Discursive leadership: a note on leadership style

June 23, 2014

Book review: Fairhurst, G.T., (2007) Discursive leadership: in conversation with leadership psychology, Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage

Tudor Rickards

I became interested recently in Discursive leadership through reading a book on the subject by Gail Fairhurst, an American Professor of Communication Studies.

Many leadership styles have been proposed by practitioners and theorists. They include the charismatic style; those based on theories X, Y, and Z; Machiavelli; authenticity; and moral rectitude.

Discursive leadership may appear to be yet another leadership style. It may also provide challenging insights to a different way of thinking about leadership and the nature of styles.

Discourse and discussion

Readers not acquainted with the term discursive will recognize the similarities with the more familiar concept of discussion. Readers acquainted with post- modern writings will already be aware of discourse theory, which explores the processes of constructing social reality through texts and other narrative structures.

Professor Fairhurst is not describing a style. Indeed, the book rejects the popular view that leadership styles exist as objective phenomena. The departure point is whether a leadership style exists as an objective phenomenon with a measurable and observable essence. The widely- accepted view is that it does, so efforts to study and measure the style are afoot. Professor Fairhurst subscribes to the social constructionist belief that leadership and its various modes are beliefs constructed in social action. It is a point that has been applied to leadership by other scholars such as Keith Grint

This set me wondering whether such a discursive approach could be applied to other leadership concepts. Might charismatic leadership be considered as socially constructed? And how about Authentic Leadership not considered as a style, but as arising from the way in which a social group develops its notions of authenticity?

If Fairhurst’s ideas become more widely accepted, cherished notions of leadership style will receive much-needed revision.


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Putin’s presidential victory suggests a modification to “leaders we deserve” theory

March 5, 2012

Vladimir Putin, as expected, wins a substantial victory in Russia’s presidential elections. The process raises questions about the proposition that social systems get “the leaders we deserve”

When Leaders we deserve blogs began, nearly 800 posts ago, commentators were quick to point out the implications of its title. Who are the “we”? What have “we” done to “deserve” leaders?

The questions were acknowledged as relevant and in need of deeper examination. It would be accurate to say that such an examination has been more implicit than explicit in subsequent posts.

Esssentialism and leaders we create

The basic idea and assumption behind the title to this blog was that beliefs about leaders are socially-constructed. A more formal treatment by Professor Grint suggests that ideas of an objective essence of leadership (‘essentialism’) are being challenged by newer ideas in which leadership is considered as a social construction. These ideas might have produced a blog entitled “leaders we create”.

Elected leaders

The implication of a social-constructivist view is that a social group has some influence of the acceptance and shaping of beliefs about its leaders. This contrasts with beliefs that leaders have objectively identifiable characteristics which make up the essence of leadership.

The measurable

Attempts to measure “essence of leadership” were weakened after a century of investigations of traits. This helped in the emergence of alternative proposals about the deepest nature of the phenomenon.

The elected leader

At its simplest, we can say that an elective leader is a person accepted as leader by a process of voting. This has considerable merits of reducing uncertainties as the constituency granted legitimate rights casts observable votes.

Putin as elected leader

By this reasoning, Vladimir Putin is the undisputed elected leader of Russia.

Do the Russian people “deserve” Mr Putin?

Some commentators argue that the elections were not “free and fair”. The election takes us back to the question about whether a society gets the leaders it deserves. Does the general proposition still hold? At very least, it needs to be re-examined taking into account the implications of processes which distort the leadership appointment process.

Transformational and pseudo-transformational leadership

The election may be a useful addition to the debate over transformational and pseudo-transformational leadership.

To be continued

The SAGE Handbook of Leadership reviewed

January 12, 2012

Book Review by Tudor Rickards

The Sage Handbook of Leadership [Feb 2011, ISBN: 9781848601468] is edited by Alan Bryman, David Collinson, Keith Grint, Brad Jackson, and Mary Uhl-Bien. Sage Publications Ltd,

Sage Handbooks have a deserved reputation as quality scholarly reference texts. This addition to the series has followed the first rule of quality control in such matters, namely that the publishers find a strong editorial team whose members will be able to recruit from a range of contributors covering the main aspects of the subject of the text. The second rule is to permit editorial freedom for the editors to act as gatekeepers to ensure quality control. With some reservations which are indicated below, I found the result meets most of my expectations in these respects.


Collectively the contributors provide thoughtful and scholarly treatmentsof their chosen themes within five sub-sections: Macro perspectives (strategic leadership, charismatic leadership, complexity leadership, and networks); Political and philosophical perspectives (distributed leadership, critical leadership, ethics, and cults); Psychological perspectives (personality, style, transformational leadership, exchange relationships, cognition, leadership development, gender, trust, identity and the ‘dark side’ of leadership: Cultural perspectives (spirituality, aesthetics, and creativity);and Emergent themes, (followership, virtual leadership, emotions, image, celebrity, and the quest for a general theory of leadership).

Individual chapters cover an impressive range of topics which provide informed and up-to-date accounts for the leadership researcher. It might be argued that the topics are largely those found in popular graduate-level textbooks such as the ones by Yukl (a contributor), Daft, and Rickards (2nd edition).


There is an absence of an integrative chapter offering an overview of connections within and across the five themes identified. The editorial decision in this respect was to provide one paragraph summaries of each of the book’s 38 chapters as a first chapter. Researchers and students would probably have appreciated a final chapter which at least indicated editorial consensus and disputed regions.

Upbeat editorial claims

The editors state in the preface:

Leadership pervades every aspect of organizational and social life, and its study has never been more diverse, nor more fertile. With contributions from those who have defined that territory, this volume is not only a key point of reference for researchers, students and practitioners, but also an agenda-setting prospective and retrospective look at the state of leadership in the twenty-first century. It evaluates the domain and stretches it further by considering leadership scholarship from every angle, concluding with an optimistic look at the future of leaders, followers and their place in organizations and society at large.

A key reference point

The book is a key reference point for researchers and students of leadership at the present time. It has rapidly become one of my the texts I turn to first in assessing new leadership ideas appearing in the scholarly literature.

An invitation

The book has made considerable progress in identifying the work emerging from a group of researchers publishing primarily in three leading journals in the field. I would have liked there to have been some mention of more applied work, for example provided by those working at the interface of academic work and communication of ideas to practitioners (Gladwell comes to mind), and leadership scholars such as David Yamada who have preferred the electronic route to communicate their ideas. Perhaps a future edition would find a way to make links with such a community of practice.