Leadership as the Agency of Disciplinary Power

In 1977, Zaleznik published a paper drawing a distinction between managers and leaders. According to Zaleznick , managers differ in motivation from leaders and in how they think and act – they emphasize rationality, control, problem solving, goals and targets. They co-ordinate and balance conflicting views and get people to accept solutions. They are tactical and bureaucratic. Leaders work in an opposite way. Instead of limiting choices, they develop fresh approaches and open up new issues. They project their ideas into images that excite people. They formulate visions and inspire others to follow them. It is also generally thought to be the role of an organization’s leaders to shape its values or culture, understood to be the deep seated assumptions governing the behavior of the individual members of an organization. One of the most influential writers on leadership and organizations, Schein , said that the primary function of leadership was the manipulation of culture. An equally influential writer, Senge , talks about the building of a vision, purpose and values as the ‘governing ideas’ of the organization. In successful companies, leaders are supposed to deliberately construct values and teach their people in training sessions to act according to them. The leader forms a personal vision and builds it into a shared vision through ongoing dialogue in which people suspend their assumptions and listen to each other. So we now think in terms of a distinction between leaders as the top people who articulate visions and provide direction and a hierarchy of managers who implement what is chosen by their leaders, all in the interests of shareholders. According to this dominant discourse, the leader is presented as an unconstrained, autonomous individual with the ability to choose what happens to an organisation, while managers are presented as highly constrained individuals who must be aligned to the leader’s direction and implement the actions required to follow it.

Since the 1990s, there has been an increasingly rapid growth in the provision of leadership development programmes, provided not just by the elite business schools and consultancies but even more by the education and development departments of most organisations. Leadership academies and programmes have been established by governments and others to provide for leadership development, for example: the International Leadership Association, the Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK, and programmes for the military, defence, health and higher education. Even academic researchers at universities are invited to go on a leadership programme. This trend is not confined to the UK but is as much in evidence throughout Europe and North America. Such programmes are now common throughout the developing countries too. Participants on these programmes are introduced to one or more of the leadership theories indicated in the previous section, usually presented in a ‘model’ claimed to be specific to the sector mounting the programmes. It is quite common for participants to be presented with: exercises using various games; experience of the theatre, for example, actors and directors may interpret the leadership qualities of, say, Shakespeare’s Henry V; conducting an orchestra; engaging in various outdoor activities such as trekking through the wilds and dealing with hazards such as mountains and river crossings. The aim is for participants to have the experience of leading teams in addition to understanding the theories of leadership so that they will be more likely to apply them in practice. Also participants are often asked to identify the leadership qualities of great leaders, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, so that they might imitate them in order to improve their own leadership skills.

Consider the nature of the leadership models that are being provided as the basis for leadership development. An example is provided by the model of leadership used in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) Leadership Programmes. The model is depicted as a circle. The top of the circle lists the activities required for leaders to set the direction, which are: broad scanning, intellectual flexibility, seizing the future, driving for results and displaying political astuteness. The bottom half of the circle lists the leadership activities required to deliver the service and these are: leading change through people, holding to account, empowering others, effective and strategic influencing and collaborative working. The middle of the circle represents the personal qualities required of leaders: self-belief, self-awareness, self-management, drive for improvement, and personal integrity.

The first point to note is that although developed specifically for the NHS, it is fundamentally not all that different to any others and all are immediately recognisable as reflections of the dominant discourse on leadership and strategy in the literature. It is immediately apparent how abstract, idealised and edifying these models all are. It is also interesting that these lists of activities and traits are presented in a simple rational sounding manner as if each item on the list is well understood. However, I would argue that there is not one item on these lists that is well understood – all continue to be the subjects of debate.

Furthermore, it is taken for granted that the activities identified in the models actually are what ‘leaders’ normally do in their daily work lives. Alvesson and Sveningsson argue that the leadership literature pays little attention to the more mundane tasks that leaders and mangers carry out. In their interviews with leaders and managers, however, they found that those interviewed themselves drew attention to the more mundane aspects of their work. These mundane tasks include ‘administration, solving practical and technical problems, giving and asking for information, chatting, gossiping, listening and creating a good working atmosphere . They argue that what leaders actually do does not differ all that much from what non-leaders do – they problematize the notion of leadership being something extraordinary, constituting a distinct and special kind of work. In another study the same authors reported how managers as leaders describe their work in terms of visions, values and strategies, claiming to refrain from directing the details of the work those reporting to them carry out. However, when asked to be specific, these same manager-leaders talk about administrative tasks and how it is necessary for them to be directive with regard to the work of those who report to them. When they talk about leadership they dismiss micro-management as bad leadership but when they describe what they do the description indicates that in actuality leaders and managers do engage significantly in micro-management. The authors conclude that the rhetoric employed therefore does not describe what managers and leaders actually do. I would draw attention to this finding that managers make one statement, micro management is bad but then later in another context claim that it is something they have to do and so something good. This is a neat example of Georg Orwell’s 1984 Doublethink where people hold two contradictory statements but do not notice the contradiction.

Finally, there are no leaders anywhere who are unconstrained – every leader has to deal in some way with a higher leader or some group to which they are accountable. The tight constraints on leaders are ignored in the edifying, idealised models of leadership in the dominant discourse.

So are managers and leaders being put thorough all these leadership programmes because they are not doing what the models define as the ‘best’ way to lead? Are they to leave behind the more mundane activities they find themselves spending time on and shake off the constraints? It seems clear that the programmes aim to produce some kind of personal change in participants so that they willingly carry out what is required to be an effective, good leader. And once they willingly start acting according to the new values of leadership, just how will they inspire others to commit to their visions and planned directions? Not surprisingly, there are rather different views on what is involved in these change processes.

One answer to this question is typified by the learning organisation theory of Senge . Leaders inspire people by inviting them into dialogue where they suspend assumptions and so learn and change. Well intentioned rational people, engaged in dialogue under inspiring leaders with vision will willingly change. The contention here is that double loop , or generative, learning takes place if leaders develop the right capacities for such learning. These capacities produce voluntary learning which people find pleasurable and inspiring. The problem, however, is that this view of learning is a highly idealistic and simplistic view of human nature taking no account of threats to identity, power relations, conflicting ideologies, conflictual politics and anxiety. The influential leadership scholar, Schein , whose ideas were briefly mentioned in a previous section, takes a very different view and thinks that leaders can only bring about generative learning and change cultures through processes of coercive persuasion.

In 1961, Schein published a book on his research into the interrogation and indoctrination of military and civilian prisoners in China during the Korean War in the 1950s. These prisoners included significant numbers of foreigners and he noticed that when they were repatriated, there was one group who had submitted to the interrogation and indoctrination, and amongst other things signed confessions of crimes they had not performed. In order to avoid being subjected to unbearable pressure, they collaborated and allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes. However, they never really accepted their guilt and as soon as they were free, they abandoned the compliant, collaborative ways of thinking they had feigned. They were coerced but had not been persuaded; they had simply engaged in superficial, adaptive learning. However, there was also a significant group of freed prisoners who continued to believe that they had been guilty of betraying the people and were grateful for the way the Chinese captors had treated them. Schein claims that these people had undergone a significant learning process, although an undesirable one from our point of view. They had not engaged simply in adaptive learning but in double loop, generative learning in that they had been persuaded to change their beliefs though coercion. Schein describes the process this group went through as coercive persuasion, popularly known as brainwashing, which he likened to a conversion process. He then goes on to argue that all culture change requires generative learning, which people resist, so it will only come about in a process of coercive persuasion. It is the leader, the one whose role it is to bring about generative learning and change cultures, who must instigate and organise this process. Efforts to empower people and make them generative learners so that they become more productive and creative requires a major move in the thinking of organisational members who are used to bureaucratic norms and top down control systems. They have to be coercively persuaded to change the way they think – this is what generative learning is according to Schein.

Coercive persuasion is conducted using a number of techniques of power:

1. Those who are to be coercively persuaded are prevented in some way from leaving the learning experience, for example, through a feeling that they will lose their livelihood if they leave. It is very difficult for anyone in an organisation to decline an invitation to a change or leadership programme and nearly impossible to leave once one is there.
2. The learners must be subjected to intense interpersonal and psychological pressure to destabilise their individual senses of self and disconfirm current beliefs and values. The level of survival anxiety must be high so that people surrender psychologically and put themselves into the hands of those providing the learning experience. Many people find the prospect of attending some compulsory training programme highly anxiety provoking. They fear exposing themselves and often feel that their performance on the programme will be judged and their managers informed. Also many of the games and exercises people on programmes find they must engage in are infantilising and create intense dynamics of dependency.
3. The learners are put into teams so that those at more advanced stages of moving to the new culture can mentor those at less advanced stages. Peer pressure plays a part in shifting doubt and also in creating feelings of safety. The emphasis on teams and team work is apparent on most programmes and this applies particularly to leadership development programmes where participants must learn how to be team members and how to run effective teams as team leader. The pressures team members place on each other clearly produce compliance but the feeling of belonging that goes along with this also produces feelings of safety in anxiety provoking situations.
4. The team is rewarded if all its members demonstrate that they have learned the new collective values. For example, it is widespread practice on leadership programmes for some admired senior executive to attend the end of the programme to listen to team presentations. Teams demonstrating that they have learned what they were supposed to learn and so have supposedly become more creative are rewarded with the praise of the admired senior executive.
5. The new values or points of view are presented in many different forms such as lectures and informal discussions among team members, or games and exercises.

As these techniques are applied, Schein holds that people experience cognitive redefinition as concepts and values are semantically redefined and standards, or anchors, of judgment are altered. The techniques are all used on many leadership programmes and at least some of them are used on most. The question, however, is whether they do produce changes in what people believe.

Richard Ofshe argues that reform programs operating according to the techniques of coercive persuasion have a very poor record of actually changing the beliefs of individuals, so that on this criterion they are abject failures and a waste of money. But on the basis of other criteria, he says they are impressive. They are impressive in their ability to re-socialise people (who he calls targets) so preparing them to conduct themselves in an appropriate way for the roles they are to take up in their organisations. For him, reform programs are role-training regimes.

So, what programmes of coercive persuasion accomplish is not what Schein seems to claim. He argues that generative learning requires coercive persuasion. However, what he discovered in his study of prisoners subjected to coercive persuasion was that only some people succumb to it. Most adapted on the surface and waited for freedom. I would argue that the same pattern occurs in leadership and other change programmes. The participants show all the appearance of making the change in public but in private they display well developed skills of resistance . I think Ofshe’s observation is insightful. The programmes do not really change the beliefs of many people but they do train them in the public display of willing acceptance. Ofshe is correct, I think, in regarding them as role-training exercises and I will suggest, in the next section, that the roles people are trained for in leadership and many other types of training programme are those of the agents of disciplinary power.

Taking account of these points on coercive persuasion leads one to a very different conceptualisation of what role leadership and leadership training actually plays in our society. Despite leaders being presented as bringers of change and leadership development as the process of acquiring the skills necessary to bring about change, in fact what is actually happening is that leaders are bringers of order and continuity and leadership development programmes are training them in the kind of conformity required to sustain order and continuity. Foucault analyses the evolution of the modern disciplinary society and identifies the techniques of disciplinary power: hierarchical observation, normalising judgments and corrective training. I would argue that today’s leaders are the agents of discipline in society and processes of training large number of managers as leaders is a key activity sustaining the disciplinary society. Leadership and leadership development programmes are far more about order and discipline than they are about change and creativity.

5 thoughts on “Leadership as the Agency of Disciplinary Power

  1. superpagu

    As a leader/manager (have never actually found out when I’m “doing the right things” or “do the things right”), and as participant in a leader development program at an Execitive MBA, I must admit that you (again) are on to something here Ralph.

    However, I do see this “development process” as a kind of conceptual ploy, that (hopefully) can teach me a little bit more about myself and what I do as a practitioner. The actual models we use might not be that useful, but íf taken as a catalyst for reflection some of them actually work.

  2. Richard Simpson

    As an executive ‘coach in training’ I found your post very interesting. If business was seen as a system and leaders as agents in that system then I think you’re right that leadership training is about maintaining homeostasis – survival in the context that change management is about responding to signals and information in the system and is not particularly radical. If it wasn’t, then businesses wouldn’t pay for it because they want, above all, to survive. As Jesus may have said: A prophet is not without honour save in his own system.

  3. Daniel Goodwin

    I think this post is founded upon quite a specific definition
    of leadership, based more around classifications of the noun ‘the leader’ than the verb ‘to lead’. In that context I agree with the assertion that leaders, those in formal leadership positions as outlined here, are indeed the keepers of the organisational narrative and culture together with the organisational discourse of discipline.

    But – how do you address the aim that I have, which is to foster the practice of leadership and the development of individual creativity and innovation throughout the organisation? My intention is that the organisation’s culture becomes one where people throughout the structure can challenge and change the narrative, and ‘straight’ leadership position play and managerialism are undesirable and insufficient responses.

    I guess that you could say that by doing so then people who are uncomfortable with this approach may feel shunned and disciplined in precisely the way you outline here. However the point of an organisation is to achieve positive outcomes for all those it affects, not simply to survive with everyone on board.

  4. Chris Rodgers


    You make a very interesting point about the contradiction that is implicit in the currently dominant view of organizational leadership (as supposedly practised by those in formal leadership positions), and in the development programmes and formal leadership practices that flow from it. The false dichotomy between leadership and management, which you touch upon in your opening paragraph, serves only to hide this contradiction still further.

    Although leadership is supposed to be about creativity, innovation and change, and about empowering staff to pursue the leader’s assumed-to-be far-sighted and inspiring vision, the reality is – as you say – much more mundane. Most managers that I work with are trying to make a difference in the complex, uncertain and ambiguous conditions of everyday organizational life. Despite the formal trappings, decisions arising wholly from rational analysis of ‘the facts’ and step-by-step decision-making are rare – if they exist at all. In reality, people make progress through informal interactions, ad hoc sensemaking conversations, ongoing political accommodations, and plain, common-or-garden ‘muddling through’.

    This is not a matter of incompetence. Far from it. But it would be portrayed as such if it were not to be covered over by the superficial gloss of management speak (or should that be leadership speak) and post-hoc rationalization that savvy political behaviour demands. Unfortunately, this reinforces the illusion that leadership is a rational, scientific endeavour practised by the few, rather than a complex social process enacted by the many. This has become so ingrained that managers who sense that ‘it isn’t really like that’ often find it extremely difficult to acknowledge this openly. Or to overcome the culturally embedded patterns of response that further sustain the status quo.

    In other words, what you refer to as the dominant management discourse itself forces compliance, through the expectations of rationality, predictability and control that it embodies; the language that these expectations generate; and the ‘measures of competence’ that these imply.


  5. thecoughingcrow

    Dear Ralph, this is a very interesting perspective on leadership and leading that you present here. The term leader, just as the term entrepreneur, always make me suspicious and curious at the same time, because in our society they are used in paradoxical ways. On the one hand, we assume that everybody can learn everything (assuming both a cartesian view of knowledge and a funny believe that we are all clones, i.e. totaly equal), and consequently we teach “leadership” and “entrepreneurship”. On the other hand, if we present examples of what we call “real” leaders who are worth to imitate (a paradox in itself regarding leadership), we describe and mystify these people in a way that often comes close to worshiping. And often what we identify to make a “real” leader, can only be described to be very relational and irrational (e.g. accepting and bearing negative consequences such as imprisonment, death, poverty), thus contradicting our rationality dominated view of the world. Thus, there is something that I feel is not only silenced in the dominant discourse that you describe so well, but which is also missing here (even though I know it is an issue in the thinking of complex responsive processes). Most people talk about the powers of leaders (coercive or not) but only few talk about the constraints which especially come along with the responsibilities that these powers entail. It might be that a reason for this is that most people holding a leader-title today are managers who have actually been trained to thrive and perform in systems of order and obedience, often for years, before time, expectations and obligations washed them in leadership positions. Another reasons might be the thinking that the only way is up, and that everyone can achieve everything if they just want to and work hard – without ever asking (themselves) if they really want to and can. Maybe they rise beyond their level of qualification or talent? This is not meant to be arrogant, it is meant as a criticism of our hierarchical and divisional view of professions and knowledge often neglecting knowing, where the skills and maybe the real talent of, for example, a carpenter regarding status and importance for many always ranks below a doctor or investment banker.
    “Real” leaders such as Mandela, Ghandi, Malcom X, or others had something that I believe is hard to learn: authenticity. They believed in what they preached, they were fully aware of and accepting the responsibility of their action. They knew and stood up to their limitations, and were not too proud or vain to ask for help. They took the consequences of these responsibilities themselves – First(!) not beheading one of their supporters (I believe they did not talk about subordinates) in their place. This slightly exaggerated, heroic picture of a “real” leader, in my opinion illustrates one of the most striking differences today when we talk about leaders, that many who are called leader only take the consequences of their action if they are caught red-handed, pants down, silver in their pocket (think about the former German minister of defense Mr. Guttenberg, Mr. Maddoff, Strauss Kahn, and many more). Todays leaders are often masters of “deniability”.
    The leadership programs you describe so well have an ironic dimension, I think, they seem like a bunch of hens theorizing how to become roosters, or if they aim high: foxes, in order to produce more eggs. They often miss the interdependent balance between hens, roosters, eggs and sustainability.
    But let us face the facts: most of us are “keepers” not “creators” and in many, many situations this is also great! Without bureaucracy no democracy. Without democracy no rule of law, no human rights, no emancipation, etc.. I do not believe that everyone can learn leadership as such, but I am convinced that everyone can learn to think reflexive and develop specific skills, knowledge and knowing, which qualify to lead, maybe unforeseen and unexpected, but certainly only in a fitting context where he or she can act authentically. This is the basis to feel free and independent enough to be creative, brave and committed enough to master change. And then there is the whole issue of timing, but that is another story…



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