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Reflect on a few key concepts this week:

  1. Organizational performance is the fifth aspect of the model, reflect on the question, do certain leadership behaviors improve and sustain performance at the individual, group, and organizational level? Please explain your response.
  2. There were two types of innovation addressed this week (product and process innovation), please note your own personal definition of these concepts and offer an example of both.

Please be sure to answer all of the questions above.

At least one scholarly (peer-reviewed) resource should be used in the initial discussion thread. Please ensure to use information from your readings and other sources. Use APA references and in-text citations.


Carlyle, Freud, and the Great Man Theory more fully considered

Bert Alan Spector D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University, USA


Contemporary surveys of leadership scholarship will occasionally mention the Great Man theory

before moving on to more rigorous academic categories. Less a theory than a statement of faith,

the Great Man theory does not fit into the rigorous scholarly theory and research that makes up

the contemporary canon of leadership discourse. My goal in this article is to treat the Great Man

theory seriously and to present a fuller notion of the theory. My intent is not to offer a defense of

the theory or to ‘‘redeem’’ Thomas Carlyle as a leadership theorist. Rather, I will add a hitherto

unacknowledged dimension: the element of Freudian psychology. In Freud’s case, the Great Man

was articulated not a moral proscription for how to act, but rather an analytic description of the

elemental forces that lead people to seek heroes. The article suggests that the Great Man theory

is worth considering because of its contemporary relevance. To consider the theory in full,

however, Freud’s work on leadership needs to be examined alongside that of Carlyle. It is

Freud’s description of the impulses that drive us toward authority figures, more than Carlyle’s

proselytizing for hero worship that can, and should offer valuable insights into how we—scholars,

observers, and participants in the business world—react to corporate saviors.


Great Man theory, Thomas Carlyle, Sigmund Freud, CEOs, intellectual history

In leadership discourse, the Great Man theory—an assertion that certain individuals, certain men, are gifts from God placed on earth to provide the lightening needed to uplift human existence—is associated mainly with Thomas Carlyle. For good reason. In the spring of 1840, Carlyle delivered a series of six public lectures on the role played by heroes in shaping the arc of history. The following year, those lectures were brought together in a single volume entitled On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, and the Great Man theory was born.

Carlyle’s voice in those lectures is off-putting to the contemporary ear. There is the obvious gender bias of his formulation, a rendering of his reading of history as unfolding through the

Corresponding author:

Bert Alan Spector, D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University, 350 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA

02115, USA.

Email: b.spector@neu.edu


2016, Vol. 12(2) 250–260

! The Author(s) 2015

Reprints and permissions:


DOI: 10.1177/1742715015571392


effects of dominant males combined with the prevalent Victorian conviction that leadership was ‘‘irredeemably masculine’’ (Grint, 2011: 8). There is the deep religiosity of his language, a reflec- tion of the strict Calvinist upbringing provided by his parents who expected him to become a preacher (Bossche, 1991). And perhaps most distinctly, there is his admonition that ‘‘our’’ job, those of us not divinely designated, is to recognize the Great Man, lift him to a position of prominence, and then obey. A ‘‘sick’’ world would be thus healed (Carlyle, 1841/2013).1

Contemporary surveys of leadership scholarship will occasionally mention Carlyle’s Great Man theory before moving on to more rigorous academic categories: traits, behaviors, charisma, contingencies, and so forth (see, for example, Maloş, 2012). More often, Carlyle and his lectures are simply ignored (for example, Yukl, 2013), presumably because the Great Man formulation is less a theory than a statement of faith. As such, it apparently does not fit into the ‘‘rigorous scholarly theory and research’’ that makes up the contemporary canon of leadership discourse (Day et al., 2014: 64). A ‘‘trait approach’’ that emphasizes the extra- ordinary attributes that set effective leaders apart from less effective ones may be seen as a more recent echo of the Great Man (Northouse, 2013), although that approach too is dis- missed as unsatisfying, misleading, or both (Yukl, 1989). A notable exception to the scant attention paid to the Great Man theory can be found in Keith Grint’s survey of leadership discourse, which acknowledges Carlyle as a foundational writer of modern leadership dis- course (Grint, 2011).

The theme of the Great Man and its pull on the manner in which leadership is conceived and leaders are considered resonates in today’s discourse on corporate behavior. Nancy F. Koehn, for instance, suggested in a recent Op-Ed piece that the continuing upward spiral of CEO pay even in the midst of the well-publicized executive misdeeds in the first decade of the 21st century can be attributed directly to this ongoing belief in the ‘‘Great Man’’ (Koehn, 2014). This is a theory that warrants reexamination.

This essay is part of my larger, ongoing project to assess discourse on the topic of lead- ership, primarily in business organizations, as it unfolded in the 20th century. Under the title The Discourse of Leadership, I am analyzing not the practice of leadership but rather the manner in which the topic is defined, discussed, analyzed, and considered.

I view the writing of history as an exercise in narrative construction. Historical narratives depend not on the simple compilation of a timetable containing a sequence of events, but rather on an act of imaginative intervention that constructs an ‘‘order of meaning,’’ with the goal of revealing themes and interactions (Durepos and Mills, 2011). I recognize that numer- ous narrative lines can be drawn that connect Carlyle with contemporary discourse. One such line could be suggested that connects Carlyle and German sociologist Max Weber, whose configuration of charismatic authority can be represented as a transition from Carlyle’s emphasis on the hero as a gift from God to more contemporary constructions of charisma as an attributional characteristic applied by followers (Conger and Kanungo, 1987). Another line could start with Carlyle’s gendered view of heroic leadership and reach forward to the work of Virginia Schein and others focusing on the prevalence of masculine stereotypes in contemporary literature (Schein, 1973). Both approaches, and likely others, warrant full consideration. My interest in this essay, however, is specifically, on the narrative line that connects Carlyle to Sigmund Freud and then to contemporary discourse concerning the moral—or immoral or even amoral—nature of leadership. I suggest that Freud’s description of the impulses that drive us toward authority figures, more than Carlyle’s proselytizing for hero worship can, and should offer valuable insights into how we—scholars, observers, and participants in the business world—react to corporate saviors.

Spector 251

A note on methodology

My methodology for this essay is intellectual history. Intellectual historians look at ideas as expressed by intellectuals. I take Maciag’s inclusive definition of intellectuals as people who have ‘‘produced writing, speeches, sermons, and other textual material intended for public consumption’’ (Maciag, 2011: 744). In the belief that ideas are powerful agents that either change or support the status quo, I will take measure of the ideas expressed by these two seminal thinkers—Carlyle and Freud—concerning leadership, and the influence those ideas continue to exert in contemporary leadership discourse.

I make no argument that Freud read Carlyle or was otherwise directly influenced by his work. Rather, I am proposing a narrative in which Carlyle and Freud wrestle with similar questions of authority and the impact of leaders on followers, albeit from strikingly different perspectives. My contribution is to construct an historical narrative that encompasses these two sets of ideas.

The role of historical narratives is to engage in a simultaneous dual discourse, one with the past and the other with the present. It is that second exchange that offers the opportunity for critical perspective. By constructing a narrative representation of the evolution of an understanding of the Great Man theory of leadership and drawing special attention to Freud’s contribution, my intent is to offer a critical perspective on current discourse.

Carlyle’s Great Man

In a period of crisis and upheaval—the Napoleonic wars and the accelerating pace of industrialization—Scottish-born Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) looked for a source of strength, direction, wisdom, and uplift. That source was no longer the Church, which in Carlyle’s experience had become a discredited shepherd (Bossche, 1991). Moving away from Calvinism involved a commensurate break with his father, so parental authority seemed as unreliable as Church hierarchy. Carlyle’s search led him to the Great Man: an individual of this earth but unmistakably sent by God.

Already a well-known author on his way to becoming ‘‘the most widely read and most greatly admired social philosopher of his time’’ (Schapiro, 1945: 99), Carlyle fought his discomfort over public speaking in order to earn the significant fees associated with lectur- ing. Carlyle opened his series of London talks on heroes by explaining his intent. ‘‘We have undertaken to discourse here for a little on the Great Men,’’ he explained to his audience, ‘‘their manner of appearance in our world’s business, how they have shaped themselves in the world’s history, what ideas men found of them, what work they did – on Heroes’’ (16). Carlyle intended to demonstrate how ‘‘the great man, with his free force direct out of God’s own hand’’ provided the ‘‘lightening’’ that shaped the world (29).

Given his loss of faith in the Church and his dismay over the revolutions that had spread across Europe, Carlyle wondered about authority. Who had it? Under what claims was it to be held? Who would hold it in the future? From Carlyle’s vantage, wrote Chris Vanden Bossche, ‘‘it appeared not only that authority had shifted, but that the transcendental grounds for it had been undermined’’ (Bossche, 1991). But if old platforms for authority were passing, what would replace them? In On Heroes, Carlyle provided his own answer: the ‘‘Able-man,’’ an individual who has been ‘‘sent by God’’ to have ‘‘a divine right over me.’’

Looking back at the French Revolution, Carlyle laid the responsibility for the collapse of the Ancien Régime squarely on the shoulders of its royal leader, Louis XVI.2 Louis was a far-from-able man, and revolutions occur, insisted Carlyle, when ‘‘you have put too Unable

252 Leadership 12(2)

Man at the head of affairs!’’ (162—all emphasis will be from the original text). Societies bedeviled by the lack of an Able-man at their helm had one core responsibility: find him:

Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him; you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot box, Parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. It is the perfect state; an ideal country. The Ablest Man; he means also the truest-hearted, justest,

the Noblest Man: what he tells us to do must be precisely the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere or anyhow learn; – the thing which it will in all ways behoove us, with right loyal thankfulness, and nothing doubting, to do! (162).

Of course, locating an Able-man and having the multitudes agree that this was the Able-man was no easy matter:

‘‘That we knew in some tolerable measure how to find him, and that all men were ready to

acknowledge his divine right when found: that is precisely the healing which a sick world is everywhere, in the ages, seeking after!’’ (163–164)

Carlyle was offering as much an argument for how the world works as a theory of lead- ership. Great men were sent by God to be heroes and these heroes became leaders through the righteous process of hero worship. Perhaps no statement found in the lectures is more fre- quently quoted than what follows from the opening of On Heroes:

For, as I take it, Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at

bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones, the modelers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatever the general mass of men contrived to do or attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world

are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these (21).

The goal of the lectures, then, was explicitly pedantic: to convince listeners to ‘‘bow down submissive before great men,’’ an act which would allow the worshiper to ‘‘feel himself to be more noble and blessed’’ (31).

Carlyle’s great men were an eclectic group; they were, in the order of his lectures, pro- phets, poets, priests, men of letters, and kings. Including Shakespeare along with Oliver Cromwell and Martin Luther demonstrates that Carlyle’s great men were heroic figures but not necessarily leaders in any institutional sense. To Carlyle, ‘‘all the greatness of man’’ came out decisively in Shakespeare.

That Shakespeare is the chief of all Poets hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded

world, has left record of himself in the way of Literature. I know now such a power of vision, faculty of thought, if we take all the characters of it, in any other man (95).

‘‘Nature’’ had offered Shakespeare to the world and Nature was pleased with the result. Still, it was the final lecture, ‘‘The Hero as King,’’ that carried the greatest weight for

Carlyle and cemented the connection between heroes and leaders, or commanders over men. It was ‘‘the last form of Heroism,’’ he wrote, ‘‘that which we call Kingship’’:

The Commander over Men he to whose will our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally

surrender themselves, and find their welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important

Spector 253

of the Great Men. He is practically the summary for us of all the various figures of Heroism;

Priest, Teacher, whatsoever of earthly or of spiritual dignity we can fancy to reside in a man, embodies itself here, to command over us, furnish us with constraint practical teaching, tell us for the day and hour what we are to do (162).

It was this amalgam Great Man who should be raised to ‘‘the supreme place.’’ Carlyle professed indifference to the process of such elevation: ‘‘no ballot box, Parliamentary elo- quence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit.’’ It was the fact of elevation and the resultant worshipful voluntary subjugation that would lead to ‘‘the perfect state; an ideal country’’ (162).

Carlyle’s view of history as working through the deeds of great men, or conversely through the absence of such a hero, did not go uncontested at the time. Ideas, at least important ones, seldom do. Within Victorian England there was Herbert Spencer. In his 1873 Study of Sociology, a founding text in the evolution of sociological study, Spencer took direct aim at the Great Man theory. Reflecting a sociological world view, Spencer argued that social context played a far more significant role in shaping events than did any indi- vidual leader, great man or otherwise.

The great man must always be considered and understood in terms of the times in which he lived. ‘‘Even if we were to grant the absurd supposition that the genesis of the great man does not depend on the antecedents furnished by the society he is born in,’’ Spencer wrote,

there would still be the quite sufficient facts that he is powerless in the absence of the material

and mental accumulations which his society inherits from the past, and that he is powerless in the absence of the co-existing population, character, intelligence, and social arrangements. (Spencer, 1873/1961, 31–32).

Great men, if and when they did appear, were products of social and historical forces rather than gifts bestowed on human civilization by God.

Other contemporary thinkers—notably Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace, 1869) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (Representative Men, 1903)—joined in this argument that leaders were products of their times. In On Heroes, Carlyle rejected the position totally:

He [the Great Man] was the ‘‘creature of the Time,’’ they say; the Time called him forth, the Time did everything, he did nothing – but what we the little critic could have done too! This

seems to me but melancholy work. The Times call forth? Alas, we have known Times call loudly enough for their great man; but not find him when they called! He was not there; Providence had not sent him; the Time, calling its loudest, had to go down to confusion and wreck because he

would not come when called. . . The great man, with his free force direct out of God’s own hand, is the lightening. His word is the wise healing word which we all can believe in. All blazes round him now, when he has once struck on it, into fire like his own (29).

Critics of the Great Man theory, Carlyle maintained, belittle themselves through their egre- gious misreading of how the world works.

It is impossible to miss the stern proselytizing, the righteous indignation, and the reproachful tone of these words. No surprise that Carlyle’s work found particular favor among the rising acolytes of 20th-century Italian fascism and German Nazism (Schapiro, 1945; Steinweis, 1995). Carlyle with his Great Man theory was called upon to add a ‘‘veneer of respectability’’ to ‘‘the fascists, who were delighted to find their ideas proclaimed in eloquent words by the great Victorian’’ (Schapiro, 1945: 114). More recently, the notion

254 Leadership 12(2)

of hero worship has been criticized as a pathway to passivity and dependence (Frieze and Wheatley, 2011; McPherson, 2008). Moderns generally and rationalists in particular typic- ally express a deep unease with hero worship. Carlyle’s preaching—that is the best word for it—is easy to resist or ignore on scientific, moral, and political grounds. However, my narrative has an additional iteration to explore before arriving at a present-day consider- ation of the lingering impact of the Great Man theory.

Let’s bring Freud into this

By the time of the 1937 publication ofMoses and Monotheism, a revisionist study of the great Hebrew hero and savior, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) had established a worldwide psycho- analytic movement. In search of analytic rigor to aid his and others’ clinical assessment of patients, Freud delved into the unconscious working of the mind. Over time, intellectual curiosity led him to a broader perspective, seeking to illuminate a linkage between individual psychology and group dynamics, religious belief, and the structure of history. Although the study of Moses represents his most articulate view of the hero role in history, his notion of the great man (I am using small letters rather than capitals because it is meant to be descrip- tive in Freud’s case) can be seen in earlier works, most specifically his 1921 Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.

For Carlyle, heroes were gifts from God and the task for the rest of us was to recognize that gift and to follow. Heroism certainly resided outside of the traditional boundaries of patriarchy. For Freud, on the other hand, the need for a single, special leader was primal, arising from the drive for dependency and even love. He opened that reasoning by situating the individual within a larger collective: a tribe, clan, or family. Group membership conveys many obvious benefits to individual members, including safety and security. On the other hand, by following a single leader, group members tend to bend their thinking ‘‘in the direction of the approximation to the other individuals in the group’’ (Freud, 1921/1967: 20). Group members would opt for conformity while sacrificing individuality.

Freud selected two institutions to offer illustrative examples of this attraction: the Church, particularly the Catholic Church, and the military. Christ for the church and the comman- der-in-chief for the military were both father figures who were loved by group members and were thought to love all followers within the group equally. Those assumptions were based on the basic process of identification. This was, for Freud, the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person: particularly the son identifying with the father. ‘‘A little boy will exhibit a special interest in his father; he would like to grow up like him and be like him, and take his place everywhere’’ (Freud, 1921/1967: 37). Identification with a father figure was a natural, even inevitable form of emotional attachment.

For Freud, the leader is always male; a father figure. Strozier and Offer explain that ‘‘Freud always examines the unfolding of the Oedipus complex’’—this being the primary source of conflict within the family—‘‘from the boy’s point of view, adding only parenthet- ically that the analogue of the boy’s conflicts occurs in girls’’ (Strozier and Offer, 2011: 28). For Carlyle and Freud both, the great man is, well, a man. Carlyle’s gendered view derives from his reading of world history as unfolding through the actions of men; for Freud, it derived from the assumed role of the father as head of the family.

In Freud’s treatment of Moses, we can see his most complete statement of the role of the male hero leader in human society. Throughout history, Freud noted, ‘‘the great majority of people have a strong need for authority which they can admire’’ (Freud, 1937/1967: 111).

Spector 255

Freud replaced Carlyle’s belief in divine intervention with individual psychology, family dynamics, and psychosexual drives. He nonetheless located what he felt was a recurring human desire for a single, always male, individual. This father figure satisfied a primal need for protection and love.

Freud’s story of Moses departs in dramatic ways from that found in Exodus. Rather than being a Jewish son sent floating down the Nile, he is in Freud’s retelling an Egyptian born into royalty. His later struggle with the Pharaoh is, in this telling, a struggle—perhaps symbolic but maybe not—with his ‘‘real’’ father. Moses emerged as a hero by rebelling against this father, killing him ‘‘in some guise or another’’ (Freud, 1937/1967: 111). Monotheism, which Moses institutionalized among the Hebrews, represented for Freud the triumph of the father figure, the single male deity who could serve as the organizing totem for his followers. Moses was, for Freud, the great man, with monotheism representing the institutionalization of the single male authority figure.

A reconsideration (with Freud in the mix)

The Great Man theory, despite its lack of scientific rigor, remains fully relevant. In the world of business, the search for a hero to ‘‘save’’ failing companies still exerts considerable appeal. Driven by a ‘‘quasi-religious belief’’ in the power and influence of an individual hero, board members and investors regularly search for ‘‘saviors’’ (Khurana, 2002). Occasionally, that savior is a woman. Boards hire, and then frequently dismiss CEOs, both male and female, always on the lookout for the latest savior.

A number of scholars have noted the utility and appeal of condensing a multitude of forces, complex interactions, and uncertain causation into an individual (see, for example, Meindl et al., 1985; Pfeffer, 1977). Leadership as a concept upholds human agency. Furthermore, it offers a pathway to corrective action: when things go bad, fire the current leader and hire a new one. That is, of course, a simple, certainly simplistic pathway, but a pathway nonetheless.

External observers of corporate life contribute to the exaltation of individual leader/ heroes. James Meindl and Stanford Ehrlich (1987) asked research subjects to evaluate the performance of a fictitious firm based entirely on data provided them by the researcher. The performance data were held constant. What changed in the two accounts provided the subjects were an emphasis on the individual role of the leader in achieving that performance. The result: Subjects evaluated performance of a fictitious firm more positively when the information they received pointed to leadership as the main cause for performance. There is little reason, apparently, to think that the notion of an individual hero/leader has lost its power to influence our thought process.

Corporate executives explicitly reinforce the Great Man theory when they don the cloak of heroic leadership. Eric Guthey and his colleagues noted a trend, dating back to the later 19th century, for business executives to construct a narrative in which ‘‘they can remain floating in mid-air by virtue of their own innate skills and exemplary characteristics’’ (Guthey et al., 2010: 12). Other recent studies have shown that CEOs take pains to claim authorship of great successes for their companies, while blaming failures on outside forces: unfair foreign competition, crippling state regulation, world economic trends, and even bad weather (Bligh et al., 2011; Gray and Densten, 2007; Salancik and Meindl, 1984; Staw et al., 1983). By romanticizing their own role in the company’s success, CEOs seek to enhance their self-esteem. With adulation comes prestige, power, and control (Goode, 1978). CEOs seek to assure others—shareholders (both current and potential future investors), board members,

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fellow executives, and employees at all levels—that their leadership in worthy of follower- ship; that they are indeed great men.

The narrative I have constructed explicitly offers Freud as a significant coauthor of the Great Man theory. Freud addressed many of the same matters taken up in Carlyle’s lectures, most particularly the source and role of authority in human existence (see Table 1).

For Carlyle, dependence on the Great Man offered nothing but uplift. For Freud, on the other hand, dependency inevitably led to a marked reduction in intellectual engagement on the part of group members. Part of this dynamic, what would later come to be known as ‘‘groupthink’’ (Janis, 1972; Whyte, 1952), involved placing a higher value on group mem- bership than on individual autonomy. But Freud added that the presence of a strong, attractive individual leader exacerbated the tendency to submerge the individual into the group. Group members provided the leader with love and expected that love to be recipro- cated equally to the members.3 This was Freud, so, yes, that attraction was in part sexual; a libidinous attraction to the father-figure/leader.

In Freud’s view, the great man is ‘‘the father that lives in each of us from his childhood days for the same father whom the hero of legend boosts of having overcome.’’ The ‘‘picture of the father,’’ then, includes the ‘‘decisiveness of thought, the strength of will, the self- reliance and independence of the great man [and] his divine conviction of doing the right thing which may pass into ruthlessness.’’ The great man will be admired, trusted, and fol- lowed. However, ‘‘one cannot help but being afraid of him’’ (Freud, 1937/1967: 140).

That final note—‘‘one cannot help but being afraid of him’’—offers a markedly differ- ent tone from the jubilation so prevalent in Carlyle. And Freud did not stop with that warning. By admiring a leader unconditionally, followers were submitting to authority. In so doing, followers rendered themselves vulnerable. Submission enabled an authority

Table 1. Comparing the contributions of Carlyle and Freud.

Great Man Theory

Carlyle Freud

Great men were sent by God to

be heroes and these heroes

became leaders through the

righteous process of hero


Core of theory Humans have a primal need for a

father figure to whom they

offer dependence and love in

return for protection and

reciprocated love

God Source of authority Position in family

Male—by virtue of history Gender Male—by virtue of patriarchal

family structure

Respect Exchange with followers Love

Loyal reverence Role of followers Submission

Not recognizing great man Inherent danger Mistreatment by great man

Uplift Outcome of obedience Reduced autonomy of group


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figure who ‘‘dominates and sometimes even ill-treats them’’ (Freud, 1937/1967: 111). Writing on the cusp of a World War II (Freud had fled Vienna for London just the year prior to the publication of Moses and Monotheism), Freud’s warning was tangible and immediate.

It is tempting to dismiss Carlyle’s unquestioned celebration of hero/leaders as passé and naive. Before doing so, however, we should recognize a striking parallel in contemporary leadership theories, especially transformational leadership. Political Scientist James MacGregor Burns, for instance, defined leadership as a ‘‘good thing.’’ It is by his definition virtuous and ethical, helping people and institutions achieve such ‘‘lofty principles as order, liberty, equality (including brotherhood and sisterhood), justice, and the pursuit of happi- ness’’ (Burns, 2003: 27).

Powerful individuals may provide ill treatment. In that case, however, they are not leaders. The ‘‘transforming leader’’ in Burns’ view is both deeply moral and profoundly uplifting. ‘‘The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents’’ (Burns, 1978: 4). It is the concept of ‘‘moral leadership,’’ Burns insisted, ‘‘that concerns me the most.’’

Burns focused on what he called transforming leadership and that became the dominant paradigm in leadership scholarship thereafter (Antonakis, 2012; Northouse, 2013). The leading advocates of applying such transforming leadership to business followed his lead in asserting the inherent goodness of leadership. The well-known syllogism, introduced by Bennis and Nanus in 1985 that ‘‘Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing’’ explicitly marries leadership with righteousness (Bennis and Nanus, 1985: 21). Bernard Bass explicitly departed from the ‘‘moral uplift’’ component that Burns had inserted (Bass, 1985a, 1985b). Nonetheless, he remained committed to the prop- osition leadership sat at the core of effective organizational performance (Bass, 1993).

Freud, as we have seen, was far less celebratory. Leaders are individuals who exercise authority and exert power. They get other people to go along, to follow. Inspiration is part of the appeal to others, but, as Freud insisted, so are fear, coercion, and conformity. To pretend leaders are not power wielders—a pretense which Barbara Kellerman argued that was embraced by a ‘‘tacit alliance’’ among theoreticians, practitioners, researchers and edu- cators, consultants and trainers—was to ‘‘whistle in the dark’’ (Kellerman, 2000: 68). Freud, not Carlyle, speaks to our contemporary awareness of what Tourish (2013) calls the ‘‘dark side’’ of leadership.

The Great Man theory, more fully understood, helps our appreciation of what Meindl, Ehrlich, and Dukerich referred to as the lofty elevation of a concept of leadership by imbuing it with ‘‘mystery and near mysticism’’ (Meindl et al., 1985: 78). Academics do not escape the allure of the romantic hero/leader. I have written about the appeal of Chrysler executive Lee Iacocca to the foundational authors of transformational leadership (Spector, 2014).

All the rigorous scholarly research and theorizing we may undertake cannot diminish the human striving to locate heroic leaders. People seek a narrative structure that brings legit- imacy to abstractions, offers coherence in response to apparent chaos, and asserts human agency in the face of seemingly unmanageable complexity. I am not suggesting that all of this is rational. It may, in fact, be the opposite. Nor am I denying that the search may well be delusional and self-defeating. Certainly, the terms of the search as suggested by Carlyle (for the Great Man of history) and Freud (for the father figure) should be and have been con- tested. What I am suggesting is that self-awareness can open the door for self-examination. Alternative paths to group, organizational, and social health can then be considered.

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Rather than ignoring the Great Man theory, we should appreciate that, in Freud’s telling especially, it is a description of our deepest impulses rather than a proscription for uplift. Unlike Carlyle, Freud insisted that the impulses can lead to a loss of individuality and mistreatment by the same figure to whom we offer our followership.

When leadership scholars marginalize the Great Man theory and fail to consider it in full, we risk diluting what can and should be a robust discourse on just how and why individual hero/leaders continue to capture our imagination and the best options for addressing that impulse.


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served as a primary source for Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, published 22 years later.

3. Is it too much to suggest that Freud’s notion of reciprocal and equal love provides a psychosexual underpinning to contemporary notions of organizational justice?


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Author biography

Bert Alan Spector is an Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy as the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University, in Boston. His research interests include management and organizational history, leadership, organizational change, and business model innovation. He is currently working on an intellectual history of business leadership discourse, Leadership: Discourse and Meaning, to be published in Cambridge University Press in 2015.

260 Leadership 12(2)


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.

Email: mark.learmonth@durham.ac.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


Fairhurst and Grant (2010: 188) support Collinson’s reading of CMS’s limits in relation to leadership studies. For them also:

CMS scholars tend to be less enamored of leadership per se . . . If CMS scholars mention lead-

ership at all, they cast it as a mechanism of domination . . . view it with suspicion for being overly reductionist . . . or proclaim a need for agnosticism.

Furthermore, many in CLS remain alive to the dangers of essentializing leadership as something categorically distinct from management. As Collinson and Tourish (2015: 577) argue:

[I]t makes sense to see management as somewhat more concerned with day-to-day operational activities than leadership [nevertheless] the term leadership [as opposed to management] has heuristic value in that it captures the approach, perceptions, and interactional dynamics of varied organizational actors when they encounter uncertain environments, powerful others,

260 Leadership 13(3)

and complex strategic dilemmas, and in which the salience of leadership issues is therefore

heightened. However, attempts to establish absolutist distinctions between them [leadership and management] can be viewed as another example of the ‘‘dichotomizing tendency’’ in lead- ership studies.

Another feature of CLS, according to Collinson, is its emphasis on how ‘leadership dynam- ics can emerge informally in more subordinated and dispersed relationships . . . as well as in oppositional forms of organization such as trade unions . . . and revolutionary movements’ (2011: 182). The prominence attached to this feature of CLS certainly reflects a critical point of view because rather than reproducing officially sanctioned corporate hierarchies it chal- lenges and subverts them. Indeed, work like Zoller and Fairhurst’s (2007: 1332) study of resistance leadership – which highlights ‘the role of leadership in resisting and potentially transforming structures of domination’ provides an illustration of the critical potential in such work. They provide extended examples of the leadership of dissent, focusing ‘on the role of perceived unfairness and injustice as a key resource of dissent mobilization’ (2007: 1340). Take this excerpt, which uses the accounts of a participant ethnography by Laurie Graham (1995) who worked in an American automobile factory. It was in this setting that Graham:

[U]sed discourses around Japanese concepts of self-management and extant organizational policy to fight the [recently introduced and unpopular] overtime requirement. However, her refusal gains traction from other employees as it articulates simmering employee anger around this issue. Before this incident, she [Graham] describes angry reactions when the team

leader asked employees to stay after shift to put away their tools because the line would no longer stop five minutes early. Employees privately complained, saying things like ‘this is the kind of bullshit that brings in a union’, and ‘this place is getting too Japanese around here’. She

says, ‘From that day on, whenever the line ran up to quitting time, all of us on the team dropped whatever we were doing and immediately walked out, leaving the team leader to lock up the tools and clean the area’ . . .That same month, after resentment grew about the mandatory

overtime, when the line kept moving after shift, ‘nearly everyone on the car side put on a coat and walked out’, although leaving a moving line is a cause for firing ‘and everybody knew it’. (Zoller and Fairhurst, 2007: 1350)

According to Zoller and Fairhurst, activists and trade unionists – among other oppositional groups – appropriate some of the influencing tools of leadership to advance causes that go against the interests of elites. It is unsurprising then, that Zoller and Fairhurst (2007: 1354) conclude by urging ‘more dialogue between leadership and critical researchers in order to understand resistance leadership’.

We welcome all the above aspirations, and unlike authors such as Gemmill and Oakley (1992), we are not arguing for a blanket ban on using the term leadership in organizational scholarship. For us, the term can sometimes be a valuable category to deploy, especially when used reflexively and judiciously to challenge and subvert its received usage in mainstream research. After all, foundational critical thinkers like Weber and Gramsci include discussions of leadership and its dynamics in their work. What we are against, however, is the a priori use of leader and follower to represent different hierarchical groups – as a kind of master category for representing and under- standing social and organizational dynamics. As we show in the next section, this is common practice in CLS – in spite of CLS’s many other virtues –something which effectively sets CLS against some of its own aspirations.

Learmonth and Morrell 261

In order to explore the issues that arise, we now examine three prominent pieces of recent CLS writing in more detail. We should emphasize that we regard all three of them as highly successful – and critical – in many ways. However, all three share an important blind spot: an apparently unreflexive use of leader and follower. The first is Harding (2014), a paper we use to explore our claim that Critical Leadership Studies seems to be different from Critical Management Studies only because of its preference to use leader and follower – and that manager and worker would do just as well – at least in terms of semantics. The second is Collinson (2014) – an article we juxtapose with some of Collinson’s earlier work (from 1988) – to show both how new this drift from manager to leader is; and why it matters. Finally, we examine the work of Collinson and Tourish (2015) to demonstrate the dangers of the uni- versalization of leadership that an unreflexive use of leader and follower can imply – even in an article that is otherwise highly successful in critiquing mainstream leadership studies.

Semantic swap: Crossing-out managers and workers

Let us turn first to Harding (2014). To demonstrate how synonymous leader and manager, follower and worker are, at least in Harding’s usage, below is the article’s abstract in full. Each reference to leadership/leader is replaced with management/manager; and each refer- ence to follower is replaced with worker:

This paper develops a theory of the subjectivity of the leader manager through the philosophical

lens of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic and its recent interpretation by the philosopher Judith Butler. This is used to analyse the working life history of a man who rose from poverty to a leadership management position in a large company and eventually to running his own successful

business. Hegel’s dialectic is foundational to much Western thought, but in this paper, I rashly update it by inserting a leader manager in between the master, whose approval the leader manager needs if s/he is to sustain self-hood, and the follower worker, who becomes a tool

that the leader manager uses when trying to gain that elusive approval. The analysis follows the structure of Butler’s reading of the Dialectic and develops understanding of the norms that govern how leaders managers should act and the persons they should be. Hard work has become for leaders managers an ethical endeavour, but they grieve the sacrifice of leisure. They enjoy a

frisson of erotic pleasure at their power over others but feel guilt as a result. They must prove their leadership management skills by ensuring their followers workers are perfect employees but at the same time must prove their followers workers are poor workers who need their continued

leadership management. This leads to the conclusion that the leader manager is someone who is both powerful and powerless. This analysis is intended not to demonize leaders managers, but to show the harm that follows the emphasis on leadership management as a desirable and necessary

organizational function.

There is no loss in meaning or resolution with these changes – showing how manager and worker here are direct synonyms for leader and follower. Also, the preference for leader/ follower has nothing to do with the paper’s central problematic. Judith Butler’s reading of Hegel’s master/slave would work with either leader/follower or manager/worker as the dialectic.

That these terms are interchangeable would probably be true of many articles in Leadership – especially those that focus on leadership as a positional and/or personal attri- bute; but a reason for focusing on Harding’s paper is that in the body of the text she explicitly makes leader equivalent to manager. She also signals that the identity of the leader/manager is intimately linked with capitalism: ‘it is on the body of ‘‘the leader’’,

262 Leadership 13(3)

‘‘boss’’ or ‘‘manager’’ that capitalism is inscribed, and it is through the leader/boss/manager that capitalism speaks’ (2014: 392). She also writes of ‘follower–bondsman–worker’ (Harding, 2014: 399) as synonyms. One is left to wonder, therefore, whether the article is about leadership merely because it uses the terms leader and follower.

It clearly could have used manager and worker as its dominant terms; if it had done so though, even with no other changes, Harding’s work would presumably have been regarded as a contribution to CMS. However, if manager had been its preferred term, the article would doubtless not have been published in Leadership. Indeed, one factor fuelling the growth in the language of leadership in organizational scholarship over the last few years may well simply be the rise of journals like Leadership, which effectively require authors to represent their work in the language of leadership (The Leadership Quarterly, published from 1990, was the first major journal of this type). Nevertheless, Harding’s article is already being commended as a model of writing in CLS (Collinson and Tourish, 2015; Tourish, 2015).

Drift over time: From shop-floor worker to follower, from ‘the management’ to leaders

As an illustration of why it matters whether we talk about leaders and followers or managers and workers consider Table 1. It is a short extract from the recent writings of David Collinson, juxtaposed with work he published some 26 years earlier.

The first thing that strikes us from this juxtaposition is just how radically Collinson has chosen to re-present his earlier work in the language of the leader/follower. We say re- present, because throughout the whole of the 1988 paper he used neither term (leader nor follower) at all. What this change does, however, is markedly to alter the tone of the two extracts. Whereas the 1988 piece has the feel of a radical critique of (the) management voiced in the language of the shop-floor, the leader/follower dualism (though the word employee is used once) gives the 2014 extract a rather more conciliatory, manager-orientated (or rather we should say leader-orientated) tone. It is as if the 2014 version were addressed primarily to and written for so-called leaders – leaders who seem to be equated, a priori, with elites. It is still critical in the sense that it says uncomfortable things to those elites, i.e. that they can be out of touch, unaware or unsympathetic. But all the Marxian-inflected rhetoric we find in the 1988 extract (e.g. ‘obscure conflict’; ‘hierarchical structure of status and power’; ‘the polar- ization between management and shop-floor’ etc.) seems to have disappeared – along with the terms manager and shop-floor worker. To our ears, these changes have the effect of significantly depoliticizing the 2014 account. They make the critique less challenging to the powerful, with no sense of workers’ voices coming through.

Our other main observation about the above table concerns the practice of calling people like shop-floor workers followers. Follower seems so unlikely to be part of what Collinson (1988: 185) himself calls the ‘cultural identities’ of most ordinary workers across the world. Can you imagine people like ‘‘‘Fat Rat’’, ‘‘Bastard Jack’’, ‘‘Big Lemon’’ and ‘‘The Snake’’’ (nicknames for some of the people Collinson (1988: 185) encountered during his shop-floor ethnography) thinking of their identity via the term follower? Surely not! Take the opening scene of the1960 British film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (available at the time of writing on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v¼zJAeb0wiQjA). The camera pans across a busy factory before alighting on the protagonist, Arthur Seaton, played by Albert Finney, at his workbench. Speaking directly to the camera, Arthur says of his bosses: ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down!’ Or what about Sergeant Milton Warden, played by Burt

Learmonth and Morrell 263https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJAeb0wiQjAhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJAeb0wiQjA

Lancaster, in the 1953 Hollywood film From Here to Eternity. Though the figure of the military officer is often taken as the consummate, archetypal leader, Warden memorably declares ‘I hate officers – I always hated officers!’ and starts an affair with his own officer’s wife, perhaps in part to prove the point.

We can see that a case might perhaps be made for calling such people followers built on notions like multiple subjectivities or identities. Still, why does anyone need to use it, espe- cially as the routine term for people in lower hierarchical positions? To us, the thought of people like Arthur Seaton or Sergeant Warden representing themselves as followers (of any kind of organizational elite) is more than simply misleading – it is risible – indeed, insulting to the many people today who share similarly dismissive views of the people in power over them. How many academics would refer to themselves as ‘followers’? Yet many of us are ready to label others with these terms, such that contemporary Arthur Seatons and Sergeant Wardens are regularly being represented as followers in CLS research. Indeed, we find it hard to see any organizational context where the term ‘follower’ might be appropriate (cf. Blom and Alvesson, 2015; Ford and Harding 2015). Its use seems as insulting and demean- ing to workers as it is flattering to the managerial ego: a toxic combination!

Framing the field: Alternatives to leadership, leadership?

It is important to emphasize that CLS writers who nowadays prefer to talk about leaders and followers leave no doubt that they propose a critical reading of organizational life. Indeed, Collinson and Tourish (2015) have recently provided radical criticisms of mainstream

Table 1. From shop-floor worker to follower; from ‘the management’ to leaders.

Collinson (2014: 44) Collinson (1988: 186/7)

My own research in organizations over the past

30 years has found a recurrent . . . pattern. This

is for organizational leaders to be either una-

ware of organizational tensions and paradoxes

or, if they are informed of them, to try to deny

or downplay their nature, extent, and conse-

quences. This is especially the case with regard

to leaders’ relations with followers/employees.

Leaders’ hierarchical position ‘‘at the top’’ of

organizations can result in them being distant

and detached from ‘‘the front line’’ where

many of the organization’s tensions are often

most acutely experienced . . . Equally, followers

may face considerable difficulties and barriers

in seeking to voice their ‘‘critical upward

communication’’ to those in senior

positions . . . Consequently, leaders can be lar-

gely unaware of fundamental tensions and

contradictions embedded within routine

organizational practices.

Shop-floor humour directed at managers was

usually concerned to negate and distance

them . . . By contrast, management repeatedly

sought to engage shop stewards in humorous

interaction. Yet, the stewards were aware that

this managerial humour was intended to

obscure conflict behind personalized relations,

which tried to deny the hierarchical structure

of status and power . . . Six years earlier the

company had been taken over by an American

multi-national . . . As part of the American’s

campaign to win the trust of the workforce, a

company in-house magazine was introduced.

The paper was dismissed widely as a ‘Let’s be

pals act’ and nicknamed . . . ‘Goebbel’s

Gazette.’. . . The intention of managerial

humour [included in the Gazette], to reduce

conflict and emphasize organizational harmony,

had the opposite effect of merely reinforcing

the polarization between management and


264 Leadership 13(3)

leadership research and teaching. They advance, ‘the idea that leadership is socially con- structed and interpreted and that ‘‘it’’ could mean very different things to different actors in different situations’ (578). They also remind readers of ‘the twin perils of hype and hubris’ (580) in teaching students to be leaders, along with the need for ‘the teaching of leader- ship . . . to go beyond a ‘‘rotten apple’’ theory of dysfunctionality and corruption to examine the barrel within which the apples have soured’ (586). While welcoming these sorts of state- ments, we think the authors foreclose an even more radical critical analysis. Simply by the ways in which they use the terms, they imply that leadership and followership are neutral, natural and necessary categories of analysis. In other words, they fail to signal any reflexivity about their representational practices.

This is important because many of their above critiques might be absorbed or otherwise appropriated by the mainstream (see e.g. Dinh et al., 2014; Schyns and Schilling, 2013 for mainstream work to have done so). However, the mainstream can deal much less readily with the idea that its fundamental categories – leader and follower – may be interest serving in themselves. Unfortunately, this possibility is not – as far as we can see – even raised by Collinson and Tourish. Yet using the leader/follower dyad provides Collinson and Tourish with numerous problems. For example, they are right to be troubled that those involved in mainstream leadership research and teaching ‘tend to assume that the interests of leaders and followers automatically coalesce, that leadership is an uncontested form of top-down influ- ence, follower consent is its relatively unproblematic outcome and resistance is abnormal or irrational’ (2015: 577). However, they appear to overlook the possibility that at the root of the problem may lie the very terms themselves: that leader and follower semantically entail coalescence. Part of the general understanding of leadership in our culture includes some- thing like ‘an uncontested form of top-down influence’ just as, if someone is referred to as a follower, s/he would generally be thought of as someone for whom ‘any resistance is abnor- mal or irrational’.

Their own formulation, ‘follower dissent and resistance’ (2015: 576) crystallizes the dis- cursive problem they have set for themselves. In what sense can a person intelligibly remain a follower while simultaneously displaying dissent and resistance? Someone who dissents and resists is surely (according to received English meanings) not a follower. The reader is left to resolve the contradiction within their formulation – presumably by concluding that at the level of identity the person is a follower – and that their dissenting and resistant behaviours must merely be temporary aberrations. Such a conclusion is the opposite of a critical stance on the identities of workers because the leader/follower formulation implies that ultimately both leader and follower share the same goal. To avoid this problem – which one could say Collinson and Tourish have set for themselves – would be simple if they merely argued about worker dissent and resistance!

By using this language of leadership, Collinson and Tourish also fall into the trap Alvesson and Kärreman (2016: 142) identify:

Many researchers find a market for work using the popular signifier ‘‘leadership’’ because . . .mainstream approaches have made leadership fashionable. Many efforts to develop

‘‘alternative’’ views thus at the same time partly break with and reinforce the domination of ‘‘leadership’’ . . .Nuances involved in the efforts to revise ‘‘leadership’’ are easily lost as the major framing reinforces a dominating ‘‘mega-discourse,’’ weakening others. For example, this rein- forces an understanding that the alternative to leadership is leadership, not peer relations, pro-

fessionalism, autonomy, co-workership, organizing processes, or mutual adjustment offering alternative framings and understanding than what the leadership vocabulary invites.

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Collinson and Tourish’s work reinforces an understanding that ‘the alternative to leadership is leadership’ by, for instance, encouraging students ‘to draw on their own experiences of leadership and followership dynamics in schools, workplaces and families’ (2015: 581). To encourage such practices seems to be endorsing the use of the problematic discourse in new areas – young people’s relations with one another in schools and in families – where, as far as we know, even the most enthusiastic of mainstream leadership commentators have yet to venture (though see Harms and Spain (2016) for something close). In other words, Collinson and Tourish end up encouraging students to see leadership and followership almost everywhere.


These critical readings of CLS’s representational practices are reinforced when we observe that the exponential growth in leadership’s appeal since the 1980s has occurred during a periodwhich also witnessed the rise of neoliberalism and the consequent widespread defeat of trade union power (Brown, 2015). Indeed, given the extent to which they share strikingly similar unitary and individualizing impulses, the current popularity of the language of leadership might be read as a direct analogue for today’s neoliberal consensus. An a priori use of formulations like leader and follower is as useful to those at the top of big business – and as congruent with their interests – as other forms of neoliberal rhetoric; say, the redefinition of job insecurity as free agency or the portrayal of billionaire tycoons as regular guys. When workers can be controlled through their freedoms the defenders of capitalism no longer have to crush labour resistance. Redefining themselves – the defenders of capitalism – as leaders (with workers now cast as followers) is appealing as one potential avenue towards such control, not least because it tends to hollow out classical notions of organizational politics, reducing debate about alienation and exploitation to problem solving and team building (Lears, 2015).

In other words, the leader/follower dualism is hard to read as anything other than a denial of the central tenet of Marxian-inflected organizations analyses – the structured antagonism between capital and labour. The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels, 1848/1967: 79) famously begins with a series of dualisms that emphasize class struggle and conflict: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another’. The leader/follower dualism does not fit Marx and Engel’s list of oppositions – both leader and follower stop being merely nicer- or more fashionable-sounding synonyms for manager and worker in certain important contexts. This is because the cultural valences associated with the language of leadership imply neither struggle between leader and follower nor anything else that might be particu- larly oppressive or oppositional. Rather, they suggest that the norm is friendly relations, and that a person’s (i.e. a so-called follower’s) primary allegiance is (or should be) to her leader – not solidarity with other workers. In contrast, one of the classical terms in organizational analysis – worker – is still, for many, within the trade union movement and beyond, emblem- atic of class solidarity; it certainly seems unlikely to naturalize asymmetrical social relations in the same way as follower might. Thus, traditional analytical dualisms like manager/ worker or capital/labour (as opposed to leader/follower) leave rhetorical space for solidarity and radical resistance; whereas those starting to be constructed as followers might well assume that they can legitimately offer no more than (what their so-called leaders would see as) ‘constructive resistance’ (Uhl-Bien et al., 2014: 93).

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In sum, any ‘critical’ work on leadership that uses leader and follower as a priori, uni- versal categories will lack a certain potential for critique. This framing forecloses radical resistance and is more easily assimilated with dominant albeit unexamined ideals in the leadership literature. For instance, if we begin by thinking in terms of leader/follower, it takes us closer to a pro-hegemonic ideal: that a core part of what leaders do is to frame reality for their ‘followers’. It also lends independent authority to the pro-hegemonic ideal that ‘followers’ willingly surrender their powers to shape their own realities. So, rather than, as Collinson and Tourish (2015: 577) believe, being ‘fundamentally about the effective or ineffective exercise of power, authority, and influence’ we suggest that the terms leadership and followership are at root performative (Gond et al., 2015). By which we mean, in a nutshell, that if someone is called a leader or a follower often enough the very act itself tends to bring about what it says; typically to the bosses’ benefit and to workers’ disadvantage.

Nevertheless, the language of leadership is undoubtedly an important phenomenon in today’s society. Indeed, the rhetoric is becoming so widespread in many organizational contexts that as Morrell and Hewison (2013: 70) show ‘it becomes impossible to see an alternative to ‘‘leadership’’ . . . leadership is, seemingly, anything and everything’. Brocklehurst et al. (2010: 10) are therefore surely correct in claiming that ‘leadership is both congruent with, and emblematic of, dominant contemporary understandings of what is valuable in organizations’. As such, it needs critical analsis; and for this reason alone we need CLS. But as many feminists, post-colonial and queer theorists (among others) have argued (see for example Hughes, 2002; Seidman S., 1997; Smith 1999), it is very difficult, perhaps often impossible, to construct radical critique in the language of the powerful.

We suggest, therefore, that CLS stops trying. Let us continually question the effects of the language of leadership – and use alternatives – rather than routinely deploying it ourselves. We have already cited some possible alternatives from Alvesson and Kärreman (2016: 142): ‘peer relations, professionalism, autonomy, co-workership, organizing processes, or mutual adjustment’. We might also suggest that instead of follower terms like dissenter or radical could be used. But to keep things simple, while the pairing is hardly entirely unproblematic in itself, simply going back to the language of manager and worker seems to us to be one step in the right direction.


Admittedly, to stop talking about leaders might be easier said than done. One of the reasons for this difficulty is that the language of leadership is becoming so institutionalized. For example, as the holder of the office of Deputy Dean at his Business School, one of us (Mark) does not officially have an administrative job, nor even a management role; rather, according to the university’s designation he holds a ‘leadership position’. In these contexts it is espe- cially difficult to oppose the language of leadership, not least because the practice is caught up in a new kind of common sense; what Brown (2015) calls (in the title of her book) ‘neo- liberalism’s stealth revolution’. What is more, any opposition is made even harder when many critical colleagues seem happy simply to go along with such changes.

One possibility, if we must talk about leadership in our scholarship, is to do so outside conventional organizational contexts where consent and personal relationships are clearly predominant. To focus, in other words, on those instances where leadership is developed freely and collaboratively between people – and not on those circumstances when

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‘leadership’ is imposed – as is common in corporate settings. Alternatively, we might confine our use of leadership to obviously subversive contexts. An example of the former approach is provided by Humphreys et al.’s (2012) examination of leadership in jazz bands. In discussing how musicians such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Winton Marsalis might be thought of as ‘leaders’ the authors move decisively away from any sort of corporate setting and into an arena where leaders generally emerge with the consent and enthusiasm of their musical peers. As they put it: ‘jazz [is] the focus of our research because equivocality is central to its very essence’ (2012: 42). Nevertheless, perhaps in part because the corporate resonances of leadership are so strong, some of the reactions to their article from people outside academia appear to assume that they were simply providing lessons for business from jazz (Arnot, 2012). Dangers of similar misunderstandings, or even deliberate appro- priation, mean that we prefer the second option, and try to use leadership in ways that are as unambiguously subversive as possible. While misunderstanding or appropriation by elites is always a lurking threat for any work that talks about leadership, with colleagues one of us has, for example, explored leadership using queer theory (Ford et al., 2008; Harding et al., 2011).

On a final note, earlier, we mentioned the classic movies Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and From Here to Eternity because their characters contradict some of the assumptions of the discourses of followership. Well, what about the 2010 British film (and subsequent successful London West End musical) Made in Dagenham? For us, this movie subverts the mainstream notions of both leader and follower in interesting ways – while also linking notions of leadership with ideas about capitalism and patriarchy. The film is based on historical events of worker resistance in Britain in the 1960s (see http:// www.traileraddict.com/made-in-dagenham/trailer), and like the other two films its central character is a working-class hero; only this time she is a woman, Rita O’Grady, played by Sally Hawkins.

Rita takes the initiative amongst her female colleagues to encourage them to stand up against an oppressive Dagenham Ford factory management who refuse to pay fair wages to women. On behalf of the other women, Rita subsequently finds herself taking on a male- dominated trade union movement ambivalent about equal pay for women, and eventually, the UK government’s Employment Secretary, Barbara Castle. Rita and her colleagues ultim- ately win their dispute, and in the process are instrumental in bringing about a change in the law: the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Rita can be understood, in other words, as a superb exemplar of Zoller and Fairhurst’s (2007) resistance leadership. Indeed, in the film, Rita’s local shop steward calls her a leader ‘who inspires the other girls’. It seems likely that no shop steward (or anyone else) would have called Rita a leader back in the 1960s. This particular line is probably a reflection of the preoccupations and cultural scripts of the early 21st century when the screenplay was written (although men referring to adult women as ‘girls’ is no doubt, rather more characteristic of the 1960s). Nevertheless, if Rita can usefully be thought of as a leader then she was only a leader because of the explicit and enthusiastic consent and support of her colleagues. As opposed to a leader in a corpor- ate setting, Rita was not a boss in any sense. She certainly never got more pay than the others, nor got any sort of other reward. In fact, she took on her responsibilities with great reluctance and paid a high price for doing so in terms of the pressure they brought to bear on her family and personal life.

However, no one would ever have called Rita a follower, surely – please, no! Just as Arthur Seaton and Sergeant Warden did, she clearly despised those, like Mr Clarke (one of

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the Ford bosses) who were supposed to be in charge of her. In fact, the following words are included in the trailer to the movie: ‘I call Mr Clarke a complete cock!’

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or

publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this



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Author biographies

Mark Learmonth is Professor of Organization Studies and Deputy Dean (Research) at Durham University Business School, Durham, UK. He has published in a number of jour- nals and is currently working on a series of projects related to the influence of popular culture on management practice.

Kevin Morrell is a Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School and a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow. Kevin’s empirical work focuses on understanding the public sector.

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