Beyond leadership: in search of new venues
The concept leadership is often used as an attractive, vague signifier to address something leadership researchers like to boost about, and practitioners like to believe in. But when used to capture everything and nothing, the concept risks becoming meaningless. Leadership studies include everything from straightforward superior-subordinate relations to pure collaboration like in ’shared leadership’. They also include attractive sounding concepts such as ‘authentic leadership’ that may work better in autobiographies written by successful business leaders than when used as a formal concept framed as science.
Novel thinking and new ideas that do not repeat an unfortunate habit of oversimplifying, de-contextualising or linking positive features with positive outcomes are badly needed. We may even ask: If leadership is the solution, then what is the problem it is trying to solve? We can also imagine and explore alternatives to leadership, such as teamwork and professionals acting autonomously.
The world is changing around us – but the way we like to understand, teach and study leadership seems stuck in its routines and traditions. Each research field needs its critiques to make science stronger and to question received wisdom that tends to go unchallenged. We like to take this role but without abandoning the concept and from within the traditions of organization studies. Rather, the ambition is to develop new views and a critical, reflexive attitude to the subject matter, realizing that leadership and leadership development sometimes may be a mixed blessing.
Leadership & followership – a matter of workplace relations
Leadership is often understood as a given, natural phenomenon. It is, however, not. Rather, we argue that leadership is a cultural product we all enact in our daily work relations and we all define in different ways. Hence, in order to understand leadership (or followership), it is important to understand how relations unfold between leaders and followers -- and as understood by different participants in that relation. Thus, not only the bright but also the dark or ambiguous side of leadership can be revealed.
This type of approach poses methodological challenges as relations are hard to study in real life. Embracing these challenges is, however, needed if we want to move away from an oversimplified thinking of what leadership ‘is’ or should be. Here, embracing complexities inherent to social life upfront is needed.
Challenging existing leadership scholarship
Conceptual problems of leadership styles that conflate type ‘x’ (authentic, transformational, servant and so on) leadership behaviours with follower evaluations or impressions, pervade the whole field of research. Research designs and methods emulating physical sciences are mainstream, but often fail to capture complex social phenomena and workplace relations.
The field of leadership studies is divided into sects or camps of researchers with different takes on how leadership is best studied. In a global world with an increasing amount of wicked problems requiring the mobilization of broad resources and a willingness to tackle intellectual and ideological differences upfront, this is unfortunate. We seek and welcome opportunities for dialogue and clashes of ideas within the field of leadership studies.
Mats Alvesson and Katja Einola
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Einola, K., & Alvesson, M. (2021). When ‘good’ leadership backfires: Dynamics of the leader/follower relation. Organization Studies, 42(6), 845-865.
Einola, K., & Alvesson, M. (2021). The perils of authentic leadership theory. Leadership, 17427150211004059.
Einola, K., & Alvesson, M. (2021). Behind the numbers: Questioning questionnaires. Journal of Management Inquiry, 30(1), 102-114.
Gardner, W. L., Karam, E. P., Alvesson, M., & Einola, K. (2021). Authentic leadership theory: The case for and against. The Leadership Quarterly, 101495.