Prof Kevin Morrell
11 Feb 2017

Is critical leadership studies ‘critical’?


The terms ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ are increasingly replacing expressions like ‘manager’ and ‘worker’ and becoming routine ways to talk about hierarchical groups within organizations. For example, what was once ‘management development’ has frequently become ‘leadership development’; ‘senior management teams’ have often morphed into ‘senior leadership teams’ and CEOs typically present themselves, apparently unquestioningly, as their institution’s ‘leader’ (and are generally described as such in the media). We have even come across the term ‘middle-leader’ in an advert for a school teacher. As Alvesson and Spicer (2014: 40; italics in original) argue:

In many instances, embracing the idea of leadership does not involve any significant change to practice but merely indicates an interest in relabeling managerial work as ‘‘leadership’’ to make it sound more fashionable and impressive. The term leadership is seductive, has a strong rhetorical appeal, and is therefore heavily overused.

However, this slippage between manager/leader and worker/follower is more than merely rebranding with a more fashionable label. It relies on a logic of equivalence: on understand-ing leadership as equivalent to a role or a kind of work. Because it relies on a logic of equivalence, rather than a subtle interpenetration of meanings or gradual porousness in the terms leader/manager and follower/worker, the shift to leadership represents a significant shift in discursive terrain. Basic categories, fundamental to understanding work and the employment relationship, are disappearing. In their place are labels that implicitly depict a unitarist perspective of the labour process. The manager/worker dyad makes a power imbalance explicit and includes the possibility that interests will diverge. Leader/follower by contrast entails a common goal. It glosses fundamental questions about prerogative because a worker can question managerial prerogative, but it does not quite make sense for ‘followers’ to question their leaders’ basic authority in that way.

This shift to discourse about leaders could be attributed partly to a mushrooming literature on leadership (Alvesson and Spicer, 2014; Grint, 2005; O’Reilly and Reed, 2010; Tourish, 2013). However, and paradoxically, calling someone a leader just because they inhabit a role, or carry out a kind of work goes against the prevailing construction of leadership in the literature. Contemporary leadership scholars tend to understand terms like leader and fol-lower as referencing identities that are in some ways chosen and personal (which could be consistent with the leader/manager slippage), but that are also enacted relationally (which is not). According to most thinking about leadership, to be a leader is not merely to inhabit a role, it is to identify as a leader, and for others to orient towards that identity or to sanction it in some way (Grint, 2010). This is significant because at the same time as editing out terms which potentially signal divergent interests (e.g. manager/worker), popular discourse on leader/follower also airbrushes out any sense of consent or relationality. If a senior executive is axiomatically a leader, those below are axiomatically followers – whether they like it or not.

We have been troubled by the practice of habitually calling people leaders and followers, as if they were synonyms for manager and worker, ever since starting to notice it; not least because of the experiences one of us (Mark) had while working as a manager in the UK National Health Service (NHS) in the 1980s and ‘90s. But even to say NHS ‘manager’ in the context of the early 1980s NHS is not quite correct. When Mark first started in the NHS no one officially had that title; everyone was an administrator. In 1983, however, after a gov-ernment inquiry suggested that management should be introduced into the NHS there was overwhelming enthusiasm for the change. Overwhelming enthusiasm, that is, amongst the newly named managers (i.e. former administrators); but it came about only with strong backing from the Thatcher government, in the teeth of opposition from clinicians (Strong and Robinson, 1990). One thing that did unite the newly up-titled managers with the clin-icians, however, was a shared intuition: that an apparently simple change in job title – from administrator to manager – represented a shift in power dynamics (Bresnen et al., 2014; Learmonth, 2005), one that would serve the interests of some (e.g. the new managers) over others (e.g. the clinicians).

A generation on, we can see a comparable shift occurring across all sectors and industries. Only now we are calling the managers leaders (Ford and Harding, 2007; Martin and Learmonth, 2012; O’Reilly and Reed, 2011). The shift is occurring gradually and informally, though even some 12 years ago Parker (2004: 175) had already detected that ‘management itself [is] beginning to go out of fashion (being discursively articulated as something rather like administration) and leadership [represents] the new panacea’.

Our aim in this paper is to demonstrate the problematic effects that accompany the routine use of a leader/follower rhetoric – what one might call the language of leadership – especially in the context of critical leadership studies (CLS) research. Our intent is not so much to debate what leaders and followers are, but to show what the use of these terms does; par-ticularly when deployed as apparently routine and more-or-less unnoticed generics for hier-archical groups within organizations. What we call things sanctions certain forms of discourse and knowledge, while disqualifying other possible ways of knowing and being in the world. Yet for all its considerable merits in many other ways, much of CLS appears to use the leader/follower dualism just like the mainstream – taking these terms as merely the building blocks of analysis; in and of themselves necessary, natural and unproblematic. Labels are never innocent though. Social scientists do not simply describe the world, we also constitute it. Calling people leaders and followers potentially has a range of effects, which might encourage us to be cautious in the use of these terms. As Alvesson and Ka¨rreman (2016:142) argue, the terms leadership and followership are predominantly used ‘to build and maintain a positive, celebrating, even glamorous view of organizational relations [while] naturalizing and freezing (asymmetrical) social relations’.

The basic point, therefore, is that what we call people matters – and so reflexivity about the effects of our naming practices is necessary. Unfortunately, when it comes to founda-tional terms like leader and follower, such reflexivity appears to be largely absent in CLS. Collinson (2011: 181) describes how CLS has ‘a concern to critique the power relations and identity constructions through which leadership dynamics are reproduced’. We agree; but argue that by routinely adopting the language of leadership, CLS risks being implicated in the very power relations it sets out to critique.

In developing this argument, our article proceeds by providing critical readings of recent leading work in CLS to show that:

(1) In spite of its claims to be distinctive from critical management studies (CMS), often CLS is only definitively about leadership because of its preference for the terms leader and follower. It seems as if more traditional terms like manager and worker have simply been crossed-out by CLS researchers and replaced with leader and follower.

(2) Unfortunately, this preference for the language of leadership affects the tone of CLS work naturalizing the interests of elites while de-radicalizing critique. Indeed, trying to be critical while using the language of leadership can strike some very odd-sounding notes.

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