Really starting to understand critical leadership theory

Writing these posts, which I could do in Scrivener or Word, has really helped my thinking. After 10 days of dithering I actually feel I could write what S2 asked me.  Almost. Still need 3 more articles on critical leadership theory. Today I’m taking it up a notch by looking at a whole book, though I might only write about parts.

Western, S. 2008, Leadership, Sage Publications, London.

To start I’ll mention that this is an engaging and well written book that clearly outlines the theories in a way that makes them understandable. This is the first time I’ve grasped an overall picture of critical leadership theory in a way that I felt I could articulate it, and position the five articles I’ve read within a cohesive argument.

Chapter One

What is critical theory?

Critical theory critiques the contemporary social world, looking for new options and positive implications for social action.  It critiques the historical and social assumptions and conditions while re-imagining conceptual frameworks.  Critical theory reviews, and confronts, other theories to examine their strengths and weaknesses, and importantly, use them to form stronger arguments.

 In terms of leadership critical theory aims to reveal how and why certain ideas become privileged and dominant while others are marginalised.  And while knowledge may be used for progress, it can also be used to maintain status quo.  From a critical leadership theory perspective knowledge has emancipatory aims to release individuals from coercion and constraint.

Western uses four principles in his review of leadership through a critical lens:

  • The Frankfurt School (emancipation): The underlying principle of the post/neo-marxists is to examine how neutral language of science ignored power structures. Neutral is only the predefined power structure.

    Main concern was human freedom and in order to fulfil emancipatory aims they worked to make transparent and challenge concealed power relations and structures, including those hidden in discourse and communication.

  • Depth analysis which draws on psychoanalytic theories of Freud,Lacan, Klein et al.

    “Depth analysis uses psychoanalysis but also other critical theory methods which investigates what happens beneath the surface of organisational life.”  Examines how power, control and influence are supported not just through the over structures and behaviours of organisational life, but internalised through the ‘the way things are done around here.’

  • Looking awry:Žižek’s idea that you gain greater understanding of the object when not looking at it straight on, but ‘looking awry.’  We need to view objects through the subjective lens.

    In the leadership perspective reshaping or reframing training and coaching can open up new options.Taking a historical and contextual perspective allows objects to be viewed in new ways.

  • Systemic praxis: Praxis is the application of, and relation, between theory and practice which is fundamental to critical theory.

    Using systemic praxis as a framework is an attempt to address the complex social, political, economic and environmental challenges present in contemporary multiple stakeholder organisations.

Critical Leadership Theory

Critical leadership theory looks beyond the dominant paradigms within academic and popular leadership writing which is constructed largely through the view of business schools and MBA’s.  By examining leadership from within the modern organisation, using the theories of business schools then consistent themes that support existing power structures will generally emerge.

Western says, when discussing the changes to Fordist views of management “It is only when they were commercially forced to look beyond their own internal world that change occurred.” (19)

Critical theory, applied to leadership, shows how underlying features and assumptions influence organisational life and what role leadership plays within this. It goes as far as showing how organisations have become tools of social coercion and control.

The key issue is one of emancipation. Western writes:

“The emancipatory approach is important as it challenges the fundamental aims of what it means to work towards developing successful leaders.  The fundamental am of normative leadership development and leadership success is to improve one object, a person in a role called leader, in order to improve the efficiency of another object, the organisation.” (20-21)

Critical leadership theory is not about efficiency, but about individual and social wellbeing through improvement of the individual.

Why this is important

There’s a lot in here for my research. Firstly, on a practical level the examination of leadership within the creative industries can differ from the dominant structures that are traditionally examined in mainstream literature. My view of the organisation, or the role of leader, differs from the organisational hierarchical approach.  Maybe this is just an alignment to a distributed leadership approach, but potentially I can remove myself from the dominant theories? Even arts management literature tends to focus on organisational structures – why, in my view, because it is easier.

Also on this point in the fact that leaders in the creative industries are unlikely to be indoctrinated by MBA and business school theories in the same way that corporate leaders are. An assumption I make, but experience suggests while leaders in the creative space are often highly educated (with greater tertiary education rates) they are not exposed to mainstream theory in the – but this may have changed with the growth of arts administration courses (not much though.)

Secondly – Western mentions that the dominant way of thinking only changes when forced to, as per the Fordist quote above.  This book was published in 2008, on the eve of the GFC, and there is a view that leadership may be forced to change as a result of those events (but I doubt it.)

Finally – critical leadership theory has an end goal of improvement of the individual over organisational efficiency.  Can this not align more with the goals of leadership within the creative industries? (Again this is an assumption, as many CI organisations are profit making in focus.) But link more to creative identity.


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