critical leadership studies


Is critical leadership studies ‘critical’?

Mark Learmonth Durham University Business School, UK

Kevin Morrell Warwick Business School, UK


‘Leader’ and ‘follower’ are increasingly replacing ‘manager’ and ‘worker’ to become the routine

way to frame hierarchy within organizations; a practice that obfuscates, even denies, structural

antagonisms. Furthermore, given that many workers are indifferent to (and others despise) their

bosses, assuming workers are ‘followers’ of organizational elites seems not only managerialist, but

blind to other forms of cultural identity. We feel that critical leadership studies should embrace

and include a plurality of perspectives on the relationship between workers and their bosses.

However, its impact as a critical project may be limited by the way it has generally adopted this

mainstream rhetoric of leader/follower. By not being ‘critical’ enough about its own discursive

practices, critical leadership studies risk reproducing the very kind of leaderism it seeks to



Critical management studies, critical leadership studies, critical theory, manager, worker


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

Corresponding author:

Mark Learmonth, Durham University Business School, Mill Hill Lane, Durham DH1 3LB, UK.



2017, Vol. 13(3) 257–271

! The Author(s) 2016

Reprints and permissions:

DOI: 10.1177/1742715016649722

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).

258 Leadership 13(3)

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 Kärreman (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.

Critical Leadership Studies

Almost since the idea of organizational leadership was first introduced, leadership has had its critics. A full review of literature critical of leadership in various ways is beyond the scope of this article (for such a review see Tourish, 2013). However, exemplary work includes for us landmark papers such as Meindl et al.’s (1985: 79) analysis of the romance of leadership,

Learmonth and Morrell 259

something which is: ‘hinted at in the observations made by a number of social and organ- izational analysts who have noted the esteem, prestige, charisma, and heroism attached to various conceptions and forms of leadership’. It also includes Smircich and Morgan’s (1982: 258) critique of leadership as the management of meaning:

The leader exists as a formal leader only when he or she achieves a situation in which an obliga-

tion, expectation or right to frame experience is presumed, or offered and accepted by others. . . . It involves a complicity or process of negotiation through which certain individuals, implicitly or explicitly, surrender their power to define the nature of their nature of their experience to others.

Indeed leadership depends on the existence of individuals willing, as a result of inclination or pressure, to surrender, at least in part, the powers to shape and define their own reality.

Since the 1980s, if not before, we have been able to see that what generally gets referred to as leadership tends to be bound up with insidious forms of power asymmetries, overly roman- ticized celebration, covert complicities and the surrender of agency. These features all signal leadership as a problem in itself, something which is hardly the mainstream view. Such a reading of leadership is rarely, if ever, explicit in the corporate courses that have proliferated in recent years, nor in responses to remotely administered questionnaires that much main- stream work in the field pursues. Indeed, it is only in the last few years that CLS has emerged as a separately recognizable approach to studying and critiquing leadership.

The emergence of CLS is closely related to the growth of the more established tradition of CMS. Briefly, CMS is a diverse set of ideas which, rather than being concerned primarily with increasing organizational efficiency, seeks to reveal, challenge and overturn the power relations within organizational life (King and Learmonth, 2015). This is a valuable under- taking because, in contemporary industrial societies, it is through such structures that many people are often constrained and dominated. CLS, as Collinson (2011: 182) argues, broadly shares CMS’s political aims and intellectual traditions, but it attempts to broaden CMS’s range, in that it:

Explicitly recognizes that, for good and/or ill, leaders and leadership dynamics (defined . . . as the

shifting, asymmetrical interrelations between leaders, followers and contexts) also exercise sig- nificant power and influence over contemporary organizational and societal processes [whereas] many CMS writers ignore the study of leadership, focusing more narrowly on management and

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