3 Critiques of Leadership: preparing for the CMC conference

At the Complexity and Management Conference in June this year we will be hosting discussions about leaders and leadership from a critical perspective. As a way of warming up for the event it might be interesting to rehearse three recent and different critical perspectives on the ineluctable rise of ‘leaderism’ in contemporary society. The first, by Rakesh Khurana[1] (2007), charts the development of the discourse of leadership and the way it has colonised and captured American business schools coterminous with the ascendancy of neo-liberal economics. The second, by Martin and Learmonth (2012)[2], looks at the way that the discourse on leadership is used to co-opt a broad range of actors into particular projects to ‘reform’ the public sector, and the third, by Alvesson and Spicer [3](2011), explores the way that a more nuanced critique of leadership might be developed to help employees struggle with the exercise of authority in organisations. Mats Alvesson is a previous guest at the CMC conference.

Managers as hired hands, business schools in hock to corporations

Khurana takes a historical sweep, both wide and deep, of the relationship between management and the academy. He describes the way that management struggled to be accepted as an academic discipline in American universities more than a century ago when the idea of starting management courses was met with a good degree of scepticism from academics and business people alike. The initiative to start management courses in the academy reflected an aspiration amongst some business leaders and managers for the same respect and recognition afforded other groups of professionals. Khurana understands this project of the professionalization of management as a means to develop the discipline and combine a mastery of a specific body of knowledge as well as to develop particular formal and informal codes of behaviour, and an ideal of service, as with any other profession.

After many decades, two major developments radically altered the emerging project of management as an academic discipline, Khurana argues, and subverted the idea that managers have broader social responsibilities. The first development arose from some recommendations to raise the standards of management pedagogy initiated by the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, and the second event, almost coterminous with the first, was the ascendancy of neo-liberal economics and the emergence of investor capitalism.

Both the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation introduced a range of recommendations that management pedagogy needed to be more systematic and scientifically grounded based on their experience of running summer schools for business school academics. The appeal was to management as science, which recommended methods of disciplining what managers paid attention to based in the thinking of the natural sciences . Khurana has no particular difficulty with increasing the standards in business schools, except to point out that it had unintended consequences. It made it easier for economics to become the foundational discipline for the teaching of management in business schools, so that the kind of economics taught would obviously have a big bearing on how managers understood their role.

Meanwhile, the rise of monetarist economics in the 60s and 70s gave rise to enormous pressure to liberalise markets and make capitalism more dynamic, after Hayek. Company progress needed to be more hard-headed and demonstrably profitable. One manifestation of this way of thinking was the notion that the most reliable way of measuring organisational success was by increased company value, and thus the return to shareholders. The wider concerns of management social responsibility, with the manager as long-term caretaker of assets, employees and the broader social fabric, quickly began to be seen as rather soft and woolly minded. From the neo-liberal perspective, it was not only government regulation that impeded capitalist development, it was management as a profession, if management was taken to mean too much managerial autonomy and too many foci of attention. As the shareholders’ principal agent, the manager needed to concentrate much harder on making a good return to investors. Quantification and economic measures became a way of disciplining managerial performance on financial return alone.

Khurana understands both events to have been very subversive of the broader definition of management as a profession which continued to develop until the late 50s, and then became radically undermined. It was no longer reliable caretakers that the American economy needed according to the new orthodoxy, but swashbuckling iconoclastic champions of change. In the academic literature a distinction began to be made between transactional managers and transformational leaders, reintroducing Weber’s concept of charismatic authority, a distinction which persists to this day. And it is during this period of time that much closer links were made between the fortunes of top managers and the increase in value of companies, when senior managers began to be rewarded with stock options and bonuses linked to organisational performance. Broader notions of public responsibility took second place to concepts of individual utility maximisation. For Khurana the teaching of management became less about professional ideals, and more about turning out hired hands, mercenaries who would try to maximise in the short-term for huge personal reward.

Khurana has been deeply critical of the ways in which American business schools have surrendered their autonomy and academic independence to service the needs of large corporations. They continue to proliferate leadership programmes despite the fact that the concept:

…remains without either a widely accepted theoretical framework or a cumulative empirical understanding leading to a usable body of knowledge. Moreover, the probability that leadership studies will make significant strides in developing a fundamental knowledge base is fairly low. (2007: 357).

Leadership in the public sector

Martin and Learmonth note the way that the discourse of leadership, now some three decades old, has also captured and colonised the public sector. They argue that in the NHS, their object of study in this article, it is widely accepted as being an empirically distinct entity which is axiomatically good both for individuals and for organisations. It is the new panacea. The authors argue that they are less interested in what leadership is, however, and more interested in what it does. Also using a historical perspective, they chart the way that managers in the NHS used to denigrate the idea of administration as opposed to management, and now are scathing about management as distinct from leadership. Martin and Learmonth note the way that the discourse of leadership shapes people’s identities and self-esteem in their narratives about their own professional development.

In the article, referenced below, the authors point out how the concept of leadership has become both pervasive and distributed in the NHS, particularly during periods of constant ‘reform’. For example, they note that during a recent consultation on change a whole variety of stakeholders, managers, front line clinicians, patients, and the broader community were all described in government documents as having exercised ‘leadership’ in discussing changes to the service, which in the end are decided by central government. The appeal to leadership, they argue, could also be understood as a form of co-optation: despite the claim that decisions about the direction and shape of the NHS have been made participatively and in a distributed manner, the service has never been more centralised. Although it is claimed that everyone has been exercising ‘leadership’ the general nature of the changes are sketched out in advance. If everyone is a leader, then who is following? Has the concept become so flexible and extended that it has become meaningless, they ask?

Extending the idea of the appeal to leadership as a form of identity manipulation and co-option, the authors point out how some senior clinicians, usually relatively sceptical of notions of management and administration, have been more susceptible to taking a ‘leadership role’ in promoting government changes. The suggestion here is that the ability to call oneself a leader is an attractive self-narrative and both material and symbolic advantages accrue to those willing to identify with the discourse of leadership, which makes the process of marketising the NHS easier.

Leadership as critical performativity

Alvesson and Spicer identify three schools of leadership scholarship. By far the biggest tradition is what they call functionalist research, of which they make the critique as Martin and Learmonth: that leadership is understood as a distinct and coherent concept.

The second approach they consider interpretivist, which is concerned with the way that leaders attempt to frame and define the reality of others, and may understand leadership as a language game. The interpretivist school is interested in the way that leadership is constructed through processes of inter-subjective understanding but may, according to Alvesson and Spicer, be less interested in theories of power and domination. Interpretive studies are less concerned with underpinning social structures, but, rather, are aimed at getting close to meanings, experience and language.

Their own perspective, critical management studies (CMS), takes an interest in interpretations, but also how patterns of power and domination work out in practice. CMS tries to denaturalise leadership as a concept and tries to break away from attempts to optimise it. The authors are then reflexive about CMS reflexivity by critiquing the way that it can sometimes extend into a kind of anti-leadership discourse. This has a number of disadvantages, they argue: it can overestimate the power of leaders and the leadership discourse, it can lead managers caught up in this discourse feeling attacked, and it fails to recognise that subversive activity which challenges dominant leadership concepts can also demonstrate forms of leadership. According to the authors, not all attempts to exercise power in organisations can be deemed leadership, and not all forms of leadership are necessarily oppressive. Complex organisations involve many forms of control, and sometimes these are necessary.

In offering the concept of critical performativity, Alvesson and Spicer are attempting to make the critique of leadership more nuanced and more helpful to those who are seriously struggling with it. Rather than trying to optimise leadership, they are trying to improve the critique of leadership. They understand that critical engagement with the notion of leadership involves a struggle and ongoing discussions about the virtues and vices of the exercise of authority in the workplace. They are trying to offer intellectual support to critical judgement in this deliberative process.

Some similarities in the three critiques

In each of the three critiques of the current and ubiquitous leadership discourse we can notice some similarities of thinking which I will identify and add my own interpretation, giving the critiques an extra turn:

  • Each of the three draws attention to the coincidence of the leadership discourse with the improved power positions of certain groups in society. In other words, it allows and disallows particular ways of proposing and disposing of organisations. Changes of discourse also reflect changes in figurations of power, which can lead to very widespread economic and social changes.
  • That things have not always been as they are, nor need they have been – the rise of managerialism and then ‘leaderism’ emerged through the interplay of intentions of particular groups of people aspiring to recognition, status, reward and privilege, at particular times in history. The success of otherwise of certain ways of thinking depend on other movements in society and the way they reinforce or undermine each other. And sometimes social trends can go into reverse and bring about the opposite of what was originally intended. So, if we are to follow Khurana’s exposition, managers can change over time from aspiring to having broad social recognition for their professional and academic knowledge combined with an ideal of service, to becoming, in Khurana’s terms ‘hired hands’ and committed much more explicitly to maximizing shareholder value and through this increasing their own personal gain.
  • Current trends will not inevitably continue the way they are, just as previous trends have changed over time – forms of social dominance also call out rebellion and subversion, which are more or less effective. In the 21st century we are beginning to experience nascent resistance, in the form of popular protest and shareholder revolts, to what have become taken for granted assumptions about the heroic and charismatic legitimacy of some high profile leaders and managers. It is too early to tell whether this will be a lasting phenomenon.
  • Ways of speaking, discourse, do not just represent social reality, but affect and create social reality.
  • There is nowhere to stand outside the discourse –the invitation to become a leader is an attractive proposition which shapes identities and the way people understand themselves. If we are to be helpful in further developing a critique of the leadership discourse we need to support managers to develop nuanced insights into their daily reality, grounded in their experience and in ours.

If you are interested in hearing Professor Ann Cunliffe explain her research into relational leadership, and in exploring the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating by participating in lively discussions about your experience in organisations you can book for the conference here: http://tinyurl.com/crm734w

As usual, there is a discount of £50 for early-bird bookers up till April 26th.

We look forward to seeing you there.


[1] Khurana, R. (2007) From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: the Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[2] Martin, G.P. and Learmonth, M. (2012) A Critical Account of the Rise and Spread of Leadership: the Case of UK Healthcare, Social Science and Medicine, 74, 281288.

[3] Alvesson, M. and Spicer, A. (2012) Critical Leadership Studies: the Case for Critical Performativity, Human Relations, 65 (3) 367-390.

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