Ending our romance with leadership

Ending our romance with leadership

Helena Liu

We are living in an inhospitable world. On 13th December 2019, the Conservatives heralded an election victory on the promise to “forge a new Britain” through a ‘Brexit’ campaign that rested heavily on anti-immigration sentiments. The election news in the UK emerged amidst the impeachment of US President Donald Trump, whose time in office has perhaps been most memorably characterised by Muslim-bans, border detention centres and persisting promises of ‘the wall’.

Enshrining figures like Johnson and Trump in positions of power has legitimised a virulent backlash to difference. Hate crimes have increased in both countries while the resurgence of far-right politics has travelled throughout the world.

It is important to take stock of the current climate of hostility because leaders are not detached from their social and political contexts. While the impact of political leadership is plainly evident in our most vulnerable communities, leadership theorists have been eager to defend ‘leadership’ from leaders. Individuals who perpetuate violence are often dismissed as not ‘true’ leaders in order to preserve the sanctity of leadership.

The romance of leadership through white masculinity
Few leadership theorists appear to agree on what leadership is; yet many insist that it’s inherently good and urgently needed. Since Max Weber articulated his concept of charismatic authority in the 1920s leadership has engaged in an enduring romance with ‘Great Men’ who are believed to be vital to the success of organisations and societies. Indeed, the association of leadership with stereotypically masculine attributes such as individualism, assertiveness and competitiveness remains an obstinate feature of our public imagination.

Leadership, or the idea that certain individuals are more fit to influence the minds and govern the lives of others, is also inextricably bound up in the European colonial project. Europe was home to the Enlightenment man, whose intellect, rationality and resolve made him not only the most suitable figure to rule over the submissive, emotional and domestic(ated) woman, but his dominion was to extend across the world. Fundamental to this colonial fantasy is the assumption that the primitive, savage and unruly non-West is incapable of self-control and thus requires superior Western leadership.

A brave new female world
Meanwhile, the growing prominence of female executives in the last decade has appeared to portend a new era for women in leadership. The success of women like Sheryl Sandberg has fuelled the belief that gender equality will be won in the free market of corporate leadership. Organisations might imagine sexism as a relic of the past, and with fervent conviction in their inherent meritocracy, exhort female professionals to ‘lean in’ and become leaders.

Despite the enthusiasm, the feminist utopia has yet to materialise. It seems that stereotypically feminine qualities such as being more kind, communal and developmental can be valued while women are not. While people may expect and prefer that women behave in line with feminine stereotypes, women are not accepted as legitimate and effective leaders unless they also exhibit stereotypically masculine qualities such as being directive and tough.

Of course, not all femininities are subordinated equally. Like masculinities, femininities are stratified along dimensions of race, sexuality and class, so that white, cis-gender, heterosexual, middle- to upper class and able-bodied women stand as the feminine ideal. As female leadership waves the banner for gender equality, it can perpetuate domination along other lines. Current trends to promote ‘body count’ solutions where more female leaders is taken as a proxy for more equality have so far been inadequate to transform the interlocking systems of oppression in organisations and society.

Finding redemption
The hope of finding a truly redemptive understanding of leadership requires a dramatic break from business-as-usual. One way may be to look for ‘leadership’ where it has traditionally been overlooked, such as among anti-racist feminist movements who operate beyond the cultural centre where white masculinist ideals of leadership hold court.

To be sure, the theories and practices that may be described as anti-racist feminist are complex, varied at times even conflicting, and born from and specific to particular local contexts. When we choose anti-racist feminism, we adopt it as a practice — one that involves an ongoing struggle towards the decolonisation of our world and our minds.

Anti-racist feminist politics recognise our fundamental interconnectedness to one another and thus seek solidarity by building bridges across our differences. This solidarity neither necessitates assimilation to any umbrella term like ‘women’ or ‘people of colour’, nor cuts itself short at an individualistic notion that ‘we all different’ as an excuse against affinity-making.

Anti-racist feminist solidarity seeks alliances with others in our joint struggles against systems of oppression. It includes developing new ways of being in the world and relating to one another — human and nonhuman life and the natural environment — from a basis of love rather than domination.

Rejecting the romantic ideals of leadership also requires us to reject the stereotypes that serve to constrain marginalised groups as incapable of leadership. As we advance our struggles towards social justice, we need to speak from, to and with the people of our communities who live and work at the coalface of oppression.

That being said, perhaps leadership cannot, or should not, be redeemed. We have at our disposal language that more precisely and accurately captures the activities that so-called ‘leaders’ do. Administration, coordination, collaboration, communication, supervision, team-building and decision-making may be more useful descriptors for the day-to-day practices of people whose work involves responsibility to others. Relinquishing broad-brush illusions of leadership may also allow us to name the activities conducted in governments, organisations and communities that may have been obfuscated by the romance with leadership, including domination, discrimination and exclusion.

While we may imagine leadership to be exemplified in the gripping speeches delivered by charismatic CEOs or the bold decisions handed down in the executive boardroom, these activities only occasionally feature in the mundane reality of managerial work. What makes business and organisations function is the work that happens in the space between people; the unglamorous processes of coordination, collaboration and communication that knit the various and varied activities of workers together.

Anti-racist feminist thinking would also remind us that what makes the seemingly heroic work of leadership possible is the oft-invisible labour that is disproportionately performed by women and people of colour as carers in the organisational and domestic spheres. Leadership and organisations are reliant on the work that happens at home, including the people who cook, clean and care for each other that enable them to continue ‘leading’. To celebrate individual leaders in our societies is to fixate on a narrow and relatively insignificant part of humanity. It overlooks our rich interconnectedness in favour of a romance that serves only to bolster the status of our society’s most powerful and privileged.


Helena Liu is a Senior Lecturer in Management at the University of Technology Sydney Business School. She is the author of Redeeming Leadership (Bristol University Press 2019).

Image: Courtesy of Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Twitter: @helenaliu