Discursive Leadership: In Conversation with Leadership Psychology


Gail T. Fairhurst

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    To the memory of Albert and Agnes Theus


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    This much I know about leadership: It is a topic for the ages. Discussions of leadership date back to Plato and the early Greeks, but also Chinese and Egyptian societies. It was a topic during the Renaissance with Machiavelli's The Prince, which survives as a reference today. Proceeding onward through the turn of the twentieth century, it emerged in ‘great man’ theories, marking the start of serious scholarship that continues to the present. Such scholarship now joins a business press eager to dispense sage advice to hungry leaders. What is it about leadership that sustains this kind of interest? Bass (1981) asserted that leadership is a universal human phenomenon, the templates for which are supplied by parenthood. If true, it should be no surprise that we find leadership in a host of society's collectives—business and governmental organizations to be sure, but also remote African villages, sports teams, and Girl Scout troops.

    Few agree on a definition. Leadership scholars are famous for their inability to agree on a definition of leadership, leading some analysts to remark that there are as many definitions as there are leadership scholars (Bass, 1981; Fiedler, 1971; Rost, 1991). However, there are good reasons for this inconsistency. Leadership occurs amidst a tremendous amount of situational variability, and it has that elusive ‘eye of the beholder’ quality. Some will make sense of complex conditions by arriving at an attribution of leadership that others would vehemently contest (think George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, and his handling of the war in Iraq). Yet, Meindl (1995) suggests that our attributions are romanticized in this regard because too often we see leadership as the cause of organizational success or failure when a more complex explanation is in order. Even so, one person's leadership is another's tyranny or ineptitude.

    Organizational leadership was once the sole province of men. While the concept of leadership has been around for some time, the serious study of leadership is about 100 years old. As mentioned, it began with the turn of the twentieth century ‘great man’ school of thought, which led social scientists to look for those characteristics and traits (such as intelligence, dominance, height, and so forth) that differentiated leaders from non-leaders. Organizational leadership was considered the sole province of men until women began to enter the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s in other than low power positions (Kanter, 1977). Since then, gender differences in leadership have ranked among the hot topics in both the academic and business press as well as in countless discussions at watercoolers and boardrooms in organizations worldwide (Buzzanell, 2000; Collinson, 1988; Kanter, 1977; Reardon, 1995).

    Leadership psychologists have supplied important foundational work in leadership studies.1 Their early trait theories gave way to the study of leader behavior styles, famously captured in the Ohio State leadership studies, which examined initiating structure and consideration as two dimensions of leader behavior (Stogdill & Coons, 1957). Contingency theories followed, such as Fiedler's (1971) emphasizing leader-member relations, task structure, and a leader's position power as determinants of the type of leader effectiveness. Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory subsequently adopted an exclusive relational focus, where high versus low quality leader-member relationships differed in terms of the resources exchanged and outcomes delivered (Dansereau, Graen, & Haga, 1975; Graen & Scandura, 1987). At about the same time, neo-charismatic leadership theories arrived on the scene, emphasizing leaders' charisma, vision, and the ability to inspire followers well beyond the terms of their employment contract (Bass, 1985; Conger, 1989; Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993). Also, the information-processing school of leadership began to study implicit leadership theories and the role of cognition in the enactment and attribution of leadership behavior (Hanges, Lord, & Dickson, 2000; Lord & Maher, 1991). LMX, neo-charisma, and implicit leadership theories continue to this day, as authentic leadership (Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumbwa, 2005), spiritual leadership (Reave, 2005), and leadership in team-based organizations (Day, Gronn, & Salas, 2006) assume the newcomer roles.

    As good scientists, leadership psychologists have challenged their own theories, methods, and findings over time (House & Aditya, 1997; Lowe & Gardner, 2000). Interestingly, much of the criticism points to the socially constructed nature of leadership (Calder, 1977; Lord & Brown, 2004; Meindl, 1995), a perspective that, if taken seriously, has the potential to both challenge and complement leadership psychology at a foundational level.

    I do not mean to imply that psychologists are uninterested or unwilling to pursue a socially constructed view of leadership, nor do I wish to diminish their contributions to this topic in any way. I only wish to observe that their concerns for the individual and psychological rather consistently outweigh their concerns for the social and cultural. I argue that both sets of concerns must be entertained in equal strengths in order to understand a socially constructed world. Thankfully, a body of theory and research directly applicable to the social, linguistic, and cultural aspects of leadership has been accumulating. I call this work discursive leadership because of its focus on organizational discourse, both as language use in social interaction and the view of Discourse made popular by Michel Foucault. In his view, Discourse is a system of thought and a way of talking about a subject that together supplies the necessary linguistic resources for communicating actors. Foucault's work is typical of the burgeoning organizational discourse literature that reflects a body of constructionist theories not specifically about leadership per se, but with great potential to illuminate it in ways that we have not yet seen. That potential motivates the writing of this book, which is less a literature review and more of an exploration of key discourse concepts and what they could mean for leadership. The voluminous research from leadership psychology serves as a useful point of contrast, springboard, and benchmark along the way.

    There is still much to learn about leadership, especially if we surrender to its protean tendencies. As Chapter 1 makes clear, discursive leadership and leadership psychology differ on both ontological and epistemological grounds. In a nutshell, leadership psychology has been on a quest to understand the essence of leadership, whether it be found in the individual leader, the situation, or some combination thereof (Grint, 2000). By contrast, discursive leadership rejects essences because leadership is an attribution and, very likely, a contested one at that. Discourse scholars like me depart from leadership psychologists' adherence to traditional science assumptions about realist conceptions of truth and representationalist views of knowledge. Influenced by the linguistic turn in philosophy, we ask instead that both perspectives be seen as alternative ways of knowing, talking about, and justifying leadership (Deetz, 1996; Rorty, 1982).

    By recognizing discursive leadership from this vantage, we have a means by which to embrace what leadership psychologists might see as the elusive, unwieldy, mutable, and maddening error variance in leadership—in short, its protean tendencies. I am certainly not claiming that discursive leadership has all of the answers to leadership's mysteries, but neither do I believe that discursive leadership is just one more approach to leadership. It represents instead a foundation for many new lines of research into leadership with potentially important implications for helping practicing leaders and others better understand how they coconstruct reality. It also represents an opportunity for new dialogue with leadership psychologists—a dialogue that I hope continues long after this book.

    There are several leadership psychologists who have been gracious enough to help me begin this dialogue in Chapter 8, the book's final chapter. They include Donna Chrobot-Mason, Steve Green, Jerry Hunt, Robert Liden, and Boas Shamir. Three discursive scholars, Kevin Barge, François Cooren, and Linda Putnam, also joined in. To all of them I am grateful for the effort that they put forth under a very tight deadline. I hope that the reader finds their comments as illuminating as I did.

    Some of the reviewers for this book suggested different ways in which it might be read that I found quite useful. For example, if one prefers to start out with the details supplied through language and interaction (what I call little ‘d’ discourse), the chapters should be read in chronological order. However, others may prefer to start with the generalities associated with a Foucauldian view of Discourse (big ‘D’ Discourse) as a system of thought and way of talking about a subject. In that case, I would recommend reading Chapters 4 and 5 before Chapters 2 and 3. As the book reviewers also noted, the potential readers for this book will have varying levels of familiarity with the different forms of discourse analysis. Thus, I have included a set of appendixes organized by type of discourse analysis. They are designed for quick and easy reference. Finally, except for interview discourse, the transcribed interaction in this text follows the conventions of conversation analysis (see Appendix A1). For those who do not appreciate the level of detail this provides, readers may simply skim over the detailed markings.

    Those who have read all or parts of my book along the way include Carey Adams, Kevin Barge, Mary Helen Brown, Mary Ann Danielson, Jennifer Butler Ellis, David Hoffman, Fred Jablin, Robert Liden, Patricia Parker, Paaige Turner, Patricia Witherspoon, and Ted Zorn. Thank you for the time and effort that you put into reviewing my work. I especially want to thank those scholars who gave me direct feedback. They include Kevin Barge, Suzanne Boys, Lisa Fisher, Angela Garcia, Donna Chrobot-Mason, François Cooren, Rich Kiley, Linda Putnam, Edna Rogers, Marcia Schoeni, Mathew Sheep, James Taylor, and Heather Zoller. You have shaped my thinking in ways too numerous to mention.

    Thanks also to Jan Svennevig and Maria Isaksson of the Norwegian School of Management BI and organizers of the 2006 Association for Business Communication European Conference in Oslo, Norway; Pam Shockley, organizer of the 2005 Aspen Conference on Organizational Communication; and Angela Garcia, director of the Workplace Studies Group at the University of Cincinnati for providing forums for the presentation and discussion of my work. Thanks also to my department head, Teresa Sabourin, for her continued support and friendship; my graduate students, Justin Combs, Zhou Fan, Stephanie Hamlett, Elizabeth Prebles, Kim Richardson, and Brian Singson for their diligent work on my behalf; and to Sadie Oliver and Priscilla Ball for all of their help and office support.

    Thank you to Verne, Katie, Tom, and Kelsey, each of whom has a wonderful way of helping me to maintain perspective throughout this effort. I feel blessed every day for their love and support. To Todd Armstrong and Sarah Quesenberry at Sage, thank you for your patience and expert guidance. To Teresa Herlinger and Libby Larson, I greatly appreciated the care that you showed toward my manuscript. Finally, I have been blessed with so many wonderful colleagues, including the late Fred Jablin whose work as a leadership and communication scholar remains forever with me as a standard of excellence.


    1. Scholars from political communication (Hart, 1984, 1987; Trent, 1978; Trent & Friedenberg, 2004), political science (Burns, 1978), educational administration (Gronn, 1982, 1983), and organizational development (Kets de Vries, 1990a, 1991, 2005) among others have also made important contributions to leadership study. However, the broadest comparison appears between leadership psychology and discursive leadership. Where relevant, work from these related fields is introduced into individual chapters.

  • Appendixes

    Appendix A1: Conversation Analysis
    Definition:Conversation analysis (CA) is a type of discourse analysis that focuses on the detailed organization of talk-in-interaction. Its main purpose is to discern how people use various interactional methods and procedures to produce their activities and make sense of their worlds.
    Focus:Turn taking, membership categorization, adjacency pairs, insertion sequences, accounting practices, topic shifts, conversational openings and closings, agenda setting, decision making, and so on.
    Theory Base:Ethnomethodology (Boden, 1990, 1994; Garfinkel, 1967).
    Advantages:CA captures the inherent richness and complexity of social interaction better than most other discourse analyses. The macro-micro distinction dissolves because of an emphasis on social practices and the primacy of text. It is studying ‘the world-as-it-happens’ without researcher-imposed levels of analysis (Boden, 1994). Also, the interpretive practices and competencies of actors in their talk-in-interaction reveal how the organization is literally ‘talked into being’ (Heritage, 1997).
    Criticisms:CA has been criticized for a restricted view of the context; questions emerge as to what belongs to the text itself and what resides beyond the text, given that so much within a text is implied or presupposed. There is a greater role for analyst-assigned meanings than is typically acknowledged (Haslett, 1987). Hammersley (2003a) argues that CA deploys a rather ‘thin’ model of the human actor because it is not conducive to examining psychosocial features that are relatively stable across time or context.
    Resources:Atkinson and Heritage (1984), Boden (1994), Drew and Heritage (1992), Garfinkel (1967), Heritage (1997), Pomerantz and Fehr (1997), Psathas (1995)

    Appendix A2: Interaction Analysis
    Definition:Interaction analysis (IA) is a genre of discourse analysis that focuses exclusively on language in use, interaction process, and the coding of behavior according to a predefined set of codes. It includes a host of quantitative and empiricist approaches that draw from studies of message functions and language structures to assess the frequency and types of coded verbal behavior in organizational interaction.
    Focus:The sequences and stages of interaction, their redundancy and predictability, and the link between interactional structures and the organizational context (Putnam & Fairhurst, 2001).
    Theory Base:Various theories including systems theory, behaviorist theory, and structuration theory. No common intellectual tradition anchors interaction analysis (Fairhurst, 2004).
    Variations:Interaction process analysis (Bales, 1950); behaviorist studies (Coding schemes) (Gioia & Sims, 1986; Komaki, 1998); systems interaction (Fairhurst, Green, & Courtright, 1995); negotiation (Putnam & Wilson, 1989; Weingart, Hyder, & Prietula, 1996); adaptive structuration theory (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994); group time studies (Gersick, 1988)
    Advantages:IA maps longer chains of behavior than conversation analysis or speech act schematics, examines more inclusive levels of temporal form, and usually characterizes the general shape of an interaction in terms of patterns or phases (Holmes & Rogers, 1995).
    Criticisms:Meanings are more ephemeral, malleable, and negotiable than coding schemes can capture (Firth, 1995). The constructs of interest (for example, control) that form the basis of the coding schemes may not always be relevant to actors (Boden, 1994).
    Resources:Bakeman and Gottman (1986), DeSanctis & Poole (1994), Fairhurst (2004), Fairhurst and Cooren (2004), Komaki (1998), Putnam and Fairhurst (2001), Rogers and Escudero (2004a)
    Appendix A3: Speech Act Schematics
    Definition:Speech act schematics (SAS) is a genre of discourse analysis that focuses on language in use and episodic interaction processes. Drawing from the speech act tradition, which examines the performative character of language, SAS focuses on the larger episodic or schematic forms that arise from stringing speech acts together. Specific categories of speech acts constitute the opening, enactment, and closure of episodes. Through closure, episodes are able to embed themselves within one another.
    Focus:Categorizations of speech acts as assertives (representing an actual state of affairs: “It is raining.”); commissives (committing to a future course of action: “I'll be right there.”); directives (attempting to get the hearer to do something: “Check on her safety.”); declaratives (bring a state of affairs into existence by representing oneself as performing that action: “I baptize you.”); expressives (express the attitudes of the speaker about a state of affairs: “Thank you.”); accreditives (transfer permission or authorization from one agent to a recipient: “You have my permission to leave.”). Also, the ordering of speech acts within episodes and episodic embedding.
    Theory Base:Speech act theory (Austin, 1962, 1975; Searle, 1969, 1979, 1989; Vanderveken, 1990—1991); Greimas's narratology (Greimas, 1987,1988; Greimas & Courtes, 1982); actor-network theory (Callon & Latour, 1981; Latour, 1986, 1994, 1996)
    Advantages:SAS shows how organizations are built through speech agency, whether through speech acts performed by human agents or text-objects. SAS incorporates the mediating role of objects and the way the organization inscribes itself in them.
    Criticisms:SAS relies on speech act theory, which has been criticized for an intentionality bias and lack of empirical grounding (Schegloff 1988). Also, organizations cannot solely be built through speech agency because order or pattern in interaction does not beget the complex social form ‘organization.’ Organizing can always take place in the absence of‘organization,’ an entity with formal properties (McPhee & Zaug, 2002).
    Resources:Cooren (2001); Cooren and Taylor (1997, 1998); Cooren, Taylor, and Van Every (2006); Robichaud (2003); Taylor and Van Every (2000)
    Appendix A4: Discursive Psychology
    Definition:Discursive psychology (DP) is a genre of discourse analysis with a social constructionist focus. It explores the way psychological, material, and social objects are formed and transformed through interaction. DP combines a conversation analysis focus on talk-in-interaction with a Foucauldian view of Discourse as systems of thought. However, DP scholars recast Discourse as interpretative repertoire, which they liken to a dancer's repertoire, substituting instead terms, tropes, metaphors, themes, commonplaces, or habitual forms of argument. DP examines how people draw from their repertoires (Discourses) to form identities and representations of the world in talk-in-interaction.
    Focus:Descriptions of psychological, material, or social objects (for example, attitudes, categories, memory, attributions, and so on) are examined for the ways in which they surface in talk-in-interaction, a clear departure from a psychology based in cognitivism. Accountability is also key for the ways in which individuals (or other social units) are constructed as sites of agency and responsibility in everyday and institutional settings (Potter, 2005).
    Theory Base:Primarily constructionism from the tradition in sociology of scientific knowledge (Ashmore, 1989), but also conversation analysis (Sacks, 1992), ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), and poststructuralism (Foucault, 1972).
    Advantages:DP answers the question, ‘Why this utterance here?’ in social interaction by going beyond the interaction to focus on interpretative repertoires that source communicating actors (Wetherell, 1998). As such, it nicely signals the interplay between discourse as language in use and Discourse as systems of thought.
    Criticisms:Hammersley (2003) argues that DP deploys a rather ‘thin’ model of the human actor that is not conducive to examining psychosocial features that are relatively stable across time or context. See also Potter's (2003) response.
    Resources:Edwards (1997, 2005), Edwards and Potter (1992), Potter (1996, 1997, 2003, 2005), Potter and Wetherell (1987), Wetherell (1998)
    Appendix A5: Foucauldian Analyses
    Definition:Foucault's archeology is the study of specific and shaping historical influences through which statements are combined and regulated to form and define a distinct field of knowledge/objects. Genealogy analyzes the way in which Discourse develops and gets deployed through situated technologies of power (C. Barker, 2003). Foucault prioritizes genealogy over archeology.
    Focus:For archeology, the focus is a specific set of concepts that produce their own ‘truth effects’ or what counts as truth. Emphasis is given to the ways in which discursive formations emerge, often with discontinuous breaks with Discourses from previous eras. For genealogy, the focus is on relations of power, knowledge, and the body and how they are brought into play in modern society. Emphasis is given to the material and institutional conditions of Discourse (C. Barker, 2003; Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983).
    Theory Base:Foucault (1972, 1973, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1990, 1995)
    Advantages:Foucault's work corrects for the underdeveloped role of cultural and historical influences on human actors and the bias toward agency this may produce. Also, his work has inspired many critical, poststructuralist, and feminist analyses to move beyond single Discourses to focus on the interplay and competitive struggle of multiple Discourses vying for dominance.
    Criticisms:Discursive psychology views Discourse as an overly rigid concept, akin to ‘plate tectonics’ (Potter et al., 1990). Foucault's work reflects too little emphasis on the competition among Discourses within a given historical period (Holstein & Gubrium, 2000). Foucault's work has also been criticized on matters of agency, including charges of relativism (Reed, 2000, 2001) and repression of the subject (Newton, 1998).
    Resources:C. Barker (2003), Dreyfus and Rabinow (1983), Foucault (1972, 1973, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1990, 1995), Shapiro (1992)
    Appendix A6: Critical Discourse Analysis
    Definition:Fairclough (1993) defines critical discourse analysis (CDA) as “analysis which aims to systematically explore often opaque relationships of causality and determination between (a) discursive practices, events, and texts, and (b) wider social and cultural structures, relations, and processes; to investigate how such practices, events, and texts arise out of and are ideologically shaped by relations of power and struggles over power; and to explore how the opacity of these relationships between (D)iscourse and society is itself a factor securing power and hegemony” (p. 135).
    Focus:Emphasis is given to the triadic relationship between Discourse, ideology, and power, especially power exercised by consent or hegemony. For example, the way Discourse simultaneously produces and hides deep structure relations of power and inequality; how organizations are sites of struggle where different groups (for example, based on gender) compete to shape a reality vested with their own interests; and how conflicts are resolved through the control of symbolic, discursive, or material resources (Mumby & Clair, 1997).
    Theory Base:Bakhtin (1981a, 1981b), Chouliaraki and Fairclough (1999), Fairclough (1992, 1993, 1995, 2003), Fairclough and Thomas (2004) Foucault (1972), Giddens (1979, 1984), Gramsci (1971), and Habermas (1984)
    Variations:French Discourse analysis, critical linguistics, social semiotics, sociocultural change and change in Discourse, sociocognitive studies, Discoursehistorical methods, reading analysis, and the Duisburg school. For a review, see Fairclough and Wodak (1997).
    Advantages:CDA addresses socially relevant concerns; demonstrates how power relations are discursive and material; shows how Discourse performs ideological work; and reveals a dialectical relationship between Discourse and culture (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997).
    Criticisms:Analyses are often limited to single texts. There is also a theoretically weak understanding of group formation processes, the subject, and agency (Phillips & Jørgensen, 2002). Other criticism suggests an elitism and impracticality associated with critical research (Alvesson & Deetz, 1996).
    Resources:van Dijk (1985, 1991, 1997), Fairclough (1995, 2003), Fairclough and Wodak (1997), Mumby and Clair (1997), Phillips and Jørgenson (2002)
    Appendix A7: Narrative Analyses
    Definition:Narrative analyses (NA) is a huge area of study that generally distinguishes between narrative and story, although not consistently across authors. Gabriel (2004) sees narrative as a particular type of text, involving temporal chains of interrelated events or actions undertaken by actors, wherein all discourse is in some way narrative. Story requires ‘emplotment’ (characters, sequencing, predicaments, action, and so on) or the weaving together of events in some meaningful way. However, characters and events in stories can be real or imagined (Czarniawska-Joerges, 1997). Stories may be viewed as ‘poetic elaborations’ of narrative material (Gabriel, 2004).
    Focus:Narrative focus may be sensemaking, identity or relationship management, information sharing, socialization, organizing processes, change, ideological control, and so on.
    Theory Base:Varies depending upon the type of narrative analysis. It may include Boje (2001), Bruner (1986,1990), Czarniawska-Joerges (1997), Fisher (1984), or Greimas (1987, 1988), among others.
    Variations:Deconstruction, grand narrative, microstoria, story network, inter-textuality, causality, and plot. For a review, see Boje (2001).
    Advantages:Narrative is an alternative mode of knowing and organizing relative to an information-processing mode (Bruner, 1986). Narrative analyses shows how social actions are performed ‘in the telling,’ signaling subgroup differences, decision making, change, and so forth (Boje, 1991). It also helps elucidate the means by which ideological control is achieved by reinforcing key values and reifying privileged structures (Mumby, 1987).
    Disadvantages:There may be a tendency to downplay or ignore the material over the social, which raises issues of relativism. Narrative analysis “runs the risk of accepting the voice of personal experience as the uncontested and authentic source of understanding and sensemaking” (Gabriel, 2004, p. 73).
    Resources:Boje (1991,2001; Boje et al., 2001), Bruner (1986,1990), Czarniawska-Joerges (1997,2004), Fisher (1984), Gabriel (1999,2004), Weick (1995; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005)
    Appendix B: Transcript of Police Rescue


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    About the Author

    Gail T. Fairhurst is Professor of Communication at the University of Cincinnati. Her research interests include organizational communication, leadership, and organizational discourse. She has published numerous articles in communication and management journals as well as book chapters, including contributions to The Sage Handbook of Organizational Discourse and The New Handbook of Organizational Communication. She also coauthored, with Robert Sarr, The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1996). Her work has earned her numerous awards including the 2005 International Communication Association award for “Outstanding Article” in the communication discipline (with Linda Putnam), and the 1997 “Best Book” award from the National Communication Association, Organizational Communication Division (with Robert Sarr). She also serves on several editorial boards and is currently serving as an associate editor for Human Relations.

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