Leadership in a post-truth era: A new narrative disorder?
Hamid Foroughi, Yiannis Gabriel and Marianna Fotaki
Paper is published in Leadership Journal. For updated citations, check the journal
Foroughi, H., Gabriel, Y., & Fotaki, M. (2019). Leadership in a post-truth era: A new
narrative disorder? Leadership. https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715019835369
This essay, and the special issue it introduces, seeks to explore leadership in a
post-truth age, focusing in particular on the types of narratives and counter-narratives
that characterize it and at times dominate it. We first examine the factors that are
often held responsible for the rise of post-truth in politics, including the rise of
relativist and postmodernist ideas, dishonest leaders and bullshit artists, the digital
revolution and social media, the 2008 economic crisis and collapse of public trust. We
develop the idea that different historical periods are characterized by specific
narrative ecologies which, by analogy to natural ecologies, can be viewed as spaces
where different types of narrative and counter-narrative emerge, interact, compete,
adapt, develop and die. We single out some of the dominant narrative types that
characterize post-truth narrative ecologies and highlight the ability of language to ‘do
things with words’ that support both the production of ‘fake news’ and a type of
narcissistic leadership that thrive in these narrative ecologies. We then examine more
widely leadership in post-truth politics focusing on the resurgence of populist and
demagogical types along with the narratives that have made these types highly
effective in our times. These include nostalgic narratives idealizing a fictional past
and conspiracy theories aimed at arousing fears about a dangerous future.
Keywords: post-truth, narratives, counter-narratives, populism, narrative ecologies,
nostalgia, conspiracy theories
The word ‘post-truth’ has become one of the most frequently used but least well
defined memes of our time. There is little agreement on whether post-truth is
something completely new or something that has always been with us. In the last few
years, we have witnessed the emergence of political leaders and political campaigns
that secured unexpected and resounding victories by relying on half-truths, lies,
innuendoes and empty verbiage. These victories have given rise to the idea that we
live in a post-truth era where truth does not have ultimate authority. What is more, it
is argued that the boundaries between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction
and nonfiction have become blurred (Ball, 2017; d'Ancona, 2017; Davis, 2017;
The term post-truth was formally recognized and further popularized when the
Oxford English Dictionary announced it as their word of the year in 2016, defining it
as ‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public
opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. However, this brief definition
raises more questions than answers. Was there ever a time when appeal to emotion
was less significant than objective facts? People have always invented myths and
stories to bring meaning into their lives, and so too have leaders who use narratives
and rhetoric to stir the emotions of their audiences. So can post-truth be seen as an
entirely new phenomenon?
Several commentators argue that even though certain features of post-truth
were prefigured in earlier eras, a combination of different factors has shaped a new set
of circumstances in our times which justify its designation as a post-truth era. Others
are more skeptical, arguing that various elites, through the press and mass media, have
always shaped public agendas by editing down, channeling, selecting or even
censoring the stories that reach the public. As a journalist, Matt Taibbi puts it in his
interview with Noam Chomsky: ‘It is like the parable of Kafka’s gatekeeper, guarding
a door to the truth that was built just for you’ (Taibbi, 2018). Often performed in tacit
collusion with powerful think tanks, lobbies or even the elected representatives, such
strategies have been deployed to manufacture dissent about issues that are
comparatively unimportant in order to prevent real dissent about issues that matter.
The Brexit Referendum in the UK, for instance, may be seen not as a terrain for
competition among alternative untruths, but as a vehicle for misplacing legitimate
anxieties about rising inequalities and reduced opportunities into a meaningless slogan
of taking ‘back control’. The slogan of taking back control became a proxy for
regaining a sovereignty that was never forfeited in the first place. This raises the
question of our own role as academic knowledge producers and of our distinct
contribution to such debates.
As organizational scholars, we believe that a great deal is at stake, depending
on our understanding of post-truth and the types of leadership it may spawn - for
example, populist, irrational, inflammatory, confrontational, scapegoating and with
scant respect for facts or the opinions of scientists and experts. If we lose all faith in
facts and their appraisal, issues like climate change, migration, war and poverty are
reduced to arenas of mere opinion (with everyone entitled to their own set of
‘alternative facts’). The consequences may be far-reaching. Besides the debate on the
novelty of post-truth, it is important to understand whether, why and how people
respond to post-truth politics, distortions and other forms of misinformation and what,
if anything, can be done about it.
The purpose of this special issue is to explore critically leadership in a post-
truth age, focusing in particular on the types of narratives and counter-narratives that
characterize it and at times dominate it. This introduction starts by examining the
combination of factors that are often held responsible for the rise of post-truth in
politics. We single out five broad categories of causes that feature consistently in
commentaries on post-truth: epistemological changes (postmodernism), dishonest
leaders and bullshit artists, digital revolution and information technology, economic
crisis and collapse of public trust and, finally, human psychology. We then develop
the idea that different historical periods are characterized by specific narrative
ecologies which, by analogy to natural ecologies, can be viewed as spaces where
different types of narrative and counter-narrative emerge, interact, compete, adapt,
develop and die. We single out some of the dominant narrative types that characterize
post-truth politics and highlight the ability of language to ‘do things with words’ that
support both the production of ‘fake news’ and a type of narcissistic leadership that
thrive in these narrative ecologies. We then examine more widely leadership in post-
truth politics focusing on the resurgence of populist and demagogical types along with
the narratives that have made these types highly effective in our times.
Post-truth: How did it come about?
Numerous factors have been linked to the rise of post-truth as a defining
cultural and political phenomenon of our times. Many writers have traced the
emergence of post-truth to the rise of relativism and postmodernism in the late 20th
century (Gardner, 2011; D'Ancona, 2017) and the epistemological challenges they set
for faith in absolute truths (including ‘scientific ones’) and objective facts. We are
now more likely to hold contradictory views about the world and adopt relativistic
opinions, in part due to increased contact with people from different cultures who
hold vastly different views from our own. Postmodernism in academia has unveiled
the role of power in sustaining different ‘regimes of truth’, often in discreet and
invisible ways. But Mair (2017), and others, have argued that the spread of
postmodernist ideas in the general publics has shaken people’s faith in objective facts
and created a setting in which terms such as ‘alternative facts’ are legitimated.
Postmodernism is held accountable for normalizing relativist views where lies can be
excused as “alternative points of view” or “legitimate opinions”, because “it’s all
relative” and “everyone has their own truth” (Pomerantsev, 2016). Postmodernist
thinking gave voice to marginalized and powerless groups in society who were able to
claim, with justification, that their experiences had been drowned by the established
mainstream. However, when deployed or highjacked by powerful elites
postmodernist thinking has enabled them to challenge or dismiss inconvenient facts
and theories, whether these concern climate change, migration or economic
Furthermore, postmodern narratives can be exploited in another way by
appropriating the rightful struggles of historically marginalized constituencies (e.g.
women, people of colour, LGBT) to subtly undermine them while speaking in their
name. In the political arena, this is manifested in the much derided identity politics.
The backlash against the redressing of injustices, however modest, is associated with
the neoliberal global elite project. This gives rise to illiberal populist forces across the
Western world but more specifically in the USA and Eastern Europe (European
Parliament, 2018). The concept of ‘gender ideology’ has become a metaphor and kind
of social glue for expressing insecurity and unfairness produced by the current
socioeconomic order (Grzebalska et al. 2017). Gender retrenchment is thus secured,
paradoxically, through the wide dissemination of discourses of female freedom and by
pretensions of equality (McRobbie, 2009: 55 cited in Fotaki & Harding, 2017: 24),
which is then often reversed and undone within popular culture. Graff (2016: 268)
concludes that ‘The right-wing offensive against “gender” is no longer viewed as a
polemic against gender studies, or indeed as a misunderstanding, but a new strategy
on the right that transcends many divisions and contributes to the rise of illiberal
Second, several commentators have pointed to what they see as qualitatively
new levels of dishonesty and deceit on the part of political leaders. Some political
leaders have always attempted to cover up the facts and manipulate their audiences.
Today, leaders like Donald Trump in the US and Nigel Farage in the UK raise this to
new depths. They aggressively denounce some facts as fake, claim that there are
‘alternative facts’ (Mair, 2017), attribute various nefarious conspiracies to
‘establishment elites’ and dismiss genuine conspiracies as mere conspiracy theories.
The success of post-truth politics is thus attributed to the rise of a ‘bullshit culture’
(Ball, 2017; Davis, 2017) that normalizes empty verbiage as a legitimate language
trope in different settings, from business to political campaigns, dismissing any
genuine difference between pundits’ claims and expert or ‘scientific’ assessments
(Davis, 2017; Spicer, 2018). This argument is built on the work of Harry Frankfurt
(2009) who claimed that bullshit is not necessarily created by mindless slobs, but can
be the product of sophisticated craftsmen or bullshit artists. Such bullshitting can be
calculated and carefully crafted - at times aided by advanced and demanding
techniques of market research, public opinion polling, or psychological testing - but it
is delivered in a way that gives the opposite impression. This allows the post-truth
leaders or bullshit artists to resist calls for serious and austere discipline in
distinguishing between facts and opinion (Frankfurt, 2009: 23).
From this perspective, post-truth bullshitters hide the skill behind their work
by demonstrating a laxity in their words, which deceive us about their enterprise. In
doing so, bullshit artists seek to get away from the scrutiny that one experiences when
one confronts lying. Frankfurt does not directly explain the reasons behind the appeal
of bullshit or the rise of post-truth leaders who use it routinely. Nonetheless, one
reason for the appeal of bullshit artists, such as Donald Trump, is that they seem to
have earned a different perception of sincerity–at least among their supporters. Rather
than being known as leaders whose credibility rests on telling the truth and providing
accurate representations of the world, they convince their followers that they are
responding to their lived experiences and are offering honest solutions to their
problems. As such, they establish their legitimacy by presenting themselves as
‘strongmen’ who have the courage to speak their mind against invisible forces of
censorship and suppression. Such, in their day, was also part of the appeal of fascist
leaders such as Mussolini and Hitler. The blatant transgressions of bullshit artists
from factual truth does not seem to harm their popularity which rests on the
effectiveness of their storytelling. They have a gift of turning questions of facts into
an argument (Ball, 2017) by invoking compelling narratives that play into their
audiences’ fears and insecurities. As storytellers, bullshit artists make full use of the
unique privilege of ‘poetic license’ that enables them to maintain an allegiance to the
truthfulness of their story, even when it is blatantly at odds with factual evidence,
scientific opinion or literal truth (Gabriel, 2004).
Third, many writers attribute the breakdown of consensus about the truth to
dramatic transformations in the structure and economy of information (Ball, 2017;
d’Ancona, 2017; Mair, 2017), driven by new communication technologies (Gardner,
2011). The development of digital communication tools and media has led to a
dramatic expansion of available information conducive to an ‘information overload’
for the public (Knight & Tsoukas, 2018). The ease of publication and broadcast
through digital channels has greatly increased our exposure to different sources of
information and constant circulation of claims and counterclaims in the air. The
digital revolution challenges the authority of traditional sources of information, such
as mainstream media outlets, governmental offices and scientific research. Research
shows that social media is quickly taking over mainstream media as the main source
of news (Gottfried & Shearer, 2017), which could restrict people to a slant on the
news shared in their own social circle or ‘social network bubble. The abundances of
information has also led to the creation of a culture around the web which intensifies
the popularity of brief, vivid, and memorable messages, as opposed to more complex
and nuanced arguments (Gardner, 2011). Not only do we produce and consume these
short messages, but we also contribute to their propagation by ‘liking’ them and
recirculating them in social media. But the sheer amount of information means that
many people do not have the time or interest to check their accuracy or provenance.
While the content of some of these texts can be valuable, others are rumors, lies,
unfounded conspiracy theories or simply gibberish. This may help explain the
paradox that ‘the world seems to be getting less rational in an age of unprecedented
information and tools for sharing it’ (Pinker, 2018: 380).
There can be few more appalling examples than the continuing phenomenon
of Holocaust denial. Hayes (2017: 331) describes the Holocaust as ‘quite simply, one
of the most amply documented events in world history.’ But the digital revolution has
led to the creation of echo-chambers in which stories can go viral- and become ‘de-
facto’ facts by virtue of their widely shared status before anyone can verify or reject
their factuality (Gardner, 2011; Maier, 2017). Holocaust deniers were among the
earliest adopters of online platforms to spread their message. They argue, for
example, that all evidence pointing to extermination camps is faked, that the gas
chambers were built after the war for propaganda purposes, and that our
understanding of the Holocaust is itself a Jewish conspiracy. A conspiracy theory is
used to deny the existence of a real conspiracy with genocidal intent. Its purveyors are
impervious to evidence, and rely instead on opinions based on the emotion of hatred.
While there is continuing marginalization of irrationality within the discipline of
organization studies and institutional theory (Vince, 2018) especially regarding the
association of irrationality and affect (Fotaki et al., 2017), it would be erroneous to
disregard the political dimensions driving such on line campaigns which are often
connected to white supremacy organizations targeting civil rights won by women and
race-equality movements (Daniels, 2009).
Changes in the economy of information have also facilitated the dramatic,
targeted and purposeful spread of fabricated information that mimics news media
content in form but lacks accuracy and credibility (Lazer et al. 2018). In particular,
the digital revolution propelled by new advertising opportunities has changed the
landscape of information production and propagation (Ball, 2017). This has led to the
emergence of myriad of fake news websites which mimic official news outlets, but
spread false stories often driven by political agendas or financial interest. It has also
shaped the business model of traditional media outlets by making click baits one of
their major revenue streams. This widespread proliferation of disinformation has
made it even more difficult for the public to tell the truth from untruth and
information from disinformation.
Fourth, many commentators have seen the rise in post-truth politics coincides
with the resurgence of populist sentiments in many countries throughout the globe.
These commentators argue that this is a symptom of the growing discontent among
the masses with the status quo (e.g. Coughlin, 2017) and the collapse of public trust in
the political establishment and its dominant institutions. This collapse was partly
caused by chronic economic decline and growing inequality in Europe and the US
which undermined citizens’ faith in the neoliberal consensus and its economic and
political institutions. The economic inequality is often maintained because those who
have accumulated wealth are allowed to exercise significantly more influence in the
political process than those without such resources (Fotaki & Prasad, 2015), thus
eroding trust in public institutions and hollowing out democracy. For instance,
campaign financing and lobbying in the American system demonstrates the corrupting
influence of money in politics, which lead to regulatory failure (Lessig, 2011). Such
phenomena were greatly exacerbated by the 2008 global financial crisis which left
large sections of the population economically devastated and socially insecure. For
many commentators this collapse of trust is the critical key to the rise of post-truth
politics. While politicians have long been an object of suspicion in the public eye, the
level of trust in public institutions has reached a new low in recent times (d’Ancona,
2017). Findings from several studies show that as consequence the public trust in
politicians, experts and the media has significantly declined in recent years (e.g.
Mounk, 2018; Ball, 2017; Davis, 2017).
Fifth, some commentators have viewed the success of post-truth politics as
being ultimately due to the psychological needs of audience or followers (Mair, 2018;
Lazer et al., 2018; Jaser, 2016). They argue that irrespective of technological,
economical, epistemological and social changes which may have facilitated post-truth
politics, it is human psychology which makes post-truth narratives appealing and
enables people to discard scientific and other evidence when set against powerful
emotional needs. This follows a long line of argument going back to Gustave Le Bon
and Sigmund Freud stating that the masses “have never thirsted after truth. They
demand illusions, and cannot do without them. They constantly give what is unreal
precedence over what is real; they are almost as strongly influenced by what is untrue
as by what is true. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two”
(Freud, 1921c/1985: 117). What may be distinct about our times is not the precedence
of the unreal over the real, but the fragmentation of the unreal from the large-scale
religious and political narratives of the past to various small-scale narratives which
rage against each other and may temporarily gain prominence or popularity. The
breakdown of consensus about a single all-encompassing truth now lends credence to
various psychological biases through which people confirm what they already believe
rather than what challenges their views (confirmation bias) or enable them to ignore
information that would disadvantage them (Mair, 2018; Lazer et al., 2018). People
prefer information and sources of information that confirm their pre-existing attitudes
(selective exposure) and are inclined to accept information that pleases them
(desirability bias). Some studies also have discussed the impact of ‘backfire effect’
which can shield people when faced with information contradicting their beliefs (Ball,
We now inhabit a society in which the social media have suddenly and
dramatically become spaces where different narratives with their plots, characters,
ambiguities and ramifications meet, spaces where distinctions between information,
theory and story become easily blurred. This creates a fecund ground for the rise of
post-truth as a legitimate parallel reality even when it comprises non-existent or
entirely fabricated facts and events, such as president Trump’s claim about sunny
weather or the size of the crowds during his inauguration (see Chan in Time, 2017).
Post-truth may thus be seen not as the Oxford English Dictionary claims as
‘circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion
than appeals to emotion and personal belief’ but rather as a space in which public
opinion itself dissolves into a variety of narratives, voices, sounds and noises
competing for attention. This is the space that we seek to describe in the next section
of this essay as a particular type of ‘narrative ecology’, a narrative ecology rife with
elements like endless warnings of crisis and imminent catastrophe, images of
ecological and social devastation allied to rampant consumerism and glamour,
celebrity chatter and theatrics, conspiracy theories and an all-encompassing nostalgia
for a golden past that is invariably seen as superior to an anxious present and a
In concluding this section, we recognize that lies, disinformation and smears
have a long history in politics and business but regard the concept of post-truth as
offering some important possibilities for interrogating political and public narratives
deployed by leaders in our times. Post-truth can be viewed as the result of an
amalgam of different factors, some age-old and some very new, which are coalescing
at this particular juncture in time. Its emergence may be the result of many pre-
conditions and enablers, some of which are engrained in human psychology and
group dynamics, others are more specific the economic, social and political realities
of our times which have paved the way for the rise of certain type of leaders. Taking
advantage of currently available digital platforms, these leaders have been successful
in disseminating different types of narratives, messages and ideas that have dislocated
the notion of truth from the pedestal it has occupied in times past.
Narrative ecologies for post truth times
The concept of narrative ecology has been used to describe spaces where, by
analogy to natural ecologies, different types and populations of narrative emerge,
interact, fight, compete, adapt, develop and die (Gabriel, 2016). These narratives
include stories, myths, ‘theories’, assumptions, archetypes, plot lines, characters,
images, icons, symbols and other narrative elements along with the emotions and
affects embedded in them. Narratives also include counter-narratives, in other words
narratives that establish themselves in opposition to those that they cast as hegemonic
or master narratives. Narratives and counter-narratives confront each other but also
depend on each other for sustenance and virility, like different populations of species
inhabiting the same eco-system. Like elements of natural eco-systems, narratives and
counter-narratives are not constrained or limited by formal borders, national, cultural
or organizational and can cross from one domain to another.
As with natural eco-systems, different narrative eco-systems may display
greater or lesser fragility, may contain greater or lesser diversity and may entail
greater or lesser competition and conflict. Some narrative ecologies, like those of
authoritarian systems and regimes, may be dominated by a single dominant narrative
resembling a narrative monoculture which drives away other narratives as though they
were undesirable parasites. Opponents become ‘traitors’ or ‘enemies of the people’, to
be demonised rather than argued with. By contrast, narrative cultures in pluralist
societies may accommodate a plurality of narratives with a wide range of characters
and plot turns, occasionally taking notice of each other but rarely seeking to
extinguish rival constructs. They may then be said to resemble narrative temperate
zones where many species and populations find ways of existing and even thriving
side by side. There are certain organizations, like those similar to the Weberian ideal-
type or organizations in the grip of extreme shock and trauma, where very few
narratives may be observed at first sight. These can be said to resemble narrative
deserts where seasoned eyes can discern various narratives in diverse guises and
Different historical periods, different social and cultural settings, different
organizations can all be viewed as having distinct narrative ecologies in which
contrasting narrative types appear, mutate, merge, cross-fertilize and interweave
themselves with other narratives. These emerge from the material conditions of
existence of different human groups but do not passively reflect these conditions.
Some narrative types, like myths, can persist over centuries and millennia crossing
many cultural and geographical boundaries while others may be found in very specific
ecologies where conditions are suitable for them. Narratives from one narrative space
can and do colonize other narrative spaces, they grow, they shrink and they
sometimes die (for an example, see Foroughi & Al-Amoudi, 2019).
Like other historical periods, post-truth is characterized by certain narrative
types that dominate its cultural spaces. Most of these types have undoubtedly
prospered on the back of social media and the technologies that favour their
multiplication and proliferation. Indeed, the term ‘going viral’ dating back to the mid-
1990s captures accurately one of the key qualities of post-truth ecologies. Thus, the
digital revolution has spawned new genres of narrative and micro-narrative (like the
twit, the ‘share’, the comment, the ‘like’, the ‘friend’, the ‘follower’ etc.) and
redefined some of the older ones (like ‘the unfolding story’, the ‘fake news’, the
‘scandal’, the ‘crisis’, the ‘row’, the ‘voice’). Like other historical periods, post-truth
is also characterized by some dominant narrative patterns and tropes, including its
own myths, stories, images, slogans and buzz-words, which surface and often
dominate public discourses. One of the characteristics of these patterns is their
relatively short life-spans. In the days when the printed word was dominant, it was
sometimes said that “yesterday’s news is today’s chip paper”. In today’s digital world,
the vast majority of yesterday’s narratives vanish into the digital ethersphere, all the
same leaving traces that may be resuscitated and even prosper at some point in the
future. A few narratives or micro-narratives however, may go viral dominating for a
period the ecosystem only to disappear after possibly having spawned other narratives
or counter-narratives. Several authors have noted the exponential growth of ‘bullshit’
(Spicer, 2017; Davis, 2017; Ball, 2017; Frankfurt, 2005) in our time, bullshit being
not just meaningless words but an unending stream of empty verbiage, hype,
buzzwords, half-truths, platitudes, banalities, clichés, and outright lies which neither
speaker nor audience expect or demand that they should be representing reality in
some accurate way. The growth of bullshit in our times, aided and abetted by the
digital revolution, makes the narrative ecologies of post-truth akin to jungles where
numerous species and types grow without plan or design and desperately compete for
the light of publicity. In narrative jungles, particular narratives may grow in breadth
and popularity suddenly (“going viral”) and then disappear just as suddenly,
swallowed up by other narratives or by their own counter-narratives.
A defining feature of post-truth politics is the resurgence of populism as a
political phenomenon, accounting for the rise of diverse parties like the Five Star
Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain and the Sweden Democrats despite the last
having well-established links to the former Nazi party in Sweden. Even more
importantly, populism has been the driving force behind the unexpected triumphs of
Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election and of the Brexit camp in the
UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union. The complexities and
ambiguities of populism are currently widely discussed among political theorists
(e.g.Mudde, 2014; Aslanidis, 2016; Brubaker, 2017; Schumacher and van
Kersbergen, 2016; Pappas, 2014; Rosenthal, 2018; Stavrakakis and Katsambekis,
2014; Stavrakakis, 2014; Stavrakakis et al., 2017), but “most scholars use populism as
a set of ideas focused on an opposition between the people (good) and the elite
In his influential book, On populist reason, Laclau (2005) argued that
populism is founded on a fundamental antagonism between the people (or the ‘nation’
or the ‘silent majority’) as the underdog which is oppressed by dominant elite (or
oligarchy). This is often building on the existing economic inequality and/or unequal
access to and a lack of representation in the political process. Different groups
perceive their voices are not heard and their identities are marginalized. Two recent
examples are the ‘left-behind’ populations in the wake of liberalized trade and global
flows of goods, people and capital in the de-industrialized North of the UK and the
Rust Belt of the US, voting in large numbers for Brexit and the President Trump
Populism draws on these real issues to construct a narrative of the people,
oppressed and exploited, but rising up against the corrupt elites. In most contemporary
variants of populism, the fundamental antagonism between the people and the elites
extends to an antagonism between the natives set against various aliens, such as
migrants and refugees, who are ‘othered’ as parasitical and undesirable (Gabriel,
2008; Stokes and Gabriel, 2010). Such sentiments may arise from the displacement of
anxieties resulting from decreasing opportunities for meaningful employment and a
residual welfare state (Fotaki, 2019). They are then readily exploited by unscrupulous
leaders to get elected with few intentions to solve these problems. What is key is the
framing of debate by political leaders and their friendly media. McHugh-Dillon
(2015) describes this relationship to explain the receiving populations’ attitudes
towards refugees as bi-directional: while political narratives are heavily influenced by
what politicians think the public feels about these issues, they also establish a
backdrop against which public attitudes are formed. The language and virulent oratory
that populist leaders often deploy in such instances- see, for example, David
Cameron’s infamous reference to the swarms of people describing Syrian refugees of
which the UK accepted just a handful of minors- may therefore contribute to
radicalizing public attitudes (Fotaki, 2019).
Drawing an inspiration from the notion language’s performativity (Austin,
1962), Judith Butler (1990) has stressed the power of discourse to create the very
realities it is meant to represent. According to Butler, we become subjects through
performing social norms that circulating discourses convey since we do not exist
outside these. This means that we are constituting, embedding and re-enacting ‘a
truth’ (Fotaki & Harding, 2017: 47) of the discourse through ’performativity, which is
not an act, nor a performance, but constantly repeated ‘‘acts’’ that reiterate norms’
(Butler, 1993:12). Butler uses the example of gender heteronormativity to explain
how people become affectively attached to the dominant discourses because these
provide them with a socially viable identity. While this often involves a subjection to
a stark and often painful exercise of power (Kenny, 2010), we do so as we crave
social recognition. Hence, we seek recognition through discourse and affective
attachment to norms even if these misrepresent us (as is for instance the case of
adopting heteronormative identities by gay people), which compels us to enact them
so we can exist socially. In other words, performativity describes a set of processes
that produce ontological effects, working to bring certain kinds of realities into being,
and leading to certain kinds of socially-binding consequences (Butler 2010: 147).
This is important to develop an understanding of how post-truth works: by
producing social norms and discourses that individuals or various groups affectively
attach themselves to for obtaining viable social identities, even if these may be
ultimately injurious to themselves. The adoption of an identity of the indignant and
exploited people who give power to populist leaders that recognize their existence is
bound to end in disappointment. But it could also have truly catastrophic
consequences. The relatively recent European history should serves as warning for
people who delegate power to populist leaders and yet these lessons seem to be
forgotten perhaps because most of us no longer have a personal connection to these
events (Stein, 2016). Indeed, narcissistic leaders around the world, including Jair
Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Boris Johnson, or Donald Trump to name but few, were
all voted to the highest offices not despite but because of their narcissism. A culture of
narcissism is a culture of echoes, where our ‘voices’ are just sounds merely
reverberating off each other (Gabriel, 2014). And though leaders’ role in framing
toxic discourses is important, leaders express and enable group’s inner desires acting
as the ‘spinner of their dreams’ (Gabriel, 1999). Leadership and followership are
bound by deep unconscious links (Burns, 1987) that cannot easily be separated.
Narcissism and narcissistic leadership therefore is popular because it can be flexibly
used and abused, responding to any projection, wish and desire with the metaphor of
Narcissus capturing anything we like or dislike about ourselves and our culture
(Gabriel, 2014). A narcissistic denial of reality deflects the citizens’ attention from a
much needed social critique (Fotaki, 2014). Understanding how narcissism underpins
policy making, and how it becomes increasingly prevalent in socially destructive
ways of managing employees and manipulating the public, is therefore a necessary
first step towards re-engaging with the political process (Fotaki, 2014).
In our times, populism, in its different guises, has emerged as a powerful
counter-narrative to what it casts as the dominant narratives of the elites, such as
globalization, multiculturalism, and so forth. In contrast to the open frontiers of neo-
liberal order, populist narratives seek to defend frontiers, physical, political and
economic and reclaim control over movements of people, goods and cultures.
Populism has been a major influence on the narrative ecologies of post-truth politics,
something reflected in the articles published in this special issue. The axiomatic
dualism between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the irredeemable war between forces of good and
those of darkness have become core elements of leaders’ narratives in our times.
Insults, allegations, exaggerations and untruths of every kind become legitimate ways
of bolstering the interests of ‘the people’ against the elites and the outsiders. This
populist counter-narrative depends for its sustenance and vigour on having a dominant
narrative to attack, a narrative ostensibly defended by the elites and their patsies,
journalists, academics and pundits of every sort. A crucial aspect of the populist
counter-narrative is that it claims to represent not just a silent majority, an entity
invoked by Richard Nixon as ostensibly supporting his Vietnam policy (and
rediscovered by Trump) but of a silenced majority, one that has been systematically
ignored, gagged and rendered voiceless. Free speech has emerged as a core element of
the populist narrative, regularly deployed as a justification for making various
allegations and claims, including patently untruthful ones. Any attempt to silence
opinion, for example as hate speech or as instigating violence, is seen as an
infringement of the right to free speech which, at least in the US, is constitutionally
The extreme polarization into good and bad, friends and foes, that characterize
post-truth narrative ecologies has tended to favour several types of narrative that rely
on idealization, vilification and the simplification of complex and nuanced entities. It
has thus favoured certain narratives that resist falsification and are in some ways self-
inoculating against direct attacks, which both find in post-truth a hospitable
environment and come to dominate its narrative ecology. Two of those types of
narrative are nostalgic narratives and conspiracy theories, both of which thrive in
times of rapid change, uncertainty and confusion in different ways. It is hardly
surprising to see a resurgence of nostalgic narratives in our uncertain and confusing
times harking back to a 'golden age' of stability, order and comfortable prosperity.
This can be the past of a nation, an organization, a group or an individual and may be
constructed variously as heroic, romantic, happy, orderly, free, communal or even as
harsh and difficult but always in such a way as to outshine a present which appears
lacklustre, impoverished and lacking. The nostalgic past, the product of fantasy and
myth, is highly idealized in such a way as to reflect the discontents and insecurities of
The nostalgic past positively eschews any encounter with the past of historians
that may steal its shine. In general, nostalgic narratives can be viewed as the flip side
of the ideology of progress (Lasch, 1991). When faith in a better future wanes people
are liable to experience nostalgia, which can then define the prevalent mood of a
whole period. Thus, Boym (2001) argued that for Russia the twentieth century started
with utopia and ended with nostalgia. In our times, nostalgia sustains entire empires
of consumerist society, such as the heritage and tourist industries and a large part of
the entertainment, film, music and the arts sectors where the word ‘traditional’
features as part of the sales pitch. Nostalgia has also fuelled an aggressive,
xenophobic type of narrative that has assumed great prominence in our times, in
which an idealized past of purity, authenticity, community, self-reliance and heroism
confronts what it casts as the hegemonic narratives of late modernity – multi-
culturalism, diversity, cultural and sexual equality, intellectualism, urban
sophistication and so forth. The chief aim of aggressive nostalgic narratives is to
accentuate or exacerbate the discontents of today, by persistently maligning the
present from the perspective of a mythical past.
Aggressive nostalgic narratives are narratives that hinge on betrayal and fall. It
is not surprising, therefore, that they often merge or cross-fertilize with another
powerful post-truth narrative that focuses on betrayal and fall, conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories may be par excellence the narrative of post-truth politics,
combining iconoclasm with plausibility, fancy with factuality, absurdity with logic.
Like nostalgic narratives, conspiracy theories relish their status as counter-narratives,
relying on master narratives for their vitality and sustenance, seeking to puncture or
debunk official accounts and to explain failure and loss by appealing to various
invisible and dark but always purposeful forces. While conspiracy theories have long
expressed paranoid anxieties and been associated with right wing ideologies
(Hofstadter, 1966), in our times they have colonized large sections of the internet and
can be found in every political colour from extreme left to extreme right. Populist
leaders like Trump have embraced the narrative of conspiracy as one of their favourite
genres. For example, he spearheaded the ‘birther’ conspiracy aimed at undermining
the legitimacy of Barak Obama. But so too have many of their adversaries, for
example, in seeking to account for Trump’s election and for the Brexit result. Casting
somebody else’s argument or opinion as a conspiracy theory has become itself part of
the narrative ecology of post-truth. In this way, we now have the strange situation
where climate scientists warning of global warming are accused of being conspiracy
theorists by the very conspiracy theorists who deny climate change. There are several
factors that make conspiracy theories powerful narratives in our times – one is their
self-inoculating qualities. Debunking a conspiracy theory through appeal to material
evidence or by exposing its internal absurdities and inconsistencies has become very
difficult, and is more liable to be viewed as evidence of the power of the conspiracy
(Aaronovitch, 2010; Oreskes and Conway, 2010; Basham, 2001). The effective
deployment of conspiracy theories, like that of nostalgic narratives, has thus become a
crucial feature of post-truth narrative ecologies and a potentially powerful instrument
Leadership narratives in post-truth times
The articles included in this special issue offer a compelling picture of the
ecologies that characterize leadership narratives in post-truth times. In particular, we
have compelling evidence of narratives invoking dark forces and conspiracies that
threaten ‘the people’ (Carsten, Bligh, Kohles & Lau, 2019) and the ways in which
these are more of less effectively deployed and amplified through the social media
(Auvinen, Sajasalo, Sintonen, Pekkala, Takala & Luoma-aho, 2019). Deye and
Fairhurst ( 2019) demonstrate how these narratives simplify the complexities of our
times, creating us-them, friend-foe dualities that favour populist forms of leadership,
while Carsten et al. (2019) explore how and why leaders who deploy such narratives
are naturally cast in heroic/charismatic ways by their followers. This is a response to
the simplistic belief in a combative and belligerent individual who can be relied upon
to defeat foes and cut through the complexities of social and political life with the
aplomb of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian knot.
In the struggle against ‘the establishment’ and the corrupt elites, individuals
seemingly untarnished by contact with power, like comedians and other celebrities but
also business people, like Berlusconi and Trump, are liable to be swept to leadership
positions, at least briefly, offering cynical irony as a means of taking on the elites
(Milburn, 2019). Such leaders offer what are temporarily seen as effective counter-
narratives to the hegemonic narratives of the ‘establishment’, though a different type
of counter-narrative is identified and analysed by Just and Muhr (2019). By exploring
the narratives spawned by the Women’s March, these authors demonstrate eloquently
how a collectivist (as opposed to individualistic) and decidedly
unheroic/uncharismatic set of leadership narratives can grow from the discontents of
‘the people’, that cast the ‘strong man’ narratives as hegemonic. Overall, then, the
articles in this special issue suggest that populist leadership in post-truth times thrives
by offering a counter-narrative to what it casts as the narrative of a corrupt elites, a
narrative that casts the populist leader as one willing and able to defend the people
against the conspiracies and betrayals of the establishment and various dark forces
that threaten them. This counter-narrative assumes hegemonic status in some
instances and may then be challenged by new counter-narratives like those of Occupy
movements (Wall Street, London and elsewhere), the Women’s March and the
People’s Vote March.
Taken together, the papers that form this special issue raise a variety of
fascinating insights into leadership in a post-truth era. They contrast with most
leadership literature which remains relentlessly positive about the impact
transformational, authentic or otherwise powerful leaders are said to have on the
world. Some scholars have even suggested that leaders who depart from their
idealized depiction of leadership are not really leaders at all (e.g. Bass and
Steidlmeier, 1999). We disagree. Leadership can be a force for harm as well as good,
and it is imperative that we develop a deeper understanding of how this occurs.
Thus, the papers in this special issue draw attention to leadership behaviours that lie,
deceive, misrepresent and distort, with a view to advancing sectional interests even as
they often claim to do otherwise. Charisma is conventionally viewed by mainstream
leadership scholars as a valuable means of positively influencing followers (e.g. Bass
and Riggio, 2006). But it is also used to prey upon people’s fears, fantasies and
grievances in order to undermine rational thought and respect for evidence.
Researchers need to pay more attention to how charisma, the ability to offer a
compelling vision and a skill for developing radical ideas can be deployed to
undermine truth, empathy and rationality.
We also need to consider what forms of leadership can effectively counter the
post-truth narratives that have acquired such potency in our time. This must surely
include a greater focus on how giving leaders – ‘strongmen’ – more power leads
inexorably towards disappointed expectations and a contaminated body politic. How
do we most effectively counter conspiracy theories? Do mainstream leadership
theories need just a little tweaking in order to become part of the solution? Or are
radically new leadership discourses needed to move us forward? Human progress is
not assured, and the environment in which post-truth narratives have taken hold poses
many threats. It is our view that the study of leadership can offer at least some
answers to all these problems. This requires a deeper commitment on the part of
scholars to engage more seriously with real world problems, and perhaps to
reconsider ideas that have had a hitherto totemic status within the academy. We
publish this special issue as an invitation to consider these issues, a provocation to
debate and as a contribution to make leadership studies part of the way forward rather
than part of the problem.
The initial idea for this essay and the special issue was formed at the 22nd
organizational storytelling seminar, hosted at the University of Portsmouth. We thank
James McCalman, the seminar co-organizer and the seminar participants for a
stimulating discussion and acknowledge the financial support received from the
Society for Advancement of Management Studies and University of Portsmouth. We
also would also like to thank Dennis Tourish, Editor in Chief of Leadership, for his
unstinting support and encouragement for this project, his probing questioning of the
idea of ‘post-truth’ and his very collegiate guidance during the review and editing
process which is a hallmark of this journal.
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