Leadership dynamics significantly shape communication in organizations. By defining leadership primarily as a process of persuasion, many scholars place communication at the very heart of leadership dynamics. The complex organizational relationships between leaders and followers can crucially influence the nature and extent of communication. Equally, the nature and extent of communication often reflects and reinforces the quality of the relationships between leaders and followers. Within organizations, leadership and communication frequently interact in complex, mutually reinforcing and sometimes contradictory ways.
Within the literature there is a growing recognition that leadership in organizations can occur at various hierarchical levels and is best understood as an inherently social, collaborative, and interdependent process. Leadership is the responsibility not only of those who occupy senior positions such as entrepreneurs, owners, chief executives, and senior managers, but also of all those engaged in supervisory functions. These insights are suggestive of new forms of organizational communication. Rather than the traditional top-down model of command and control, there is a growing view that, especially in high performance organizations, communication is dispersed through team-based interdependencies and fluid, multidirectional social interactions and networks of influence.
Over the past fifty years researchers have developed numerous theories about leadership dynamics, most of which concentrate on leaders themselves and the qualities and behaviors deemed necessary to be an “effective leader.” Situational leadership (e.g., Hersey and Blanchard 1996) holds that effective leaders should communicate by deploying a mix of directive and supportive behaviors compatible with followers’ “developmental levels.” Path–goal theory (e.g., House 1971) suggests that leaders must choose leadership styles best suited to followers’ experience, needs, and skills. Transformational studies (e.g. Lord and Brown 2003) argue that charismatic leaders can inspire followers to greater commitment by satisfying their needs, values, and motivations. Leader–member exchange theory (e.g., Graen and Uhl-Bien 1995) observes that leaders tend to be open and trusting with “ingroup” followers, but distant with “outgroup” members. Recent interest in “emotional intelligence” suggests that effective leaders need to develop greater awareness of the emotional dynamics of leadership processes.
Within the leadership communication literature there is growing interest in the role of social identity (e.g., Van Knippenberg & Hogg 2003). Informed by the idea that leadership is primarily a group process, social psychologists argue that leadership is contingent upon the degree to which leaders are perceived as “prototypical” of the group’s identity. They predict that followers will endorse leaders who quintessentially embody the values of the group. Relatedly, some researchers argue that when communicating with followers, leaders do and should manipulate their identities through impression management strategies.
Researchers also suggest that by focusing on followers’ identity, charismatic leaders can profoundly transform subordinates’ commitment so that they perform above and beyond the call of duty. Arguing that people are motivated by concerns to express themselves and enhance self-esteem, these writers contend that charismatic leaders can validate followers’ identities by, for example, acting as role models and encouraging followers’ psychological identification and value internalization. From this perspective, leadership has been defined as a social process through which the leader changes the way followers envision themselves (e.g., by shifting the salience of different elements of subordinates’ identities or by creating new aspects of their self-concept).
The degree of leader “distance” is also a growing area of leadership research (e.g., Antonakis & Atwater 2002). Early writers argued that psychological leader distance was a precondition for sustaining charisma. More recent research reveals that distance between leaders and led can take many different forms. Distance may, for example, be social, hierarchical, physical, and/or might be defined by interaction frequency. On the one hand, retaining a distance may be necessary for leaders to maintain a strategic overview, make “hard” decisions, and communicate “difficult” information. On the other hand, however, leaders can become so detached from the led that their “motivational” messages are no longer effective.
Although the foregoing leadership theories have produced useful insights, particularly about leaders’ behaviors, competencies, and skills, studies have sometimes been so concerned to produce law-like, universal generalizations about what constitutes effective leadership that they have undervalued the specificities and nuances of the contexts in which these processes occur. Some mainstream leadership perspectives have been criticized for relying on gendered, heroic images of the “great man.” Meindl et al. (1985) highlighted a tendency in the literature to “romanticize leaders” by developing overly heroic and exaggerated views of what they are able to achieve. Collins (2001) found that successful organizations tend to be led not by “larger-than-life” charismatic egoists, but rather by leaders who are quiet, modest, reserved, unpretentious, relatively humble, and self-effacing.
Recently, more critical and “post-heroic” perspectives have questioned the tendency of mainstream studies to conflate leadership with leaders and to underestimate context. They argue that mainstream studies have sometimes underestimated the importance of followers and their relationships with leaders. In prioritizing leaders as the active agents, mainstream studies have viewed followers largely as passive recipients who will be susceptible to certain leader messages and behaviors. Critical approaches suggest that communication between leaders and followers is rarely neutral, usually embedded in asymmetrical power relations, and typically shaped by control practices that are historically specific.
Informed by various perspectives (from labor process theory to radical psychology, poststructuralism, and feminism), critical leadership writers recognize that leaders’ power can take multiple economic, political, and ideological forms (Grint 2005). They show how control is not so much a “dependent variable” as a deeply embedded and inescapable feature of leadership structures, cultures, practices, and communication. Leaders in organizations can exercise control through, for example, constructing corporate visions, shaping structures and cultures, intensifying and monitoring work, and by making key strategic and HR decisions.
Critical writers reveal how leaders can also exercise control by “managing meaning” and defining situations in ways that suit their purposes. They contend that leaders’ hierarchical power enables them to provide rewards, apply sanctions, gain access to expertise, and secure followers’ consent. “Toxic leaders” (Lipmen-Blumen 2005) may exercise power in coercive, dictatorial, and narcissistic ways. The recent case of Enron revealed how the company’s leadership acted in highly self-interested and manipulative ways, suppressing dissent and promoting conformity with disastrous consequences for the organization and its employees (Tourish and Vatcha 2005).
Critical researchers also suggest that forms of control (particularly coercive practices) can produce follower resistance. Poststructuralist and feminist perspectives in particular highlight how followers may draw on strategic agencies and cultural resources to express disaffection in the workplace, exercise a degree of control over work processes, and/or construct alternative, more positive identities to those prescribed by the organization (Collinson 2005). They reveal how oppositional practices can take numerous forms, including strikes, “working to rule,” output restriction, “whistleblowing,” and sabotage. Even in the disciplinary context of the military, there is a long history of outright rebellion, mutiny, and spontaneous acts of follower dissent. In exceptional cases, subordinates may even successfully depose leaders.
Viewing control and resistance as discursive and contested, poststructuralist perspectives treat such dialectical practices as mutually reinforcing and simultaneously linked, often in contradictory ways. While not all follower dissent is aimed specifically at leaders, critical researchers suggest that employee resistance does frequently focus directly on the leaders of organizations, and particularly on the change programs they seek to instigate. This is especially the case when followers believe they have not been consulted, perceive leaders to be “out of touch,” and when they detect discrepancies between leaders’ policies and practices. Research in a UK truck manufacturer, for example, demonstrated that a corporate-culture campaign introduced by the new US senior-management team to establish trust with the workforce had precisely the opposite effect (Collinson 2006). Further, while followers might be highly critical of leaders’ practices, they may decide, for fear of reprisals, to censor their views and camouflage their actions. Subtle subversions such as absenteeism, foot-dragging, disengagement, and even irony and satire can be disguised and ambiguous and thus difficult for leaders to address.
Feminist poststructuralist researchers argue that gender is a very important and frequently neglected feature of leadership dynamics. Observing that men tend to remain dominant in leadership positions, they reveal how masculinity continues to shape the styles, language, cultures, identities, and practices of leadership. A number of feminist researchers suggest that leaders themselves may engage in oppositional actions. Sinclair (2007) focuses on the “subversive leadership” of two Australian leaders, a woman chief commissioner of police and an aboriginal school principal, who achieved radical change in moribund systems. Meyerson (2001) shows how senior managers can attempt to effect (gender) change while working within the organization. “Tempered radicals” are frequently women in senior positions who are committed to their organization, but also to a cause that is fundamentally at odds with the dominant workplace culture. These feminist poststructuralist studies suggest that, within complex workplace power structures, leaders typically retain a degree of discretion that can, in certain circumstances, facilitate their own opposition to dominant organizational imperatives.
It is likely that future research on leadership communication will extend the foregoing critical insights into the ambiguities, paradoxes, and dialectics of leadership. Recent poststructuralist and feminist interest in identity/identities is likely to inform more research on the multiple, shifting, contradictory, and ambiguous identities of “leaders” and “followers.” Exploring how these subjectivities are negotiated in practice within complex organizational power relations will further enhance our understanding of leadership dynamics. Research on followership is also likely to become more prominent, with future studies building on the work of a small number of writers who highlight the importance of “exemplary” and “courageous” followers for “successful” organizations. This research is likely to enhance understanding about followers’ proactive agency as well as the potentially oppositional role of both followers and leaders themselves.
The significance of context(s) could also become much more deeply understood in future leadership studies, with greater awareness of the impact of specific settings on leadership and communication dynamics (e.g., leadership in the context of multinational corporations, new technologies, and the pressure to create sustainable environments). It is very likely that the foregoing emergent themes will facilitate new ways of thinking about the complex and paradoxical dynamics of leadership, raising a number of currently underexplored issues about what it may mean to be a “leader” and a “follower” within the organizations of the future.
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