False Idols of Leadership

By in Research on 9th Feb, 2014

These days it seems as though leaders and leadership are everywhere. But lack of diversity among our pantheon of leaders casts a long, dark shadow over the future of leadership.

One of my favourite leadership scholars, Keith Grint (2010), observed that the nature of leadership is inherently sacred. He argues that leadership embodies three elements of the sacred: the separation between leaders and followers; the sacrifice of leaders and followers; and the way leaders silence the anxiety and resistance of followers. Grint argues that for these reasons, leaders remain idolised figures in society and our appetites for the sacramental bread of leadership seem insatiable.

Mats Alvesson and André Spicer (2012, p. 383–384) offer a simple solution to the leadership pandemic and suggested we narrow our definition of leadership to: “a senior person exercising a fairly systematic or at least more than infrequent influence over followers/co-workers”. This definition excludes forms of peer influence, bottom-up influence, and informal influence. Alvesson and Spicer suggest that other activities of authority, power, and organising should simply not be described in leadership terms. Their argument stems from a ‘leadership agnostic’ orientation, where one maintains a healthy scepticism about the prevalence and pertinence and leadership and isn’t afraid to call out on its unexamined glorification (Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2003).

Despite the vigilant efforts of scholars who point out the limitations of leadership and caution against its use as a catch-all phrase, leadership theorising, development, and practice continue to gain devotees. After all, I can still recall the chills that went down my spine in 2006 when I sat in my first lecture on leadership with Arlene Harvey (who went on to supervise my Honours research on leadership failures and failure framing). As Grint (2010, p. 89) explains, the sacredness of leadership is not so much “the elephant in the room but the room itself”. Therefore, rather than attempt to do away with leadership, we need to work with it.

While Grint explains why leadership is sacred, he doesn’t elucidate who benefits from its sacralisation. One only needs to look at the line-up of leaders who control our nations, corporations, public institutions, and not-for-profits to see that leadership and all its sacredness belong in the hands of a powerful few. Gender and racial barriers to organisational leadership have been talked about for decades now. Phenomena coined ‘sticky floors’ and ‘glass ceilings’ refer to women and other minorities’ difficulties in moving out of low-level roles and reaching senior positions respectively. Among my colleagues at Swinburne Business School, Santina Bertone has called out on the under-representation of migrants from non–English speaking countries in state and local governments, while Christine Jubb is examining the fascinating but largely hidden practice of interlocking directorates.

What their work and decades of leadership research show is that when leadership and its sacredness belong to a small homogeneous group, it inevitably tends to reinforce the status quo. As a consequence, creativity, innovation, and ethics are stifled.

One way I aim to work with leadership this year is to displace its sacredness. In addition to individuals at the helm of governments, corporations, and non-for-profits, leadership could also be recognised within social justice campaigners and activists as well as your everyday members of society who question, disrupt, and in some necessary cases declare all out war on the status quo. Perhaps political/corporate/NFP leaders could share, engage, and learn from community leaders and vice versa. Perhaps one day the connections between them will be stronger so that our nations, states, and local councils are represented by humanitarian social justice campaigners, not-for-profits are innovated by artists, musicians, and poets, and big corporations are run by environmental activists. Maybe our banks could even be managed by those who once occupied Wall Street.

Just as Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living”; if the sacred in leadership is here to stay, then we should be mindful about choosing our idols.


Alvesson M and Spicer A (2012) Critical leadership studies: The case for critical performativity. Human Relations, 65(3), 367–390.

Alvesson M and Sveningsson S (2003) The great disappearing act: Difficulties in doing ‘leadership’. The Leadership Quarterly, 14(3), 359–381.

Grint K (2010) The sacred in leadership: Separation, sacrifice and silence. Organization Studies, 31(1), 89–107.

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