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Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Quirky, manipulative or a downright bully...

... or why do we discursively normalise antisocial -or even harmful - behaviour when it comes to 'hero leaders'?



So Steve Jobs mocked people's clothes, didn't pay for their work and threw things at them. Labelling this behaviour quirky or inspirational is a very dangerous thing indeed: not only does such language normalise this behaviour, it glorifies it.
Not that the myth of the 'great leader' is not a complex one already. (For an overview, have a look at Spector's book on Discourse on Leadership.) Young people in particular are exposed to a good dose of hero leaders. Rags-to-riches stories and their all-encompassing wisdom, but also the ease of becoming successful are hard examples to follow.
But what are these example exactly?
In a recent study Jonathan Clifton used close linguistic analysis to examine the way hero leaders construct their story of leadership and leader identity.
Clifton takes a social constructionist perspective: the study's premise is that leadership is what people 'do' (and now what they 'have'), and that this 'doing' happens, for most, in human interaction. Clifton examines how leaders 'do' their leadership identities in and through the stories they tell (he calls it the 'in situ construction of leader identity'), specifically an alumni talk given by Arun Sarin, former CEO of Vodafone (this is conveniently accessible on YouTube). More specifically, Clifton examines Sarin's answer to the questions posed by audience members, so that the reader can fully appreciate  the contextual, locally constructed and performed nature of stories. As we follow the painstakingly detailed close analyses of Sarin's responses, the thus far hidden layers of what makes a leader become visibly clear. Sarin, for instance, activates what Clifton calls the 'master narrative' of difference - a young person who has greater internal aspirations than his contemporaries although, that said, at least in Sarin's story, these aspirations should be kept secret from others.
Sarin's story then takes an interesting turn. Having what it takes to be different (and predestined to become a leader) is not something aspiring leaders are or can be aware of at the age of 25: "attaining awareness that you have the right stuff is a result of transition over time: you will only know if you have the right stuff once you have arrived at the top and have proved it – at 25 you don’t know." As Sarin's story goes on, the master narrative of 'leadership is having what it takes' moves to 'life's funny turns' 'lucky breaks' where aspiring leaders have very little influence on where they will end up. And even if they are advised to be active forgers of their own destiny, they are told to be modest, good followers and working very hard to get ahead step by step: by keeping their head down; doing a good
job; having a good attitude; being pleasant; and making others look good and successful. And even then, as Sarin argues  ‘‘you don’t get to choose er the top job it’s others who choose you to have the top job’’.
Clifton's close analysis thus exposes those deep lying tensions in Sarin's story. On the one hand, we have the heroic leader who is different and has the the right stuff, and overcomes dangers that allow him to achieve greatness and self-realisation. On the other hand, there are hints at the reality, which may include lucky breaks, the goodwill of others and perhaps other things conveniently not mentioned, like manipulation, cheating, lying or backstabbing.
This tensions, as Clifton notes, is not surprising though. The Discourse of heroic leadership legitimises dominant power relations and status hierarchies as it "makes claim to the natural superiority of leader who has the right stuff which others are lacking".
The interview about working for Steve Job's clearly shows that this hegemonic ideology is alive and well. An ideology that shows leaders such a Sarin,  to get to the top on account of having the right stuff, while  apprentice leaders have to wait and see if they have the right stuff, but this involves  helping those in power, rather than "kicking against the system". In this way, as Clifton puts it "the bag carriers become complicit in their own ‘‘oppression’’ on the promise that if they have the right stuff and ‘‘carry those bags well’’ then they too will be able to journey to the top." Whether that promise will even come true, however, is another matter.


Clifton, J. (2017). The in situ construction of leader identity in a leader’s life story during an alumni talk to MBA students. Leadership 14(6), pp. 622-643

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