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Thinking differently about leadership: A critical history of the form and formation of leadership studies


Abstract and Figures

We have come to live in an age where leadership is the solution, regardless of the problem. Today, managers are called on to provide leadership which is ‘visionary’, ‘charismatic’, ‘transformational’ and ‘authentic’ in nature. This is what ‘followers’ are said to need to perform to their potential. The efforts of the academy in promoting these ideas means they are typically understood as modern, enlightened and grounded in scientific research. Taking a critical step back, this study examines why we have come to understand leadership in this way. Adopting a Foucauldian methodology, the study comprises three case studies which examine Classical Greek, 16th century European and modern scholarly discourses on leadership. The analysis foregrounds change and continuity in leadership thought and examines the underpinning assumptions, problematizations and processes of formation which gave rise to these truth claims. The relationship and subjectivity effects produced by these discourses along with their wider social function are also considered. What the study reveals is that our current understanding of leadership is not grounded in an approach more enlightened and truthful than anything that has come before. Rather, just as at other times in the past, it is contemporary problematizations, politically-informed processes of formation and the epistemological and methodological preferences of our age which profoundly shape what is understood to constitute the truth about leadership. Through showing how leadership has been thought of at different points in time, this thesis argues that far from being a stable enduring fact of human nature now revealed to us by modern science, as is typically assumed, leadership is most usefully understood as an unstable social invention, morphing in form, function and effect in response to changing norms, values and circumstances. Consistent with this understanding, a new approach to theory-building for organizational leadership studies is offered. This study shows, then, why we ought to think differently about leadership and offers a means by which this can occur.
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Thinking differently about leadership: a critical history of
the form and formation of leadership studies
Susan Elizabeth (Suze) Wilson
A thesis
submitted to the Victoria University of Wellington
in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy in Management
Victoria University of Wellington
We have come to live in an age where leadership is the solution, regardless of the
problem. Today, managers are called on to provide leadership which is ‘visionary’,
‘charismatic’, ‘transformational’ and ‘authentic’ in nature. This is what ‘followers’ are said
to need to perform to their potential. The efforts of the academy in promoting these
ideas means they are typically understood as modern, enlightened and grounded in
scientific research. Taking a critical step back, this study examines why we have come to
understand leadership in this way.
Adopting a Foucauldian methodology, the study comprises three case studies which
examine Classical Greek, 16
century European and modern scholarly discourses on
leadership. The analysis foregrounds change and continuity in leadership thought and
examines the underpinning assumptions, problematizations and processes of formation
which gave rise to these truth claims. The relationship and subjectivity effects produced
by these discourses along with their wider social function are also considered.
What the study reveals is that our current understanding of leadership is not grounded in
an approach more enlightened and truthful than anything that has come before. Rather,
just as at other times in the past, it is contemporary problematizations, politically-
informed processes of formation and the epistemological and methodological
preferences of our age which profoundly shape what is understood to constitute the
truth about leadership. Through showing how leadership has been thought of at different
points in time, this thesis argues that far from being a stable enduring fact of human
nature now revealed to us by modern science, as is typically assumed, leadership is most
usefully understood as an unstable social invention, morphing in form, function and
effect in response to changing norms, values and circumstances. Consistent with this
understanding, a new approach to theory-building for organizational leadership studies is
offered. This study shows, then, why we ought to think differently about leadership and
offers a means by which this can occur.
Like any undertaking of this nature many people have helped me along the way and it is
important to me to acknowledge my appreciation for this. All its limitations are mine to
own (and lament), but the very fact of the existence of this thesis comes down to the
support and encouragement I have so kindly been given by so many people.
My parents, Terry and Earlene, have offered unconditional support for this endeavour, as
they have for everything else I have ever attempted. Thanks Mum and Dad! Other family
members have also supported me to ‘stay the course’. Specifically my thanks go to
Margie, Geoff and Betty, Sandra and Nigel, Dave, Terri, Jennifer and Des, Richard and
Linda, Fiona and Chris, Tony, Katherine, David, Sammie, Daniel, Logan and Holly.
Friends from outside the academic world have offered support, encouragement and
even, in some cases, paid employment which has helped keep me going. My thanks go in
particular to Rosemary, Amanda, Ali, Peter, Lee-ann, Kate, Rob, Michael and Michelle,
Shona, Janine and Mary.
At Victoria University of Wellington a number of faculty members have provided both
academic guidance and personal encouragement. Even prior to my enrolment A/Prof Bill
Ryan and Dr Richard Norman encouraged my tentative steps toward problematizing the
conventional view of leadership, believing like me that new perspectives were needed.
Having found my footing in the critical leadership and management literature, Prof
Stephen Cummings and Dr Sarah Proctor-Thomson then kindly agreed to take on
supervision and they have since provided me with insightful feedback, guidance and
encouragement all the way through. I am very grateful to have had the benefit of such a
productive, positive supervisory relationship. I am looking forward to our continued
collaboration as we pursue the publishing opportunities deriving from this research that
have been placed before us.
Other faculty members, A/Profs Deborah Jones, Urs Dallenbach and Drs Amanda Wolff,
Todd Bridgman and Sally Riad have all offered helpful advice at various times. I am also
very grateful for the funding support I have received from Victoria, which enabled me to
attend several conferences that were valuable formative experiences.
Fellow doctoral students have been another important source of support, advice and
encouragement. Most especially my thanks for their many acts of friendship go to Huong,
Bex, Garoon, Lois, Zanele, Mary, Maree, Shannon and Cesar.
Members of the University of Auckland’s Leadership Discussion Group have also kindly
offered support, advice and feedback. My thanks to Prof Brad Jackson and Drs Brigid
Carroll, Ann Hutchinson, Helen Nicholson, Chellie Spiller, Barbara Plester, Fiona Kennedy,
Ralph Bathurst and Margot Edwards (Massey), as well as to Joeline Francouer and Simon
My new colleagues at Massey University, especially Prof Sarah Leberman, A/Prof Craig
Pritchard, Dr Andrew Dickson, and fellow ‘nearly finished’ staff members Kerri-Ann
Hughes and Dave Brougham have offered support and advice on the ‘final push’ to
complete the thesis.
Finally, the person who has been most crucial in keeping body and soul together and in
some kind of fit state to do this work has been my partner Steve Harris. His support has
been the most generous of gifts while his encouragement and belief in me has been the
most vital of stabilising forces. He has given me the space and time from which this work
could be undertaken. He has actively joined in this adventure, learning about the doctoral
process and the academic world, reflecting on his own approach to leadership, reviewing
my work and even attending a conference with me. He has fed and watered me, paid the
bills and picked me up when all seemed lost or impossible. To have a room of one’s own
in which to work at one’s dream remains something which only a few people ever get to
experience, but that is what Steve has given me. I feel so lucky to have him in my life and
so this thesis is dedicated to Steve and to the memory of my brother Stuart, who died
during the course of my study but who remains in my thoughts every day.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: Why leadership?
Leadership today
Theoretical underpinnings and scope of the study
Research questions, thesis and theory
Structure of the thesis
Chapter Two: Literature review
Overview of the Western leadership literature
Overview of the social science literature on leadership
The mainstream of leadership studies today
Key assumptions in the mainstream of leadership studies
Critical studies of leadership
The history of leadership thought
Key findings from my review of the literature
Chapter Three: Theoretical framework and methodology
Philosophy of science assumptions
Aligning my assumptions, questions and strategy with a theory
Why Foucault is suitable for my study
Situating Foucault
The Foucauldian method used in this study: Interpretive Analytics
Foucault’s key concepts
Operationalizing Foucault
Methodological strengths and limitations of this study
Assessing credibility
Chapter Four: The modern scholarly account of the truth about
Challenging leadership science
Structure of the chapter, and sources
The establishment of leadership science: 18401940s
The shift to behavioural theory
Contingency/situational theories
New leadership
Conditions of possibility: Epistemic foundations and rules governing this
Leadership science reconsidered
Chapter Five: The 16
century European scholarly account of the
truth about leadership
Key features of the discourse
Processes of formation
Conditions of possibility: Epistemic foundations and rules governing this
Social function and subjectivity effects
Epilogue: the end of this discursive regime and its replacement
Chapter Six: The Classical Greek scholarly account of the truth
about leadership
Key features of the discourse
Processes of formation
Conditions of possibility: Epistemic foundations and rules governing this
Social function and subjectivity effects
Chapter Seven: Contingency, change and continuity in the truth
about leadership
Contingent truths: inventing leadership as a solution
Continuity and change in the truth about leaders
Continuity and change in the truth about followers
The leader-follower relationship
The social function of leadership discourse: the promotion of order, inequality
and the extraordinary
Producing the truth about leadership: what we have gained and lost along the
Chapter Eight: Conclusion and future trajectories
Recapping the rationale for and approach taken in this study
Summary of key findings
Implications for future research
Assessing credibility
Limitations and contribution to knowledge
Future trajectories
Conceptual componentry for inventing leadership
Inventing leadership: two models to demonstrate a new approach to theory
Appendix One: Reading aid question bank
Appendix Two: Text analysis aid: Archaeology and Genealogy
List of tables, models and dispositives
Chapter Two
Table 2.1
Overview of the Western literature on leadership
Table 2.2
The social scientific literature on leadership
Chapter Three
Table 3.1
Sample dispositif: the person of the leader in different
Table 3.2
Key features of the Interpretive Analytics methodology
Diagram 3.1
Interpretive analytics
Chapter Four
Table 4.1
Major theoretical paradigms in leadership science
Table 4.2
Similarities between Carlyle’s Cromwell and 20
C trait
Model 4.1
Basic assumptions in leadership science
Chapter Five
Model 5.1
Justus Lipsius’ basic model of core civil virtues
Model 5.2
Justus Lipsius’ model of core princely virtues
Model 5.3
C European leadership model
Chapter Six
Table 6.1
Key features of leadership in the Classical Greek discourse
Table 6.2
Contextual issues shaping the formation of this discourse
Chapter Seven
Dispositif 7.1
Enduring characteristics of the leader
Model 7.1
The production of the perfect leader
Dispositif 7.2
Key characteristics of the leader in different epistemes
Dispositif 7.1
Followers’ merits and demerits
Chapter Eight
Dispositif 8.1
The problematizations informing leadership discourses
Dispositif 8.2
Key assumptions informing leadership discourses
Dispositif 8.3
The subjectivity of the leader produced by these discourses
Dispositif 8.4
The subjectivity of the follower produced by these
Dispositif 8.5
The leader-follower relationship as produced by these
Dispositif 8.6
The social function of leadership discourses
Dispositif 8.7
Change and continuity in leadership discourses
Chapter One: Why leadership?
The object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from
what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently (Foucault, 1985, p. 9)
Leadership is not a “mystical or ethereal concept”. Rather, leadership is an observable, learnable
set of practices. Certainly leaders make a difference. There is no question about it (Bass, 2008, p.
In recent decades leadership has been extensively promoted by management scholars
and practitioners alike as a vital force for good, crucial to overcoming the myriad
challenges facing groups, organizations and even societies and securing a better future
(e.g. Bass, 1985a; Kotter, 1996; Kouzes & Posner, 2007). Such is the confidence of
proponents of this view that Bass can even claim, as above, that the value of leadership is
now beyond debate. However, while it has recently been argued “the fundamental
question we must ask is, what do we know and what should we know about leaders and
leadership” (Avolio, Walumbwa, & Weber, 2009, p. 209), I contend the emphasis and
expectations now placed on leaders and leadership instead demands analysis of why it is
we have come to such an understanding.
Critically informed interest in leadership has grown in recent years (e.g. Ford, Harding, &
Learmonth, 2008; Sinclair, 2007; Western, 2007). However, as Alvesson and Sveningsson
have recently noted, analysis of the “culture- and Discourse-driven nature of leadership is
neglected in most of the literature” (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2012, p. 209). In Michel
Foucault’s inquiries into the form and formation of expert-driven discourses (e.g. 1977;
1978) he argues that we must question the past in order to free ourselves to think
differently about the present and the future. Responding to these ideas, this thesis
examines key features of past and present-day scholarly discourses on leadership in the
West, calling into question conventional understandings of both form and formation and
thereby providing a basis from which we can think differently about leadership in the
Leadership today
Effective leadership is commonly understood in the modern West as having ‘visionary’
(Bennis & Nanus, 1985), ‘charismatic’ (House, 1977), ‘transformational’ (Bass, 1985a) and,
more recently, ‘authentic’ qualities (Luthans & Avolio, 2003). Collectively, these ideas are
known as the ‘new leadership’ school (Bryman, 1986; Jackson & Parry, 2011). Leadership
of this intense, powerful and compelling nature has, over the last quarter century, come
to constitute the expected standard for managerial performance and to be widely
accepted as something which employees, ‘followers’, both need and benefit from
(Alvesson & Spicer, 2011a; Bass & Riggio, 2006; Jackson & Parry, 2011).
With the development of ‘new leadership’, leadership is now generally understood as
valuable and desirable for every situation and context (Bass, 1985a; Heifetz, 1994; Kouzes
& Posner, 2007). Leaders are held up as admirable persons in possession of highly desired
and valued qualities or skills (e.g. Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999; Bennis & Nanus, 1985;
Zaleznik, 1977). Effective leaders are said to generate quantitatively and qualitatively
superior results (e.g. Bass, 2008; Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Kotter, 1988). Central to the
credibility of these claims has been the understanding that our grasp of leadership now
derives from robust, scientific methods of inquiry (e.g. Antonakis, Cianciolo, & Sternberg,
2004; Bass, 2008; Yukl, 2012). As a consequence of all these factors, the confident
expectation that we must have ‘leadership’ in order to overcome whatever challenge a
group, organization or society faces and to achieve our individual and collective potential
has become natural and normal, perhaps even automatic.
Several significant problems arise from this state of affairs. Firstly, the more this
positioning of leadership as the solution to every challenge comes to seem ‘normal’ and
‘natural’, the more difficult it is to think both critically and creatively about leadership
(Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Foucault, 1985). Thought itself is disciplined, channelled in a
particular fashion, constrained, when a discourse exerts such a hold on our
understanding of what is real, true and good (Foucault, 1972, 1977, 1978). Secondly, the
current approach places expectations of almost super-human capability and performance
on people in leadership positions. This creates enormous pressures on those striving to
meet these expectations (Ford et al., 2008; Sinclair, 2007), as well as encouraging hubris
by those who come to see themselves in such grandiose terms (Kellerman, 2004; Kets de
Vries, 2003; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002). Thirdly, it both relies on and reinforces the
assumption that the vast majority of people are somehow lacking, incapable of
overcoming challenges without the exceptional few leading the way (Alvesson &
Sveningsson, 2003a, 2012; Sinclair, 2007). This assumption undermines the values
necessary for sustaining a liberal democratic society, where active participation from all
citizens on issues of common concern is understood as highly desirable and egalitarian
attitudes inform the interaction between persons (Alvesson & Willmott, 1992; Parker,
2002; Russell, 1984). Cumulatively, the current understanding and positioning of
leadership thus poses manifold problematic consequences in diverse matters such as
inhibiting theoretical innovation, producing harmful effects for leaders and followers
sense of self and facilitating power relations which favour the ‘gifted’ minority (‘leaders’)
and diminish the role and status of the ‘ordinary’ majority (‘followers’).
However, leadership has not always been held up as the answer to every problem. Early
century management scholars, for example, gave leadership little attention,
focussing instead on systems and processes as key drivers of organizational performance
(e.g. Fayol, 1930; Taylor, 1919). Earlier, Enlightenment era political philosophers were
deeply concerned to limit the power and influence of leaders for they claimed individuals
and society as a whole were better served by so doing (e.g. Locke, 2010 (1690); Mill, 1851).
They wanted leaders to have less influence. From their perspective leadership was a
problem to be managed, not a solution. How, then, did we end up where we are now,
seemingly at the very opposite end of the spectrum to the founding assumptions of
modernity? Why has leadership come to be understood in the way it now is? What has
made this particular way of thinking about leadership possible and what are its effects?
Theoretical underpinnings and scope of the study
To understand why we have come to our current understanding of leadership, in this
thesis I deploy a Foucauldian approach (see, in particular, Foucault, 1977, 1978, 1980,1985,
1986, 2010) to analyse the content (‘form’) and development (‘formation’) of selected
past and present leadership discourses. Consequently, my analysis examines the
problematizations which have informed the emergence of these leadership discourses.
The processes of formation leading to the production of truth claims about leadership,
the epistemic conditions of possibility and the implicit rules governing these discourses
are considered. The subjectivities and relationships arising from different ideas about
leadership, as well as the underlying assumptions relied upon in these discourses also
constitute key elements of the Foucauldian analysis offered here. Infused throughout
these various elements of the analysis is a sensitivity to the workings of power and
power/knowledge. As a result of these analytic moves, the study challenges conventional
accounts of leadership and how we have come to understand it in the way we now do.
The study explores how ‘leadership’ has been discursively produced and constructed in
different epistemes’, including our own, where ‘episteme’ is understood as being
“something like a world-view… a certain structure of thought” which prevails at any
given point in time, shaping what is thinkable and say-able (Foucault, 1972, p. 191). Using
the same research strategy which Foucault took in his extended inquiry into the history of
sexuality (1978, 1985, 1986), this study comprises three case studies which examine
scholarly discourse on leadership in three different epistemes, focussing on specific times
within those when leadership was a topic of active scholarly debate: Classical Greece of
the 5
and 4
centuries BC, 16
and 17
century Europe, and the modern West, beginning
from around the middle of the 19
century and through to the present day. These
discourses are, conceptually, equivalent in standing, insofar as each constitutes and
articulates the prevailing scholarly understanding of leadership of their time. Each
discursive regime articulates what was understood to be a credible claim to speak the
truth about leadership at the time of its enunciation.
A critical limitation placed on the scope of this study to ensure its feasibility is my focus on
those ideas about leadership which dominated the scholarly literature in the periods
examined by this study. While understanding the diversity of opinions about leadership in
each period is of inherent value, it is simply not the focus here. Instead what I look at is
the prevailing scholarly understanding of leadership, based on the pre-supposition that
these dominant ideas had, or have, the most influence.
As a result of its design and focus this study reaches into times and spaces not previously
subjected to analysis of the type offered here, revealing previously unacknowledged
connections between the past and the present. Contemporary leadership ideas are here
placed within a much broader historical context than has previously been done, enabling
a more fulsome assessment of the ‘progress’ that has been made in recent decades. This
research strategy is one which seeks to achieve critical distance from the present in which
we are normally embedded in order to “…free thought ….and so enable it to think
differently” (Foucault, 1985, p. 9). The subsequent comparative analysis arising from this
approach enables the assessment of both change and continuity in thought, further
supporting the achievement of critical distance from the current norm.
Analysis of historical developments in scholarly accounts of leadership can not only
explain how and why we have come to our current understanding. It can also enhance
our ability to develop new approaches. Therefore, in this study I take the main findings
and use these to explore ways of conceptualising leadership in a manner which seeks to
address the pitfalls and tensions I identify in extant models. A contribution of this study
is, thus, theoretical innovation.
Through showing why and how different ideas about leadership have been accepted as
truthful at different times, the study foregrounds the vital influence time, place,
circumstances and assumptions have upon both past and current versions of the truth
about leadership. From this I extend my argument to a questioning of the very ontology
of leadership. What I show is that the ‘truth’ about leadership currently so widely
accepted is an elaborate but contingent, constructed and ultimately fragile invention.
Other truths about leadership have existed in the past, have been similarly elaborate,
contingent, constructed and fragile. From better understanding these developments we
are much better placed to make choices about the way in which we might reinvent
leadership to suit current concerns and values. This study therefore proceeds on the basis
that recourse to teleological or progressivist narratives of ever greater enlightenment
(Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Dean, 1994) will not suffice in accounting for our current
understanding of leadership.
Research questions, thesis and theory
The primary research question driving this study is “why has our understanding of
leadership come to take the form it now does?” With this question I treat the current
state of affairs as problematic, consistent with the Foucauldian approach I have adopted
for this study. My secondary questions also focus attention on matters of particular
relevance to a Foucauldian analysis:
1. What problematizations have informed the development of the leadership
discourses examined here?
2. What key themes and assumptions inform these discourses?
3. What subjectivities and relationships are produced by these discourses?
4. What is the social function of these discourses?
5. What changes and continuities are notable when comparing these discourses?
My thesis is that the conventional understanding of leadership now prevailing is
profoundly problematic, not least for its apparent confidence in itself, but that, being a
contingent construction and not something grounded in nature or science, this situation
is open to change. To substantiate this thesis the case studies demonstrate just how
‘new’ and other forms of leadership have been constructed in various ways at various
times and highlight the effects arising from different accounts of leadership. The cases
also bring to light both changes and continuities in leadership thought and thus provide
examples from which we can begin to think differently about leadership.
The theorisation I advance is that the phenomenon we call ‘leadership’ is fundamentally a
social, political invention. Its ontology is fluid, unstable and not something fixed in
‘human nature’. What leadership is, therefore, is open to adaptation. What we call on
leadership to do and to be depends on what we problematize, what we value, and the
specific workings of power and power/knowledge that are in play.
This way of accounting for leadership runs entirely counter to the objectivist, essentialist
and universalist approach which dominates contemporary leadership studies (Alvesson,
1996; Alvesson & Spicer, 2011a; Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2012). It implies there is no
singular, objective truth about leadership ‘out there, waiting to be discovered by the
deployment of the scientific method. It means we need to change how we typically think
about leadership.
Taking on this challenge, I show how adopting this account enables theoretical
innovation and thereby encourages new approaches to leadership which seek to
overcome or ameliorate the problematic consequences of current understandings for
leaders and followers which have been identified (e.g. Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a,
2003b, 2003c; Ford et al., 2008; Sinclair, 2007)). Liberating ‘leadership’ from the discursive
frame in which it is currently trapped, as I seek to do here, therefore supports recent calls
for leading that liberates (Sinclair, 2007).
Structure of the thesis
This chapter provides an introductory overview of the topic of inquiry and how it is to be
tackled in this study. It also previews what is to be argued and the overall conclusions
that will be drawn from the findings. Chapter Two both problematizes the extant
literature and identifies the specific gap in knowledge to which this study makes a
contribution. Chapter Three addresses in more depth the theoretical and methodological
basis of the study. It explains the rationale for the design of the study and provides more
detail on the Foucauldian method of inquiry I have used and how the study was
Starting with Chapter Four I move into the body of the study proper, which comprises
four chapters. The first of these deals with the modern era of leadership discourse. I
begin with an analysis of the origins of modern leadership science by examining the work
of Thomas Carlyle. From there I progressively trace the dominant theoretical
developments through to the present day where the so-called ‘new leadership’ theories
dominate. In Chapter Five I leap back in time to examine European leadership thought of
the 16
and 17
centuries, while in Chapter Six I make a further leap back to explore the
leadership thought of the Classical Greeks. As noted earlier this research strategy is
consistent with Foucault’s own approach to his study of the history of sexuality (1978,
1985, 1986). Analyses of this ‘time-travelling’ nature disrupt the conventional narrative of
continuity and progression, making it possible to better see change, continuity and
contingency in the development of knowledge. For each major theoretical paradigm I
consider the problematizations which informed its development and its processes of
formation. The key ideas of each discourse, its subjectivity effects, social function and its
epistemic conditions of possibility are also assessed. Chapter Seven then examines the
notable changes and continuities in leadership thought by comparing these discourses.
Cumulatively, chapters four to seven constitute my detailed answers to both the primary
and secondary research questions. In Chapter Eight, I consolidate the key findings in
respect of my research questions, discuss the implications for future research, limitations
and contribution of this study, before turning, finally, to offer a new approach to
theorising organizational leadership arising from this research.
Chapter Two: Literature review
… the leadership field over the past decade has made tremendous progress in uncovering some of
the enduring mysteries associated with leadership…The period that leadership theory and
research will enter over the next decade is indeed one of the most exciting in the history of this
planet (Avolio et al., 2009, p. 442).
Perhaps one day people will wonder at this….People will wonder what could have made us so
presumptuous…(Foucault, 1978, pp. 157−158).
My overarching purpose in this chapter is to explain why we ought to wonder about the
triumphalist stance, exemplified in the quote from Avolio et al. (2009) above, which is
being taken by mainstream leadership scholars today in respect of leadership and our
knowledge of it. I begin, however, by providing an overview of Western leadership
literature so as to orient the reader to the overall scope and nature of this field of
knowledge. Following this, I turn to the social science literature for which I also provide
an orienting overview before then critically reviewing the state and focus of the
mainstream of contemporary leadership studies. I then adopt a problematizing approach
(Sandberg & Alvesson, 2010) to the assumptions informing this mainstream thought,
thereby further building the case for the critical approach taken in this study. After that I
examine the critical literature on leadership and prior analyses of the history of leadership
thought, these being the two key literatures from which this study draws and to which it
makes a contribution. Finally, I identify how the key findings which arise from my review
of the literature link directly to the research questions guiding this study.
Overview of the Western leadership literature
Leadership has been studied and analysed in the West for literally thousands of years
(Adair, 2002; Avery, 2004; Bass, 2008). From ancient times through until quite recently,
moral and political philosophers, historians and practitioners were the primary sources of
scholarly work on leadership, but today it is social scientists and practitioners who now
produce most of the leadership literature (Bass, 2008; Hargrove, 2004; Schruijer &
Vansina, 2002). While these disciplinary divisions are themselves a quite recent way of
categorizing knowledge, each of these approaches has nonetheless tended to produce
particular kinds of knowledge.
Philosophers have tended toward prescriptive or normative accounts of what leaders
should do or analytic accounts of what leadership entails. This literature therefore
typically lacks a robust empirical basis (Bass, 2008). Historians have produced many
accounts of leaders’ lives, with a particular focus on monarchs, politicians and military
leaders (Hargrove, 2004; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002). The resulting knowledge is therefore
typically descriptive and a-theoretical (Bass, 2008). Practitioners have sought to elucidate
the practice of leading as they have experienced it. Texts of this nature by business
leaders are now very popular (Guthey, Clark, & Jackson, 2009) whereas in the past
political and military leaders tended to be the source of practitioner texts. This literature
tends, however, to be anecdotal, idiosyncratic and at times hagiographic or self-serving
(Jackson & Parry, 2011).
Social scientists, in particular psychologists, have largely focussed on empirical testing of
formal theories, continuously plugging perceived gaps in our understanding of the causes
and effects of leadership, bolstering prescriptive advice with research (Avery, 2004; Bass,
2008; Northouse, 2004). Social science is now the dominant approach to understanding
leadership today. This knowledge is primarily produced by way of positivist, quantitative
research methods (Bryman, 2004; Hunter, Bedell-Avers, & Mumford, 2007; Schruijer &
Vansina, 2002). However, the limitations of these epistemological and methodological
approaches are infrequently considered and leadership has been the subject of very little
critical social science (Collinson, 2011; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002; Western, 2007). Table 2.1
summarises this overview of the literature.
Table 2.1: Overview of the Western literature on leadership
Disciplinary base
Nature of knowledge produced
Key limitations
“should do”
“how to”
Focus on monarchs, political
leaders, & military leaders
“how to”
Social science
Formal theories and models
Tools and applications
Empirical studies
Overview of the social science literature on leadership
Turning to examine the social scientific literature in more depth, there are three main
disciplines which inform the contemporary study of leadership: political science,
sociology and psychology (Bass, 2008; Gardner, Lowe, Mossa, Mahoney, & Coglisera,
2010; Lowe & Gardner, 2000). This could imply significant diversity in thinking about
leadership and the common adoption of a multi-disciplinary approach. In the study of
organizational leadership, however, psychology constitutes the primary, and often
exclusive, disciplinary underpinning (Collinson, 2011; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002).
Political science treats political leadership as a topic within its disciplinary ambit. Specific
issues of interest include leaders’ strategies, tactics and use of power, analysing leader
styles and individual leaders, the effects of leaders on voter behaviour, and analysing the
formal roles of leaders in different political systems (e.g. Barber, 1992; Goodin &
Klingeman, 1996; Roskin, Cord, Medeiros, & Jones, 2000; Wolff, 2006). While the political
science literature makes some limited use of psychological concepts and theories, there is
minimal interaction between the political-science-based leadership literature and the
psychology-based, organizational leadership-focussed literature (Gardner et al., 2010;
Lowe & Gardner, 2000). This may in part be due to the much greater use of qualitative
research methods within political science, which the psychology-based leadership
scholars typically do not favour (Antonakis, Schriesheim et al., 2004; Bryman, 2004;
Gardner et al., 2010). Such theory as is produced by political scientists in respect of
leadership tends to be conceptual or heuristic in nature (e.g. Barber, 1992; Quatro & Sims,
2008; Wolff, 2006).
The primary contribution from sociology to the modern study of leadership has been
Weber’s account of charisma (Eisenstadt & Weber, 1968). His broad depiction of charisma
has subsequently been operationalised according to the standards of psychological
research and developed into various formal theories of charismatic leadership (e.g.
Conger, 1989; Conger & Kanungo, 1987; House, 1977). Most sociologically informed
research tends to be qualitative or conceptual and this work has had limited influence in
the area of organizational leadership (Alvesson, 1996; Sinclair, 2007; Western, 2007).
Concerns with power, domination, inequality and exploitation which inform critical
studies of leadership are typically founded in sociological accounts of these matters.
The psychology-based leadership literature, which focusses mostly on leadership in and
of organizations, draws primarily on social psychology concepts, constructs and theories,
with the key issue of interest being to identify the effects of leaders on followers (Avolio
et al., 2009; Bass, 1985a; Bolden, Hawkins, Gosling, & Taylor, 2011). Psychological theories
and research on personality, behaviour, cognition, motivation, adult development,
influence and social process are key influences on this body of literature (Avolio et al.,
2009; Bass, 2008; Yukl, 2012). Because of its focus on organizational leadership, most of
this literature constitutes a specialist area within the broader field of organizational
behaviour (Huczynski & Buchanan, 2006; Jackson & Parry, 2011; Northouse, 2004). To
date, critically informed studies constitute a very small proportion of this literature
(Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2012; Bolden et al., 2011; Collinson, 2011).
Empirical studies typically focus on the effects of the behaviours of formally designated
leaders (i.e. managers) within a work organization setting (e.g. Wang & Howell, 2012;
Zhang, Tsui, & Wang, 2011; Zhu, Avolio, Riggio, & Sosik, 2011), with the legitimacy of their
authority going largely unquestioned (Alvesson & Spicer, 2012; Hunter et al., 2007).
Measuring the correlation between leader behaviour and follower motivation,
commitment or performance constitutes the primary focus for this body of literature
(Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2012; Gardner et al., 2010; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002). The
research undertaken by these scholars is mainly survey based and designed to test a
specific hypothesis, consistent with the underpinning positivist epistemology adopted by
most scholars (Bolden et al., 2011; Bryman, 2004; Gardner et al., 2010). Psychiatric and
psychoanalytic theories have been used in a small number of leadership studies (e.g.
Gabriel, 1997; Kets de Vries, 2003, 2006). Some scholars have also adapted the formal,
quantitative research into prescriptive or heuristic models, often then illustrated by way
of case studies. This work is then distributed via books and through consulting work (e.g.
Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002; Kotter, 1988), thereby spreading scholarly ideas to a
much broader, practitioner audience.
The common aim of much work on organizational leadership is to test and refine formal
theories of leadership and address gaps in existing knowledge, so as to produce greater
predictive and prescriptive accuracy and validity (Antonakis, Schriesheim et al., 2004;
Avolio et al., 2009; Bass, 2008). My estimate is that somewhere between 80 and 90% of
contemporary leadership research comes from within this perspective or relies upon it. It
is this body of literature which therefore constitutes what I term the ‘mainstream’ of
leadership studies and to which I now turn to examine in more depth.
The preceding analysis of the key characteristics of the social scientific literature on
leadership is summarized in Table 2.2.
Table 2.2: The social scientific literature on leadership
Key issues of interest
Main research methods & outputs
Effects of leaders on followers’
motivation, commitment and
Survey based studies
Formal theory
Heuristic models/case studies
Leader style/behaviour; impact on
voters; leader roles in different
political systems; power, tactics
Polling based studies
Case studies
Other qualitative methods
Charisma, power, inequality,
domination, exploitation
Conceptual theory
Heuristic models
The mainstream of leadership studies today
Many leaders of world religions, such as Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha, were transforming. They
created visions, shaped values, and empowered change (Bass, 2008, p. 618).
“…effort was being made to reverse this monotonous discourse…” (Foucault, 1977, p. 288).
The mainstream of contemporary studies of organizational leadership is the specific
literature which is of most interest to me as a leadership researcher and which I seek to
problematize (Foucault, 1972, 1977). This mainstream can currently be characterized as
one which is in a state of Kuhnian ‘normal science’ (Kuhn, 1996), with scholarly consensus
over key assumptions, theories and methods of inquiry being a marked feature. ‘New
leadership’ theories, which emphasize a leader’s ‘visionary’, ‘transformational’, and
‘charismatic’ qualities and behaviours, have achieved widespread acceptance amongst
scholars as fundamentally sound, desirable and valid (Bass, 2008; Fletcher, 2004; Jackson
& Parry, 2011). The monotony of this discourse thus makes it particularly worthy of
Whilst there is some continuing debate over both key concepts as well as finer points of
detail (for an overview, see Yukl, 1989, 1999, 2012), ‘new leadership’ thinking nonetheless
strongly coheres around the positioning of leaders as highly influential persons capable of
bringing about dramatic changes in both followers and organizations (e.g. Bass & Riggio,
2006; Goleman et al., 2002; Kouzes & Posner, 2007). In the various ‘new leadership’
theories leaders are said to produce an intensity of impact and connection with followers
which unleashes enhanced performance (e.g. Bass, 1985b; Bass & Riggio, 2006; Conger,
As the quote at the beginning of this section demonstrates, ‘new leadership’ thinking has
sought to associate itself with the most famous, divinely gifted and revered of persons in
all of human history. Leadership is presented as comprising a blend of intellectual, moral
and emotional influence such that followers are moved to pursue the goals articulated by
the leader with selfless enthusiasm and determination (e.g. Bass & Riggio, 2006; Bennis &
Nanus, 1985; Burns, 1978). Through this experience followers are said to experience
personal growth (e.g. Bass, 1985a; Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999; Burns, 1978), facilitating the
presentation of ‘new leadership’ theories as progressive in nature.
The common implication is that what ‘new leadership’ thinking presents to us is a true
account of leadership, a model which is of enduring significance, meaning an essentialist
positioning plays a central role in ‘new leadership’ thinking (Alvesson & Sveningsson,
2012; Bolden et al., 2011; Collinson, 2011). Because of its affinity with these factors, the
development of ‘authentic’ leadership theory over the last decade (e.g. Avolio & Gardner,
2005; Gardner, Avolio, & Walumbwa, 2005) can be seen as a continuation of ‘new
leadership’ thinking.
Following an initial period when different ‘charismatic’, ‘visionary’ and ‘transformational’
versions of these theories and their key concepts, constructs and measurement
instruments underwent constant development, acceptance of their validity became and
remains widespread (Bass, 2008; Bolden et al., 2011; Jackson & Parry, 2011; although, for a
recent critique of the predominant instrument measurement used for studies of
transformational leadership, see Van Knippenberg & Sitkin, 2013). Quantitative
measurement of the positive effects on followers arising from the leader characteristics
and behaviours described in these theories now constitutes the core focus of many
empirical studies (e.g. Braun, Peus, Weisweiler, & Frey, 2013; Hu, Wang, Liden, & Sun,
2012; Wang & Howell, 2012). Theoretical refinement proceeds incrementally, with the
basic ideas, constructs and underpinning assumptions now largely accepted with demur.
Authentic leadership theory, which has only emerged over the last decade, is still in a
state of active development. However it has quickly attracted the attention of well-
respected scholars such as Avolio, Gardner and Walumbwa (e.g. Avolio, Gardner,
Walumbwa, Luthans, & May, 2004) and is being actively promoted to practitioners,
despite very limited empirical support to date (Caza & Jackson, 2011; Jackson & Parry,
2011) and significant concerns being raised as to its ethics (Ford & Harding, 2011).
With the advent of ‘new leadership’ the community of leadership scholars saw their field
as having reached new heights of theoretical sophistication well in advance of what had
been previously achieved (e.g. Antonakis, Cianciolo et al., 2004; Bass, 1985a; Hunt, 1999).
The widespread appeal which ‘new leadership’ has had with practitioners has been
critical in sustaining scholarly support (Hunt, 1999; Jackson & Parry, 2011). While the key
ideas of ‘vision,’ ‘transformation’ and ‘charisma’ are no longer actually ‘new’, I suggest
this framing of these theories as such remains in use because leadership scholars largely
believe ‘new leadership’ offers approaches to leading which are attuned to the modern
organisation and business environment. While these theories have ‘matured’, they have
not been seen to have ‘aged’ or become outdated. Given all this, accounts of
developments in the field commonly offer a narrative of current confidence and success
as a result of ‘new leadership’, leaving behind an earlier period of struggle for both
credibility and relevance (e.g. Antonakis, Cianciolo et al., 2004; Avery, 2004; Hunt, 1999).
The emergence of ‘new leadership’ has been widely presented and understood as
enlightened and modern thinking (e.g. Bass, 1985a; Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Kotter, 1988).
Traditional conceptions of management or, for some commentators, management
without leadership, have been positioned in this literature as constraining, rule-bound,
mundane and out of date (e.g. Bass & Riggio, 2006; Peters & Austin, 1985; Zaleznik, 1977) .
‘Management’ alone has thus been held to be incapable of responding to increasingly
dynamic market conditions. It is said to be unable to contend with employees seeking to
be ‘empowered’, customers expecting innovation or shareholders demanding dramatic
improvements in returns (e.g. Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Kotter, 1988; Peters & Austin, 1985).
‘Leadership’, in contrast, has been positioned in this literature as liberating for both
leader and follower alike, as unleashing the latent potential of both managers and
employees which ‘management’ had supressed (e.g. Burns, 1978; Collins, 2001; Goleman
et al., 2002). Leadership has been held up as what is now needed to succeed in this more
demanding operating context. A new foundation for the manager-subordinate
relationship is said to have been established, one which relies on mutual trust, mutual
benefit and the personal growth of both leader and follower (e.g. Bass, 1985a; Bennis &
Nanus, 1985; Burns, 1978). From this, it is claimed that only good things follow.
Interest in leadership amongst both scholars and practitioners has grown rapidly since
the mid-1980s with the advent of new leadership’ thinking (Bass, 2008; Jackson & Parry,
2011; Northouse, 2004). Leadership studies now number in their thousands (Antonakis,
Cianciolo et al., 2004; Avery, 2004; Jackson & Parry, 2011). Government and business
expenditure on leadership development has grown rapidly since the mid-1980s, as have
university research and teaching programmes and consulting firms’ interest in leadership
(Jackson & Parry, 2011; Sinclair, 2007; Tourish, Craig, & Amernic, 2010). The sought-after
return on this investment is both more, and more effective leaders who are said to be
capable of moving organisations and societies forward in a positive direction and manner
(e.g. Bass, 1999; Kotter, 1996; Kouzes & Posner, 2007).
In reviewing the state of the field in the mid-1990s, Alvesson argued that while
“thousands of studies have been conducted…(the) outcome of these enormous efforts
has been meagre” (1996, p. 457). He concluded the field fails to meet to meet its own
criteria of knowledge accumulation” (1996, p. 457). He called for a “radical re-thinking” of
the philosophical assumptions and methods used by leadership scholars (1996, p. 458).
Despite this, Jackson and Parry recently concluded “hard evidence about the impact of
leadership is surprisingly and tantalizingly hard to find” (2011, p. 7), indicting little
progress since Alvesson’s 1996 review. Further, while leadership is beginning to attract
more critically informed attention, the mainstream view remains remarkably dominant
(Alvesson & Spicer, 2011a; Bolden et al., 2011; Collinson, 2011).
Beyond the academy, conventionally accepted truths about leadership appear strongly
tied to the mainstream of leadership scholarship: practitioner discourse, if not practice,
has been found to draw heavily on the ‘new leadership’ terms, concepts and ideas used
by researchers (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a, 2003b; Ford et al., 2008; Grugulis,
Bozkurt, & Clegg, 2010). The ‘new leadership theories which have dominated the
scholarly literature in recent decades have been very widely disseminated through texts
and university programmes aimed at practitioners and have, by and large, become part of
the accepted discourse of contemporary managers (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003b,
2003c; Bolden et al., 2011; Jackson & Parry, 2011).
It is, thus, now commonplace to speak of ‘management’ as being something different
from, and inferior to, ‘leadership’ (e.g. Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Goleman et al., 2002;
Zaleznik, 1977). Concepts and ideas such visionary leadership (Bennis & Nanus, 1985),
charismatic leadership (Conger, 1989; House, 1977), transformational leadership (Bass,
1985a; Burns, 1978), and the leader as modelling the way’ (Kouzes & Posner, 2007) have
become common parlance amongst practitioners (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a,
2003b, 2003c; Ford et al., 2008; Grugulis et al., 2010). Whilst there are undoubtedly
differences in how practitioners may interpret or apply these terms from the precise
propositions developed by researchers, practitioners nonetheless have strong reasons
for believing their understanding of leadership is one based on science and all that would
normally imply in terms of rigour and objectivity.
This widely accepted ideal of the manager-as-leader now goes largely unquestioned.
New leadership ideas today provide a generally understood and accepted standard
against which managers are measured (Bolden et al., 2011; Ford et al., 2008; Jackson &
Parry, 2011). This approach has, therefore, become both a hegemonic and a disciplinary
discourse from which it is increasingly difficult to escape in order to consider alternatives
(Alvesson & Willmott, 1992; Collinson, 2012). It is hegemonic in the sense that, despite a
proliferation of alternative theories of leadership which have been developed in recent
years, the leader as visionary, charismatic, transformational agent remains not just the
dominant way of thinking about leadership but for many scholars and practitioners the
only way of thinking about leadership (Alvesson & Spicer, 2011a; Collinson, 2011; Ospina &
Uhl-Bien, 2012).
It is also a disciplinary discourse (Foucault, 1977, 1978, 1980) in that it provides norms and
standards of behaviour against which ‘good’ managers are expected to measure
themselves and to then act to close any gaps. Variation against this norm is seen as failure
on the part of the manager/leader (Ford et al., 2008;Sinclair, 2007), while the exploration
of different ways of leading is effectively discouraged because of the positioning of this
account of leadership as ‘natural’, ‘normal’, ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’. In Foucauldian
terms, these expectations are not simply “a procedure of heroization” but instead they
also function as “a procedure of objectification and subjection” (1977, p. 192).
Ideas which rely on asserting the naturalness and normality of inequality between
persons need to be treated with considerable caution (Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Alvesson
& Willmott, 1992). For centuries, inequalities between men and women and between
people of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds have been subject to the defence that
these differences are ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ (e.g. Filmer, 2004 (1648); Plato, 2007). Today
it has become widely accepted as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ that ‘charismatic’ leader-
managers should develop ‘visions’ which will ‘transform’ their organisations and their
‘followers’. Yet implicit in this is the idea of leaders as superior beings to whom others
ought to defer. What is constructed with ‘new leadership’ discourse is not only the idea
of someone who can both conceive and execute radical visions for change which others
will find inspiring. What is also constructed is the idea and the ideal of the exceptional
few directing the ordinary many. What is implied is deference and dependence, not
democracy, not participation and not empowerment (Fletcher, 2004; Gemmill & Oakley,
1992; Western, 2007).
No sector and no issue appears to be beyond the bounds of where leadership might
usefully reach: be it climate change, the ‘Global Financial Crisis’, the performance of your
favourite sports team or the election of parent representatives for the school board,
leadership is today promoted as being of central importance (e.g. Bass & Riggio, 2006;
George, 2003; Goleman et al., 2002). The dissemination of these ideas at least in part via
the imprimatur and authority of the university system makes it seem highly likely that
practitioners believe this emphasis on leadership to be one founded on scientific
evidence (Alvesson & Spicer, 2011a; Tourish et al., 2010). This way of thinking about
leadership is thus presented as ‘enlightened’ but, at the same time, appears to be quite
‘natural’ and ‘normal’ due to its alleged status as a feature common to all times and
places: the evocation of great leaders from the past to serve as endorsements for current
thinking is a common enough rhetorical move in mainstream accounts of leadership (e.g.
Adair, 2002; Burns, 1978; Wren, 2005).
In these mainstream studies doubt is rarely cast on the value and potency of leadership.
Bernard Bass, for example, a prominent ‘new leadership’ scholar, argues that “in
industrial, educational, and military settings, and in social movements, leadership plays a
critical, if not the most critical, role…” (2008, p. 25). However, the influence of factors
such as organisational systems and processes, technology, competitors, and economic
and regulatory conditions are hardly ever accounted for in studies of leadership (Pfeffer,
1977; Porter & McLaughlin, 2006). The effects of leadership are hardly ever compared
with other ways to organise collective effort, such as teamwork (Alvesson & Sveningsson,
2003a; Pfeffer, 1977; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002). The authority of leaders to influence and
potentially change others is almost always treated as an unproblematic imbalance of
power in mainstream leadership studies (e.g. Bass, 1985a; Kotter, 1988; Peters & Austin,
1985). A unity of interests between leaders and followers is typically taken for granted
(Calás, 1993; Collinson, 2005; Trethewey & Goodall Jnr, 2007).
Mainstream leadership studies are, therefore, very partial and partisan while claiming to
be objective and unbiased. Critique from the margins of the field is largely ignored and
has had little impact to date (Collinson, 2011; Jackson & Parry, 2011; Sinclair, 2007).
Typically, leadership takes centre stage in formal studies, examined in splendid isolation,
largely oblivious to other factors which could affect performance and immune from
politically informed analysis and critique (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2012; Pfeffer, 1977;
Porter & McLaughlin, 2006).
The development of an agreed definition of leadership has proved impossible, despite
decades of scientific research (Bass, 2008; Jackson & Parry, 2011; Rost, 1993). From his
analysis of definitions put forward by numerous scholars, Yukl (1989) suggests there is a
common theme of conceiving of leadership as an influence process. However salespeople
and advertisers also enact influence processes and they are not normally thought of as
leaders. It would therefore seem that this vague consensus definition is unable to
distinguish leadership from other influence processes and is of little value. The field of
study is, thus, one which examines something it cannot define but which it nonetheless is
convinced exists (Alvesson, 1996; Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a, 2012; Ford et al., 2008).
Perhaps as a consequence of its ubiquity, the conventional approach now taken to
leadership has come to seem natural, normal and self-evident: it simply seems obvious
that leadership is important and desirable and that leaders are both entitled and able to
bring about change in their followers. This way of thinking, this reification of leadership,
has become so persuasive, pervasive and normalized that it effectively disarms the
credibility of any dissenting view (Alvesson & Deetz, 2000). This context is deeply
problematic if one expects an objective, impartial scientific approach to the topic:
leadership scholars are not removed from, or immune to, societal norms and values, and,
indeed, the knowledge produced by these scholars may serve either to reinforce or to
challenge those norms and values (Alvesson, 1996; Barker, 2001; Gemmill & Oakley, 1992).
Leadership has, then, come to be portrayed as the solution of choice for every problem
facing organisations or societies. It is seen as valuable and desirable for every context, a
key driver of results and potent in its effects. Despite the proliferation of definitions even
within the mainstream of the leadership literature, leadership is most typically
conceptualised as ‘leader-ship’; what leaders do or who they are. This ‘leader-centric’,
heroic notion of leadership, while regularly criticised, continues to dominate most
leadership studies and practitioner understanding. Whether born or made, therefore, it
hardly matters, so long as there are leaders to inspire, guide and transform the vast
majority of people, who need to be led, whose role is to follow, to be made better than if
left to their own devices. The stark inequality in the status of leaders and followers
invoked by this way of thinking hides in plain sight, there for all to see but accepted
without question. Such is the state of our contemporary truths about leadership.
Key assumptions in the mainstream of leadership studies
Leadership is part and parcel of the human condition. A mystery as modern as the nation state and
as ancient as the tribe, it brings together the best and worst in human nature: love and hate, hope
and fear, trust and deceit, service and selfishness. Leadership draws on who we are, but it also
shapes what we might be a kind of alchemy of souls that can produce both Lincoln’s “better
angels of our nature” and Hitler’s willing executioners (Harvey, 2006, p. 39).
This quote is drawn from a collection of essays written by highly regarded leadership
scholars who jointly explored the possibility of developing a general theory of leadership
(see Goethals & Sorenson, 2006). Hence, it can be read as expressing a view which would
likely be taken seriously by mainstream leadership scholars, despite its colourful
language. I particularly like that Harvey appreciates that leadership has sometimes been
used for nefarious purposes, a recognition lacking in most studies which consider only
positive effects (Alvesson & Spicer, 2011b; Ford et al., 2008; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002), a
one-sidedness I continue to find disturbingly naïve. If we accept his ideas at face value,
then leadership is enormously important to social well-being and warrants the most
serious of attention. However, Harvey also positions leadership as something derived
from human nature, as something enduring, timeless, fixed and essential and this, I
argue, is problematic.
Like Harvey, most mainstream leadership scholars treat leadership as a natural
phenomenon, as part of human nature, which itself is taken to be largely fixed rather
than contingent (e.g. Adair, 2002; Bass, 2008; Bennis & Nanus, 1985; see also Alvesson,
1996; Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2012). Leadership is also commonly assumed to comprise
universal and timeless qualities, to have an essence. Bennis and Nanus, for example,
argue “leadership competencies have remained constant, but our understanding of what
it is, how it works, and the way in which people learn to apply it has changed” (1985, p. 3).
Bass asserts “leadership is a universal phenomenon. It is not a figment of the imagination
…” (2008, p. 25). Given Bass’s critical role in advancing transformational leadership
theory, it is hardly a stretch to conclude that when he argues “leadership is a universal
phenomenon” what he is also implying is that transformational leadership is similarly
These assumptions are, however, at odds with the simultaneous claim of mainstream
scholars to have discovered ‘new’ approaches to leadership which are of specific practical
relevance, right here, right now. These assumptions logically lead to the unasked and, for
mainstream theorists, extremely awkward question of how far might human nature be
flexed to respond to current demands? This a priori expectation that leadership exists
because given by human nature and hence presumed to be enduring may be so influential
in shaping what is observed that leadership is discovered time and time again simply
because that is exactly what researchers are primed to see (Alvesson, 1996; Alvesson &
Deetz, 2000).
These assumptions that leadership is part of human nature and comprises universal and
timeless qualities in fact rarely stand alone. Instead they are typically combined with
contradictory assumptions that modern approaches to leadership are something new
and unique to our age and that leadership is amenable to scientific manipulation and able
to be adapted to current conditions (e.g. Adair, 2002; Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2004).
These latter assumptions, taken alone, warrant the proliferation of theories and models
that exists in the contemporary literature. However, taken in combination, as they
typically are, surely demands that attention be given to determining what it is about
leadership that can and cannot be changed, providing a potential boundary for the field
of inquiry. This is not so, however, as these contradictory assumptions, which sit at the
very heart of contemporary mainstream leadership research, have been left largely
unquestioned. The mainstream approach thus effectively seeks to have a dollar both
ways at the level of ontology, a shaky foundation for a field claiming the status of a
It is, of course, very appealing to believe one is studying something timeless, enduring
and essential to the human condition, just as it is very appealing to believe one is at the
cutting edge of a scientifically informed approach to shaping leadership. However, the
two views are nonetheless logically at odds: they cannot both be true, unless one was to
(perversely) treat human nature as being endlessly flexible, begging the question as to
what value the concept of human nature then adds to our understanding. Nonetheless,
the mainstream of leadership scholarship proceeds by drawing on both of these
contradictory assumptions about the very nature of leadership.
This logical contradiction is not the only concern. When it is assumed leadership is a
natural phenomenon, then leadership knowledge produced via the scientific method can
be presented as a discovery, in the same sense a biologist might discover something
about the functioning of bumble bees and wasps. This conception of leadership
knowledge as scientific discovery has the effect of shaping what constitutes credible,
intelligible critique: to critique a scientific fact for its ‘facticity’, one must proceed along
the lines of assessing ontology, epistemology, hypotheses, methodology, methods, data
sources, data collection and analytic techniques for their technical and logical rigour
(Alvesson, 1996; Foucault, 1970, 1972). This is a privileged conversation in which only a
few can participate. Questions about rights, values and power, for example, may be
dismissed as illegitimate in the face of scientific discoveries: one cannot argue with
credibility that bumblebees should have more power relative to that of wasps.
By conceiving of leadership as a natural phenomenon about which discoveries ought and
can be made, leadership and our knowledge of it is de-politicised and made a-historical
(Alvesson, 1996; Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Foucault, 1970, 1972). The interest then given to
leadership and our ideas about it can also be seen as natural, constraining both critique
and the exploration of alternatives.
In contrast, if leadership is conceived of as a contingent construct, something fashioned
through individual and collective effort in response to a particular social context,
knowledge claims about leadership can also readily be seen as contributing to its on-
going construction (Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002). Such knowledge
claims then have the status of being derived from inventions, not discoveries, rendering
their unavoidably partisan and partial perspective open to scrutiny (Foucault, 1970, 1972).
Questions about whose interests are served by a particular invention, why it is relevant
now, and what effects it creates become legitimised and the ability to ask them is less
reliant on specialised knowledge (Alvesson, 1996; Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Foucault, 1970,
Grint has argued that leadership is not amenable to scientific measurement because
“what counts as a ‘situation’ and what counts as the ‘appropriate’ way of leading in that
situation are interpretive and contestable issues” (2000, p. 3). Ford et al. (2008), using
Derridean methods of analysis, claim leadership is an empty signifier, a word which can be
loaded with different meanings as it bears no direct relationship to some definite object
but rather exists in discourse, subject to competing claims over its meaning. They also
suggest talk of leadership is best conceived of as identity work. Alvesson (1996), and
Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003a, 2003b, 2012) have also objected to claims of leadership
as having fixed, essential qualities or as involving definite practices, suggesting it be
understood as a discursive resource and regime. However to date these findings have not
impacted on the mainstream of leadership studies.
The bulk of contemporary leadership research, then, proceeds on the basis of
problematic assumptions which it compounds through its claims to have discovered the
truth about the nature of leadership. I am testing here an alternative view, that
leadership is contingently constructed (Alvesson, 1996; Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a,
2003b, 2012). The proposition is that leadership scholarship contributes to the on-going
invention of leadership. My study sets out to explore the pathways those inventions have
followed with a view to analysing what has triggered them, what they entail and their
effects. The value in considering what scholars thought was the truth about leadership at
different times from our own is that it provides a comparison for seeing more clearly our
contemporary constructs as such (Foucault, 1985, 1986).
The various problems I have indicated which arise from the adoption by mainstream
leadership scholars of a naturalistic, essentialist and scientistic conception of leadership
and its study constitute a key reason for the approach taken in this study. If it is assumed
that leadership is given by nature and the aim is to discover facts about its nature,
important questions will simply elude us. Moreover, if we treat leadership today as
something both natural (and therefore old) and as simultaneously something new, then
we are trapped in a logical contradiction that cannot be reconciled. If instead we treat
leadership as something that is contingently constructed and seek to understand its
construction, then we are better placed to question the received wisdom of our own
Critical studies of leadership
There is a small but now rapidly growing body of critical literature on organizational
leadership (Alvesson & Spicer, 2011b; Bolden et al., 2011; Collinson, 2011). This literature
tends to be informed by sociological concerns and post-structuralist theories about such
matters as power, inequality, identity, subjectivity and domination, and often forms part
of a wider project to critically analyse contemporary workplaces and managerialist
discourses and practices (e.g. Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c; Ford et al.,
2008; Knights & Morgan, 1992). Post-positivist epistemologies and ontologies also
typically inform this work (Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Collinson, 2011). Critically informed
leadership studies point to some problematic effects at both the micro and macro level
arising from contemporary mainstream thinking about leadership and offer examples of
new ways of thinking about leadership.
Critically informed studies have revealed a contemporary cultural tendency toward
‘talking up’ the value and impact of leadership in a way that simplifies and thus distorts
reality (e.g. Alvesson & Spicer, 2011b; Collinson, 2011; Schruijer & Vansina, 2002). Meindl,
Ehrlich and Dukerich (1985) famously demonstrated that a romantic bias gives rise to a
tendency to attribute positive outcomes to leadership, irrespective of evidence indicating
that other factors were influential. They also found that negative outcomes were less
likely to be attributed to leadership, again irrespective of evidence. This bias, they say,
constitutes a cultural norm which distorts our understanding of leadership.
Related to this, Calás and Smircich (1991) found that contemporary leadership discourse
constitutes an exercise in seduction, wherein managers are incited to produce
themselves as exceptional, compelling individuals. Sinclair subsequently found it is not
only leadership which involves seduction but also the teaching of leadership, as
“seductive manoeuvres” are played out which incite aspiring leaders to “feel blessed”,
offering an experience whereby they are “transported out of the ordinary” and feel
enabled to respond to “desires and longing” through the experience of learning about
leadership (2009, p. 281).
Other studies have shown that actual persons cannot live up to the idealised accounts of
leadership which are foisted upon them but that simultaneously these idealised accounts
bolster managerial identities and status. Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003a) found that
managers have great difficulty in describing coherently what they actually do as leaders
and what leadership is. They suggest this lack of coherence calls into question the validity
and utility of ‘leadership’ as a construct which describes the daily reality of managerial
experience. They theorise that talk of ‘leadership’ constitutes a discursive resource to
help bolster a fragile sense of professional identity, as well as enhancing managerial
legitimacy and status. Sinclair found that the gendered assumptions and expectations
embedded in conventional understandings of leadership meant female leaders
“camouflage” their sexuality or engage in behaviours which conform to stereotypical
expectations of women, thereby harming what would otherwise constitute an important
“source of self-esteem” (1998, p. 173). More recently, Ford et al. (2008) found that
contemporary leaders face existential pressures in maintaining a leader identity in the
face of leadership theories which offer an image of perfection to which managers are
expected to aspire.
The development and effects of leadership discourse have also been examined (e.g.
Knights & Morgan, 1992; Trethewey & Goodall Jnr, 2007; Sinclair, 2007; Western, 2007).
What these studies point to are the connections between leadership discourse and social,
political and economic power, as well as the dynamic relationship between the broader
social context and how leadership is conceived. Sinclair, for example, suggests that the
growth in interest in leadership in the latter half of the 20
century is related to its
connection with business interests, resulting in a situation whereby “capitalism and the
managerial agenda have installed many assumptions into leadership, focussing it
especially on the heroic performance of the individual” (2007, p. 28). Trethewey and
Goodall Jnr argue that in accounting for developments in the field since the post-WWII
theories of leadership provide a story that is largely ahistorical. Divorced from the social and
cultural discourses that shaped them, disconnected from the political and economic realities that
surrounded their making, and seemingly immaculate in their conception as ideas, these free-
floating signifiers we call theories of leadership are the bastard children of all that has been
omitted from their lineage” (2007, p. 457)
A common thread in many critically informed studies, then, is a concern with the recent
dominance of visionary, transformational and charismatic notions of leadership and the
excessive status and power these ideas grant to leaders, along with the difficulties in
actually living up to such idealistic accounts (e.g. Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a, 2003b,
2003c; Ford et al, 2008, Sinclair, 2007). In seeking to address this concern, several critically
oriented scholars have sought to develop in depth new ways of conceptualising and
theorising leadership, drawing inspiration in particular from history, philosophy, the arts
and practice and it is to these works I now turn.
Keith Grint has been especially active in offering alternative ways of understanding
leadership. In “The arts of leadership” (Grint, 2000) he proposes we understand
leadership as a socially constructed and contested terrain which involves, most centrally,
an on-going engagement between leaders and followers over questions of identity,
strategic vision and tactics, and which is reliant on the leader’s ability to engage in
persuasive communication “to ensure followers actually follow” (2000, p. 27). These
matters, he argues, in turn give rise to the four arts which inform the practice of
leadership, namely philosophy, the fine arts, the martial arts and the performing arts
(Grint, 2000). He elucidates the potency of this theorisation through detailed case
studies of historical events and of specific high profile leaders.
In a later effort to further re-think leadership, Grint (2005a) used historical case studies
to develop and demonstrate a contextually sensitive heuristic model which
acknowledges the common connection of ‘leadership’ with formal authority in
organizations and hence with both ‘management’ and ‘command’. In this model he
proposes that choosing between ‘leadership’, management’ and ‘command’ ought to be
informed by an analysis as to whether the challenge at hand is understood as being
‘wicked’, ‘tame’ or ‘critical’ in nature, this understanding being itself a contested process.
In yet another work he proposed that leadership is an “essentially contested concept”
but that it typically involves ideas about leadership as to do with person, result, position
and process (Grint, 2005b, p. 1). In order to overcome these limited understandings, Grint
foregrounds the paradoxes involved in leadership, its hybrid nature as it connects people,
processes and technologies and the difficulties in assessing cause and effect when it
comes to leadership. He advocates that the ethical assessment of leaders relies both on
the results achieved and on followers, from whom leaders learn how to lead. He also
proposes that leadership is a function of what goes on in the interaction between leaders
and followers, this now being the focus of relational theories of leadership (Uhl-Bien &
Ospina, 2012). In all these accounts what Grint offers is a less grandiose and anti-
essentialist account of leadership.
Ladkin (2010) also offers a non-conventional account of both how we might come to
understand leadership and how it might most usefully be practiced. Drawing on Husserl’s
phenomenological framework, Ladkin argues leadership is a phenomenon which involves
multiple dimensions in which the perception of the perceiver is of central significance.
She also foregrounds a focus on purpose, wisdom and the leader-follower relationship in
her account, which she frames as an attempt to offer new answers to old questions.
Sinclair (2008) has also sought to move beyond conventional analyses to offer a new way
of understanding leadership that is grounded in humanistic concerns and values. Sinclair
argues for the importance of psychoanalytic factors as a source of our fears and desires in
respect of leadership. In addressing the problematic of power, she offers a framework of
options involving advocacy of change, covert subversion, activism and critique and
collaboration and experimentation as productive ways of working with power. In drawing
attention to the embodied nature of leadership practice, Sinclair draws on her experience
as a yoga practitioner and her study of various Eastern philosophies, connecting
leadership to issues of breath, mindfulness, spirituality and the letting go of the ego
which such perspectives offer. Infused throughout Sinclair’s efforts to re-conceptualize
leadership is a concern to overcome the gendered assumptions which are embedded in
conventional understandings, and to ground our understanding in leadership in a focus
on the purposes or ends that it serves.
What Grint, Ladkin and Sinclair offer, then, are in-depth attempts to reconceptualise
leadership in ways that overcome or move away from the problematic assumptions and
effects they see as dominating current understandings. These examples serve as
inspiration for this study, albeit that the object of analysis here is limited to scholarly
discourse on leadership, rather than leadership per se. In their most recent assessment of
the state of critically informed leadership research, Alvesson and Sveningsson note that
inquiry into the culture- and Discourse-driven nature of leadership is neglected in most
of the literature” (2012, p. 209). My aim here is to go some way towards redressing this
The history of leadership thought
There are many historical texts which consider leadership. Notable philosophers such as
Plato, Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu, Seneca, Cicero, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Locke, and
Hobbes are all known to have addressed different aspects of what we today call
leadership. Added to these is the vast number of written histories from Herodotus (ca.
484425 BC) and Plutarch (ca. 46120 AD) onwards which focus on the character and
deeds of monarchs, politicians and military leaders (see also, for example, Carlyle, 1993
(1840); Hook, 1945; Olechnowicz, 2007). Collectively, these works can be understood as
constituting a widely diffused and inchoate history of ideas about leadership, for in
these texts we find something of what has been thought about leadership. For the
purposes of this study, however, texts of this nature actually constitute data, rather than
literature, for these texts typically analyse leadership rather than analyse the history of
thinking about leadership.
Remarkably little effort has been made over the last century to analyse the history of
thinking about leadership (Schruijer & Vansina, 2002). This may be due to a perception
that leadership ideas from times past are now irrelevant or of dubious credibility, as not
having been produced in accordance with modern scientific methods. Ideas from the past
have at times been used as inspiration for contemporary work, and it is not unheard of
for scholars to imply that their thinking connects in some ways with the “great minds” of
the past (e.g. Adair, 2002; Burns, 1978). However the focus over the last century in social
science-based studies of leadership has been to produce ‘new knowledge’ and new
theories (Antonakis et al., 2004; Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2004).
While scholars frequently chart developments in social scientific studies of leadership, the
aim is typically to identify the gap which their own study or theory will address, or to
provide a descriptive account of major developments within the field (e.g. Conger, 1999;
House & Aditya, 1997; Hunt, 1999). Work of this nature does not generally seek to
problematize the assumptions contained within the literature in order to subject it to
fresh analysis, nor does it seek to situate leadership within its wider social context
(Schruijer & Vansina, 2002; Sinclair, 2007). Instead, such accounts typically produce a
progressivist narrative of increasing enlightenment in our understanding of leadership,
portraying today’s knowledge as superior to that of the past (e.g. Antonakis et al., 2004;
Bass, 2008; Northouse, 2004). Consequently, there is a need to find some way of
disrupting this progressive narrative and offering an alternative interpretation of
developments in the field.
Only rarely have modern leadership scholars sought to critically analyse the history of
thinking about leadership, and the analysis which has been done to date is quite limited in
its scope. Knights and Morgan (1992) address the strategic leadership discourse since
the mid-1980s. Trethewey and Goodall Jnr (2007) focus on changes in leadership theories
in post-WWII USA, identifying social and political factors which they argue were
important in rendering those theories relevant. Western (2007) considered theoretical
paradigm shifts in leadership knowledge over the course of the 20
century, linking these
to changing production methods, the workings of capitalism and theoretical shifts in the
human sciences. However, the scope and focus of these analyses is, as is unavoidably the
case, limited. Here I offer an alternative scope and focus of analysis which ventures into
times and issues not previously addressed.
Key findings from my review of the literature
Whilst traditionally there existed a strong moral and political philosophy base to the
Western study of leadership, today it is the psychology-based study of organizational
leadership which constitutes the main body of contemporary literature. The research
being produced is overwhelmingly positivist and quantitative in orientation. Within this
literature, ‘new leadership’ theories have matured to such a degree that their key claims
are now widely accepted amongst scholars and dominate the field. Consequently, a state
of normal science currently prevails in the mainstream of leadership studies: the field is
focussed on a small number of key ideas and relies on a limited set of ontological and
epistemological assumptions and methodologies. Despite the extensive nature of this
literature, the knowledge it produces is, thus, profoundly narrow in nature and, as my
analysis has shown, it rests upon some problematic assumptions.
The key ‘new leadership’ ideas about leaders who are ‘visionary’, ‘charismatic’ and
‘transformational’ have been widely promulgated and have come to constitute the
disciplinary norm for many practitioners. ‘New leadership has also come to be
understood as a highly valued and potent force for good, with little questioning going on
as to why this is so and what problematic effects may arise from this. Given all these
factors, it has become increasingly difficult to conceive of alternatives to our current
dependence upon leaders as offering the answer to every problem. Critically informed
examination of the form and formation of this literature would, therefore, constitute a
useful contribution to knowledge.
Critical leadership studies are still at a nascent stage of development. In particular, critical
historical analysis has to date been very limited. However, while the critical literature is
limited in its scope the findings to date are provocative, for they suggest the conventional
narrative of leadership science as a progressive, humanistic endeavour is a profoundly
problematic account. Expanding the scope of extant analysis to examine theories, times
and issues not previously explored would, thus, also constitute a useful contribution to
These findings give rise to my primary research question, namely why has our
understanding of leadership come to take the form it now does? This question has not
been examined in sufficient depth; however, the now normalised status and pervasive
influence of ‘new leadership’ demands it be given urgent attention. My secondary
questions focus attention on issues of relevance to a Foucauldian inquiry, matters which
have also received insufficient attention in the literature, namely:
1. What problematizations have informed the development of the leadership
discourses examined here?
2. What key themes and assumptions inform these discourses?
3. What subjectivities and relationships are produced by these discourses?
4. What is the social function of these discourses?
5. What changes and continuities are notable when comparing these discourses?
In this chapter I have offered an orienting overview of the broad scope of leadership
studies past and present, before focussing in on the mainstream of the contemporary
literature focused on organizational leadership, the starting point for this thesis. I have
identified a range of problematic effects and assumptions associated with this literature
which indicate the potential utility and timeliness of more critically informed research.
The limitations of current critical and historically oriented studies of leadership to which
this study will contribute have also been identified. Arising from this analysis I have
shown the relevance and potential value of the research questions informing this study.
In the next chapter I will explain the theoretical and methodological approach used to
carry out the research.
Chapter Three: Theoretical framework and methodology
…after all, what I have held to, what I have tried to maintain for many years, is the effort to isolate
some of the elements that might be useful for a history of truth. Not a history that would be
concerned with what might be true in the field of learning, but an analysis of the “games of truth”,
the games of truth and error through which being is historically constituted as experience; that is,
as something that can and must be thought” (Foucault, 1985, pp. 6−7).
The focus of this chapter is on the research process, in particular the intellectual
‘equipment’ I have relied on and the various decisions and procedures which informed
the conduct of this research. I begin by setting out my position with respect to the nature
of reality, how we may come to know it and the key values which inform my approach to
research. I then canvas the various theoretical frameworks I considered for this research
before setting out the key reasons for my decision to rely on the work of Michel Foucault
to guide this project.
To familiarise the reader with Foucault’s approach, I offer an introductory overview of his
intellectual position and the nature of his work before moving to offer an extended
explanation of the specific methodological and conceptual apparatus he developed and
which I have used. After that I set out how I have actually operationalized the
Foucauldian approach across all aspects of the research process. I then assess the
methodological strengths and limitations of the study before concluding with an
assessment of the credibility standards relevant to a study of this nature and how I have
sought to meet these standards.
Philosophy of science assumptions
In this section I set out my stance as regards issues of ontology, epistemology and
axiology. I take what Blaikie terms a ‘constrained idealist’ ontological stance (2007, p. 17),
a position which can be understood as a form of nominalism (Blaikie, 2000). This means I
believe there is an external world that exists beyond the realm of our minds which
constrains what we can and cannot do: if I trip I expect to fall and I believe an external
reality governs these effects. However, I also hold that what we think is real matters a
great deal, irrespective of whether it is an accurate reflection of what is actually,
objectively real, and that our access to ‘reality’ is unavoidably mediated by a culturally
informed interpretation (Blaikie, 2000, 2007). Consistent with this position, our ideas and
beliefs, most especially in the domain of social relations and our sense of self, demand
assessment to understand where they came from, how they developed and what they
give rise to. As a consequence of this stance, setting aside the question of whether ideas
are true or false relative to objective reality becomes a valid move for a researcher to
make and that is what I do in this study.
Epistemologically, I take a social constructionist perspective. This means I believe that all
knowledge is developed through interpretation, negotiation and debate as we try
individually and collectively to make sense of the world (Blaikie, 2007; Hacking, 1999). Our
culture and the theories we have about the world are, I believe, deeply implicated in how
we come to know it, rather than there being some completely objective, neutral process
which leads us to the discovery of facts (Blaikie, 2007; Cresswell, 2003). Consistent with
this, my stance is that claims to know the ‘truth rely on a wider set of shared but
contestable assumptions, beliefs, values and norms about what constitutes an acceptable
truth claim (Blaikie, 2007; Cresswell, 2003).
For a social constructionist, what people say and write about a topic cannot simply be
dismissed as just noise or fiction, even if one thinks what is being said is ‘objectively’ false
(Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Hacking, 1999). This is because language is not understood as
simply representing in words some pre-existing external reality, but is instead crucial to
the very production of social reality (Alvesson & Karreman, 2000; Alvesson & Skoldberg,
2000). Consequently, talk and writing creates effects, including material effects, which
shape people’s identities and experiences in profound and visceral ways (Foucault, 1972;
Hacking, 1999). Analysing the form and formation of talk/writing on a given topic,
therefore, constitutes a fertile focus of inquiry from a social constructionist perspective,
because doing so can lead to insights into the very construction of social reality.
A social constructionist perspective holds that social reality is not given by nature but is
rather produced through a constant mix of individual and collective actions which have
real effects (Blaikie, 2007; Hacking, 1999). Therefore, uncovering past and present-day
processes of construction can help us understand that what seems normal and natural is
not fixed and could be changed (Hacking, 1999). This in turn aligns with my axiological
stance regarding the role of research: I believe an important aspect of a researcher’s role
is to challenge what is taken for granted in order to facilitate the possibility for change
(Guba & Lincoln, 2005).
These assumptions have informed all stages of the research process. Critically, they mean
that I do not regard leadership texts as more- or less-accurately reporting facts about
leadership. Rather, I treat leadership texts as part of the very production of leadership
as something that is constantly being made real. I put aside the question of whether the
claims made in these texts accurately reflect some pre-existing, external reality or not
(Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000). Consistent with my philosophical assumptions I believe
that, regardless of their ‘truthfulness’, these texts demand consideration of their form,
their processes of formation and the effects to which they give rise. When I connected
these philosophical positions with my problematization of ‘new leadership’ thinking and
my concern to understand why this situation had developed, what became apparent was
that I needed a theoretical framework and methodology that was both critical and
Aligning my assumptions, questions and strategy with a theory
In exploring possible theoretical frameworks and research methodologies to guide my
study, Alvesson and Deetz’s (2000) advice to strive, in critical studies, to de-familiarize
social phenomena otherwise commonly understood as natural, normal and common
sense resonated strongly for me. As an approach, “de-familiarization aims to turn the
well-known into something strange, thus making it less self-evident, natural and
unavoidable” (2000, p. 190). As I showed in Chapter Two, ‘new leadership’ thinking has
become natural, normal and common sense and I want to offer up a challenge to the
ready acceptance of this discourse. De-familiarizing extant understandings of leadership
would constitute a contribution to the literature. In order to pursue this strategy of de-
familiarization, I also needed a critical, historical theoretical framework and methodology
that promoted and enabled such an approach.
There are a variety of approaches to critical analysis and to historical analysis which I
explored but ultimately rejected. Habermas (1970a, 1970b), for example, is arguably the
most influential critical theorist and has produced a prolific body of work which other
scholars have used to guide their studies (Burrell, 1994; Held, 1980). Habermas provides a
range of conceptual tools for challenging conventional knowledge (e.g. 1970a, 1970b).
However, his focus is on diagnosing capitalist society (Burrell, 1994; Held, 1980). This
means that he has less to offer when seeking to understand non-capitalist social forms as
his conceptual categories are designed specifically to analyse capitalism. Moreover,
Habermas is best understood as a modernist philosopher, whereas the sensibilities
governing this study are post-modern as the search for truth has been bracketed off
(Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000; Burrell, 1994; Cooper & Burrell, 1988). Given this point,
Derrida constitutes another obvious option.
Derrida (e.g. 1978) offers a method for critically analysing texts which he calls
deconstruction. This approach derives from his view of the nature of language as
unavoidably indeterminate and metaphorical, meaning texts are open to multiple
readings (Derrida, 1978). A Derridean reading of leadership texts would enable a de-
familiarizing effect, as Ford et al. (2008) have already demonstrated. However, the
deconstructive method is not well suited to addressing the full range of my research
questions, in particular my interest to examine the problematizations in response to
which leadership discourses have emerged at various times.
An alternative place I looked for theoretical frameworks was in the work of historians, in
particular historians of ideas and intellectual historians whose approach is informed also
by sociological perspectives (Dean, 1994). In his work, Norbert Elias has examined social
practices which today appear as natural and normal, tracing their development over time
(Dean, 1994; Mennell & Goudsblom, 1998). This is consistent with my strategy. However,
Elias’s work has been criticised for evincing a search for “universals of social
development” which is suggestive of a modernist outlook and, therefore, at odds with
the assumptions guiding this research (Dean, 1994, p. 27). Eventually, then, I selected
Michel Foucault as offering a theoretical framework and methodology which would allow
me to answer the questions which my review of the literature had identified as
warranting attention, and support my desire to de-familiarise our current understanding
of leadership. In the next section I identify the particular attributes of Foucault’s
approach which lead me to this decision.
Why Foucault is suitable for my study
In addition to there being a good degree of alignment as regards issues of ontology,
epistemology and axiology between my own position and that of Foucault’s, there are
four key reasons Foucault’s work offers a suitable framework for conducting this study.
Firstly, Foucault’s approach enables the disturbance of conventional understandings
(Burrell, 1988; Dean, 1994; Guttung, 1994). Using Foucault is therefore consistent with my
strategy of de-familiarization. This ability to generate disturbance is, I suggest, a particular
approach to critique which is not merely negative in its intent and effect (Guttung, 1994;
Foucault, 1985). Instead, it is pivotal to enabling us to think differently, an important aim
of my research and Foucault’s work.
Secondly, Foucault’s work is primarily historical analysis, which aims to explain the
development of contemporary, expert-driven thought and practice on a given topic
deemed problematic (Burrell, 1988; Dean, 1994; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983; Guttung, 1994).
This is also consistent with the approach I wish to take. Foucault explained, however, that
his aim was not to write “a history of the past in terms of the present” (1977, p. 31), in
which current understandings are imposed onto past events thereby creating a seamless
and progressive account of human history. Instead, Foucault set out to write “the history
of the present” (1977, p. 31), an interpretive, analytic account of the past which suspends
any assumption of progress in respect of social practices, seeks traces of the past still
shaping the present and calls into doubt whiggish and progressivist accounts of both the
past and the present. Foucault’s work was unashamedly that of an activist scholar
seeking to facilitate change through research. As my problematization of ‘new
leadership’ demonstrated, such an approach is warranted in respect of the current state
of leadership thought.
Thirdly, the topics which Foucault chose to examine were ones where contemporary
expert knowledge and practice portrayed itself as superior to that of the past; more
truthful, scientifically grounded, humane or morally desirable (e.g. Foucault, 1977; 1978).
Contemporary leadership experts make just such claims about the current state of
leadership knowledge and practice (e.g. Antonakis et al., 2004; Bass, 2008; Hunt, 1999).
This similarity in focus further reinforces the suitability of a Foucauldian approach to my
Finally, Foucault’s approach directs analytic attention to both change and continuity; to
underlying assumptions; to the problematizations to which knowledge claims are
directed; to the subjectivities and relationships invoked by different ideas; and to the
wider context in which ideas come into being (e.g. Foucault, 1977; 1985). These are all
matters which in terms of leadership have been under-examined to date. In making the
decision to adopt a Foucauldian approach, therefore, I developed my secondary
questions to focus on these issues.
Situating Foucault
Veritable lakes of ink have been spilt assessing Foucault’s work: he emerged as and
remains a controversial figure (Prado, 2009). His work falls within the broad tradition of
European critical thought, with Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger all important influences on
his thinking (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983; Miller, 1993; Wicks, 2003). While he typically
rejected the labels others applied to his work, substantively and stylistically his approach
can nonetheless be characterised as post-modern in its orientation (Dean, 1994; Flynn,
1994; Wicks, 2003). Foucault has been described as both philosophical historian and
historical philosopher, labels indicative of the complexity, sophistication and unique
nature of his work (Dean, 1994; Guttung, 1994; Wicks, 2003). Rather than simply rehearse
the many debates about his work here, in what follows I set forth my own interpretation
based on my reading of his key works and those of key commentators.
In terms of basic assumptions, Foucault is a nominalist, meaning he treats ideas
(knowledge) about the world as a construction or interpretation and not as a direct
representation of what actually exists (Flynn, 1994; Blaikie, 2000). Further, while ideas
may develop through empirical observation, Foucault argues that what gets noticed and
how it is interpreted is very strongly influenced by social norms, beliefs and values (e.g.
1977, 1978, 1980). He further contends that discourses can bring into existence social
practices and ways of being which later appear to be entirely natural (e.g. 1977, 1978,
1985). In this sense Foucault proposes that what we know is never simply a reflection of
what exists, but rather is shaped by social norms and that knowledge is thus active in
constructing what exists, including our selves (e.g. 1980, 1986, 2005).
Foucault’s attention is, therefore, not directed toward discovering what really exists, for
he eschews great scepticism about the existence of objective truths outside the realm of
the physical sciences (e.g. 1970, 1972). Instead, Foucault’s focus is on what people regard
as the truth at different times, including our own, how this came about and what are its
effects. His emphasis on the contingent, constructed and constructive nature of
knowledge, and his critique of existing social practices and ways of being means that his
approach falls within the social constructionist paradigm, according to Hacking’s
definition (1999). By this definition, a strongly social constructionist perspective not only
seeks to bring to light the contingent, social foundations of practices typically understood
as being ‘natural’, it also seeks to challenge the hidden politics of those practices and to
encourage change (Hacking, 1999).
Dean (1994) proposes that Foucault focussed on issues in three broad domains: firstly,
reason, truth and knowledge; secondly, power, domination and government; and thirdly,
ethics, the self and freedom. Gutting claims that Foucault’s goal “was always to suggest
liberating alternatives to what seem to be inevitable conceptions and practices” (1994, p.
3). This, he suggests, was achieved by way of “histories of ideas, histories of concepts,
histories of the present, and histories of experience” (1994, p. 7). In their analysis of his
later works, Dreyfus and Rabinow argue that Foucault provides a method “which
replaces ontology with a special kind of history that focuses on the cultural practices that
have made us what we are” (1983, p. 122). Prado, however, does caution us that such is
the diversity and nature of Foucault’s oeuvre that it “resists holistic interpretation”
(2009, p. 3).
Foucault proposes three reasons for undertaking historical analysis. Firstly, because he
contends that knowledge is not innocent and removed from power but is rather
entwined with power, he argues we should seek to examine ‘knowledge’ for its origins
and foundations so that we can better understand the workings of power and its effects
(e.g. 1977, 1978, 1980). Secondly, Foucault proposes that we should study the past
because it may be influencing what we know and do today in ways not readily apparent
to us (e.g. 1985, 1986). Finally, Foucault contends that we should study the past because
doing so enhances our ability to think differently about the challenges we face today,
through exposing us to different ideas and even modes of thinking (e.g. 1977, 1978, 1985).
Turning to Foucault’s major historical analyses, these provide a contingent account of
developments in expert knowledge and expert-informed social practices (see 1970, 1977,
1978, 1985, 1986, 1989). The contextual factors that were held to be problematic, to
which a given discourse emerged in response, are identified. Socially constructed and
historically situated ways of thinking and acting, events, chance, power, networks of
influence and strategies are placed centre stage, rather than a progressive and
teleological account in which truth, knowledge and ever greater enlightenment
constitute the driving force for social change (Burrell, 1988; Dean, 1994; Prado, 2009).
Foucault once described the task he had set for himself as “to trace the history of the
games of truth and error” (1985, p. 8). However, in so doing he also shows how things
have been different in the past, how arbitrary social change can be, and, therefore, he
opens up space in which we can think differently about the present and our future
(Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000; Cummings & Bridgman, 2011). The
aim, Foucault says, is “to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think
differently, instead of legitimating what is already known” (1985, p. 9).
Foucault’s most famous works comprise detailed studies of the form and formation of
expert discourses on madness (1989), crime and punishment (1977) and sexuality (1978,
1985, 1986). In each of these studies he offered an analysis which dramatically de-
familiarized conventional understandings of both the past and the present. In examining
madness he challenged the allegedly modern and scientific basis of psychiatry, linking it
to back medieval practices and beliefs (Foucault, 1989). His analysis of developments in
the punishment of criminals threw doubt on whether modern approaches are really a
positive, ‘humane’ advancement on the medieval practice of torture (Foucault, 1977). His
analysis of sexuality showed the conventional understanding that sex was until recently a
taboo subject was deeply problematic and that present day understandings are best
understood as an adaption of medieval confessional practices (Foucault, 1978, 1985,
1986). In each case he was, therefore, able to demonstrate the influence of ideas from
the past on current thought and practice and thereby change how we understand both
the past and the present. Moreover, in his analyses Foucault points to the potentially
problematic consequences for human freedom of expert knowledge, thereby calling into
doubt our assumption that modern thought and practice is superior to that of the past,
grounded in rationality, science and enlightened ways of thinking.
Over the last decade a series of Foucault’s lectures not previously published in English has
become available (see Foucault, 2003, 2004, 2008a, 2008b, 2009, 2010a, 201ob, 2011).
Some of these date back to lectures given by Foucault in the early 1970’s (e.g. 2008b),
while others cover the very last of his lectures prior to his death in 1984 (e.g. 2011). What
these texts point to is Foucault’s enduring interest in questions about how we come to be
as we are, how forces beyond ourselves act upon us, and how we can come to know the
truth (e.g. 2004, 2008a, 2011). A sustained critique of modern systems of governing
society and the power of expert knowledge and its effect on our freedom is also a key
focus in these works (e.g. 2008b, 2009, 2010). However, while these lectures offer further
insights into Foucault’s thinking and points of clarification, they do not indicate any
fundamental shift in the primary methods and key concepts which he had been
developing over the course of his life and which I address below, referencing earlier
The Foucauldian method used in this study: Interpretive Analytics
Foucault developed a range of methodological approaches over the course of his life, as
he sought to respond to criticisms made of his earlier works (Cummings & Bridgman,
2011; Dean, 1994; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983). The particular Foucauldian method to be
used in this study is Interpretive Analytics. This is not a term which Foucault himself used;
rather it was developed by Dreyfus and Rabinow (1983) who had extensive dialogue with
Foucault about his work. Interpretive Analytics seeks to understand and explicate both
the form and formation of a body of knowledge, and its associated social practices, by
way of a series of historical case studies (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011; Dreyfus &
Rabinow, 1983). In this research I wish to understand and explicate both the form and
formation of our contemporary understanding of leadership by way of a series of
historical case studies. The starting point of such an analysis is an account of the
“…problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought”
(Foucault, 1985, p. 11, italics in original).
Discontinuous histories
Interpretive Analytics is the term Dreyfus and Rabinow (1983) use to describe the
methodological approach taken by Foucault in his extended exploration of the history of
sexuality (see Foucault, 1978, 1985, 1986). Foucault intended to undertake six distinct but
related case studies of the history of sexuality (1985), however only three were
completed at the time of his death. Prior to these works, Foucault’s histories typically
commenced at a certain event or point in time which he held to be of direct relevance to
the current day (e.g. 1977, 1989). His analysis then concerned developments from that
point forwards through to the current day. This approach I term a continuous history. In
contrast, his approach from the second volume in his extended exploration of the history
of sexuality was to select several times (and spaces) chronologically (and geographically)
separated from each other for examination as the component parts of a broader study
(see Foucault, 1978, 1985, 1986). This approach I term discontinuous histories, and it is
one key aspect of the Interpretive Analytic approach that I employ.
The strategic rationale for such an approach is to facilitate our ability to think differently,
something Foucault regards as important but extremely challenging to achieve (1985). By
choosing to examine how a given topic had been understood in different epistemes,
Foucault hoped he might find different ways of thinking about that topic which could
assist in addressing our present day concerns (1985, 1986). Equally, we may find
surprising commonalities, traces of that past which inform our present.
At the detailed level of analysis of each individual case study, Interpretive Analytics
involves the combined use of the main methodological approaches which Foucault had
utilised largely in isolation of each other in his earlier work, namely Archaeology and
Genealogy. In what follows I discuss the key features of each of these methods, before
turning to their combined use.
Archaeology comprises two components. First, it analyses what the experts of a given
period claim to be ‘the truth’ on a particular topic, paying particular attention to the
assumptions and effects of those claims (e.g. Foucault, 1970, 1972). Second, it postulates
the underlying “structure of thought”, or episteme, which make it possible for those
‘truths’ to be considered intelligible and plausible at the time they arose, even if they later
came to seem nonsensical (Foucault, 1972, p. 191). Archaeology thus seeks to identify and
analyse the form of a set of claims to know the truth, a form which has two levels, that of
particular truths about a specific topic and that of the general truth, which underpins and
governs all truths in a given period.
Interpretive analysis is needed to identify the features and form of an episteme, as it
operates at the level of taken-for-granted assumptions and values and is rarely explicitly
enunciated (Foucault, 1970, 1972). Epistemes can and do change over time; however, such
changes are not assumed to be inherently progressive or teleological, but rather are
examined for their specific assumptions and effects (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011;
Guttung, 1994; Kendall & Wickham, 1999). In both its components Archaeology focuses
on what was said and done, specifically what was said by experts and done under their
guidance. These Foucault termed ‘discursive practices’ and they constitute the primary
data for Archaeology (1970, 1972). It is through the examination of discursive practices
that one can discern the form of the specific and general ‘truth’ then operant.
Archaeology “examines the ‘moment’, however temporally extended that moment might
be”; it “provides us with a snapshot, a slice through the discursive nexus” (Bevis, Cohen,
& Kendall, 1993, p. 194). Archaeology can be understood as a bounded piece of historical
analysis: bounded by the particular ‘truth’ topic on which it focuses and bounded
temporally by the episteme it exposes and examines (Burrell, 1988; Dreyfus & Rabinow,
1983; Kendall & Wickham, 1999). One may, of course, conduct multiple archaeologies
within the scope of one project by examining multiple epistemes.
Through its analysis of both the specific features of a given episteme and the truth claims
made about a particular topic, Archaeology provides an account which reveals how a
particular notion of what is true was (or is) possible. With Archaeology, Foucault
sidesteps ontology (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011; Dean, 1994; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983):
the aim is not to discover what really exists and what is really true, rather it is to assess
the effects of what people claim to be true on who we are and how we live. Archaeology
thus produces an analytics of truth (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983). Archaeology helps us
figure out ‘what is the shape of this truth’, and ‘what makes this truth possible’ by way of
reference to the epistemic underpinnings which render such an account of the truth as
viable to begin with. Such accounts can be deeply disturbing, as they make our truths
appear much more contingent than we would normally believe them to be.
Archaeological analysis can, therefore, make the strange seem sensible and at the same
time it can make what we see as sensible seem strange. It constitutes a de-familiarizing
approach to analysis.
Foucault is known to have argued that epistemes determined what could be known, that
we are, in effect, prisoners of our own episteme (see, for example, 1970, 1972). This view
is both bleak and impossible to prove or disprove. Moreover, it is arguably a view he
moved away from as his thought developed (see, for example, Foucault, 1985, 2005,
2011a). However, irrespective of this there remains no necessity to adopt a deterministic
view of the influence of epistemic conditions. Rather, one can hold to a softer view, that
due to the specific form of a given episteme, it is an influence rather than a determinant
of what can be known or, alternatively, that all epistemes are influential rather than
deterministic. I adopt a non-deterministic view. Moreover, I limit my epistemic analysis by
keeping it focussed on the topic of my inquiry, discourse on leadership, rather than
venturing to offer a broader social analysis as was Foucault’s aim. Foucault was no strict
disciplinarian when it came to methodology, including those methods he himself
developed (Guttung 1994; Prado, 2009). Accordingly, I suggest these adaptations do no
mortal damage to the Archaeological method.
Archaeology, therefore, analyses what a particular episteme held to be the truth about a
specific issue. It offers, also, an exposition of the underpinning intellectual conditions
which made that account viable. What it leaves open is the question of ‘how did this
come about? Foucault’s other main method that contributes to Interpretive Analytics,
Genealogy attends to this.
Genealogy provides a method which attends to how ideas and social practices change,
develop, and come to be seen as correct and truthful (e.g. Foucault, 1977, 1978). It does
this without privileging individual actors as the source of change and without assuming
that social change follows some natural progression to a higher state of perfection (e.g.
Foucault, 1977, 1978). Instead, genealogy looks to the social context in which discourses
develop, looking for connections between what was seen as problematic at a given point
in time and how discourses which claim to speak the truth form in response to these
perceived problems (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011; Dean, 1994; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983).
Genealogy involves examining the networks of relationships, strategies and tactics that
have facilitated certain ideas and practices coming to the fore (e.g. Foucault, 1977, 1978).
There is no assumption of necessity or a pre-determined outcome or direction in
Genealogy; instead, chance, opportunism and the capacity to dominate and to resist are
treated as potential sources of social change (e.g. Foucault, 1977, 1978).
Power is central to such an analysis (Alvesson & Deetz, 2000; Alvesson & Skoldberg,
2000; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983). Attention goes to how social practices act to shape who
we are, and how power relations influence how people use and experience their selves
and their bodies (e.g. Foucault, 1977, 1978, 1980). Whatever effects or ways of being
which are created, constrained or disciplined in some way in a given discourse, and
whatever is held up in that discourse as laudable or abominable, are matters of particular
interest in a Genealogical analysis. It examines both the effects of a given discourse on
persons and interpersonal relationships and how this situation developed (e.g. Foucault,
1977, 1978). It, too, is a de-familiarizing approach.
A genealogy is an analytic history which traces the formation of knowledge about a
certain topic over a given period (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011; Dean, 1994; Dreyfus &
Rabinow, 1983). It foregrounds how ideas and practices that may over time have come to
be accepted as true, or right, actually developed and in so doing helps us realise that
things could have developed differently. Genealogy has been criticised because its heavy
emphasis on power as the source of both change and stability makes it seem as if we can
never escape from its clutches (e.g. Hoy, 1986; Wicks, 2003). However, one need not
adopt a deterministic account of power in order to conduct a Genealogical analysis; one
can instead treat power as influential but not determinative (Hoy, 1986; Wicks, 2003).
Archaeology and Genealogy combined
Genealogy on its own leaves unanswered the question of how can one free oneself from
the power/knowledge effects of one’s own episteme and its claims to know the truth
(Cummings & Bridgman, 2011; Hoy, 1986). This question remains even if one adopts a less
deterministic view of power. By combining Genealogy with Archaeology and by
conducting multiple, discontinuous histories a broader analysis is created. It becomes
possible to identify change and continuity in both the form and formation of knowledge
about a particular topic in different epistemes (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011; Foucault,
1985, 2011a). By combining these methods and applying them to multiple cases we can
see, for each case, both the substantive form of knowledge on the topic being examined
and the formative processes which lead to its creation. We can then compare across the
cases. Consequently, Genealogy can change our understanding of how past
developments in discourse arose and its effects while Archaeology can change our
understanding of what renders a given form of knowledge intelligible and its effects.
Deployed in combination the insights then gained from such an analysis can, thus,
facilitate our capacity to better understand the past and the present and to develop new
ideas to address issues of present concern. In this research I put Genealogy and
Archaeology to work to produce results and effects of this nature.
A specific outcome of an Interpretive Analytic study is the production of one or more
dispositives, an analytic summary charting key commonalities and differences across the
epistemic cases studied (Cummings & Bridgman, 2011; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983). A
dispositif identifies the key elements of a particular discourse in a given episteme
compared with its articulation in a different episteme so as to identify both change and
continuity. It constitutes a specific means of de-familiarizing our understanding of both
past and present. To explicate this concept, Table 3.1 provides an extract from one of the
dispositives which I have developed from my research, the substance of which I explain in
Chapter Seven.
Table 3.1: Sample dispositif: the person of the leader in different epistemes
Managerial leadership
(post WWII)
C Europe
Classical Greece
committed to organizational
goals; discourse silent on
other issues of lifestyle
combines majesty and prudent
use of state funds so as to live
in a manner consistent with
their status and duties
lives an ascetic lifestyle
restrains eating, sleeping and
sexual urges in order to serve
discourse is silent on issues of
faith; leaders assumed and
expected to act ethically
loves God; upholds Christian
faith and morality
loves the gods; morally
without fault
In summary, there are five key aspects to the Interpretive Analytics method. As noted
earlier, the starting point of any analysis is the identification of the problematizations to
which a given discourse arose as a response. Archaeology is used to examine the form of
a body of knowledge about a particular topic and identify the underlying epistemic
framework which renders such knowledge claims possible and intelligible. It focuses on
discursive practices, attending to both the rules which govern their existence and the
effects of the discourse. Genealogy is used to examine the processes of formation of that
body of knowledge, looking at how it came into being and its effects. It focusses on the
impact of discourses on who we are and how we live and, thus, a concern with power is
infused throughout a genealogical analysis. Discontinuous histories are used to examine a
given topic in different epistemes from which, finally, a dispositif can be developed to
reveal both change and continuity over time. These key features of the method are
summarized in Table 3.2.
Table 3.2: Key features of the Interpretive Analytics methodology
Identify that which was deemed problematic to which a discourse
emerged as a response
Describe the form of a discursive regime in a given period, its
effects and its underlying epistemic conditions of possibility
Describe the formation of discursive regime in a given period and
its effects
Discontinuous histories
(multiple cases)
Examine the same topic of interest in different epistemes
Identify change and continuity in how different epistemes have
understood the same topic
Foucault’s key concepts
In addition to his methods of inquiry, Foucault developed an extensive suite of concepts
which constitute a further fundamental feature of his work and to which I now turn.
Some of Foucault’s concepts pertain to specific topics of inquiry. For example, his
concept of scientia sexualis denotes his assessment of the modern Western approach
to sexuality (1978, p. 55). Other concepts such as governmentality explain a feature of
modernity, a specific social system and historical period (Foucault, 1977, 2003, 2011a).
However, Foucault’s key conceptual apparatus, discourse, power, power/knowledge, and
subjectivity, can be applied to potentially any topic and any historical context, and in what
follows I explain these concepts and their application in my study.
For Foucault, social reality is continuously constructed through language, through our
shared, and contested, interpretations of what exists, what is true and what is right (see,