A Critical Leadership Text

By in Bookshelf on 1st Oct, 2015

Helena Liu reviews a practitioner-centred critical book on leadership.

Despite claims that we’ve entered a post-heroic paradigm in leadership research (Bryman, 2004), the romance of leadership is seemingly enduring. When the ethical scandals of high-profile leaders at Enron, Worldcom and Tyco proliferated through the media in the last decade, leadership theories responded with ever more heroic constructs of leaders as authentic, spiritual and wise. Such conceptualisations of leadership reinforce the common perception of leadership as essentialised within a charismatic individual located at the top of a hierarchy. Context and power are ignored in favour of universalistic models that assume the right set of competencies when activated correctly will invariably produce desirable organisational outcomes. Consequently, existing leadership theories too often reproduce masculinist Western-centric elite class models of leadership while marginalising discussions of equality and social justice.

In a society, where leadership has reached canonical status, the application of critical theory to leadership theory is welcome. Western joins important voices in this area to answer the call with his clear and accessible examination of leadership from a critical lens first in 2008, and now follows with a restructured second edition that includes extended discussions and two new chapters on Leadership and Culture (Chapter 6) and Eco-Leadership (Chapter 12). The new edition clarifies its purpose by dividing into two parts. Part 1 deconstructs mainstream leadership theories and their tendency to reduce the phenomenon to simplified formulations. Part 2 addresses the oft-cited criticism of deconstruction as critique without alternatives and reconstructs leadership by offering a new discourse for ethical, sustainable leadership practice and development.

Leadership: A Critical Text begins by laying down the impetus for critical leadership theory, grounded in a review of critical theory and critical management studies. Western confronts the popular criticism of critical theory as elitist and divorced from practice and argues that critical leadership studies need to engage with practitioners. His commitment to this aim remains a key strength of this readily digestible book.

Chapter 2 follows with an overview of leadership, speaking with refreshing clarity about the limitations of the literature, including the reductionistic entity perspectives of trait and neocharismatic theories, the simplistic treatments of context as fixed in contingency theories and the instrumental ways in which more recent theories around humility and spirituality have been applied to leadership.

While the psychological orientation of the book offers rich insights into the psychosocial dynamics of leadership, it is comparatively light on the sociological aspects of leadership. The deep examinations of race-ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class and age that stand as vital contributions of the critical management tradition which readers of Organization would be familiar with are not a focus in this book. For example, the use of splitting and projection to explain our seeming ‘deep longing and desire for leadership’ (p. 26) overlooks a gendered analysis of the way in which relationships based on unequal power and domination are institutionalised and romanticised in our patriarchal society. Focussing on ‘natural’ cognitive mechanisms misses the opportunity to subvert patriarchal norms of domination and discuss how leadership might ‘engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive’ (hooks, 1996: 122).

Chapter 3 opens with a content analysis of a piece of text about Vladimir Lenin from Leon Trotsky’s unfinished work, The Class, the Party and the Leadership, to show how Lenin and the Soviet Revolution were described varyingly as intellectual, unconscious, group, distributed, individual, mass and symbolic leadership. Although Western concludes that this case demonstrates the plural nature of leadership, the easy application of forms of leadership to the text also reflects the growing tendency of academic and popular discourses to define everything as ‘leadership’ (Alvesson and Spicer, 2012; Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2003).

The book then moves into a review of dictators and despots and opens the debate about the necessity for leaders. Western shares Grint’s (2010) scepticism of the viability and sustainability of ‘leaderless’ movements and articulates instead the case for non-oppressive forms of leadership. The chapter provides a fascinating account of the rejection of traditional forms of hierarchical leadership with cases of ‘autonomist’ leadership, including the Quaker movement, and new social movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy resistances that exhibit egalitarian and democratic ideals.

Chapter 5 advocates the need for leadership to embrace diversity and foster inclusiveness. The incisive critique of mainstream leadership theories is sustained through this chapter with the unapologetic deconstruction of essentialism and denaturalisation of whiteness. Despite the considerable strengths of this chapter, its brief overview of diversity could have been enriched by drawing on feminist, queer, post-colonial and critical race theories. For example, critical whiteness theory may help explain the ‘rainbow-washing’ (p. 103) trend where diversity and inclusiveness continue to be treated as what white leaders do to others. Critical leadership scholars who already embrace these perspectives have demonstrated the potential for leadership to be egalitarian and emancipatory when they centred their research on leaders who sit outside the white elite class male archetype (see Bruni et al., 2004; Parker, 2002, 2005).

The new Chapter 6 in this second edition on leadership and organisational culture is one of the most cogent contributions of this book. It challenges the simplistic conceptualisation of culture in existing literature as something leaders control and argues instead for a more nuanced understanding of culture as something in which all organisational members are entwined. Western draws on the metaphor of an ‘avatar’ (p. 111) to capture the mutually constitutive relationship leaders have with their cultures. In speaking to the role that leaders play in shaping the organisational culture, Western offers the provocative idea that leaders have the capacity to lead a resistance against hegemonic corporate and social cultures. An elaboration of this idea can be found in Pullen and Rhodes’ (2014) recent piece in this journal, which articulates an ethicopolitics of resistance.

Chapter 7 offers a comprehensive discussion of religious fundamentalism, showing how themes of messianic leadership, belief in absolute truth and intolerance of difference have similarities within totalising corporate cultures. It lays down the context that later explains the rise of heroic leadership theories that Western labels the Messiah Discourse (Chapter 11), and yet makes the case that fundamentalist, totalising cultures are ultimately unsustainable because they breed employee cynicism, conformity and misjudgement.

The second part of the book then begins its reconstruction of leadership with an overview of four dominant discourses in Western leadership theory. The argument is that since the early 20th century, four key themes have risen to prominence that reflect and shape shifting ideas of leadership. Each of the discourses is thought not to have usurped the last, rather, remnants of each discourse remain in contemporary organisations, with some industries and organisational contexts showing a predilection for particular discourses.

The first of these is the controller leadership discourse. Grounded in scientific management and rationalism, human and non-human resources are often treated as tools to be controlled in order to
maximise the productivity and efficiency of the organisation. The Therapist leadership discourse is then said to have emerged from the 1940s influenced by the rise of post-Freudian psychology and individualism. Therapist leadership emphasises autonomy, cooperation and well-being, but productivity and economic growth remain the fundamental objectives. The 1980s then observed the rise of the Messiah leadership discourse where leaders are heralded as charismatic, heroic characters who inspire and motivate via their vision. Echoing the arguments of Chapter 7, Western draws parallels between messianic, transformational leaders and cults, but suggests the individual character and agency of leaders should not be dismissed entirely despite the over-romanticisation of Messiah leadership.

Having presented the three historically grounded themes of leadership, Western introduces what might be better described as his reimagination of leadership for the 21st century, which draws on the concepts and methods of systems thinking, network analysis, and environmental sustainability. This chapter challenges us to rethink the corporate pursuits of value, growth and purpose (which are almost always economic measures at the expense of all others) and proposes a redefinition of leadership that exhibits qualities of connectivity, ethics, spirit and belonging. Western strives to keep the argument practical and presents business cases where aspects of Eco-leadership can be observed. Chapter 14 extends the Eco-leadership vision and proposes an innovative approach to how Eco-leadership could be developed, inspired by the principles of monastic formation and cleverly synthesises individual, collective and environmental aspects of leadership.

Although I have also argued for the relevance of systems thinking to the theorising, development and practice of leadership as an inherently relational process in my work, I have, of late, been concerned with the masculinist, White and elite class influences on this discourse. Systems thinking and network analysis have tended to be constructed as new techno-rational ways to measure and control complexity, while recent gendered analyses of sustainability have exposed the ways sustainability leadership is dominated by men’s voices that continue to preserve the socio-political status quo (Marshall, 2011; Phillips, 2014). Accordingly, the literature around systemic and sustainability leadership has not yet been developed to the extent that it can convincingly promise the set of benefits outlined in pages 266–267 of Western’s book, including brand protection, efficiency savings, organisational belonging, community engagement, diversity and inclusion, just to name a few. However, some of the most promising aspects of this reimagination of leadership have been developed in more gender equal ways in Uhl-Bien’s (2006) work on relational leadership and Painter-Morland’s (2006, 2008) work on leadership and accountability.

The Controller, Therapist, Messiah and Eco-leadership discourses are compellingly presented; however, the book seems to be committed to an idea that this ‘model’ needs to be generalisable. Contrasting with the more nuanced analyses provided throughout the book, we are encouraged in Chapter 13 to assess our own preferences for particular discourses and apply the model to our own organisational contexts. In striking similarity to the contingency leadership theories of the 1960s–1970s, the summary of the four discourses are broken down into their respective strengths and weaknesses as well as which situations each would be more or less useful (pp. 294–97). This seems to me to conflict with the lessons learnt from discourse analysis that focusses on the local processes by which meaning comes into being rather than their ability to generalise across contexts (Fairhurst and Uhl-Bien, 2012). I remain uneasy about the references to the model’s application to other cultures, including observations of how Asian and Chinese students easily recognise the Controller and Messiah themes but have trouble identifying Therapist and Eco-leadership themes (p. 154) and that the Middle East and China appear to strongly exhibit Controller leadership (p. 293). The expansive application of Western-centric models of leadership onto other cultures closes down the opportunity to learn from alternative practices of leadership and ultimately reproduces existing stereotypes of people of colour.

Overall, this book demonstrates the enormous contributions that a critical approach can make to leadership, and boldly steps beyond the limitations of critical leadership theory by offering practitioner-engaged insights and guidance in an accessible form. By doing so, it also highlights the challenges in making a critical approach to leadership user-friendly to leaders and their coaches, as what remains in demand in Western capitalist organisations (simplicity, universality, predictability) is often inimical to the ethical, transgressive and emancipatory agenda of critical leadership studies.

This review was written for Organization.

Leadership: A Critical Text, by Simon Western, Sage, 2013. RRP: £32.99

Alvesson, M. and Spicer, A. (2012) ‘Critical Leadership Studies: The Case for Critical Performativity’, Human Relations 65(3): 367–90.

Alvesson, M. and Sveningsson, S. (2003) ‘The Great Disappearing Act: Difficulties in Doing “Leadership”’, The Leadership Quarterly 14(3): 359–81.

Bruni, A., Gherardi, S. and Poggio, B. (2004) ‘Doing Gender, Doing Entrepreneurship: An Ethnographic Account of Intertwined Practices’, Gender, Work and Organization 11(4): 406–29.

Bryman, A. (2004) ‘Qualitative Research on Leadership: A Critical but Appreciative Review’, The Leadership Quarterly 15(6): 729–69.

Fairhurst, G. T. and Uhl-Bien, M. (2012) ‘Organizational Discourse Analysis (ODA): Examining Leadership as a Relational Process’, The Leadership Quarterly 23(6): 1043–62.

Grint, K. (2010) ‘The Sacred in Leadership: Separation, Sacrifice and Silence’, Organization Studies 31(1): 89–107.

hooks, b. (1996) Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York: Routledge.

Marshall, J. (2011) ‘En-Gendering Notions of Leadership for Sustainability’, Gender, Work and Organization 18(3): 263–81.

Painter-Morland, M. (2006) ‘Redefining accountability as relational responsiveness’, Journal of Business Ethics 66(1): 89–98.

Painter-Morland, M. (2008) ‘Systemic leadership and the emergence of ethical responsiveness’, Journal of Business Ethics 82(2): 509–24.

Parker, P. S. (2002) ‘Negotiating Identity in Raced and Gendered Workplace Interactions: The Use of Strategic Communication by African American Women Senior Executives within Dominant Culture Organizations’, Communication Quarterly 50(3–4): 251–68.

Parker, P. S. (2005) Race, Gender, and Leadership: Re-Envisioning Organizational Leadership from the Perspectives of African American Women Executives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Phillips, M. E. (2014) ‘Re-Writing Corporate Environmentalism: Ecofeminism, Corporeality and the Language of Feeling’, Gender, Work and Organization 21(5): 443–58.

Pullen, A. and Rhodes, C. (2014) ‘Corporeal Ethics and the Politics of Resistance in Organizations’, Organization 21(6): 782–96.

Uhl-Bien, M. (2006) ‘Relational leadership theory: Exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing’, The Leadership Quarterly 17(6): 654–76.

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