Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Thinking differently about leadership: a critical history of the form and formation of leadership studies

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posted on 2021-11-13, 18:41 authored by Wilson, Suze

We have come to live in an age where leadership is the solution, regardless of the problem. Today, managers are called on to provide leadership which is ‘visionary’, ‘charismatic’, ‘transformational’ and ‘authentic’ in nature. This is what ‘followers’ are said to need to perform to their potential. The efforts of the academy in promoting these ideas means they are typically understood as modern, enlightened and grounded in scientific research. Taking a critical step back, this study examines why we have come to understand leadership in this way.  Adopting a Foucauldian methodology, the study comprises three case studies which examine Classical Greek, 16th century European and modern scholarly discourses on leadership. The analysis foregrounds change and continuity in leadership thought and examines the underpinning assumptions, problematizations and processes of formation which gave rise to these truth claims. The relationship and subjectivity effects produced by these discourses along with their wider social function are also considered.  What the study reveals is that our current understanding of leadership is not grounded in an approach more enlightened and truthful than anything that has come before. Rather, just as at other times in the past, it is contemporary problematizations, politically-informed processes of formation and the epistemological and methodological preferences of our age which profoundly shape what is understood to constitute the truth about leadership.  Through showing how leadership has been thought of at different points in time, this thesis argues that far from being a stable enduring fact of human nature now revealed to us by modern science, as is typically assumed, leadership is most usefully understood as an unstable social invention, morphing in form, function and effect in response to changing norms, values and circumstances. Consistent with this understanding, a new approach to theory-building for organizational leadership studies is offered. This study shows, then, why we ought to think differently about leadership and offers a means by which this can occur.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

910402 Management

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

Victoria Management School


Cummings, Stephen; Proctor-Thomson, Sarah