Critical Leadership Studies

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By Ruth Simsa and Marion Totter:

"Critical leadership studies are a particularly apt theoretical basis for studying leadership practices in SMO (social movement organizations). They have a radically different understanding of leadership than the mainstream management literature. In classic models, the assumption persists that leadership is the result of designated leaders and their acting. Therefore, an organization is perceived as shaped by its leader’s decisions, style and personality. Leadership is ascribed to a person with certain qualities, a formal position within a hierarchy and the exercise of authority. Different approaches of dominant models focus on the leadership style (Bass and Riggio, 2005; Burns, 1978; Lewin et al., 1939; Wunderer, 2009), on the innate characteristics of the leader (Avolio and Gardner, 2005; Bolden and Gosling, 2006), on the relationship between leaders and followers (Stippler and Dörffer, 2011), or on a combination of the organizational context and specific styles of leadership (Fiedler et al., 1975; Hersey et al., 1988). The common feature of these approaches is the emphasis on a clear top-down hierarchy, a distinction between leaders and followers (Collinson, 2011) and the neglect of the contribution of followers to leadership (Western, 2013).

With critical leadership studies, there has been a shift in the focus of leadership research; ‘to understanding the emergent, informal, and dynamic “leadership” brought about by the members of the collective itself’ (Contractor et al., 2012: 994). Critical leadership studies have theoretically decentered the leader (Wood, 2005).They interpret leadership as a process, which is a relational, socially-constructed phenomenon realized through the interaction of diverse actors (Bolden, 2011; Gronn, 2002). Critical leadership studies distinguish clearly between leaders and leadership. The effects of leadership are not only seen as resulting from individual persons, but from the dynamics within the respective system; this ‘complementary perspective approaches leadership as a social process that engages everyone in the community’ (Day, 2001: 583). In line with this perspective, Lichtenstein and Plowman (2009) argue that dynamic interactions between individuals lead to emergent outcomes, and that conceptions of leadership thus should be reframed.

As critical leadership studies interpret leadership as a socially constructed and culturally specific phenomenon, different forms and practices come into view. Alternative forms of leadership are described with different terms, such as ‘shared’ (Pearce and Conger, 2002), ‘collective’ (Contractor et al., 2012), ‘collaborative’ (Chrislip, 2002), or ‘distributed’ leadership (Binci et al., 2016; Bolden, 2011; Gronn, 2002; Spillane, 2012; Spillane et al., 2004). They all understand leadership ‘as a dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals or both’ (Pearce and Conger, 2002: 1), with fluid processes of taking leadership roles according to contextual conditions (Pearce and Sims Jr, 2002), and outcomes understood as co-constructed by leaders and followers, thus ‘recognizing leadership as inherently a collaborative act’ (Ruben and Gigliotti, 2016: 469). This interactive perspective characterizes leadership as a complex process, which is open to for innovative organizing practices (Lichtenstein and Plowman, 2009; Lichtenstein et al., 2006).

Autonomist Leadership, which comprises ‘non-hierarchical, informal and distributed forms of leadership’ (Western, 2014: 673), is also a noteworthy framework within the critical leadership studies to analyse organizational dynamics in new social movements. The prefix ‘autonomist’ shall resolve ‘the paradox of leadership being enacted in leaderless movements’ by breaking ‘the emotionally binding ties that link leadership with hierarchy, elitism, authoritarianism and coercion’ (ibid.: 676). Autonomist Leadership encompasses the five principles of autonomy, spontaneity, mutualism, networks and affect that drive and guide the leadership in emancipatory social movements.

Consequently, Fairhurst and Connaughton (2014) conceptualize leadership actors as the plurality of individuals who may be involved in acts of leadership, including formal or informal leaders, followers, or other stakeholders; they distinguish between leadership positions and leadership acting. Bendell et al. (2017) depict leadership as relationally co-constructed; as a behavior instead of a position or the inherent quality of an individual.

While the concepts of critical leadership studies are convincing, they still have two pitfalls. First, it is criticized that even alternative approaches often emphasize exceptionalism, ‘an individual locus of action and a generalised other that is the object of leadership’ (Bendell et al., 2017: 419). Second, there is a temptation to just change words from leaders to facilitators, spokespersons or simply members, which covers up more than it clarifies, as simply excluding individual leaders per definition prevents one from seeing differences in the leadership roles assumed that might exist in practice. Thus, ‘by refusing to acknowledge any kind of leadership, organizations may be at risk of re-creating the same hierarchical relations they seek to abolish as informal hierarchies rooted in power are likely to emerge’ (Sutherland et al., 2014: 763).

To avoid these traps, we will intensively draw on our empirical material, guided by the following definitions:

Following Crevani (2018), we suggest a focus on the phenomenon rather than on individuals, and conceptualize leadership as an ongoing social process, in which leadership work contributes to the production of direction in organizing. Leadership work is enacted in interactions and refers to the cocreation of relationships (Crevani, 2018; Fairhurst and Uhl-Bien, 2012). Drawing on Sutherland et al. (2014), we assume that it consists of individual acts of agency, which manage meaning, define reality and provide a basis for organizational action. Leadership work is done by specific actors but not necessarily by people holding leadership positions.