Invisible Management: The Social Construction of Leadership.
Leadership has been a subject of interest to society and scholars at least since the golden age of Greek philosophy. Although contemporary biographers and journalists have devoted many a page to measuring the "leadership" of figures such as Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch, the concept is as ill-defined as it is oft-invoked in popular usage. Ironically, many business schools suggest that their core mission is to develop leaders, but business educators themselves frequently have trouble explaining what they mean by leadership, too often falling back on the difficult-to-define distinction between "leaders" and "managers." Invisible Management is an attempt to approach the subject of leadership in a more theoretically precise and useful way by grounding it in a social constructionist framework.
The book is an edited volume consisting of thirteen chapters, eleven of them empirical. It draws on a tradition of scholarship--particularly in sociology, anthropology, social psychology, and neo-Freudian psychology--that emphasizes the role of society in the construction of leadership. To turn these pages is to be reminded again of the critical importance that the classical sociologists, Weber and Simmel, as well as psychologists such as Freud and Erickson, placed on developing a useful theory of leadership, especially one that recognized the social dimensions of leadership as opposed to simplistic hero worship. The book also reminds one of the narrowness of the approach to executive leadership taken by contemporary American scholarship, with its emphasis on social demography and statistical work at the expense of theory development and field data. In many ways, the contributors to this volume are suggesting that the way to go forward in leadership scholarship is to take a step back toward these earlier theoretical and empirical traditions.
The first two chapters lay out the book's basic theme of the role of social constructionism in leadership studies. My understanding of the argument that links the various chapters is as follows. Leading and following are social processes that are mediated through language and other forms of symbolization. A social constructionist perspective highlights that individuals--both leaders and followers--act in ways that they believe will be interpreted in a certain way by others. Thus we act and react not solely in terms of the meaning we attach to the behavior of others, but also in terms of the meaning we expect others to infer from our behavior. The relatively stable patterns we observe in who is chosen for executive leadership are made possible only by the continuous and shared use of the same schemes of interpretation, which, in turn, depend on their constantly being confirmed and institutionalized by critical societal institutions. It is through these shared meanings and mutual acts of interpretation-actions and reactions within a particular social discourse--that a view of the world is constructed, one that we often call "reality." The remaining chapters underscore this theme and present field data and an accompanying interpretation of data that remind us of the basic fact that much of organizational life is predicated on trying to create meaning for others and interpret the meaning of the actions of others.
These chapters suggest three lenses through which glimpses of the social construction process can be had. The first of these is rhetoric. Rhetoric, both spoken and written, can be understood as one of the critical processes by which social habits are internalized and reproduced. Chapters 4, 6, and 12 provide interesting cases demonstrating the power of rhetorical techniques in the attribution of the quality of leadership to an individual. The authors highlight that a critical component of building an image of leadership involves imparting a dramatic air to events that might otherwise be regarded as mundane or dreary, timing announcements for maximum impact, and using personal stories to construct a leadership identity for oneself and a followership identity for the audience. These three cases highlight that observers are influenced through rhetorical practices, such as ethos, logos, and pathos; that people often look toward leaders in making decisions for them, especially in complex situations; and that particular rhetorical techniques can create a halo from which specifically admired rhetorical techniques become generalized to the character of the whole person.
The second lens through which this social construction of leadership can be observed is non-work settings. While this idea is not as well developed in the book as is the significance of rhetoric, it does raise the important point that executive leadership is constructed not just in the workplace, but also in non-work arenas, such as clubs, golf courses, restaurants, and private residences, that is, in social life as well as economic life. Chapter 5, a study of the management dynamics in a family-owned publishing business, focuses on this point. The essay highlights that much of the status accorded to a leader is created not just in the work setting but also in the more invisible arenas of the home and the community in which the executive does business. Once the home and community are recognized as important arenas in which leadership construction occurs, the background moves to the foreground. Once the neglected roles of the executive spouse and of the family's relationship with the community become central, it becomes clear that many men depend on their partners to help them construct their roles as leaders by creating and maintaining a high status for them in these less visible arenas.
The third lens employed in Invisible Management draws on the role of broader cultural and social forces in the construction of leadership. Chapter 6, for example, describes the executive recruitment process and demonstrates once again the role of social homophily in reproducing existing elite structures. Unlike previous research, however, which emphasizes the role of uncertainty in relying on human capital and high-status signals in making executive selection decisions, the authors emphasize the alternate mechanism of self-presentation and impression management, which is consistent with societal imagery of leadership. Chapters 7 and 8 examine leadership attribution and selection through the lens of gender relations by asking why women remain underrepresented in elite positions and positing a complex answer. Like previous gender scholars, the authors emphasize that understanding leadership requires understanding the essence of power relations in the broader society. Relying on intensive interviews, these chapters highlight that both men's attitudes and, to some extent, women's own--many of which are merely reflections of broader societal attitudes--keep many potential women leaders from seeking and/or obtaining leadership positions in organizations.
In the realm of leadership research, Invisible Management is a breath of fresh air. Trait-based theories of leadership, which are really only academic versions of popular images of the man on horseback riding in to save the day, need serious reevaluation now that we must come to terms with the havoc that so many of the corporate heroes of the last decade have wrought. This book offers a set of ideas that can potentially begin to guide us out of this morass.
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