False positives: Critiquing the language of leadership
Talking about organizational leadership seems to predispose us to talk in highly positive terms – even in academic scholarship. For example, the three most downloaded articles in the field’s top journal, Leadership Quarterly, are currently entitled: “Servant leadership …”, “Ethical leadership…” and “Authentic leadership …” respectively (https://www.journals.elsevier.com/the-leadership-quarterly on 1st February 2021); a surprise perhaps given what might be assumed to be the relatively disinterested voice of scholarship. In our talk, we explore questions about the positivity of the language of leadership:
· “WHY is this positive language used?”
· “What does it DO?”
· “Is it something to be welcomed as aspirational – or is it a camouflage for the realities of corporate life?”
In terms of data, we use a corpus of all articles published in Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ) from its first edition in 1956 to the end of 2018, supplemented by material from other journal articles, business school websites, job advertisements, and other relevant sources. We also consider closely related social actor labels, particularly manager and CEO. The background for our analysis is the rise of neoliberalism and the observation that in the context of organizational discourse, many other terms with positive cultural associations are increasingly being preferred over those previously used with more negative connotation. For instance, terms like challenge are now favoured over problem, just as team member is increasingly chosen over staff member. In the process, we argue that power asymmetries are increasingly being glossed over to the benefit of society’s elites.
Mark Learmonth, Professor of Organisation Studies at Durham Business School (UK), spent the first 17 years of his career in management posts within the British National Health Service. Prior to taking up his post in Durham he has worked at the universities of Nottingham and York. Mark’s research interests include management discourse and methodological debates, and he has published widely on leadership (see, for example, Learmonth & Morrell, 2019, Critical Perspectives on Leadership:The Language of Corporate Power [Routledge] and Ford, Harding & Learmonth, 2008, Leadership as identity: constructions and deconstructions. [Palgrave]).
Gerlinde Mautner, Professor of English Business Communication at WU, is an applied linguist pursuing research interests at the interface of language and business. In Language and the Market Society (Routledge, 2010) she discusses the linguistic impact of marketization, and in Discourse and Management (Palgrave, 2016) she explores key management themes through the lens of language. Another strand of her research focuses on methodological questions, specifically those that arise when combining discourse analysis with corpus linguistics.
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