Leadership, the psychoanalytic critique

30/10/2012 § 3 Comments

This is the second of four reviews of The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, each through a different lens. In the last post, it was a literary critique. This post is the psychoanalytic critique.

The reason for the multiple critiques is this: I read these popular management books from time to time, to understand the work world and learn some management skills. But they don’t really make sense to me. If they were true — if all we needed were seven habits to be highly successful or five practices to be good leaders or 60 seconds to accomplish management tasks — then we wouldn’t need the hundreds (thousands?) of books published each year. They are, it seems, a bit like weight-loss books. Their success as a product depends on their failure to deliver results.

Kouzes and Posner advocate a specific style of leadership. This isn’t ‘fake it ’till you make it’. Real leaders get in touch with their core values, align those values with the organisation, engage their employees through their values, and inspire them to be better. This isn’t so much about getting people to do things. It’s about getting them to want to do things.

Organization Studies devoted the September 2012 issue to ‘What can psychoanalysis offer organization studies today?‘. Costas and Taheri provided their perspective on the return of the primal father through the modern theme of authentic leadership. They argued that ‘authentic’ leadership, as opposed to leadership via position and hierarchy, has the potential to be either liberating or repressive. They used the Lacanian discourses to argue that the modern version of leadership — which stresses connecting leaders’ values with the organisation and the employees or team members, and which suggests giving power and discretion to employees to get the best out of them — could be a movement from the master’s discourse to the analyst’s discourse. In that case, workers can potentially achieve the sort of liberation that psychoanalysis can provide. But, it could also be a movement away from the post-Oedipal structure to the primal father, who sees and wants and consumes. In that case, employees are left without the protection of the symbolic structure and are at the mercy of the boss/primal father.

I see it differently, relying more on Seminar XX and less on the four discourses. In Seminar XX, Lacan discusses two positions with respective to the phallic signifier, the masculine and feminine positions. Zizek has a nice, short essay on this. The Leadership Challenge and authentic leadership generally claim to be moving away from a dictatorial approach, which on the surface seems to be a movement away from hierarchy and therefore phallocentrism. However, the explanation for how this new paradigm actually works re-asserts the primacy of a specific phallic signifier. The explanation is that employees will learn how their behaviours contribute to business success. Their behaviours will then be regulated not by the boss but by the market.

This interpretation doesn’t necessarily take you to the primal father; there is still system of signifiers, just a different phallus. It also doesn’t take you directly to the analyst’s discourse, which depends on keeping a structure but recognising its inherent emptiness. Instead, it suggests a reinvigorated phallic function. But, as Zizek points out, the paradox is that ‘the phallic function coincides with its own self-limitation’. Reinvigorating it also reinvigorates its limitation. If we are forced to admit, finally, that we are ‘bound by the prison rules’, then authentic leadership may actually ‘[open] up a space for true hope’.

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§ 3 Responses to Leadership, the psychoanalytic critique

  • Andrew says:

    Great critique Bill, and I agree that the resources in Encore provide a more relevant and useful reading of ‘authentic’ leadership. In general I think Costas and Taheri have misread the discourse of the analyst in their text, in that ‘authenticity’ is more likely another attempt by the University to satisfy the hysterical management community – who are constantly calling for answers to why their businesses are failing. The analyst might interpret a very different answer…

    Your final point does however need a little unpacking (in my lacking analysis ;-)). I think Zizek’s argument may fall over a bit particularly if we carefully follow Lacan in XX. This is around the phallic paradox he talks about exposing the spilt in the Master for all to see – but rather than allowing us to see the walls of the prison this actually propels the Master to ever greater efforts in an attempt to ‘plaster over the cracks’ as you put it in a previous post. This is what I have called the cycles of phallic jouissance, and what spurns the mass production of pop-management and weight-loss books. This analysis suggests that there will actually never be a ‘final admission’ because the prison rules require the master to be masterful. Any split shown will be sutured by a new pop-moment.

    • Bill says:

      When I read Zizek’s linked essay, I did struggle with this ‘space for a true hope’. If the master is strengthened, how is there hope? I’ll back away from the idea of a final admission — my Catholic past and hopes of a Second Coming are shining through — and suggest instead that it opens up the possibility of a process or movement. This may sound Deleuzian, but its motive force is Lacanian.

      We could think about Zizek’s point a different way, suggested by the feminine position from Seminar XX — particularly the ‘not all x are under the phallus’. I have heard this interpreted as a recognition of becoming, of process. There are potential x’s, possible x’s, developing x’s, that are not (yet) organised by the master signifier. This is a recognition that the symbolic order is a process imposed, even if it is necessary for language, etc. And so, it is a recognition that it is not absolute, universal, and timeless. That provides hope that things don’t have to be the way they are — my symptoms are not permanent.

      Getting back to leadership, it offers the possibility of less anxiety as we recognise the necessary prison of leadership for what it is, but reject the identification that ‘authentic leadership’ seems to demand. It doesn’t mean we leave the cycles of jouissance (which is a lovely way to think about it), but we might be able to moderate the highs and lows.

  • [...] models and trying to figure out what they mean for leadership. [EC note: here are the first and second reviews] One model is the $20 bill on the footpath. It’s an old economics joke. An economics [...]

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