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Take me to your leader

Take me to your leader/manager: Out-of-fashion terminology doesn’t necessarily equal out-dated concepts

Over the last few years, the terms ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ have increasingly replaced the more traditional ones of ‘manager’ and ‘worker.’ They have become the routine way we talk about hierarchy in business and organisations.

The change has been a gradual one, but it’s still striking. For instance, ‘management development’ has become ‘leadership development’ and many ‘senior management teams’ are now ‘senior leadership teams.’ Corporate CEOs, University Vice-Chancellors and Police Chief Constables typically present themselves, apparently unquestioningly, as their institution’s leader (and are generally described as such in the media). We came across the bizarre-sounding request for a ‘middle-leader’ in a job advert for a teacher recently, and last month one of us was at an end of year assembly where two children (nine – year olds) were praised for ‘showing leadership'.

Are there more leaders around nowadays? Are more people leading? Is the solution to all organisational, party-political and national problems as simple as ‘leadership?’ We would say: no, no, and no.

One might think a rise in the language of leadership would be welcome for those of us teaching and researching in business schools. Yet, calling someone a leader just because they carry out a particular kind of work goes against the grain of many relevant studies. What does this mean for leading business thinking? Research in management and organisations suggests being a leader has little, if anything, to do with seniority (good news for the nine-year-olds). If you aspire to be a ‘leader,’ it’s not enough for others simply to accept you as such, but they have to make an active choice to orientate towards you positively as their leader. The trouble is that workers are more likely to be indifferent to their bosses – or even actively hostile towards them – than being happy to be their ‘followers’.

If we stuck with more traditional language of manager and worker, we might be more likely to give a realistic picture of life at work. But is there any harm in a rosy-tinted view of the world, one populated with leaders? Does it really matter if everyone occupying a certain role or above a minimum level of proficiency is called a leader? Should it bother us if people promote ‘leadership’ as the solution to all our corporate and political problems? Well: yes, yes, and yes.

The old-fashioned terms, manager and worker, at least have the benefit of making power imbalances explicit, and allowing that the interests of managers and workers can – and often do – diverge. But talk of leader and follower rests on the assumption that we all share a common goal. Indeed, such talk glosses fundamental questions about authority. Whereas a worker can question their manager’s decision, and go on to question their competence and authority, it does not make sense for people called followers to question their leaders in that way.

If we routinely talk about senior people as leaders and their workers as followers, we are deceiving ourselves about the nature of modern organisational life. Things like shared goals and common interests between people at the top and those on the shop floor – if they exist at all – may be the exception rather than the rule.

This is even more the case, given the rise of temporary working, flexible-hours contracts, and so on. What’s worse, if we use leader and follower, we are in some senses providing a camouflage for these less wholesome aspects of corporate life. Routine use suggests the norm is (or should be) friendly relations, and that a person’s (i.e. a so-called follower’s) primary allegiance is (or should be) to her leader – not solidarity with other workers.

So, how come so many of us prefer to use the language of leadership today? How come yesterday’s manager is so often today’s leader? We think that such an apparently mundane and trivial change may be suggestive of a much broader social shift. We don’t think it’s coincidental, for instance, that this trend towards using the language of leadership has occurred during a period which also witnessed the rise of neo-liberalism and the consequent widespread assault on trade union power. Uncritical use of leader and follower is as helpful to those at the top of big business – and as congruent with their interests – as other neo-liberal rhetoric; say, the redefinition of job insecurity as free agency, or the portrayal of billionaire tycoons as regular guys. It hollows out classical notions of organisational politics, swapping challenging debate about alienation and exploitation with tamer questions like problem-solving and team-building.

So what is to be done? Our call is to start to notice – and to question the effects of – the language of leadership. There are plenty of alternatives available. We could talk about, say, peer relations or co-working. But to keep things simple, merely bringing back the language of manager and worker would be one step in the right direction.

Reference: Professor Mark Learmonth and Professor Kevin Morrell (2016) 'Is critical leadership studies ‘critical’?', Leadership., 13 (3). pp. 257-271.

This article was first published in IMPACT magazine in June 2017

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