Critical Leadership – Alvesson (#2)

Alvesson, M. & Spicer, A. 2012, ‘Critical leadership studies: The case for critical performativity’, Human Relations, vol. 65, no. 3, pp. 367-90.

Alvesson and Spicer argue that existing leadership studies are underpinned by functional approaches, which identify variables associated with leadership and try to identify correlations, and interpretive which trace out meaning making associated with leadership.  They turn from both of these to take a more critical approach. “We posit a performative critique of leadership that emphasizes tactics of circumspect care, progressive pragmatism and searching for present potentialities. ” (367)

“However, placing a messianic faith in leaders and leadership needs to be critically addressed. ” (368)  The authors’ argue a suspicious engagement needs to be held with leadership studies.  This is not a completely negative approach, however, with the “emancipatory potential” of leadership theory recognised within the limits of leadership.

Their critique of leadership offers three elements:

  • Moving beyond the naive celebrations of leadership, and interpretive studies, and not taking leadership for granted, which includes articulation of a more limited approach to leadership aligned to emancipatory goals.
  • To move beyond existing critical studies that have a negative view of leadership based on domination.
  • To foster further studies of leadership within the contemporary organisational context.

How do they do this:

  1. By tracing out existing functionalist and interpretive approaches.
  2. Turning to critical analysis of control, resistance and ideology.
  3.  Supplementing the agenda through a performative critique. Using this notion to suggest the concept of deliberated leadership.

Functionalist approaches

Functionalism assumes leadership is objective and can be understood scientifically.  Sees leadership as a stable object that can be tracked. Studies have sought to identify the traits associated with leadership – like physical and psychological characteristics. (370) They also include behavioural analysis and the situation in which leadership takes place. In more recent time focus has shifted from the leader to the role of the follower.

Functionalism was the dominant approach to leadership studies for a considerable period. There was an assumption leadership was coherent and distinct. There are weaknesses to this approach, however, in that researchers are now noting leadership may be ambiguous and related to individual perception, that the focus in on ‘doing leadership’ so it can be measured, rather than leadership as a concept, and that different actors may see leadership differently. (370)

These doubts with the functional approach have lead researchers to look for at interpretive views of leadership, examining how those leading and being led perceive.

Interpretive assumptions

Leadership being examined as a socially constructed concept with the agents involved defining meaning (372). Methodological approaches may involve looking an linguistics and understanding process in the frame of reality. Interpretive shares the following assumptions:

“Ontologically, leadership is thought to be constructed through an ongoing processes of inter-subjective understanding. Epistemologically, leadership is a process that can only be accessed through examining these value-laden understandings and interpretations that actors use to understand leadership. Many interpretive studies seek to surface different understandings of leadership in the hope of supporting the creation of increased shared meaning.” (372)

Interpretive opens up the idea that leadership is constructed but relies on the respondents view of leadership. The authors’ argue there are strong ideological and social forces behind the idea to see oneself as ‘leader.’  In addition, they argue interpretive studies ignore power and domination.

“To put this another way, interpretive studies of leadership do not allow us to get at the underpinning social structures that mean one person can be assigned a leadership role while another becomes a follower (Ford et al., 2008). Rather, they only try to get as close as possible to the meanings, experiences and/or language use of people involved and tend to accept rather than critically explore these.” (373)

Critical assumptions

Critical researchers go beyond interpretive approaches by not just looking at the social constructs, but also the patters of power and domination associated with leadership and relate this to broader ideological and institutional settings.

Feminism studies is linked in here by examining male domination and gendered notions of leadership. All writers in this space question the authority and power associated with leadership and position it as a potential negative. Examinations of language and the heroic constructs are linked tot he concept of moral superiority.

Critically, these areas can overstate the relevancy of leadership. (374-5.) Alvesson and Spicer also argue that attempts to reject leadership actually require a form of leadership in itself. (375)

A critical performative approach to leadership

“Broadly put, critical performativity seeks to introduce ‘a more affirmative movement along-side the negative movement that seems to predominate in CMS today’ (Spicer et al., 2009: 538). It is critical because it radically questions widely accepted assumptions and aims to minimize domination. It is performative as it opens up new ways of understanding and engaging with the discourse with the ambition to have some effects on practice.” (376)

The authors suggest a range of tactics to consider critical performative approaches:

  • Circumspect care: care for the views of those actually undertaking/doing leadership and how they engage in the process (rather than researcher views.) (375) Taking them seriously but also challenging their views.
  • Progressive pragmatism: pragmatically, but critically, working within current disciplines. (376)
  • Present potentialities: moving beyond a critique of present theories to create a sense of what could be. (377)

“We hope that a critical performative approach will lead us to recognize how leadership, in many work contexts, is better seen as an infrequent, temporal, situation-specific dynamic than a permanent state in the relationship.” (381)

They argue that dismissing leadership may strengthen it. It is better to recognise the challenges faced by managers, and study them. Also that leadership may not just reinforce authority structures – but question them. (382)

“An important thing here is that a critical performative approach to leadership would encourage the consideration and reinforcement of alternatives to leadership such as various modes of ‘co-operation’ (Stohl and Cheeney, 2001), ‘collaborative communities’ (Adler and Heckscher, 2006) and ‘peer reviewing’ (Rennstam, 2007). This would encourage balancing and switching between leadership and other measures of coordination. ” (383)

They link these ideas to the democratisation of leadership.  Both “hybridtise” the idea of leadership splicing together different forms of coordination. (383)

Why this article is useful

Firstly the review of functional, interpretive and critical which could form a basis for the review of leadership within my literature review.  But also ideas of what going beyond these.

1 thought on “Critical Leadership – Alvesson (#2)

  1. this article is helpful but I am struggling to write the ‘the steps in Critical leadership theory. Can I get help in this regard?

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