Leadership: A Critical Text

April 3, 2008

It is refreshing when you come across a clear, well-written book about leadership that is not peddling the latest gimmick, buzzword or quick fix. What makes this work really refreshing is the emphasis on the critical dimension in the title and the breadth of the author's own experience of work. As Simon Western says about his book: "It sets out to promote a critical and curious stance in the reader's mind when thinking about the workplace."

Western applies a good academic rigour to the critical process, and leaves no doubt about his direction of travel. He talks of the "emancipatory" aim of applying critical theory to leadership to maximise individual autonomy and agency and to support successful ethical frameworks. The approach he takes is the opposite of the airport paperback with its simplistic formulae. He is not afraid to problematise leadership. He encourages us to focus on its complexity and to accept a reality where there is an absence of tidy theories and complete solutions. There is a refreshing emphasis on context and sense-making rather than generic competencies.

Two concepts that have been much in vogue of late are "distributed" leadership (so popular in higher education and yet so often misapplied) and "followership" (a rather flabby concept that shifts too much emphasis away from the responsibilities of the leader towards the led). In both cases he urges us to be cautious. What is very helpful is his reference to the "co-creation" of leadership by the combined impact of the individual and corporate leaders and collective actors, including those who are led. It helps to build up a picture of leadership as an asymmetric, dynamic process rather than a linear relationship with carefully defined architecture.

The heart of the book is a critical study of the three dominant "discourses" of leadership prevalent throughout much of the past 80 years or so. These are the "Controller" discourse, with its roots in scientific management, the "Therapist" discourse associated with the human relations school of leadership and the "Messiah" discourse, with its customary label of "transformational" leadership. All get their fair share of critical appraisal, and he takes the Messiah one step further by setting it beside the power of religious fundamentalism.

A hint of a future phase of leadership thinking is to be found in the next discourse, to which he gives the label "Eco-leadership". His thoughts about this are very grounded because what he is seeking is an approach based on connectivity. It is about a world of complex interdependencies where we have to find new ways of leading complex organisations within networks of suppliers, consumers, stakeholders and other informal processes over which we can never expect to have traditional leadership authority. This is very much the environment where we are concerned with emergent change, where we are no longer leading change in a traditional sense, but creating the leadership capacity under which we can handle ambivalence and uncertainty. In this situation, the leadership role is increasingly about interpretation and sense-making for the organisation.

This is a book that all those involved in the complex and often contested processes of leadership in higher education (academic and professional support leaders) will benefit from, and I strongly recommend it to them.

Leadership: A Critical Text

By Simon Western
Sage publications
240pp
£70.00 and £24.99
ISBN 9781412923040 and 23057
Published 15 November 2007

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This book sucks!

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