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The uncomfortable truth of good leadership

illustration of leaders on a rocket

By Professor Jackie Ford - July 2023

There are three parts to my article. First, I explore the roots of my discomfort with much leadership thinking and practice. This leads me to explore more recent trends that challenge ‘one-size-fits-all’ theories of leadership. Finally, I outline an ethical model of relational and reciprocal leadership, where each party acknowledges that they’re flawed human beings who each has a duty of care for the other.  

The roots of my discomfort 

The research I’ve conducted with wonderful colleagues over the last 30 years highlights the importance of interpersonal relationships, and the powerful effect that interactions between leaders and led can have on our lives. Current stories of organisations and government and politics are besieged with the harm done to the majority by the minority who hold powerful positions. Interest in the topic of leadership continues to grow, spurred on not only by academic research but also by media attention, which often takes the form of either praising good practices or condemning the malpractice of high-profile leaders – whether from business, arts, politics or other contexts. Recent exposés of senior political figures across the globe remind us of how central many of them have become in representations of both good and bad leaders. We can also turn to the current landscape of effective activism through the MeToo movement, Everyday Sexism Project, the Black Lives Matter movement plus the numerous, almost daily reports in social and wider media that show the continuing effects of harassment, inequalities and injustices in the workplace and beyond in our wider societies.   

For the concept of leadership to have a more inclusive meaning, we need to critique this cult of leadership that’s so engrained in organisational and political life. We need to turn away from the assumption that we’re focusing on the elites – on people at the top. There’s still a tendency to focus on hierarchical and traditional forms, with too much attention paid to senior leaders as a masculine superhero. This attention reinforces the notion of leaders as powerful and elitist, who manipulate their environments in their own egotistical interests or for personal gain. These practices reinforce masculine leadership behaviours that take the form of the competitive, aggressive, and self-reliant individualist against which both women and men as leaders are judged. It’s these dominant norms and practices that need to be questioned so that we can explore how to be more inclusive of women’s and minoritised individual’s experiences, as well as of others including men who don’t identify with the popular imagery of leadership or masculinity. 

Recent trends in leadership 

Recently, we’ve started to observe a shift in focus – away from the almost exclusive body of research on (mainly white, male and middle class) leaders and their styles, behaviours, qualities and contributions, and towards explorations of leadership focused on the dynamic relationship between leaders and followers and recognise leadership as more of a collaborative practice. We’re also pursuing research that looks to critique the power relations and challenge the inequalities, silences and assumptions about organisational life. These provide opportunities to explore new interests and voices that shed fresh light on the research field.  

Relating this to the current context, role models that’ve emerged during the coronavirus pandemic have also alerted us to the success of different forms of leading and leadership that tend to be more collaborative, relational, empathetic and reportedly more feminine in approach. For example, colleagues have written about Jacinda Ardern, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and other female role models who haven’t been constrained by the masculine norms that have until now dominated leadership practice. It’s their empathy, shared purpose and compassion that’ve been celebrated – the very qualities that the recent pandemic (and many other crises in leadership) demands.   

These explorations align well with the research that we explore within critical, feminist and psychosocially informed writings which I take forward in my work in advocating more radical relational leadership thinking and practice. My own studies in leadership suggest that leadership research needs to be based more extensively on qualitative, local, and in-depth critical studies of leaders, followers and leadership practices and processes. Leadership learning needs to be designed in more inclusive and relational ways so that all parties to the leadership relationship are actively engaged. This learning needs to challenge the taken-for-granted, dominant assumptions that pervade leadership and introduce other ways of seeing, interpreting, and understanding that take more account of ethical, moral, diverse and inclusive ways to research, conceptualise and practice leadership.  

Towards more radical, relational leadership approaches 

So, my recent research considers the contribution that thinkers like Jessica Benjamin can offer to studies and practices of leadership. Benjamin argues that as ‘fundamentally social beings’, humans crave social stimulation, warmth, and emotional interchanges. This can be translated through to organisational life. We’re active, social beings who need interaction and recognition from others so that we can make sense of who we are and how we relate to each other. In my research, I explore the interdependencies between leader and led; the power and powerlessness within these relations and the damage that happens when leading and following are practiced without due recognition of the other. It’s through our practices of mutual recognition – of our need to be recognised as well as recognise the other that allows us to develop more radical relational forms of leadership.  

Relational and reciprocal care in leadership 

Benjamin advocates the concept of the ‘third’, which is about creating an open space between you and someone else so that you don’t feel that you’re being completely determined by them. Benjamin describes ways in which we move from a position of oneness (the great individualist that’s so nurtured by our Western neo-liberal culture) through to the position of twoness. Twoness is about doing to others what we wouldn’t want them to do to us. It's about not recognising each other as fully and fundamentally equivalent in the ethical sense, which means we carry on misjudging, manipulating, neglecting and excluding. We’re still stuck in the extreme and partial, populist identities of us against them; us above them; do-er and done to; perpetrator and victim; violator and violated; master and slave; leader and follower. These positions of domination and submission represent a breakdown in equal and mutual human relationships and it’s through the notion of the thirdness that we can move beyond this destructive dyad.  

The concept of the third allows for an open space that moves away from one living at the expense of the other and into a position of shared, responsible living together – through acknowledgement and recognition. This co-created space recognises conflict and dissent and seeks to generate mutual contribution, understanding and generativity. This way, it also demands acknowledging wrongdoing and creating space for reparations. So, if we can all be more courageous and consider how our actions make the other party react, then we can re-engage our empathy for one another. 

This is the direction in which I suggest that future ethically responsible, reciprocal, and caring approaches to leadership need to turn. Leadership is best viewed as the collective work of many people in organisations. So, we need to steer away from the dominance of the heroic leader figure and to rethink leadership in ways that enable more collaborative, relational forms.  

Equally important, followers in the leader-follower dyad must be aware that if they suffocate their personal longings for recognition, they’ll extinguish all hopes for social and moral transformation in the workplace as well. Renouncing the victim position is a necessary step in the process of mutual recognition and reciprocal appreciation. It’s also the responsibility of others in organisations (non-leaders, followers, whatever) to claim their voice and value the contribution they make to the leadership relationship. Too often, we hear of followers feeling unable to speak or be recognised, thereby denying their sense of self and what they can contribute. When working in a follower role, actively speaking up and speaking out is also crucial. 

So, we really do need understandings of leadership that are more inclusive, ethical, reciprocal and contextually meaningful. We need to develop a language that can challenge prevailing assumptions and structures of privilege. As Jacinda Ardern stated during her announcement of her resignation, we need to foster kindness. 

Many catastrophes can be laid at the door of leadership, including global warming, the polarisation of poverty and wealth, unresolved conflicts and wars, racism, sexism, harassment and fear and mistrust of the other. We’ve been stuck in the rut of traditional ways of theorising, researching and practicing leadership and we need to break away from such mediocrity and challenge some of the bigger social, economic and political questions of our time. 

To conclude, I’m not suggesting that any of this will be easy, but I think many of us have positive examples where we’ve experienced something more akin to an ethics of reciprocal care in our leadership relations where mutual empathy, shared purpose and compassion is allowed to surface.