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.

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.

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.