1st Edition

Critical Perspectives on Leadership The Language of Corporate Power

By Mark Learmonth, Kevin Morrell Copyright 2019
    178 Pages
    by Routledge

    178 Pages
    by Routledge

    Within contemporary culture, ‘leadership’ is seen in ways that appeal to celebrated societal values and norms. As a result, it is becoming difficult to use the language of leadership without at the same time assuming its essentially positive, intrinsically affirmative nature. Within organizations, routinely referring to bosses as ‘leaders’ has, therefore, become both a symptom and a cause of a deep, largely unexamined new conceptual architecture. This architecture underpins how we think about authority and power at work. Capitalism, and its turbo-charged offspring neo-liberalism, have effectively captured ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ to serve their own purposes. In other words, organizational leadership today is so often a particular kind of insidious conservativism dressed up in radical adjectives.

    This book makes visible the work that the language of leadership does in perpetuating fictions that are useful for bosses of work organizations. We do this so that we – and anyone who shares similar discomforts – can make a start in unravelling the fiction. We contend that even if our views are contrary to the vast and powerful leadership industry, our basic arguments rest on things that are plain and evident for all to see.

    Critical Perspectives on Leadership: The Language of Corporate Power will be key reading for students, academics and practitioners in the disciplines of Leadership, Organizational Studies, Critical Management Studies, Sociology and the related disciplines.

    List of Illustrations

    1. Introducing the Language of Leadership
    2. Part I: Against ‘Leadership’

    3. Using the Language of Leadership
    4. Measuring the Language of Leadership
    5. Polishing Our Chains
    6. Building Santa’s Workshop
    7. Part II: ‘Leadership’ as Rhetoric

    8. Labels Matter
    9. Performing Leadership
    10. Part III: The Seductions of ‘Leadership’

    11. The Attractions of Being (Called) a ‘Leader’
    12. A Boost to the Executive Ego
    13. Part IV: Resistance

    14. What is to be Done?
    15. Concluding Thoughts: Leadership as a Fig Leaf?
    16. Further Reading



    Mark Learmonth is Professor of Organization Studies at Durham University, UK. He researches the personal consequences of work.

    Kevin Morrell is an Associate Dean at Durham University, UK. He researches how organizations and individuals contribute to the public good.

    "Finally! While Learmonth and Morrell aren’t the first academics to sound the alarm regarding the prostitution of the terms "leader" and "leadership," they have done the most thorough — and convincing — job to date. It’s not just a semantic issue, either. As the authors make clear, contemporary use of the labels goes well beyond self-congratulation; the more insidious effect is that they paper over the structural unfairness at the heart of most employment arrangements today. And while it seems unlikely we’ll convince all these leaders to stop calling themselves such, there might be some hope that we can ultimately stop ratifying the bastardization of the term in the academy itself. But maybe not. After all, that would take leadership. Congrats to these two for trying anyway." —Duff McDonald, author of The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite


    "A generation or two ago, leadership was undervalued in Britain. It was lauded in the military, of course, but the corporate world saw managerial efficiency as the route to success and in government, health, education and beyond, a commitment to public service was the first requirement.


    Over the years, as so often happens, the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Nowadays, leadership is taken to explain everything. Each success is a leadership triumph and each failure is blamed on the weakness of the leader.


    Critical Perspectives on Leadership demonstrates that the elevation of leadership above all the other qualities which help to build a first class organisation produces results which are often damaging and sometimes ludicrous. The authors argue for a rebalancing of our objectives. Leadership is important but so is teamwork, employee participation, reliable communications and, in particular, the desire to use the talent and ideas of the whole workforce and not just those which come from the man – and it usually is a man – at the top.


    This is a book of common sense and humanity. It looks beyond the excesses of the current fashion and suggests that we create more resilient organisations which value the contribution of all employees and which draw strength from everyday cooperation and communal effort." John Edmonds, former General Secretary of the GMB Union and a former President of the British TUC. Co-author of Man-Made: Why so Few Women are in Positions of Power and The Stalled Revolution:Is Equality for Women an Impossible Dream?


    "Learmonth and Morrell closely examine leadership discourse, and expose the ways in which it reinforces, justifies and naturalises an arrangement of organisations and wider society that systematically favours one small group at the expense of everyone else. They show how this necessitates a fundamental change to the words we use if we are to think beyond the illusory harmony that the language of leaders and followers presents, and they offer ways of rethinking contemporary organisation that start to slip the binds of leadership. Their work will be of interest not just to academics in this field, but to all who find themselves questioning the language of leadership that so saturates the twenty-first century workplace." —Professor Graham Martin, University of Cambridge.


    "This is an engaged, well written and thought provoking book addressing the basic problems with the contemporary fascination with leadership. It should be read by anyone feeling either enthusiastic or skeptical about the leadership craze of our time."Mats Alvesson, Lund University, co-author of Metaphors We Lead By


    "Anyone who has ever felt cynical about the literature on leadership will find kindred spirits in Mark Learmonth and Kevin Morrell of Durham University. Not only do they think that the concept of leadership is overblown, they believe the language used to discuss it is dangerous… They know they’re fighting an uphill battle, but they think the first step in reversing this trend is to refuse to buy in…Many readers won’t agree with their conclusions, but their perspective is certainly eye-opening." -Biz Ed, AACSB International


    "Critical Perspectives on Leadership: The Language of Corporate Power provides a valuable perspective in that it serves as a brake or curb on the unconstrained use of the terms “leader” and “leadership” and how we think about authority and power at work. Even if the struggle to counter the unbounded language of leadership is an uphill one because it has become so institutionalized, it is one that academics are particularly well suited to embrace." --Wayne F. Cascio, University of Colorado Denver


    "...it is a stimulating, nicely written book – well argued, sometimes irreverent and accessible." -Jonny Gifford, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, UK

    "Learmonth and Morrell offer a cogent critique that extends some healthy cynicism towards the language of leadership and the oppressive power structures it upholds. They have inspired me to be more sceptical about my own allegiance to ‘leadership’as a fellow worker, struggling in unity towards an emancipatory and just future." --Helena Liu, University of Technology Sydney, Australia


    "In this interesting book, Learmonth and Morrell aim to become guards against the hegemony of‘leadership’ language, willing to improve the critical and cynical instincts among readers. They improved mine for sure. When someone holding a leadership role at my university asks me if I want anything, I will respond as follows: ‘Yes, stand a little out of my sun, manager’."-- Michał Zawadzki , Jönköping University, Sweden