Critical leadership theory – Alvesson

At a number of UTS events speakers have said that supervisors often say “take these 5 articles and write 1,000 words on them.”  I would sit there and think “my supervisor hasn’t asked that, clearly I am too prepared for homework.”

Yeah, well. Not really.  Supervisor number 2, who I shall call S2, asked me to write 2,000 words on 3 sets of 5 articles.  That’s 15. And 6,000.  I call that punishment for being cocky.  One problem I have is that I can’t actually remember what the third set of 5 are meant to be about.  Shall sort out that problem when I come to it.

This week’s task is to get 2 lots of 2,000 words under my belt.  Easier said than done as I am really struggling to grasp a couple of the authors.  But the only way to do it is to break it into manageable chunks.  So today I start with Matt Alvesson and critical management studies. There is will be two posts on two articles today, before I go off and read things I actually understand.

Alvesson, M. 2010, ‘Self-doubters, strugglers, storytellers, surfers and others: Images of self-identities in organization studies’, Human Relations, vol. 63, no. 2,pp. 193-217.

The article examines the relationship to identity and the organisation through categorising key identities found in management literature. The initial sections of the paper discuss the concept of identity from a western and other theoretical points of view.  A key element is the unstable nature of identity, as a social construct, with identity within business or organisational life portrayed as particularly malleable (194).

“This article indicates the range of contemporary ideas on identity constructions in organizational and work contexts through the development of some concepts that may help us to both navigate this difficult terrain and to attempt clarification of alternative possibilities. ” (195)

The aim of this research and review of identity in management literature is to encourage distance and exploration and facilitate empirical research into identity.  Alvesson uses two methodological moves  to examine identity. The first involves using two dimensions;  the relationship to the traditional western view of identity and the degree of agency.

The first dimension takes the western starting point that identity is robust, integrated and a clear reference point. Whereas the opposite view is identity is unstable, precarious and subjective. (197) The second, the degree of agency ”

the individual being active and guided by both meaning and goals, over which there is at least an element of control. ” (197)

The second methodological move:

“The second methodological move transcends this loose two-dimensional framework and tries to identify/ construct (as always it is a mix of input from what is ‘out there’, i.e. in texts, and the invention of something) something distinct in various texts about how the authors try to capture individuals in identity terms. Here, the idea is to go beyond the broad similarities following from the use of the key dimensions and find more distinct and unique key themes in the texts. (197)” – Having trouble unpacking this concept.

The article offers seven concepts of identity:

  • Self-doubters: Insecurity as the key element of existence and social relation (198)

This area focuses on insecurity and anxiety of key elements of human existence. Social trends and contemporary society add to the uncertainty already created through social relations. Alvesson says authors informed by the self doubter image see an “irreducible ambiguity at the heart of identity construction and argue that individuals’ attachment to a particular sense of self can reinforce insecurities.” (198)

  • Strugglers: Identity as a possible accomplishment or an uphill battle (200)

Strugglers has a more positive or optimistic view of individuals engaged in constructive identity. This view relates to “more active efforts of oneself fighting through a jungle of contradictions and messiness in the pursuit of a sense of self.” (200) Compared to the self doubters socially induced contradictions influence identity as opposed to self driven anxiety.

  • Surfers: Identity as temporal positions (202)

Surfers have the view identity is defined by discourse. SImilar to the self-doubter there is the view of the openness of the world, but it is driven less by anxiety.

  • Storytellers: A narrative self identity as stabilizer (203)

Personal myth or life story and the driver of identity, “self‑identity is then conceptualized as a reflexively organized narrative, derived from participation in competing discourses and various experiences, which is productive of a degree of existential continuity and security. ” (203) Self identity is assembled via cultural raw materials: language, values, set of meanings. The storyteller view is a romantic one, seeing identity construction almost like an artist.

  • Strategists: crafting functional identity (204)

This suggests the subject is guided by the achievement of an objective and they have the ability to shape identity in accordance with that. (204) If an individual has a career objective (collective or individual) identity construction may fall in line with this.  This concept may be relevant for the creative industries discussion as the linking of identity with career is potentially strong. There may be a political or social element to this as well with identity linked/co-opted to social movements.

  • Stencils: Identity bearing the imprints of discourse at work (206)

Stencils offer a different take – one where there is a template or clues as to how identity is constructed.  The individual then subordinates themselves to this template.  Imagery inspired by Foucault and Marcuse, with the concept of one dimensionality associated with cultural domination. (206) Foucault’s concept of discipline prevalent here – training, work, routine, self-surveillance and appraisal all help to create identity normalisation. This is a “gloomy” picture where tools of power create a template that is hard to break away from . (207)

  • Soldiers: Identification with social units (207)

Another category that may be relevant for my research is that of soldiers – where social categories are central for self-identification. Belonging to a group or organisation can help shape identity. (207) A critique is the way organisational scholars privilege the organisation in this dialogue. (This can relate to the creativity articles that show there is lesser attachment to organisations by creatives and more alignment to their job category.)

Why this article may be useful

Leadership may not be a skill or capability that can be learned, but part of identity that is constructed in a variety of ways. If we hold to a soldier or strategist view then creative leaders identity may be shaped by their alignments to the idea of being a creative.  Or, looking at the stencils, it could be created through the power structures in which they work.




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