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The Language of Leadership

The Language of Leadership

Does it reinforce the advantages enjoyed by the people in charge?

By Professor Mark Learmonth and Professor Kevin Morrell

Around the late 1970s, something momentous started to happen across the Western world. Ever since, we have witnessed the seemingly inescapable triumph of the people who run business, over rivals such as the unions and the regulatory state. Their triumph has endured, even after a financial meltdown in the first decade of the twenty-first century; today it continues to affect all our lives profoundly.

In parallel, since the early 1980s, the economic policies pursued in the West have made many of us poorer than we otherwise would have been. ‘Austerity’ and the precarious forms of work many are left with today are merely the latest manifestations of these policies. The organisation of public services has also changed radically – having become saturated in the logic of the market.

However, in spite of being run by people who are now called ‘leaders’, many public services are failing the needs of ordinary people. At the same time as making most people poorer than they would have otherwise been, the very same policies have made the people at the apex of the business world (those who are now so often known as ‘leaders’) extraordinarily richer than they otherwise would have been.

The recent popularisation of the term ‘leader’ as a synonym for people we generally used to refer to as ‘bosses’ or ‘managers’ is both a symptom of the triumph of business interests as well as a factor that makes contesting these changes even harder. In parallel with relatively easily-measurable economic changes, there have also been rather more subtle changes. One of these has been a gradual drift in the language we use to talk about work and our working lives. Unsurprisingly, this drift in language has gone in the same direction as the economic policies – it too has reinforced the advantages enjoyed by the people in charge.

No one has been consciously orchestrating these changes. What has happened instead is that the sorts of words which make the work of top people sound glamorous and appealing have, over time, gradually come to be favoured by people who can influence opinion: politicians, the

media, celebrities; even certain academics have played a role in the process. In turn, these glamorous-sounding terms have found a fertile cultural soil in which to take root and grow. What this has meant is that by today many of us now tend to use these positive terms routinely, barely reflecting upon them or even noticing the nature – or the effects – of the language we use.

In today’s culture, the term ‘leadership’ appeals to widely celebrated societal values and norms that go back to Classical times. As a result, it is difficult to use the term without at the same time assuming its essentially positive, intrinsically affirmative nature.

For this reason, we believe that routinely referring to bosses as ‘leaders’ has become both a symptom as well as a cause of a deep and largely unexamined conceptual architecture. In a nutshell, capitalism, and its turbo-charged offspring
neo-liberalism, have effectively captured the terms ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ to serve the purposes of the bosses.

At first glance though, whether we call bosses ‘leaders’ – or anything else – might seem a relatively trivial matter. But because they are now used so routinely, the terms ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ are becoming foundational in our thinking.
Indeed, these terms perhaps feature in our everyday talk about work before we do any thinking. The language of leadership is made up of ready-made phrases that have invaded everyday talk, and as part of their invasion they prepackage
the world of work. They frame some fundamental, taken-for-granted beliefs about power and organisational life.

The language of leadership perpetuates fictions which are useful for bosses of work organisations, and it doing so breeds discomfort.

AGAINST LEADERSHIP: Language of Corporate Power, a book by Professor Mark Learmonth and Professor Kevin Morrell (to be published in early 2019), starts to unravel the fiction and make it easier for people who share similar discomforts about leadership to know they are not alone. It will also enable people to articulate their own objections and to better discover their own modes of resistance. These can be counter projects not just to the language of leadership but more generally to corporate power.

This article was first published in IMPACT magazine in January 2019.

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