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Jennifer Binns

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Volume 12, October 2005

Diversifying Leadership Discourse. Heroic & Relational Leaders:
a Gendered Dialogue

Diversifying the Discourse

This paper is based on my doctoral research which attempts to think about leadership in ways other than an heroic, individualistic, masculine endeavour. This is important to me for two related reasons. Firstly, the ‘heroic archetype’ (Sinclair 1998) underpins leadership practices that impoverish self, other and the social good and, secondly, it is hostile to both the symbolic feminine and the actuality of women’s leadership.

It might be argued that contemporary thinking on leadership as non-heroic already provides the conceptual diversity that I seek. Certainly feminist scholars have done much to critique the orthodoxy and to advance alternate understandings of leadership (see, for example, Blackmore 1989; Calas & Smircich 1988; Eveline 2004; Hearn & Parkin 1989; Helgesen 1990; Rosener 1990; Sinclair 1998). My goal is to make a contribution to this rich body of work. So-called ‘feminine’ values have been taken up within mainstream discourse, as can be seen in the current vogue of transformational, participative and emotionally intelligent leadership. However, these ‘new leadership’ discourses have not dislodged the masculinist foundations of the dominant heroic archetype, and hence its demise ‘is greatly exaggerated’ (Fletcher 2002). I use a critical gender lens to unearth and de-stabilize these foundations and then draw on feminist constructs, such as Joyce Fletcher’s ‘relational practice’ (1999), to imagine ‘doing leadership differently’ (Sinclair 1998).

I propose ‘relational’ leadership as a conceptual counterpoint to the heroic archetype, a way of thinking differently about leadership rather than as a description of leadership as actually practiced. ‘Relational’ implies many things for me. It incorporates the normatively feminine (hence devalued) qualities/capacity for connectedness, empathy, emotional sensitivity and vulnerability and contests the (privileged) masculine norms of individualism/independence, self-control and toughness that have come to be associated with ‘real’ leadership, thereby disqualifying the non-masculine ‘other’. This is not to propose a utopian vision of ‘feminine’ leadership (relational, caring and compassionate) usurping ‘masculine’ leadership (individualistic, competitive and instrumental). My project is to upset the dualisms that sustain the privileging of masculinity and heroic leadership, rather than attempting a reverse move in which the feminine/relational assumes top billing, as it does in the female advantage literature (Helgesen 1990; Rosener 1990). It is about fashioning a space for alternative understandings and practices of leadership, alternatives that embrace the ‘feminine’ and welcome women into the leadership discourse.

Contesting the masculinist underpinnings of heroic leadership discourse and anchoring an alternative understanding to the ‘feminine’ has meant struggling to find a way to avoid reinvoking the very dualistic thinking (masculine/feminine, reason/emotion, hard/soft, mind/body, public/private) that needs to be deconstructed. My approach to this dilemma has been to critique the discursive construction of gender categories and norms around the meaning of ‘leadership’ (a task that entails using ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as analytical concepts), and at the same time understanding leadership identities as complex, fluid and plural rather than as being fixed to those discursively produced gender categories. Moreover, the categories themselves are diverse rather than unitary. As Bob Connell (1995) argues, there are many kinds of masculinities (and femininities), with ‘hegemonic masculinity’ operating to devalue both other forms of masculinity and all forms of femininity. Deborah Kerfoot and David Knights (1998) use the term ‘masculinism’ to capture this multiplicity while holding onto the central argument that all masculinities secure their privilege by casting the ‘feminine(s)’ as the ‘other’ (see also Hearn 1996). My argument is that ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is embedded in and reproduced by heroic leadership (as conceptualized and performed). However, what is ‘hegemonic’ (that is, having the discursive power to assign meaning and value) changes over time. Kerfoot and Knights (1993) argue, for example, that the hegemonic mantle has passed from ‘paternalistic’ to ‘competitive’ masculinity, with fatherly protection being replaced by rational individualism as the primary organizational value.

Gendered Dialogues

‘Dialogue’ signals the way in which different discourses play off against each other in the construction of leadership concepts, identities and practices. Just as my critical feminist research practice occurs within the privileged masculinist discourse of the academy, a location that shapes the way in which I position myself in relation to research, so too do the sixteen leaders in the study draw on a plurality of discourses in order to understand and position themselves as leaders. To say that this dialogue is ‘gendered’ is to call attention to the discursive regulation of masculine and feminine subjectivities and bodies through the daily enactment of normative leadership practices. For men and women in leadership, the gendered dialogue does not take place between fixed gender categories but, rather, involves movement to and fro between (various constructions of) femininity and masculinity. For example, Attila Bruni and Silvia Gherardi (2002) argue that ‘gender switching’ characterizes the organizational experience of women as they try to establish a professional (masculine) persona. Thus ‘gendered dialogues’ need to be seen as asymmetrical. The dominant discourse of heroic leadership reinforces masculine subjectivities and practices, and problematizes the concept and experience of women-in-leadership.

The dialogic metaphor also ‘fits’ my qualititative research methodology, which comprised multiple conversations with sixteen ‘middle managers’ (eight men and eight women) who volunteered for the study. The narratives that emerged from these dialogues are most usefully understood as ‘social texts’ (Thomas & Linstead 2002, p.78) produced relationally through the dynamic interaction of researcher and researched. Like leadership, the research process is a gendered dialogue, a site at which gender is ‘done’ or, in Judith Butler’s (1990, p.25) terms, ‘performatively constituted.’ The act of talking about leadership, relationships, emotions and power (re)creates the conversationalists as gendered beings, but not in any easy or straight forward way.

The four stories presented below tell of the ambivalent nature of leadership, the precariousness of gender, and the various identity ‘masks’ that ‘are created as resources for participation in an ongoing masquerade’ (Linstead & Thomas 2002, p.1). This is a masquerade in which the presentation of a unitary self is undermined by absences, silences and contradictions. Despite the often compelling desire for a sense of stability and certainty, subjectivities are constantly in a process of ‘becoming’ (Colebrook 2000). Rather than being cause for dismay, such fluidity gives me hope for the possibilities of transforming leadership concepts and practice.

Telling Tales

John: The Controller

John, a professional project manager, describes his leadership as “all about being in control”. This sense of control as an ideal flows through different discourses of masculinity. As the wise father John presents ‘control’ as a way of caring for and protecting his followers. This form of leadership “gives order to what people are doing which gives them predictability… People feel they can relax because they’re in good hands.” By providing strong direction and organization, John’s leadership tames organizational chaos and reassures his confused and needy followers who mostly “don’t have a clue about what they are doing”.

John’s presentation of himself as the possessor of power/control relies on the assumption of superior or privileged knowledge. Power and knowledge meet in the “good hands” of the leader. This power-knowledge nexus also inscribes John’s relationships with the men above him in the organizational hierarchy who he presents as less competent, knowledgeable and ethical. Evoking competitive masculinity, John describes a power game in which he knows how to behave in order to take control from senior managers who wish to protect their own authority. He talks, for example, of knowing how to “manipulate” the relationship with a superior who is “a bit weak as a manager and tends to protect his own arse”, and of neutralizing another senior manager’s “muscle flexing”, metaphorically “cutting his legs off”.

The discourse of masculinism obscures its own operations and effects, normalizing them as ‘just’ leadership. Thus John’s identity work involves a strong denial of the masculinity of the controller. He declares that:

I’m a feminist by nature… Adopting a macho image of a capital M man has very little to do with leadership. From my days in the Army I’ve seen many superb women leaders, therefore I wouldn’t attach anything gender-specific to leadership… I enjoy being a leader and the fact I’m a man’s probably got nothing to do with it.

For John, the existence of “superb women leaders” demonstrates the gender-neutrality of leadership in general, and his leadership in particular. Masculinity can be dismissed by defining it in terms of its extreme manifestation, the macho man. While being a man “has nothing to do with leadership”, masculinist concepts of control and expertise inform John’s identity work. The masculinity of leadership and the ‘naturalness’ of male leaders make it possible for John to ‘disappear’ his gender identity in a way that the women leaders in the study could not. This is not, however to argue that masculinity is unproblematic for men. As Kerfoot (1999) argues, masculine identity is rendered precarious by its pursuit of the illusory goal of taming and controlling the complex, unpredictable world in which they live.

Nicki: Matriarch and Mother Hen

A career public servant, Nicki presents herself as both motherly (caring and compassionate) and matriarchal (tough and exacting). The gendered metaphors of “matriarch” and “mother hen” that she uses to describe her leadership hold contested meanings, and within the tension between these identity masks the seeds of self-doubt are sown and nourished:

Whether I’m a good leader, I don’t know… I don’t know in terms of strategic leadership that I’m very good at that… I’m more into developing alliances with other areas… Mary West [an executive director] is a good leader because she has a rare empathy and caring-ness to her personality, is a master manipulator, always got her eye on the ball and knows where she wants to head. If Mary said, will you walk across the water with me… there’s no question they’d all be there… I don’t know [if they’d walk across the water with me]. The feedback I’ve had is that I’m hard but I’m fair… And don’t mess with me, if you do, watch out! That’s pretty awful! I don’t know if that’s leadership.

Nicki recognizes her own success, which is founded on connectivity, but doubts her credentials as a leader when considered in the light of both the masculine discourse of strategic management and the unattainable ideal of (‘hard’ plus ‘soft’) female leadership exemplified by Mary West. Using Fletcher’s (1999) term, these discourses ‘disappear’ the efficacy of Nicki’s relational practice, and problematize her wearing of the masculine mask of ‘hard’ leadership. Nicki rejects but is seduced by normative femininity and the desire to be liked. For example, later in the text she wonders if she should have used her “feminine wiles” to win over the male-dominated workforce in a previous job. “I’m not a raging feminist but as a woman I’ve observed that…you have to play the girlie thing”, she said. Unlike the coquettish girl, the wearer of the matriarchal mask faces loneliness and social exclusion within the masculinist culture of the “old boys’ club”:

I guess emotionally it’s left me with a bit of a scar. Maybe I don’t do it right…Sometimes I wish I could be more popular…I’ve observed how other female managers, attractive females, speak to the other managers and directors, and it’s different. But I can’t do that. I probably don’t fit.

Because (feminine) empathy and (masculine) toughness exist in a dualistic relationship, Nicki struggles to find a sense of herself as a leader. Such a quest founders against a dominant leadership ideal that elevates toughness over empathy, punishes the matriarch who transgresses masculine terrain, and excludes the normative femininity of the mother hen and the femme fatale. The matriarch does not “fit”. She is caught in ‘no man’s land’, neither fully feminine nor fully masculine. Is it any wonder that Nicki describes herself with sadness as a loner who does not belong? In a stereotypical female way she blames herself for this, labeling it a “personality flaw”. But, as the feminist mantra goes, the personal is political. Nicki’s dilemma needs to be understood as the operation of social and discursive forces, shaping gendered identities and experiences in a way that disqualifies femininity/ies and female bodies from ‘real’ leadership.

Dan: The Red-Blooded Male

Dan, an HR Manager, uses colourful masculine language and imagery to distance himself from the feminine. As a “blokey bloke” he is different to his effeminate boss. And as a “red blooded male”, his “raging” emotions and “sexual drives” embody his difference from women:

I’ve never been a female and I don’t ever want to be a female. I like fast cars and watching violent videos, and all these other things that the typical bloke likes to do…. But ... I don’t think it makes any difference whether you are male or female, it’s the behaviour you exhibit that’s the leadership… So, it’s not whether… you like V8 cars or knitting!

So, for Dan, producing appropriate leadership behaviours requires controlling wild passions and emotions, a kind of distancing from his embodied masculinity. His red-blooded manhood cannot be expressed in the middle class corridors of the organization where ‘rational masculinity’ is the norm. This organizational ‘masquerade’ requires him to don the mask of self-control and reason:

My natural state’s very different from the way I behave in public… But when I walk out the door I put on a different role and that doesn’t stress me.

While I feel strong emotions and [am] what some people would call irrational, I am able to stop and think about the emotion I am experiencing and try and put that in a realistic light… I tend to suppress my excitement… I come across as having a cool head.

While gender is highlighted by the image of ‘red-blooded’ maleness and obscured by the behavioural representation of ‘cool-headed’ management, these different discourses of masculinity each secure their meaning through a rejection of the feminine. In the first, the feminine is treated with open disdain and a tinge of fear. Dan’s declaration that “I don’t ever want to be a female” rests on the privileging of aggressive masculinity (“fast cars and violent videos”) over passive femininity (“knitting”). The feminine is dismissed in a more subtle way by the discourse of rational masculinity captured in the metaphor of the “cool head”. This disembodied, emotionally detached image of leadership naturalizes (and obscures) a hierarchical order populated by men/ male bodies (Acker 1990). And the association of the feminine with emotions and corporeality (Lloyd 1984; Gatens 1996) disqualifies women from rational, “cool-headed” leadership. It is little wonder, then, that Dan’s presentation of self as a competent leader relies not only on detachment from his own embodied emotions, but also on a disassociation from the (inferior) feminine.

Rose: The Chameleon

Rose’s use of the chameleon metaphor captures the changing colours of her life: from secretary to company director, from traditional to electronic business, and from entrepreneur to mother. Like the chameleon, she describes choosing an identity mask that is best suited to survival/success in an uncertain environment:

I believe that a good leader is a chameleon. I learnt that when I first became the director of a company. I was twenty-seven and I’d been a secretary and the next day I was going to be a director…So I thought, okay, the next day I’m going to get up and put a director’s coat on… and that’s the person I’ll be.

Here Rose presents the casting off of the (feminine) secretarial garb and donning the (masculine) director’s coat as gender-neutral. Later she explains that the issue of being a woman and a leader is “a hard question because I make a point of not walking around thinking about it”. However, as the discussion continues, Rose plays with the idea of what it means to be a woman and a business leader:

Sometimes in my previous business it did benefit me to … play a woman role… I knew that I was intriguing in that I was a woman in a male industry. I was good at what I did and therefore I had power. …The MD … called me his goddess… He once said to me “if you wear a skirt like that to our next meeting I’ll give you an extra percentage point”… I could take that the wrong way but I wore the short dress so I guess I was asking for it…. Not that I think I’m fantastic looking, but as a woman you can be wily.

The chameleon becomes a goddess, wily and seductive, powerful in her embodied femaleness. And yet Rose also has a sense of the limitations of “playing a woman role”:

I used to think – when I was at the Chamber of Commerce – that this is odd, there’s no-one else here. I’ve heard about the glass ceiling… but in my case I didn’t think much about being a woman. I was sometimes surprised that people commented on it. Because I just thought I was talking business… At the time I was younger, attractive and had a nice figure. So people didn’t expect me to have a business head on my shoulders.

While Rose reflects on her gender, on woman-as-absence (“there’s no-one else here”), securing legitimacy in the masculine world of business compels her to work at constructing a gender-neutral identity. The chameleon attempts to camouflage her female corporeality, to blend into the masculine background. Yet Rose cannot escape her female identity or her woman’s body that marks her as the ‘other’, the antithesis of masculine definitions of competence. She cannot have a masculine business head on her feminine shoulders. At times Rose has been comfortable in her embodied womanliness (the powerful short-skirted goddess) but it also inscribes her as a non-leader (see Gatens 1996 on the inscribed body). Male bodies are not problematic for leadership in the same way that women’s bodies are. As Moira Gatens (1992) notes, different bodies and embodied difference have certain ‘power effects’. My research suggests, for example, that is harder for women to perform leadership in/from a woman’s body than it is for men.

Some feminists have responded to the erasure of the symbolic and embodied feminine from leadership by embracing femininity as a superior way of being in the world (Helgesen 1990). Here Rose explores the possibility of turning difference into female advantage:

Women have this tendency to gather people, to like to have closer relationships, to know more about people, and to reveal more intimate stuff. And I do that. When I come to think about it, obviously there’s something about me being a woman.

The ‘feminine’ skills of emotional intimacy and nurturance that Rose lays claim to as a woman are central to the concept of relational leadership advanced in my thesis. But they are discounted and made invisible by traditional leadership discourses that privilege aggressive competitiveness, individual success and what Deborah Kerfoot (1999) calls ‘instrumental intimacy’. This leaves Rose with little choice other than to use power in culturally permissible ways. However, feminised power lacks the legitimacy of normative (masculine) forms of control. While it may achieve an immediate goal, its deployment within masculinist regimes entrenches the inferiority and aberrance of women’s leadership and women’s bodies.

The Feminist Wedge

Discourses of masculine leadership produce and reproduce masculine subjectivities adapted to an image of the world as a series of challenges and conquests. While both male and female leaders are ‘subject to’ such discourses, my research lends weight to the argument that masculinity is ‘a way of being, most often but not exclusively for men, in which men express what it is “to be a man” at any one time and in whatever location’ (Kerfoot 1993, p.186). For male leaders, expressing what it is to be a man involves working to create a leadership identity grounded in the masculine concepts of reason, power, expertise, hierarchy, invulnerability and autonomy. This is the heroic archetype, an ideal of leadership that is indistinguishable from ideals of masculinity (Sinclair 1998). Thus the male leaders in the study mostly experienced leadership as comfortable and unproblematic while the female leaders were all too conscious of the tensions and discontinuities between ‘leadership’ and ‘feminine/woman’. This is not to argue that male leaders are able to totally escape the anxiety involved in trying to live up to the heroic ideal. Nor is it to suggest that masculine leadership is an unassailable concept and practice. The opportunity to think and do leadership differently inheres in the fluidity of discourses and the precariousness of masculine identity. If discourses are historically generated rather than fixed, and gender identity constantly re-made rather than given, it must be possible to break the nexus of masculinity and leadership. Feminist research and theory must continue to act as the wedge.


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