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The construction of leadership images in the popular press: the case of Donald Burr and People Express.

A social constructionist view (Berger and Luckmann, 1966) suggests that much about the way we understand organizations, as reflected in our implicit theories (Downey and Brief, 1986), is likely to be controlled by our interactions with social agents who affect the availability, salience, vividness or value of the information we receive (Salancik and Pfeffer, 1978). Leadership concepts in particular appear as prominent features of these socially constructed realities (Calder, 1977); Pfeffer and salancik, 1978; Meindl, Ehrlich, and Dukerich, 1985; Meindl, 1990). Consistent with these views, we argue here that collective conceptions of organization, and of leadership in particular, are expressions of a national culture at large in which both leaders and followers are embedded and, as such, are open to those institutional forces that create and disseminate "business" news and information. In this research we sought to explore the construction of leadership images as it is related to changing organizational performances. We focus here on the popular business press as an influential agent in this process.

The Importance of Media for the Social Construction

of Leadership

Many social analysts have recognized the importance of mass media in shaping views of ourselves and the world around us (e.g., Lippmann, 1921; Lazarsfeld and Merton, 1948; McLuhan and Fiore, 1967). Research in mass communication has shown that the media influence people's cognition in a variety of ways (Katz, 1980; Roberts and Maccoby, 1985). The media may determine what issues are important and set agenda for what the public thinks about (e.g., McCombs and Shaw, 1972), transmit knowledge and information (e.g., Alper and Leidy, 1970), reinforce or crystalize existing beliefs (Klaper, 1960), change existing beliefs (Paisley, 1981), and cultivate perceptions of the nature of social reality (Noelle-Neumann, 1973, 1974; Gerbner et al., 1978).

The last decade has witnessed an unprecedented growth in the level and type of media coverage devoted to matters of organization and management. Interested publics are now routinely served by various business media outlets, perhaps most conspicuously by a business press with mass appeal. According to the Standard Rate and Data Service, the six-month average circulation in 1989 of the Wall Street Journal was 1.93 million, that of Fortune, Business Week, and Inc. were .707, .870, and .754 million, respectively. In addition to such dedicated business publications, popular newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times and Time, with their own huge circulations (1.17 and 1.68 million), regularly feature business and management reports. Such mammoth figures are complemented by the extensive reach and appeal of television and other mass media outlets.

While an ostensible mission of the business media is to provide facts and information about business organizations, it is clear theat business journalism extends into areas well beyond simple reporting, transmitting to us a variety of deeper messages regarding organizations and their functioning. Media analysts have recognized its ideological and constructive aspects (Caudwell, 1971; Gramsci, 1971; Altheide, 1976; Hall, 1977; Williams, 1977; Fishman, 1980; Jensen, 1987).

The media achieves its impact through its consideration of and interaction with the audience. News organizations are directly dependent on market forces and appeal directly to popular opinions (Schudson, 1978; Gans, 1979). To maintain the allegiance of the audience, news selection and treatment has to take into account its viewing and reading behavior (Gans, 1979) and be responsive to its needs and gratifications (e.g., Katz, Blumer, and Gurevitch, 1979; Kennan and Hadley, 1986). Furthermore, the interpretation of meanings by readers is not passive reception or discovery of what is inherent in the news but active interaction with the text involving pre-existing cognition and attitudes, previous and current expectations, and the nature of the perceived social and physical environment (Dervin, 1981; Swanson, 1981). The relationships between the press and the audience are therefore indicative of a confluence of societal interests in supplying and consuming certain kinds of information (McLuhan, Hutchon, and McLuhan, 1980). In this regard, constructions of leadership are regularly and widely produced for our consumption (e.g., Klapp, 1964; Goode, 1978), with transmissions often taking the form of portraits and images of great leadership figures (e.g., Boorstin, 1961), both in the public (e.g., Merrill, 1965; Maddox and Robins, 1981) and private (e.g., Christ and Johnson, 1985) sectors. These images feed and expand our appetites for leadership products, appealing not only to our collective commitments to the concept but fixating us in particular on the personas and characteristics of leaders themsevels (Meindl, 1990).

In this research we were interested in understanding how the business press, in conjunction with their reading publics, construct a leaders's image over time in light of radical changes in the fortunes of a firm. When we say "the business press" or "the media" we refer to a field of news organizations in general, not to individual news writers and reporters. We keep in mind the fact that authors who are credited with having written some news article are only one part of the hierrarchy in typical news organizations, whose ranks include policymakers, top editors, section heads, writers, reporters, and researchers as well as support, dissemination, and business staffs (Gans, 1979).

Furthermore, news making is a process entailing news selection, editing, writing, information gathering, and information checking. Thus it is appropriate to treat news reports and articles as products of organizations rather than products of individual journalist. Admittedly, newsworkers are not just organizational members but also professionals with professional norms and values. But, as Tuchman (1978) found, news professionalism has developed in conjunction with modem news organizations, and professional practices serve organziational needs. Consequently, the dichotomy between organizational commitment and professional allegiance the characterized traditional professionals is very much obsolete in this domain (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983).

Previous research has studied the media in terms of political ideologies of different news organizations (e.g., Gerbner, 1964; Dates and Gandy, 1985). For the purpose of the present study, however, we adopted a cultural perspective, examining how the news industry as a whole influences and shapes news consumers' cultural conceptions and beliefs. We therefore treated news organizations in aggregate as an organizational field that constitutes "a recognized area of institutional life" by sharing a rather homogeneous structure and values (DiMaggio and Powell, 1983).

The basic question we sought to address was, Given the initial success of a firm, what image of the CEO will be constructed? And how will the image be reconstructed (if at all) with new, negative performance information that is also associated with the tenure of the same leader? We intended both to explicate the content of the leader image associated with given performance outcomes and to examine the degree of continuity and change of the image as the performance drama of a firm unfolds over time. Organizational researchers have studied leadership attributions as a function of "performance cues," but they have not typically considered that, realistically, leaders can and often are associated with variable performance outcomes over time and that attributions made at any given time are often made within the historical context of previous attributions.

Although questions of the kind raised above typically have been studied at the individual level, we contend that they can also be explored at the collective level of news organizations, on the assumption that there is much communality in knowledge, assumptions, and routine practices. As we will argue, organizational credibility is the primary concern across news organizations, which makes both performance information and attribution history essential in the process of image construction.

A Construction-Constraint Model of Leadership Images

A traditional perspective on journalism is that news "mirrors" or "reflects" the actual nature of the world (Gans, 1979); journalists are thus objective reporters of actual events. A constructionist approach to social reality rejects the notion of an objectivity that is independently of social actors. In practice, business leaders are rarely observed and described as individuals per se but are seen as representatives or personifications of the organizations in their charge. Thus, seeking "unbiased" knowledge of the actual activities and endowments of a leader and whatever consistencies exist therein is made less important. In any case, such knowledge cannot tell us much about the nature of the constructions that will emerge. More important is what information will be used or ignored and how such information will be interpreted and given meaning in the constructed image. In theory, then, many alternative constructions are possible, and it would be difficult to predict a priori the contents of an image and the rules by which it is reconstructed over time. In reality, however, the alternative reconstructions that are likely to emerge from the popular press and be tolerated by its reading publics will be constrained to a much smaller set of alternatives, so that the particular construction and reconstruction of leadership images is likely to be the joint product of forces that bear on the popular press and its readership. We identified the following forces at work in the popular press: (1) antideterminism--a belief that individuals determine the fate of organizations; (2) the effects of performance cues and antribution history; (3) the professional values and ideology of news organizations; and (4) organizational routinization. These forces are explained in detail below.


One can find evidence of more and less antideterministic perspectives being represented in the writings of organizational scientists, particularly around issues concerning the relative magnitude to the size of the leadership effect versus environmental factors on organizational performances. The antideterministic perspective is reflected in theories that suggest that the fates and fortunes of a firm can be understood in terms of the personal endowments of the leaders in charge (e.g., Hambrick and Mason, 1984; Kets de Vries and Miller, 1984). A more deterministic perspective is presented by the so-called external-control models of management (e.g., Pfeffer and Salancik, 1978), by which a firm's performance is understood more in terms of the environmental and inertial constraints facing managements. A key differences in these two perspectives has been in the assumptions made regarding the extent to which managements are capable of exercising, through their unique endowments, control over an unruly environment in the service of organizational performance. For the antideterminist, the principal significance of leaders lies in their substantive actions and activities, which effectively isolate their firms from the vagaries of environment or use environment to the advantages of their firms, or both, in direct proportion to their abilities and skills. For the determinist, leadership's role is largely symbolic (Pfeffer, 1977), aimed at preserving among important constituencies the illusion of a more antideterministic world and continued support for the leaders' stewardships (Salancik and Meindl, 1984).

We argue that the business press is particularly prone to interpret organizational outcomes in terms of leadership. It is widely recognized by both practitioners and researchers (Schudson, 1978; Gans, 1979; Gitlin, 1980) that news focuses on individuals in general and leaders in particular: "In the mass mediated reality, organizations, bureaucracies and movements--in fact all larger and more enduring social formations--are reduced to personifications" (Gitlin, 1980: 146). While there are practical reasons for the news to emphasize leaders (such as perceived importance of the news), there is an implicit theory of society that the social process, above all others, is shaped by leaders (Gans, 1979). Western journalism has sometimes been portrayed as a sort of cult of personality that largely discounts anonymous social, economic, and political forces:

...journalism shuns these forces, proposing instead that great men and women still alive among us and that it is they who make history.... the media's celebration of personality stems more deeply from a belief in voluntarism--of will--that attributes social change to the deliberate actions of individuals. Journalism, in other words, is strongly antideterministic. (Katz and Dayan, 1986: 135)

This antideterministic view of organizational performance will orient the business press to attribute organizational outcomes to personal qualities and activities of the leader, leading to a very positive image as the organization performs well. The image will be constructed in a way that accounts for that performance while reflecting the professional values of the news press.

Performance Cues and Attribution Histories

Studies of performance-cue effects (e.g., Staw, 1975; Downey, Chacko, and McElroy, 1979; Binnings and Lord, 1980; Binnings, Zaba, and Whattam, 1986) suggest that the construction of leader images is mainly a process of matching leader characteristics with performance outcomes. The direction of performance outcomes (positive versus negative) therefore determines that of leader images (e.g., Staw, 1975). We call this view of attribution the outcome-primacy approach. According to this perspective, the CEO of a successful firm will be depicted with positive personal qualities, but if the firm subsequently experiences performance failure, the same leader will now be stigmatized with an image of failure and be depicted with negative image characteristics. The new leader image, constructed to match the performance failure, would depart radically from the original one, which was well-fitted to the performance success.

The obvious omission in this argument is the prestructuring effect of attribution history. If, as we argue, attribution making in real life is often a continuous rather than a one-shot process, past attributions should influence new attributions. First, past attributions may serve as schema through which performance cues would be selectively processed (Brickman, Ryan, and Wortman, 1975). Second, as Salanick's (1977) theory of commitment would suggest, the very act of attribution has a binding effect on future attributions to the extent that the action is explicit, irrevocable, volitional, and public. Attribution makers are therefore pulled in two different directions. One is to update and revise the leader image to fit the drastically different performance information, the other is to affirm the initial leaders image to maintain consistency with past attribution. Some kind of compromise will have to be reached.

Although the above discussion on attribution thory is typically applied to individuals, news organizations frequently face a similar dilemma. The dilemma arises from the prevalent organizational concern for credibility. As a Bristish newscaster put it, "Credibility in the minds of the audience is the sine qua non of news" (Glasgow University Media Group, 1976: 7). Apart from any professional concern for ethics, news institutions' dependence on market forces makes it essential for them to cultivate a credible image in order to compete for readers and advertisers. How, then, is credibility gained and maintained? Research on journalism mostly points to rules and procedures aimed at the objectivity or factivity of news (e.g., Schudson, 1978; Tuchman, 1978). In addition, Gans (1979) observed that journalists were very reluctant to change opinions because inconsistency undermines credibility. Accordingly, we argue that consistency is another means by which news organizations maintain credibility.

Credibility through objectivity and consistency seems to reflect newsworkers' strategy toward "hard" and "soft" news, respectively. Objectivity implies tending to hard news, such as buying, merging, selling of business, and changes in stock price and profit. Consistency requires coherent continuity in interpreting those hard events. Interpretation and construction occur more fully in soft news, such as feature stories of successful business leaders. The ideal of objectivity coupled with the antideterministic perspective of journalism predicts the construction of a very positive leader image in the soft feature stories that account for the hard events of business successes. Once this positive image is formulated and publicized, consistency for the sake of credibility predicts continuation of the positive leader image. However, as time goes on and the company experiences performance failure, the radical development calls for radical revision of the original leader image. The question is whether the positive leader image should be supplanted by a negative one to fit the new performance outcome or whether the highly publicized positive image should be kept intact to maintain consistency. This is no easy dilemma, because achieving one goal will cost the other. This may be resolved by reducing leadership attributions or by making more external attributions for performance. In veiw of our discussion of antideterminism, this alternative is less than satisfactory, since it would paint the leader as a rather passive actor in the process. The more preferable alternative is to modify the image to the extent that the initially positive image is still preserved and yet the recent performance failure is also accounted for.

Professional Values and Ideology

News selection and treatment are not free from values and ideology (Gerbner, 1964; Glasgow University Media Group, 1976; Gans, 1979; Gitlin, 1980). From the ideological hegemony perspective, the media is seen as part of the poltiical system, specialized in formulating and distributing the ideology of the dominant social power (Gramsci, 1971). Scholars from a cultural perspective, however, seek to identify in the media values of the culture at large, in which journalism is imbedded (Gans, 1979). The aggregate of the values may be called ideology, which, however, does not necessarily imply hegemony of the dominant ruling coalitions with a system of deliberate and integrated values. Gans (1979) summarized the journalistic values he identified in the national new as the journalistic para-ideology, which both reflects the existing values and shapes future values of the national culture.

If news contains values and ideology, the will certainly find expressions in leader images constructed in the news. And since values and ideology are stable and enduring, news organizations will attempt to preserve the image of the leader who is regarded as the embodiment of their cultural values and ideology.

Organizational Routinization

News organizations are professional bureaucracies and journalists are organizational members. News selection and treatment are a function of oganizational structures and requirements (Epstein, 1973; Elliot, 1977). Topics are assigned downward to reporters, stories are reviewed and selected hierarchically, essential facts are verified by special checkers, and records are kept for future assignments (Gans, 1979). The process routinization produces consistency and predictability. Furthermore, the formal and informal control mechanisms of the organization reinforce uniformity and consistency (Gitlin, 1980). Viewed from this inertial perspective of news organizations, a positive leader image, once constructed, is likely to be preserved, even in face of organizational performance change.

Considering the above forces, we formulated a tentative model from which we could derive expectations about the continuity and revision of leadership images in the popular press. Such forces operate as a set of constraints that define the characteristics of the reconstructions that will take place. Initially, performance cues will carry great weight in determining early constructions of the leader's image. Information about the leader is likely to be used in a way that accounts for or otherwise explains the performance outcomes of the firm. The constructed image will tend to focus on the special endowments of the leader, particularly those consistent with cultural values. As time passes and as new information on the changing fortunes of the firm are received, an interaction of performance information and elements of the originally constructed image will determine the characteristics of the reconstruction. This suggests that the reconstructive process yields products that are continuous with the past. It describes a conservative process that does not contradict but, rather, preserves the original image, limiting revisions to the introduction of amendments that render the new performance information interpretable from a leadership point of view.

To explore this model, we did a case study of the reports by the popular press on a business leader whose company experienced dramatic changes of performance: Donald Burr, the founder and chairman of People Express Airlines Inc.

Business leaders associated with dramatically performing organizations are often covered extensively by the popular press. Burr and his airline enjoyed very prominent and extensive coverage in popular journals and newspapers during the 1980s. Business Index alone recorded about 50 entries under Burr over a period of six years. Burr was featured as Man of the Year by Time in 1985 and was further honored in cover stories by Inc., Business Week, Time, and others. In the initial success period, Inc. devoted eight full pages to reporting on Burr and his company. When the company was in trouble, the New York Times organized a case study of Peope Express attended by professionals and academics. Not only was Burr a celebrity in the popular press, he became a model of humanistic management for business school academics. The long-time prominence of Burr in the popular press ensured a well-portrayed image for analysis. In addition, Burr had been in charge of People Express throughout its six years of operation, thereby making possible a direct and strong association between leader image and organizational performance. Finally, the ups and downs of the company's performance were very dramatic, presenting us with an ideal context for examining the dynamic development of leader image. Following is a brief introduction to the state of the airline industry at the time and to Donald Burr and People Express, as depicted in two prominent sources: the U.S. Industrial Outlook and Current Biography 1986.


Deregulation and the Airline Industry

Prior to 1978, airlines were subject to the economic regulatory jurisdiction of the Civil Aeronautic Board (CAB). Competition was restricted and rates and fares were tightly controlled. After 1978, when the Airline Deregulation Act was passed, many new airlines were certified, and 1983 greeted all airlines with complete freedom of pricing. As a result of the deregulation, the airline industry entered into a period of fierce competition, characterized by a rapid increase in the number of air carriers and rapid reduction of fares. The new entrants, taking advantage of low operating costs, quickly expanded their markets by offering low prices. The major pre-deregulation carriers, in an effort to retain their traditional markets, offered discount fares that were even below their cost of providing services. Fare wars thus ensued. The industry as a whole operated at a loss between 1979 and 1982.

The fare wars, on the one hand, stimulated air travelling by luring passengers who might otherwise travel by rail or bus, but, on the other hand, forced the major airlines to streamline their operating costs. The industry started to recover financially in 1983 and continued into 1984 and 1985. Other factors that contributed to the recovery and continued economic growth of the airline industry included the general national economic growth, the decreasing and stabilizing of jet fuel prices, and labor concessions.

As the fare wars continued, the sustained price discounts seemed ultimately to hurt more the newer and smaller air carriers. Merger activities started in 1985 and became widespread in 1986. As a result, the industry was becoming highly concentrated, and by 1987 nine major passenger carriers accounted for 90 percent of all revenue passenger miles. At the time, U.S. Industrial Outlook predicted that the airline industry would evolve into a few mega-carriers, with numerous smaller carriers controlling secondary markets and providing supplementary service in selected major metropolitan centers.

Donald Burr and People Express

Taking advantage of industry deregulation, Donald Burr resigned from his executive position in Texas International Airlines Inc. to found People Express Airline Inc. Although credited with saving Texas International from going under, Burr publicized that he was not at all happy with the way it was run. Through People Express he wanted to demonstrate "a better way of doing things," "a better way for people to work together within the American system of democracy" (Byrne, 1985: 83).

At People Express, every employee was required to buy 100 shares of the company. There was no corporate hierarchy and no rigid job specialization. Everyone was an owner-manager: a pilot was a "flight manager," and a flight attendant a "customer-service manager." Everyone was "cross-utilized": The flight manager might do inventory control and the customer-service manager might work at the ticket counter. Burr himself had no secretary, and he often pitched in to fill whatever happened to be a vacancy. The company also did away with traditionally standard services such as free meals, free baggage handling, and comfortable lounges. Consequently, the high employee motivation, low labor cost, and elimination of the "frills" made it possible for People to offer very cheap fares that made flight a popular product for the people.

In April 1981, the company made its first flights. After an initial loss of $9.2 million in the first year, People began to earn a profit somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million in 1982. By 1983, the company was servicing 19 cities in the U.S. and, in May, started its foreign service to London. Owing to its skyrocketing sales volume, People's shares hit an all-time high of nearly $50 in July 1983. And the company appeared in the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. People's participative management became case-study models for business schools. Burr summarized his "six precepts" of People Express:

The first, of course, is service, growth and development of people. The second is to be the best provider of transportation for people. The third is to develop the best leadership. The fourth is to be a role model. The fifth is simplicity. And the sixth is to maximize profits. (Current Biography Yearbook, 1986: 76)

Although sales continued to grow, 1984 witnesses a loss of profit, and stock prices tumbled to as low as $8 a share. There were also increasing passenger complaints about delayed flights, lost luggage, and overbooking. People Express was known as "People Distress." Internally there was growing disenchantment with Burr, which culminated in the departure of the company's chairman, Pareti, who was quickly joined by adozen other key employees.

People managed to come back from this nosedive by curbing expansion and cutting expenses. Profit for the second quarter of 1985 jumped to $13 million and $16.5 million in the third. To meet the challenges from major airlines that reduced fares as a way to cut into People's market, the company decided to expand its geographic base by buying a number of smaller airlines. The major acquisition of Frontier Airlines made People Express the fifth largest airline in the U.S. The explosive growth of People coupled with its ensuing debt load and increasing competition from the full-service carriers sent the company into another tailspin in 1986. During the first quarter, the company suffered a crushing loss of $458 million. The management tried to save the airline by selling some of the larger planes and by upgrading service to attract a wider range of customers. When this failed to work, People agreed to sell Frontier to United Airlines. But the sale was canceled because of United's wage dispute with the pilots' union. People had to file for bankruptcy for Frontier. Finally, in September 1986, People Express was sold to Texas Air, whose predecessor was Texas International. Burr therefore went full circle, back to his original company to be the executive vice president. A few months later he resigned to "pursue independent business interests," thus bringing the story to an end.

Based on People's performance and on major organizational events, the history of People Express can be divided into three periods. The first period covered 1981 to 1983, which, despite the initial loss, was one of great success. The second period, from 1984 to 1985, witnessed great expansion, great loss, and great gains. This period can be seen as a period of mixed performance. The last period started in 1986 and ended with the merger of the company to Texas Air in September of the year. This is clearly a period of failure. It is against this backdrop that our analysis takes place.



Two analyses were conducted on magazine and newspaper articles about Burr. The first followed traditional content-analytic methods (Berelson, 1971; Weber, 1985), identifying leader-characteristic themes, recording frequency, and analyzing trends of these themes. The second analysis focused on metaphors about Burr, using the theory and method proposed by Lakoff and Johnson (1980). By design, much of the analysis is interpretive.

Although the mechanics of conducting the content analysis, described below, are quite conventional, the first analysis was performed on image descriptions by 72 readers of the published nmews articles. Involving respondents was primarily aimed at educing possible research bias and improving the reliability and validity of the findings. This assumed a reasonable linkage between the original stimuli of the news articles and the responses of the readers. Our assumption was supported by previous mass-media research findings that news media have the power to hape news consumers' opinions, especially on topics about which they are ignorant (Tuchman, 1978; Roberts and Maccoby, 1985). Furthermore, it was our belief that for the interpretation of image contents in the popular press, the reading public has an equal if not greater claim to reliability and validity than two academic researchers. Some ethnographic researchers have argued that, since culture is a collective phenomenon, culture as discerned by researchers alone is inevitably more biased than if the researchers work as facilitators with a group of the cultural members (Mathiot, 1982). Following this argument, we had reason to expect that the collective judgment of the 72 respondents would help us interpret image meanings in the news articles more objectively. But objectivity itself may be an illusion. Leader images in the press are more than explicit statements readily collected from the original writings. More often they have to be inferred from writings about the leader. To the extent that an image is impressionistic and holistic, its inference would depend on who makes the inference. As research on uses and gratifications has found, people with different motives (needs, beliefs, and values) may experience different media effects (Palmgreen, 1984). If news publishers, editors, and writers have audience considerations for story selection and production (Gans, 1979), business students would be more typical of their readership than researchers. Hence the readers' image formations may be closer than the researcher's to that of the news producers. Lastly, the portrayed reality in the press is both an influence on and a reflection of the reading public. Given this collusive relationship, an analysis of the construction of Burr's image can proceed by focusing either on the writer or the reader. Analyzing both may serve as a cross-check of the finding.

Analysis of Readers' Descriptions

In this first analysis we focused on the images formed by readers in response to the news articles selected as stimulus data by the following procedure.

Stimulus data. The search for information about People Express and its CEO, Donald Burr, started with all the sources available to the authors, including Business Periodical Index (1980-1987), Business Index (1980-1986), Infotrac Academic Index (1984-1988), National Newspaper Index (1979-1988), and Magazine Index (1977-1988). In addition, computer searches were done on Business Data Base and Popular Magazine Review Online. A huge volume of information about the airline company was identified. Business Index alone recorded 295 People Express entries by about forty business journals over six years. To make this information manageable, we decided to search only entries under Donald Burr. This trimmed the articles down to about 100, split almost evenly between journals and newspapers. A quick look at the articles, however, showed that the indexing was far from stringent: many of the articles under the entry of Donald Burr in fact provided little information about him. It was therefore decided that we collect only articles that made references to Burr in their titles. In addition, we retained those articles that had been contributed by news organizations that reported on Burr over all three periods. The rationale for this criterion was that journals or newspapers that carried reports about Burr over the total life of the company were appropriate for testing the self-consistency expectation. Finally, we dropped those articles that had fewer than ten descriptive clauses on Burr. A descriptive clause on Burr was one that had as its topic Burr, his characteristics, his activities, or any other reference to him. The resultant stimulus data comprised 22 articles representing five journals and two newspapers. These included the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Fortune, Inc., Newsweek, and Time. This material was divided into three groups according to the historical periods in which they were published. The entire procedure netted a total of about 10,000 words of text per period. The material for each period was subdivided into two groups so that the reading load for any individual was not more than 5,000 words of text.

Image data. Before the stimulus data were presented to respondents, they filled out a questionnaire about whether they had read or heard about People Express nd Burr and, if yes, whether they thought People Express and Burr had been successful. Most of the respondents (86 percent) reported having read or heard about People Express. Twenty percent thought the airline was a success, 33 percent thought it was not a success, and 47 percent were not sure. There were no differences among the three groups of respondents regarding their familiarity with the company (X.sup.2] = 1.1; 2 d.f.) and their perceived success of the company ([X.sup.2] = .30; 2 d.f.). Although the majority of the respondents showed some familiarity with the airline, very few reported knowledge of Donald Burr: 91.4 percent of the respondents had not read or heard about Burr, and 90 percent did not know whether he was successful or not. Of the 10 percent who reported they did, 5.7 percent considered Burr a success, and 4.3 percent considered him not a success.

The stimulus data of three historical periods were randomly presented to 74 undergraduate business students, with 25 respondents for each period. Respondents were asked to write a description of Donald Burr both as a person and as a CEO, based on the materials they had just read. To ensure that each and every article in the package was read, a question was placed after each article: "Have you read the whole article? Did you understand the article? If No, please read it again. If Yes, go on the the next article." Three of the descriptions were discarded because the respondent failed to write about Burr. Seventy-two portrayals served as the image data on which our analysis was performed.

Content analysis. The image descriptions were first read for their generl structure of presentation. They were then screened for descriptions of Burr, which could be a word, a phrase, or a sentence. The descriptive units were similar to what some content analysts call "propositions" (Gerbner, 1964; Dates and Gandy, 1985). These propositional descriptions were then grouped into more superordinate theme categories. For example, "a man of drive" and "he worked very hard" would be grouped under the theme of Motivation. Other examples of the Motivation theme included "ambitious," "a need for achievement," "desire to be the best," "high spirited," "energetic," "enthusiastic," "aggressive," "commitment," "determined," etc. When questions arose concerning the meaning of a linguistic unit, we consulted respondents again for clarification. Across three periods, 14 different themes were abstracted. Appendix A shows sample prepositions of six major themes. The propositions and themes provided qualitative data for examining the structure of the leader image within and across the performance periods.

As a check on our categorization scheme, the six major categories described in Appendix A were compared with the judgments made by five business students. In this procedure, twenty original descriptive units from each category were randomly selected and each was recorded on a card. A total of 120 cards were given to each of the five judges, in random order, to be classified into six categories. Agreement of individual categories by the judges with those by the researcher ranged from 80 percent to 100 percent, with the average being 91 percent. In addition, coeffient Kappa (Brennan and Prediger, 1981), which takes into account the level of chance agreement, was calculated for each judge's overall categorization agreement with the researcher. The average of the Kappa coefficients was .89.

Frequencies. Two types of theme frequencies were counted. One was the percentage frequency of propositions in a given theme for a given performance period. This frequency by propositions provided statistics for examining the relative salience and importance of individual themes within the performance periods and for analyzing the trend of the themes across the periods (Ogles and Howard, 1984; Dates and Gandy, 1985). The second theme frequency was the percentage of respondents in a period that made reference to a given theme. This frequency by individuals served as an index of consensus, indicating the convergence of the leader image among the readers. We will refer to this frequency as the consensus rate.


Overall Images within and across Periods

The presentational structure of the articles of period 1 followed a pattern of attributes, achievements, and means. Burr's attributes were introduced as causes of the success of People Express, followed by details about how the success had been achieved. Eight image themes for period 1 were extracted, as shown in Table 1.

Those themes that had an above-average frequency of references (12.5 percent) were People, Motivation, Ability, and Innovation, constituting altogether 86 percent of the total propositions. People, which denoted Burr's humanistic management philosophy and practice and his charismatic appeal, was the most salient theme. All image themes were positive and complemented each other. The descriptions were permeated with exuberant praise and admiration, such as "very versatile," "extremely intelligent," "with people's interest at heart," "created a family in his organization," "a dreamer who realized his dreams," "noted for his


unorthodox style of management ideas and innovations," "a man with a mission," and "oozes enthusiasm and optimism," etc.

The image themes formed a pattern, with substantive themes denoting the leadership traits of Burr and methathemes commenting on the substantive themes. The metatheme in the first period was Balance. It pointed out that Burr not only possessed positive characteristics, but these fitted his mission as well as each other perfectly to make him an ideal business leader. The balance theme consisted of propositions that were typically presented in pairs of couplets. For example, Burr was seen as not only ambitious but also capable and willing to work hard; not only willing to take chances but also possessing a fundamental understanding of the business; not only wanted to do well for himself but also for others, employees and customers alike; not only a perfectionist but also a businessman who wanted to make a profit, etc. The high consensus rate shown in Table 1 (the first three themes were all above 90 percent) indicates that there was high consensus among the respondents that Burr was an all-around ideal leader: charismatic, innovative, dedicated, and competent.

In the second period, the general presentational structure followed a sequential pattern of positive attributes, achievements, problems, and causes. While illustration of the positive personal characteristics and great achievements continued, problems began to emerge and were traced by some to Burr's weaknesses. There were ten themes, six of which were positive and four negative. Yet none of the negative reached the average frequency of 10 percent or the consensus rate of 50 percent, whereas the major themes remained positive, with equal or above-average frequency and higher than 50 percent consensus rate. The most salient theme was still People. There were two metathemes. One was Overdone, which consisted of propositions that Burr had too much of some otherwise positive characteristics, such as desire to succeed and idealism. The other was Change, which suggested that as the company expanded, Burr had altered some of his previously good leadership ideas and styles or developed some undesirable attitudes. However, as pointed out above, they were of quite low salience.

Compared with the image constructed in period 1, the metatheme of Balance was replaced by Overdone, and all four of the added themes were negative. These negative themes, although with low frequency and consensus rates, introduced some minor contradictions to the exclusively positive themes generated in the first period. Overdone confliected with Balance, Unethical with Ethical, and Autocratic with People. Change did not represent a rejection of any of the previous attributions but claimed that the leader himself had changed. Nevetheless, the four most prominent themes were all positive ones and enjoyed the highest four consensus rates; the total number of positive propositions constituted 80 percent, whereas the total number of negative propositions accounted for only 20 percent. All in all, the leader images had gone through considerable reconstruction; however, despite the questions and doubts about the previously constructed image of an ideal leader, the image of the second period was still overwhelmingly positive.

When it came to the failure period, period 3, the general structure of presentation in the articles consisted of an ordering of positive attributes, negative attributes, and failure. That the positive descriptions preceded the negative ones seemed to indicate an obligation not to forget Burr's strengths while pointing out his weaknesses.

There were nine images themes, four of which were positive and five negative. The four themes that had an above-average frequency rate (11 percent) were People, Overdone, Motivation, and Innovation. They constituted 76 percent of the propositions of the third period. The major themes were no longer all positive. The negative theme, Overdone, which emeged from the second period, was prominent second only to the People theme. There seemed to be a greater deal of reconstruction resulting in a rather negative image. However, semantic analysis revealed some significant qualifications on the negativeness.

First, the most prominent theme was still People, and within the major themes, only 28 percent of the propositions were negative. Second, two of the five negative themes were metathemes, which constituted 67 percent of all the negative propositions. Overdone, as mentioned above, referred to an excessive amount of otherwise good personal qualities. Some of the Overdone propositions were negative in view of the changed situation. The "too much of a good thing" was conceived by respondents as a state not solely caused by an absolute oversupply of the leader's endowment, but by its interaction with a changed external situation. This was articulated by the second metatheme, III-adaptation, which emphasized the insufficiency of attributes and skills relative to the changed demands of the environment. So, although the previous all-positive image in terms of major themes was now broken, the negative themes of Overdone and Ill-adaptation did not directly conflict with the positive substantive themes.

The consensus rate of period 3 showed high agreement on all the major themes, with Vision and Overdone scoring highest, followed by People and Motivation. Ill-adaptation also showed a marginal majority rate. The overall image of the leader was of an admirable leader with otherwise basically good qualities that unfortunately ill-fitted a changed environment. The message conveyed through the image was that the cause of the failure by and large lay not in the inherent quality of the leader but in the changed situation.

Looking across the performance periods, images were reconstructed as performance varied. As problems arose and performance suffered, the total number of positive propositions decreased, whereas the total number of negative propositions increased ([chi].sup.2] = 165.8, p < .001; 2 d.f.). Yet throughout the periods, positive propositions outnumbered negative ones, as shown in Figure 1. Furthermore, the aggregate percentage frequency of positive propositions in major themes did not show a significant over-time difference ([chi].sup.2] = 5.02; 2 d.f.). The percentage frequency of the negative propositions in the major theme Overdone differed significantly over time ([chi].sup.2] = 23.41, p < .001; 2 d.f.). These statistics and the semantic features of the major negative attributions presented above revealed a serious effort by the press to account for the performance failure without rejecting previous positive leader attributes.

Trends of the Major Themes across Periods

As performance fluctuated, the percentage frequency of the positive major themes of People, Innovation, and Motivation did not change significantly ([[chi].sup.2] = .50, 1.39, and .82, respectively), as shown in Figure 2. The most noticeable theme change, in addition to the negative theme Overdone, was in Ability, the frequency of which decreased sharply ([[chi].sup.2] = 9.31, p < .01; 2 d.f.). What's more, its very opposite, Inability, was developed in the third period. The consensus rate of Ability also decreased significantly over time ([[chi].sup.2] = 32.8, p < .001; 2 d.f.). On the basis of performance-cue studies, one might have expected Inability to emerge as a probable leader characteristic in the mixed period and a major dimension in the failure period. Yet there were no Inability propositions for the second period and only 6 percent for the theme in the third period. This suggests that instead of overt negative attributions, there was a playing-down of the issue of competence by avoiding the topic (lowering the frequency of the positive propositions of Ability). Furthermore, a semantic examination revealed that 80 percent of the Ability propositions in the first period made reference to global propositions, such as "a genius," extremely intelligent," and "very versatile," while only 20 percent confined Ability to specific areas of knowledge, skill, or expertise. By contrast, in the failure period, the Inability propositions were mostly restricted to more specific areas, such as "not an organization genius" or "lacked the knowledge to change." Interestingly, only one reader used the globally negative term "a poor businessman" to describe Burr. Furthermore, many Inability statements were presented together with acknowledgments of Burr's past successes and strengths in motivating people.

Although chi-square analysis of both proposition frequencies and consensus rates showed no significant difference over time with People, Innovation, and Motivation, analysis of the content of the themes revealed subtle differences in People and Motivation. Throughout the three periods, the theme People was perceived as positive; but in the first period, it was presented as a personal quality with strong ethical tones: trusting and trustworthy, fair and caring for people. In the second period, as the company was growing larger and more depersonalized, people orientation become more instrumental, a motivation skill. In the failure period. Burr's people orientation was admired but viewed as ill-fitting to the changed internal and external situations. Motivation in the success period was conceptualized in terms of ambition, need for achievement, enjoyment of the work, mostly intrinsically derived. But in the failure period, Motivation meant more determination, endurance, and courage, a quality demonstrated when confronting externally adverse conditions. These changes told us again how past attributions interacted with current performance cues to determine the reconstruction of the leader's image. Instead of being rejected, the themes were modified by the injection of new meaning. The resultant new images were subtly different yet consistent with and traceable to the old ones.

Analysis of Metaphorical Expressions

We sought to look directly into the original news articles to find independent evidence of the dynamics of leader-image construction. In order to do so, we analyzed the metaphors used in the same news stories on which the respondents had based their own descriptions of Burr. We considered the study of metaphors appropriate because of the role of imagery associated with them. As Pondy (1983) highlighted, metaphors provide compelling, symbolic images that can link past and present. Journalists' metaphorical descriptions of Burr could help them reconcilek the great initial success with the subsequent decline of People Express. Finally, according to Lakoff and Johnson (1980), linguistic metaphors are not mere poetical or rhetorical embellishments but reflect the way the world is systematically conceptualized. Metaphors about Burr, besides adding vividness to the story, represent a crystallized image of the leader depicted in the popular press. To the extent that they are effective means to image presentation, metaphors might be an important linguistic means that had influenced our respondents in their image portrayal of Burr.

A metaphor, as defined by the Random House Dictionary, is "the application of a word or phrase to an object or concept it does not literally denote in order to suggest comparison with another object or concept, as in 'A mighty fortress is our God'." Lakoff and Johnson (1980), however, had a more general definition, which includes both literal and nonlinteral metaphors. Literal metaphorical expressions are those comparisons of two objects or concepts that are generally accepted and used as part of the normal literal language. Nonliteral ones are novel comparisons that are figurative, the understanding of which requires some nonliteral imagination. For example, using the metaphor "Theories are buildings," the sentence "He has constructed a complex theory" is a literal expression, whereas the sentence "His theory has thousands of little rooms and long, winding corridors" is a nonliteral expression. The nonliteral type of metaphors seem to correspond with Random House's more restrictive definition of metaphor, and it was on these metaphors that our analysis focused. The reason for excluding literal metaphors was that, as part of normal langugae, they were much less distinictive and more difficult to pinpoint without controversy. The nonliteral expressions, however, owing to their novelty, were relatively easy to identify and convey sharper imagery for comparison.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argued that one important function of metaphor is structuring, i.e., using one concept (usually the known) to structure another (usually the new). Two key characteristics of structuring metaphors are stressed. One is that the conceptual structuring is partial. This is necessary because, if structuring is complete, the two concepts would be identical. The partialness allows metaphor users or creators to relate certain aspects of one domain selectively to the corresponding aspects of the metaphorically defined or structured domain. Furthermore, partialness gives the metaphor user some freedom of downplaying or hiding certain other aspects of the defining domain. The second characteristic of metaphorical structuring is systematicity. Despite the partialness, the authors argued, the selected aspects or the selection process is often systematic. So, or example, "organization," when conceived as an "organism," gives rise to a structured system of concepts: organization is analyzed in terms of internal coordination and external adaptation; there are young and old organizations; and organizations have high or low birth or mortality rates, etc.

In analyzing metaphors about Burr, we did not assume systematicity in the fullest sense that the metaphors constituted one well-integrated conceptual system of leadership. Rather, we looked for more or less consistent interrelatedness among a variety of metaphorical expressions. Given the license of highlighting and hiding in metaphorical structuring, we could observe how the overall conceptual structure of Burr's images would be modified through metaphors in accordance with the changing performance of his firm.

Metaphor identification. A metaphorical expression was identified as a nonliteral description of Burr if the description had to be understood and interpreted nonliterally. For example, "Burr gave birth to People Express" is a metaphor because, interpreted literally, Burr has to be a female and People Express has to be a baby. We interpret the statement metaphorically and infer from the discourse context that it means that Burr was the founder of the company and that he endowed the business company with a human character. We screened, sentence by sentence, the same sampled journal articles that were presented to the respondents. Those words, phrases, or clauses that metaphorically described Burr's personality, his behaviors, or his impact were identified as metaphorical expressions. Altogether, 46 such expressions were identified. They are listed in Appendix B.

Metaphorical concepts and systems. The metaphorical expressions were grouped according to the performance periods in which they were printed. In each period, they were further classified into the metaphorical concepts that were conceptually similar to the respondents' image themes. Depending on whether or not a concept had multiple, interrelated expressions, individual concepts were labeled as a system concept or nonsystem concept. A system concept consisted of multiple yet interrelated metaphorical expressions, whereas a nonsystem concept had only one single expression. System concepts, by definition, had higher frequency than individual, nonsystem concepts. The most frequent concept would be considered the dominant concept. However, since all metaphorical concepts identified here, systems or nonsystems, were about the same person, we looked for any possible structure that might interrelated them. We then compared and related all the concepts to discern a pattern of relationships. Finally, the metaphorical concepts were related to the image themes of the readers to assess the degree of correspondence.


Period 1. In the first period, Burr was compared to a preacher, a parent, a builder, a wizard Mr. Peanut, and a competitor. Of all the metaphors, the preacher metaphor stood out as the most salient, vivid, and elaborate. Half of the metaphorical expressions about Burr were devoted to the preacher concept. Following is a sample listing of the preacher expressions:

He could've been a preacher.

They don't say "minister," or "reverend," or "clergy," they say "preacher" because it convyes exactly the right sense of sweat-in-a-hot-tent, evangelical fervor that makes the pulse race.

Burr works hard when he talks. He paces, he sits; he stands; he throws out his arms; he condemns and praises, implores and jokes.

The glue is Burr himself, who dashes about preaching his horizontal-management style with messianic zeal.

Within the new structure, though, Burr will go on preaching his unorthodox management approach.

Then another question was posed and suddenly the evangelical fervor was back in his voice.

"It takes almost a messiah," William Hambrecht says: "that's the glue that holds it together."

The above expressions contained various aspects that constituted a system of the preacher concept. Highlighted in this system were the specification of a message (horizontal-management philosophy), the unorthodox nature (not a minister or reverend or clergy), a strong sense of morality (he condemns and praises), the whole-hearted dedication and commitment (fervor, zeal, sweat-in-the-tent), and the spiritual hold (evangelic, the glue, the messiah) the preacher had on his followers. Other concepts did not have as many expressions for us to formulate separate conceptual systems. Nevertheless, comparing and relating them with the preacher metaphor one could discern that the latter concept was the most fundamental and was capable of incorporating and entailing the other concepts. The parent metaphor stressed that what Burr had created was not a company but a family, which was reinforced by the builder metaphor, pointing to the priority Burr gave to people. The wizard metaphor referred to Burr's charismatic hold on his employees; Mr. Peanut characterized his unorthodox management style; and the competitor metaphor here referred to competition of doctrine more than that of business. We therefore considered leader-as-preacher as the theme that unified various metaphorical expressions and that the various preacher qualities represented characteristics of an ideal leader.

Period 2. Metaphors in the second period described Donald Burr as a preacher, a father, a maverick, an entrepreneur, a Spartan, a visionary, a whiz, and a competitor. The preacher concept again was dominant. more than half of the expressions identified referred to Burr as a preacher. The preacher theme became more elaborate and systematic. The company was referred to as a "commune," "utopia," and "cult,; Burr's colleagues and employees as "disciples," "flock," and "band of renegades"; Burr as "teacher," "evangelist," "fervent," and "visionary"; his office as "pulpit"; and his speeches as "delivering sermons." The unorthodoxy concept was reiterated by the metaphors of maverick, Spartan, and entrepreneur. The preacher concept was systematically fleshed out by expanding from personal qualities to the organization: his office, his colleagues and subordinates, and the company as a whole.

In view of the great expansion of the company and the successful survival of crises, the highlighting and elaboration of the messianic features of Donald Burr could be expected. However, the period was also one of growing pains and internal tensions. Accordingly, a new aspect of the preacher concept was employed, namely, that of fanaticism. Hence, Burr was described by some as "Reverend Jim Jones" or "Guyana Jones," the religious cult leader whose followers committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978. Here we witnessed an indication of the negative aspect of a preacher, which might prove fatal to his mission.

Period 3. As we progressed into the third period, despite the difficulty and failure the company was facing, the preacher theme persisted, as was evidenced in the following metaphorical description: "People Express sometimes seemed more cult than company. Donald Burr, chairman and co-founder, was spiritual leader. The thousands of travelers who crowded its planes at unthinkably low fares were its flock."

Yet, in addition to the preacher metaphor, there emerged another salient set of metaphors, namely those of fighting. While Burr's competitiveness was stressed in both the first and second periods, the fighter metaphor in the third period stresses his strong will and heroism in the face of adverse situations. Donald Burr was depicted as a "fallen hero" and a "Luke Skywalker" (the protagonist of the science fiction movie, "Star Wars"); People Express was described as a "victim of the competition," its activities as a life-and-death struggle in the skies, and its failure as "plunging"; other airlines were referred to as "foes" and likened to "the dastardly Darth Vader" (leader of the evil empire in "Star Wars"); the airline industry was seen as the sky of "a Darwinian environment," characterized by "fare wars," and "dominated by giants."

The fighter metaphor was compatible with the preacher metaphor, in the sense that "heroism" in the face of failure could be construed as creating an important nuance in the connotative image of Burr as a preacher. We witnessed a confrontation of the preacher and the brutal reality of the Darwinian environment. The result was that Donald Burr and People Express failed. Nevertheless, Burr was portrayed as heroic fighter for what he believed to be the just cause. That he was a preacher rather than a traditional business manager effectively explained both his great success in the first and second periods and his tragic failure in the third period. Compared with the first- and second-period descriptions of Burr, the metaphorical expressions in the third period highlighted the hostility and adversity faced by Burr. The supportive metaphors of parent, builder, wizard, maverick, and visionary were absent; the fundamental aspect of spiritualism, however, persisted.

In general, this analysis evidenced the metaphorical construction and reconstruction of Donald Burr and a conceptualization of managerial leadership in the popular press. In this case, the role of leader was consistently likened to that of an unorthodox preacher who was visionary, charismatic, and dedicated to his mission. What was emphasized about the mission was giving people (customers and employees alike) the first priority. Although this new type of leadership had weaknesses, such as the double-edged idealism and dedication, and failed to survive the more powerful orthodox forces, it nevertheless represented in its mission, as one journalist put it, "the future of management."

A comparison of images constructed through metaphors with those by readers revealed a high degree of correspondence. Most of the image themes in the analysis of readers' descriptions had their expressions in the metaphors; for instance, Ability in wizard or wiz; People in preacher, parent, and father, Innovation in maverick, visionary; Motivation in preacher, competitor, and fighter; Thrifty in Spartan; Profit in Mr. Peanut; Overdone in Guyana Jones. The descriptions given by the respondents were to a large extent the literal version of the metaphorical expressions used in the original news articles. There was also a correspondence between the general structures of the images revealed in the two analyses. As with the metaphorical concepts, the image themes were all positive in the first period; in the second period, negative image themes co-occurred with the metaphors of fanaticism; and in the third period, the determination aspect of the Motivation theme corresponded with the fighter metaphorical concept, and the emphasis on the ill-fit between Burr and the Darwinian environment was present in both the description themes and the metaphor concepts. Over time, the most striking resemblance was the persistance of the People theme and the preacher concept.


We have observed in this study how the image of Donald Burr was constructed and reconstructed as the performance drama of People Express unfolded. Our content analyses revealed a number of complexities and subtleties regarding how Burr was portrayed in the popular business press and gave us a reasonable degree of confidence in the changing image it provided.

The results of the analysis of the readers' leader descriptions showed that the image of Burr over time achieved a certain consistency with the past at the same time that it was modified to accommodate new and radically different information regarding the fortunes of People Express. In addition, a direct analysis of the metaphors collected from the news accounts about Burr buttressed the above finding. The symbolic and partial nature of metaphors permitted significant reconstruction of Burr without creating discontinuities with the past. We discovered a consistent, dominant concept that ran across all three time periods. The way the metaphorical system around the preacher concept was elaborated in successive historical periods served to retain an essential commitment to Burr's leadership as a way to understand both the initial success and the ultimate demise of People Express.

This analysis can be used to make some tentative statements about the popular business press. One might consider that journalistic reports are a main product of this industry. In the effort to meet the demands of consuming publics, the reporting of hard, factual news is enhanced via soft constructions of various organizational processes and attributes, including images of organizational leaders. The production of these images is committing and thus exposes press organizations to risks that could damage their credibility. Such risks are present when the implications of hard facts are dissonant with the soft constructions that have been sold to consumers. Credibility is generated out of a consistency with past constructions and the ability of those constructions to accommodate current realities. Stakes in credibility are, undoubtedly, common to many industries. However, unlike other industries, in which major revisions to products and services seem to carry the implication of innovation and, hence, more desirability for consumers, revisions to journalistic products seem, instead, to more easily carry the connotation of unreliability. This point is poignantly illustrated in a recent ad campaign by Forbes magazine, which was run during the few months prior to the failed coup atttempt in the Soviet Union. The page-long ad was headlined "While the world has changed its opinion on Gorbachev, we haven't." To underscore the point, the ad cited four Forbes journalists at four points of time over eight months to illustrate the consistent position they all held on Gorbachev. What was highlighted was consistency across time as well as across individual reporters.

Our analysis also has the potential to offer some insights into the functioning of organizations in general. The commitment to images displayed by the popular press has its counterpart within organizational contexts, in the form of commitments displayed by various constituents to their own leaders. Issues of credibility, commitment, and reconstruction are a part of the process that determines the relative longevity of CEOs and other corporate executives in the face of lagging firm performances. Not all constituents are in the position to form images of the leader to which they will be committed, and one plausible hypothesis is that evidence of initial soft-imaging of a CEO, on the part of various and powerful organizational constituents, may to some extent forecast the leader's tenure in office following indications of declining organizational performance. The political viability of a leader riding a downturn in the fate and fortunes of a firm may depend heavily on the extent to which interested parties have been willing or able to construct a favorable image of the leader early one. Organizational constituents who have formed their own images of the leader may find them difficult to discard. The effectiveness of public relations campaigns designed to keep incumbents in office may in fact depend on their ability to capitalize on this process: generating initial positive constructions during good times, fostering commitments to them, and causing them to be resistant to change during less fortuitous periods in the life of the organization. Of course, dramatic performance downturns, as in the case of People Express, will put pressure on the initial constructions, and the commitments to them may eventually necessitate at least some image reconstruction in light of new and hard realities.

Drastic organizational performance changes are themselves compelling enough to prompt the process of reevaluation and reconstruction of the leader image. Whether performance changes alone can significantly affect the content of subsequent images depends on their interaction with other forces. In our case, the pressure of performance information was tempered by forces that favored continuity. By and large, the new images was continuous with the past but at the same time could account for the changed fate of the organization. This sort of continuity and conservative revision was in keeping with the constraining forces of self-consistency, values, and organizational routine. We view this as a general process that could apply to different patterns of performances and initial constructions. Further research, however, should be conducted to test whether initial negative leader attributions follow a similar pattern of continuity.

With respect to leadership studies, it can be said that the static, one-shot attribution context in which previous performance-cue effects have been found does not approximate closely the on-going, continuous aspect of performance, attributions regarding it, and the resultant images of leaders that are constructed. Simple performance-cue effects in isolation cannot adequately account for the dynamics and complexities of leader-image perceptions. Images of leadership are constructed and reconstructed within a context of organizational performance histories. Accordingly, attributions based on performance must also have a history. While organizations may not perform consistently (always successfully or always poorly), organizations and members strive for consistency in their judgment of the leader to maintain credibility as well as a sense of control. Yet attribution consistency is not to be achieved at the expense of its power of accounting for the ups and downs of performance.

Part of the commitment to the success image of Burr, one might suggest, is linked to his embodiment of certain cherished values. Burr is an idealized representation of the American entrepreneurial spirit: a visionary, daring to dream and daring to pursue the dream until it comes true. Who would ever want or even dare to destroy such a spirit? The positive leadership characteristics abstracted from the two separate analyses in our study showed great overlappings with the journalistic values identified by Gans (1979). His research on national news media over two decades identified eight clusters of enduring values that reflect value preferences of journalists as a profession and, to some extent, also those of news sources and audiences. Of the eight clusters of values, we found the following four to be closely related to the leader-image themes in our study. (1) Altruistic Democracy: Politicians, officials and democracy are expected to be honest, efficient, dedicated to acting in the public interest, Spartan in their tastes, and citizens should participate to eliminate the need for government; (2) Responsible Capitalism: Moopoly is evil, smallness and family-owned business is viewed favorably; business officials are expected to be honest and efficient; business news is dedicated to entrepreneurs and innovators as well as able corporate managers' innovation and risk taking are seen as more desirable in business than in public agencies; (3) Small-town Pastoralism: a specification of the desirability of nature and smallness; bigness is impersonal and inhuman; the ideal social organization should reflect a human scale; and (4) Individualism: The ideal individual struggles successfully against adversity and overcomes more powerful forces; self-made men and women remain attractive; hard and task-oriented work is valued.

Three out of the four positive image themes about Burr, namely, People, Innovation, and Motivation overlapped greatly the above four clusters of values, and these were the themes that were stable across the performance periods. More specifically, the following information made salient in the press about Burr and his company showed close links to the journalistic values. Burr was an entrepreneur (Responsible Capitalism), a self-made man (Individualism); People Express was the product of the Airline Deregulation Act and a challenger of the big monopolies (Responsible Capitalism, Small-town Pastoralism, and Individualism); at People, there was no corporate hierarchy--employees were owners, everybody was a manager, and Burr had no secretary (Altruistic Democracy, Responsible Capitalism, Small-town Pastoralism). These overlappings provide evidence of the impact of values and ideology on the initial construction and subsequent maintenance of the positive leader images. In addition, a scan of recent business publications, from newspapers and magazines to best sellers, reveals that American business places similar values on transformational and charismatic leaders who are reputed to empower employees and achieve performance "beyond expectations."

To test directly the impact of values on image construction, future research can examine how news agencies with different value orientations report the same leader. For example, the present study could be redesigned to explore differences in reports of Burr by the general press (New York Times and Time) versus the business press, the more liberal versus the more conservative. Alternatively, research can also focus on differing reports by the same news agency on different kinds of leaders: the entrepreneurs versus the big corporate executives, or charismatic versus noncharismatic leaders, such as Burr versus Frank Lorenzo, the technician-like CEO of Texas Air and Eastern Airlines. These kinds of studies would throw light on how value orientations influence people's conceptualization of organization and leadership.

The reconstruction of Burr's image, as we have been able to observe it, can be portrayed as a process that began with highly positive features but ended not with a denial or replacement of those endowments but with a revised image in which those very same endowments were portrayed as being responsible for his demise. The "downside" of Burr's idealism and motivation gradually came into relief for news readers and writers as the performance drama of his firm unfolded. This particular sort of reconstruction is reminiscent of a theme in classic Greek tragedies, that of the fatal flaw of character. The early Bible-stumping imagery during Burr's ascension gradually turned into overzealousness during his fall from grace. Burr's magnificent endowments as a leader were tragically flawed in a way that accounted for his ultimate failure with People Express. In this respect, the reconstructed image of Burr's persona is similar to the likes of characters such as Oedipus and Medea. (1)

Such constructive and reconstructive efforts seem to be consistent with the notion of the romance of leadership (Meindl, 1990). The collective commitment to leadership represents perhaps another important constraint on the images of leaders that will be set forth by news press and tolerated by reading publics. Whatever particular reconstructions emerge, their general themes must not diminish the significance of leadership as a way of understanding performance. The media--in the present case, the business press in particular--with its antideterministic bent, makes an important contribution to that kind of reassurance. Just as buyers and sellers, through their influence on supply and demand, determine prices in the marketplace, writers and readers, who traffic in images of leadership, influence each other to determine how leaders are talked about and, in the end, how these images are systematically reconstructed so as to preserve leadership as a concept. In doing so, we rescue ourselves from the threats of a dangerous and capricious world and the disconcerting prospects of uncontrollable, if organized, human systems.


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APPENDIX A: Description of Major Image Themes

Ability: very versatile, very brilliant, extremely intelligent, genius, gifted, shrewd, outstanding, a very experienced and able person, has a great deal of experience in the business, familiar with other companies' failures, a very smart and shrewd business man, has intelligence and head, well educated, quite a remarkable man able to build an empire in such a short time, has insight of the industry, a business genius, knows what he wants, has a good head on his shoulders, knows when to take risks and what people want, knows the running of the airline company inside out, business smart and perceptive, extremely efficient, ability to cut costs, a genius in finding loopholes to cost reduction, etc.

People Orientation: charismatic, a powerful motivator, considerate and respectful of the people, gaining loyalty of those who work for him, with the people's interest at heart, believes in strength of people, truly believes employees are the nucleus of an organization, knows how to communicate, employees are treated more like family than traditional employer-employee relationship, treats his employees and associates as equals, keeps his door open to his employees and works with them, very informal, makes all employees be involved in decision making, a very local and people-oriented person, gains the confidence of people instantly, believes in the creativity of his employees, a lot of trust in his employees, his imaginations are directed towards people, wanted to create a business where the individual employees had more creative freedom and the company wasn't stifling the creative energies of its workers, concerned for what his employees wanted, created a family in his organization, number-one priority is the people, customers, and the employees, provides good motivation and incentives, a family-oriented man, he takes the time and the interest to listen to his co-workers, etc.

Innovation/Vision: visionary, revolutionary, radical, a man with insight, ingenious, had some very original ideas, has been a pioneer, unorthodox, a management wizard, noted for his unorthodox style of management ideas and innovations, imaginative, dreamer, his innovative business structure, entrepreneur, with a brilliant idea, had many new ideas, pursuing his own dream, very creative, had a vision, searching for new alternatives and working on new ideas, intuitive, a dreamer who realized his dreams, revolutionized the airline industry, a man with great visions and ideas, one of the most highly innovative men, with big visions, a maverick, a true modern entrepreneur, etc.

Motivation: motivated, ambitious, has a need for achievement, desire to be the best, constantly improve, energetic, enthusiastic, aggressive, has commitment, hardworking, determined, driven by his passion to succeed, his burning desire to succeed, the Burr stamina, zealous, dogged style of managing, has energy, optimism, devout loyalty to a cause, hardworking, committed, oozes enthusiasm and optimism, very high spirited, perseverance, competitive, a true go-getter, his courage and determination, his endurance and confidence, a man with adventure and courage, enjoys challenges and confrontations, even thrives on challenges, constantly developing goals, a man with a mission, idealistic goals, etc.

Overdone: overzealous, expanding too quickly, idealism, went too fast with his decisions, overconfident, very stubborn, lacks a bit of realism, wanted too much too quickly, jumps at a good idea without fully accounting for the long-run consequences, too much trust in his employees, too gungho about building the company, his rapid acquisition, had bitten off more than he could chew, he wants the company to grow, grow, grow, believed in strong leadership almost sole leadership, might think too big, should just take things a little slower, carried things too far, may be a bit greedy, moved too fast for him to take solid decisions, his idealistic view may weaken his effectiveness at times, obsessed with his mission, Burr's idealistic goals and methods had to be compromised, etc.

III-adaptation: unable to adapt, too late to change, profit sharing was bad at bad times, successful in the start but failed once they reached the major market, corrective actions came all too little and too late, lack of development of the policies so as to be also effective on a large scale, the organization's policies did not meet the demands of such a large complex, his ethics have worked for a while but failed as the industry began to compete, business startups require mavericks but mature business could possibly live better without the likes of Burr, as the company grew, he kept the same attitude instead of changing to meet the new demands, he did not expand his management style and adapt to the greatly increased size of the airline, etc.

APPENDIX B: Metaphorical Concepts and Expressions

Period 1: 1981-1983

Burr is a preacher.

He could've been a preacher.

They don't say "minister," or "revered," or "clergy," they say "preacher" because it conveys exactly the right sense of sweat-in-a-hot-tent, evangelical fervor that makes the pulse race.

Burr works hard when he talks. He paces, he sits; he stands; he throws out his arms; he condemns and praises, implores and jokes.

The glue is Burr himself, who dashes about preaching his horizontal-management style with messianiz zeal.

Within the new structure, though, Burr will go on preaching his unorthodox management approach.

"It tkes almost a messiah," William Hambrecht says: "that's the glue that holds it together."

Then another question was posed, and suddenly the evangelical fervor was back in his voice.

Burr is a parent.

The Boeing 737 roared on takeoff past the second-floor corner office window . . . Mr. Gitner and Donald C. Burr watched like produd fathers.

Mr. Burr, 39, and Mr. Gitner, 36, plan to give birth to an airline this Thursday.

Burr is a builder.

"That's why we thought longer and harder about building our people structure here than we did anything else."

To Burr, building an enterprise is building the people within it.

Burr is a wizard.

I think the man's a wizard.

Burr is Mr. Peanut.

. . . "Mar. Peanut" as the embodiment of Texas International's new, low cost "peanuts fares" between selected cities.

Burr is a competitor.

While Burr might have seemed like a rookie playing in the big leagues of the airline world, many authorities felt the big leagues weren't all they were cracked up to be, that those at the helm had become inefficient and uninspired.

Period 2: 1984-1985

Burr is a preacher.

Much more often he is called "chairsmatic," "messianic," or "fervent."

Burr, and a few other early disciples would endlessly discuss whether employees should wear uniforms or should have titles.

Leadership Images

During the airline's formative years, working at People was like being part of a cult.

"We lived, drank, and slept People Express," says one former manager. "Burr was a fantastic, charismatic person who made you think you could do anything. He was our teacher."

"We were mesmerized by him at first, . . ." says one early believer who has since left.

Some malcontent even referred to him as Reverend Jim Jones.

His managerial utopia. . . .

As a manager Burr has a penchant for delivering sermons to his flock on how to do a better job.

Burr's pulpit these days is an office at Newark Airport's North Terminal.

By November 1980 Burr had gathered together a band of renegades who were attracted by People's you-be-the-boss structure.

. . . preaching the gospel. . . .

The evangelist is Burr, . . . the Pied Piper of People Express. . . .

. . . "Guyana Jones," in an allusion to the Jonestown incident in which Jim Jones's followers died after blindly heeding their leader's call to drink poisoned Kool-Aid.

People is run more like a commune.

Burr is father.

At People Express Airlines Inc., the founding father wants both (choice between perfection of life and perfection of work)--for everybody.

Burr is a maverick.

Donald C. Burr and Frank A. Lorenzo are both airline mavericks. . . .

Burr is an entrepreneur.

Burr, entrepreneur extraordinaire, is clearly not the next Boone Pickens.

Burr is a Spartan.

Burr's office is bus-station Spartan, like his airline.

In his no-frills office at Newark International Airport, . . . .

Burr is a visionary.

A visionary, he seized the moment provided by deregulation to create a new kind of airline.

Burr is a whiz.

. . . Golden boy. . . .

At Ellsworth Memorial High School on Main Street, Burr was something of a whiz kid.

Burr is a competitor.

. . . Marathon man. . . .

People Express is the brainchild of Chairman Donald Burr 44 a bold dogfighter who harasses competitors mercilessly while piloting his own company in a distinctly unorthodox manner.

Period 3: Jan.-Sept. 1986

Burr is a preacher.

He preached the virtues of lunch-bucket capitalism with a zealot's fervor.

People Express sometimes seemed more cult than company.

Donald C. Burr, chairman and co-founder, was a spiritual leader. The thousands of travelers who crowded its planes at unthinkably low fares were its flock.

Striving to build up his plucky, low-fare airline in a sky dominated by giants, People Express Chairman Donald Burr used to liken its mission to a struggle . . . between good and evil.

Burr is a fighter.

. . . Burr as the American Samura: a U.S. answer to the Japanese management challenge.

He has even referred to himself as Luke Skywalker and equated certain foes with the dastardly Darth Vader.

People is plunging, but Burr is staying cool.

Donald Burr: a Fallen Hero

* We thank Madeleine Mathiot for her advice on portions of our semantic analysis. We also thank Ray Hunt, Jerry Salancik, Thomas Jacobson, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts. Address all correspondence to James R. Meindl, School of Management, State University of New York at Buffalo, Bunaio, NY 14260.

(1) We are grateful to Jerry Salancik for this observation.
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Title Annotation:People Express Airlines Inc.; includes appendices
Author:Chen, Chao C.; Meindl, James R.
Publication:Administrative Science Quarterly
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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