable to meet with the leader regularly. In short, LMX Theory suggests that leaders favor those who they know or those who are similar to them. The problem that LMX creates in the Turkish context is that, as Haynes notes, a defining characteristic of Turkish national identity is a pronounced fear of outsiders. Atatürks definition of what it means to be a Turk is highly inclusive even within the Turkish state. “Outsiders” does not just designate foreigners, but also those different from the Kemalist’s chosen people—those who do not speak Turkish, agree with Kemalist policies, or self-identify as Turks because of their marked differences. So, in terms of leadership theory, the problem of Atatürk’s definition of “Turk” is that it creates a distinct in-group that reaps the benefits of the state and a clear out-group that is treated as a societal outcast and made to comply against its own sense of self-identity.
In the post-Atatürk world, however, the problem created by the dynamics of LMX Theory has evolved into one of Turkey’s most notorious social problems. Even those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern regional or domestic politics have probably at least heard of the Kurdish question. The Kurdish question spawned the rise of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is an internationally recognized terrorist organization. One of the PKK’s goals is to secure a separate Kurdistan for the Kurds. This indicates that during the twentieth century, the efforts to define what it meant to be Turkish created an in-group dynamic whereby the Kurds were the out-group. Kurds fail to meet the cultural and ethnic requirements that Atatürk created when he redefined the Turkish national identity. This explanation in no way justifies the actions of the PKK but it does explain why the group exists; it exists because of the isolating effects of dramatically redefining the Turkish national identity in the early twentieth century.
So how can modern Turkish leaders help solve this problem? According to preeminent leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns, an ideal leader is someone who raises their followers to higher levels of motivation and morality in order to secure the end goal of happiness. In the Turkish context, this may mean a leader who can balance the best of the past and present in order to secure a stable future. In the sense of preserving the best of tradition in order to reach the pinnacle of human happiness, it is a Burkian style of leadership. But finding the fortunate merge of “the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages” is not enough when leaders mush also earn the loyalty of their followers. In Turkey’s recent historical context, there is no better example of a leader securing faithfulness than Atatürk. Atatürk was and continues to be loved because he stabilized and protected the country, while also creating a sense of what it meant to be Turkish in a supposedly progressive and modern context. In fact, the naming of Atatürk—father of the Turks—“epitomized the crystallization of a strong personality cult, which with the aid of modern technology, bound the populace to his leadership.” He molded himself into a rallying point to which people responded. But this rallying point was also controversial and isolating, which accounts for some of the social problems present in Turkey today. The lesson of Atatürk and the task for the new leadership must be to create unity without also creating isolation. Therefore, the ideal leader mush search for similarities and compatibilities amongst the people in order to unite them. He must be, in effect, a servant leader.
Servant leadership means “helping others to accomplish shared objectives by facilitating individual development, empowerment, and collective work that is consistent with the health and long-term welfare of followers.” Servant leaders must oppose social injustice and inequality whenever possible. To clarify, this means that servant leaders must strive for fair and equal treatment in their state or organization. Since servant leaders wish to serve rather than take on traditional authoritarian roles, they emphasize grassroots efforts in order to create meaningful change. By emphasizing individual development and empowerment, servant leaders can assist followers to make their own changes; they lead their followers to become servant leaders themselves. In effect, the goal of a servant leader is to create a community ready and willing to help not only one another but also those outside of the community. Therefore, the role of a servant leader is to help create an identity for the followers. This identity must be inclusive and able to allow for peaceful relations with all groups of people, both foreign and domestic.
Using a grassroots approach is especially important in the Turkish context because instead of uniting all people under the guidance of one leader, it will unite people based on both the idea and practice of actively serving others. It is difficult to oppose the enemy when one cannot identify or separate the enemy from those ideas that are becoming more conventional. Further, the tenets of servant leadership—respect, tolerate, and serve others because it is the right thing to do—is an answer to the question of how a leader could unite Turkey without isolating others. If the leader’s rallying point is respect and toleration, including for enemies, then no one is isolated. The message is to serve everyone so as to bring them to the same side. Once all people are united and civically aware, they can begin forming an inclusive national identity. This national identity should be distinct from the previous nationalistic national identity as it will bend more toward patriotism. Nationalism is blindly maintaining loyalty to one’s country. Patriotism is being able to measure a country’s performance against a universal standard of morality. The universal standard of morality against which patriots judge their nation is given by the nature of the servant leader’s dedication to the principles and tenets of servant leadership theory.
In the modern Turkish context, M. Fethullah Gulen is one example of someone demonstrating principles akin to those of servant leadership theory. His organization, Hizmet, or the Gulen Movement, emphasizes multiple kinds of toleration—including religious, ethnic, and gender toleration. The movement funds grassroots level services like orphanages, businessmen and women, and academics—allowing the members of those respective communities to become servant leaders themselves. In this way, the Gulen Movement demonstrates a dedication to service. In fact, “Hizmet” translates from Turkish to English as “service.” Therefore, the Gulen Movement preaches service as an essential feature and goal of the organization. Bottom-up planning is the method through which this service is carried out. As Fuller notes, the Gulen Movement “focuses on bringing about gradual social change in Turkish life through propagation of Islamic values at the grassroots level rather than through political or other top-down means.” However the Islamic values propagated are ones respectable by the standards of most religions or theories of morality: peace, toleration, service, dedication and so forth. The aim is to propagate human values through an Islamic context, which will most likely resonate with the people due to their Islamic heritage. In effect, Hizmet aims to serve others and teach others the value of service and service learning by appealing to the Turkish people’s cultural history.
However, there are some aspects of the Gulen Movement that make it seemingly incompatible with servant leadership theory. The name “Gulen Movement,” which Gulen himself disfavors, makes the association appear hierarchical and autocratic. It also gives Gulen more credit than he would seek as a servant leader. While seemingly innocuous, the name issue has created an identifiable target for the opposition—so much so that Gulen currently lives in Pennsylvania in order to avoid political and legal harassment in Turkey. Living in the United States has allowed Gulen to foster greater international involvement in the movement by founding international Gulen schools and other organizations dedicated to his ideas. However, his relocation has separated him from the actual experience of living in the Turkish context and therefore his ability to understand developing cultural changes on a personal level. Yet, if servant leadership theory is correct in postulating that servant leaders create other servant leaders who operate at a grassroots level, then Gulen’s relocation is less of an issue. Once servant leadership has begun, it cannot be ended by removing just one leader.
Still, Gulen’s personal philosophy deviates from servant leadership theory in an important and revealing way. As he writes, “thinking of forgiving monstrous, evil people who enjoy making others suffer would be disrespectful to the idea of forgiveness.” So, here, Gulen inadvertently highlights the unrealistic tendency in servant leadership theory to assume that all men are capable of good and redemption. Given that history is full of “monstrous, evil people” it is hard to rectify equal forgiveness for all with reality. However, this discrepancy also reveals the additional problem of deciding what counts as “monstrous” behavior. What can be tolerated and what cannot? The answer to this question is perhaps the most significant aspect of servant leadership theory. It is the followers who must decide what is acceptable and what is not. This approach may create moral qualms in the future as followers must work out what is right and wrong for themselves. The important detail is that they must and will do it peacefully and inclusively in order to stay aligned with the values of servant leadership theory.
However, it is possible to argue that servant leadership theory itself is not a suitable solution to the Turkish national identity paradox. First, the flaws inherent in servant leadership theory, such as its idealistic standard of morality, its general dismissal of natural human tendencies, and its emphasis on followers rather than challenges, make it impractical for use in Turkey. How can something that is innately unrealistic and impractical possibly help a real life dilemma? Applying fantasy to reality, especially a fantasy that is Rousseaustic in its tendency to assume that man’s impulses tend toward goodness, can clash with reality in horrific, deadly ways. Thus, it is possible to argue that it is unreasonable and impossible to institute servant leadership in Turkey or any context.
Second, it can be argued that servant leadership theory ignores the historical leadership dynamics in Turkey. Authoritarianism is a centuries old leadership practice that has become an integral part of the Turkish national identity both in Ottoman and Kemalist times. In the Ottoman era, the obvious authority figures were the Sultans and the military leaders. In the twentieth century, Turks clung to larger than life leaders like Atatürk and Özal. It is a dramatic shift in thinking about leadership and leadership theory to change the structure of leadership dynamics from top-down to bottom-up. As Harris notes, “All indications are that Turks want their leaders to appear forceful in command. Looking—as they have customarily done—to the government for a solution to most problems, Turkish voters seem interested in having a sure hand on the tiller.” Scholars Selda Pasa, Hagut Kabasakal, and Muzaffer Bodur second this point, explaining that hierarchical-autocratic leadership is the most commonly observed leadership behavior in Turkish society. They further contend that “outstanding leaders” are supposed to be both traditional and change-oriented, which connects to the earlier identified paradox of leadership resulting from Atatürk’s improper and nearly arbitrary selection of Turkish history and culture. Even among the religious groups, authoritarianism is still a notable trend. As Sami Zubaida notes, “despite the liberal rhetoric emanating from mainstream Islamist leadership in recent years, there is an inherent thrust in political Islam towards social authoritarianism.” In short, Turks understand authoritarian leadership. It is part of how they identity their leaders. To remove this element could also be construed as an improper selection of Turkish characteristics just as much as Atatürks’s selection of values in the early twentieth century.
Third, it is possible that servant leadership theory may be in inadequate tool for solving the leadership dilemma in Turkey because it could lead to greater social cleavage rather than cohesion. Servant leadership theory teaches people that they have the real power and control in their own lives. If mishandled, this lesson could quickly turn to license and groupthink, which could ultimately lead to idealistic policies that cannot cope with realistic situations. Hence, people without the history of or experience with self-determination in the bottom-up leadership organizational sense may struggle to connect their own goals with reality, especially if they are led by an unrealistic standard like servant leadership theory. Morality could become relative to each community and “monstrous” evil may seem to appear all around. In the Turkish context, this could mean separating those of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, or even classes. It may also mean exacerbating the social cleavages that already exist; local prejudices could gain greater standing. Hence, society could become more divided if the people take a more active role. Thereby, servant leadership would not be an antidote, but a poison.
Although the arguments against servant leadership theory correctly identify potential risks of instituting the theory, they do not necessitate removing servant leadership as an option in helping Turkey move forward toward a more cohesive national identity. Though servant leadership theory is undoubtedly flawed, it is also undoubtedly useful. By definition, a theory separates itself from reality and is therefore subjected to flaws. Theories are not meant to replicate the world perfectly. Instead, theories highlight certain aspects of the world in order to reveal findings difficult to observe when taking in the whole picture. Servant leadership teaches its practitioners to continually strive to be better than they are. They must strive for integrity, altruism, humility, empathy and healing, personal growth, fairness and justice, and empowerment for both themselves and their followers. Theory first removes situational elements to reveal qualities of morality that are universally appealing and then asks real people to strive to attain and spread these qualities. Becoming a person with any qualities such as the aforementioned ones is highly attractive and inspiring. Though the goal of servant leadership theory may seem to be to help make true servant leaders, any progress made toward becoming a servant leader is a real accomplishment. Servant leadership bonds people with hope and toleration rather than fear and hate—allowing for more reasonable courses of action to be taken. Servant leadership may not be a perfect theory, but it need not be perfect to be a useful theory. Because it teaches followers to be inclusive, compassionate, and tolerate of others, it may be quite useful in the Turkish context.
Further, though Turkey certainly has a historical record of authoritarian leadership, it is also true that the Ottoman Empire lasted so long because of efforts at the grassroots level. Local leadership in the Ottoman Empire emphasized toleration of various ethnic and religious communities. Therefore, Turkey also has a history of grassroots organizations and toleration. This history has become more prominent in the recent political era. As Heinz Kramer notes, “The enduring fragmentation of the political center has led to a general weakening of decisive political leadership since the end of the 1980s.” So while authoritarianism has maintained constant importance in Turkish society, grassroots level political organizations has also remained present and has been since growing more significant in Turkish political life. In fact, as the importance of bottom-up level leadership grows, it will be easier to institute servant leadership as the people will most likely be readily able to accept and participate in the process. In short, the continuing political fragmentation invites local leadership to play a greater role in Turkish society, which will make it easier for a servant leader to arise.
Finally, the freedom of decision making that servant leadership theory introduces into society will not necessarily turn to license in the Turkish context because of the existing presence of Islamic values and civil, hospitable traditions. Like many of the other major monotheistic religions, Islam teaches peaceful relations and interactions with others, even those who do not share in the Islamic faith. For example, postings in the Quran such as 25:63, 28:55, and 5:82 all emphasize the value of peace. 5:82 is especially prominent in showing the value of peace towards those of other religions as it preaches peace towards Christians. Historically Islam can be a restrictive aspect of culture—one that would not easily let its followers turn freedom to license and reasonable self-determination to groupthink. Even Turks who do not identify as Muslims can recognize the universal values present Islam that connect to servant leadership theory. In a society like Turkey, Islam is not just a religion, but also an important cultural influence. A Turkish citizen can hold atheist views and still feel the importance of Islam in his own community. Similar to its approach to exploring Turkish history, servant leadership theory aims to select the best of Turkish culture as something worth emulating. By preserving what can lead to human happiness, important values will also be preserved.
Turkey is at a crossroads in terms of its development. It is both the praised leader of the region and also a hotbed of unpleasant political activity. Its issues partially stem from a distorted past and corresponding distorted national identity. One possible solution to the problem of restoring a united Turkish national identity would be to bridge the best of the past and present in order to allow the Turkish people to determine what it means to be Turkish. The role of the servant leader is to facilitate this process. In the modern Turkish context, Gulen has, consciously or not, begun an effort aligned with the values and operational structure of servant leadership theory. Only time will tell how successful the practical use of servant leadership theory will be in Turkey.
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