Book review: Leadership: A Critical Text by Simon Western

Book review: Leadership: A Critical Text by Simon Western
Leadership: A Critical Text
Genre: Leadership

Paperback | 456 pp. | SAGE publications | | 3rd. Edition
Buy on Amazon
5.0 rating

Simon Western’s book “Leadership: A Critical Text” is in its third edition. It draws on a holistic framework built to understand Leadership from a critical-analysis standpoint and is the fruit of disciplined and structured research spanning years of Leadership literature. It is also a complex reading. It does not try to dissimulate the complexity of the endeavour hiding behind simplistic approaches. Plus, I also believe this book is the result of a particular educational and “life” path of than author, who has been able to synthesise views and practice that range from blue-collar work to nursing, from psychology to psychiatric work, eventually landing into academia investigating Leadership at the limes between behavioural science and organisation. I mention this because part of the merit that Western has is to have been able to experiment firsthand the complexity of Leadership at work, something that many academics often miss.

On the other side, this book is also somewhat problematic. It challenges the foundational assumption of most leadership books and approaches: the idea that a “good leadership” model/style/type exists. As I have clearly shown in my recent (very long) article on Leadership Models, the number of Leadership theories is abnormous. Yet in most models, there is a persistent intent to demonstrate that one “good leadership style” exists. Western, despite being seen a promoter of a new “leadership model” by many, instead advocates that all the four discourses of Leadership that he has identified have their merit and points of attention. They are all highly sensitive on context and the system to which they are applied.

Leadership: A Critical Text is a continuous source of inspiration and knowledge, spanning many different domains of human experience. It shows in itself one of the main features of the eco-leadership Discourse that Western identifies: networking. Leadership, instead of being reduced to an element of one domain of knowledge, becomes the result of a web of themes, spanning philosophy, physics, psychology and so on. With the result that we need to accept the underlying complexity of understanding a concept for which each of us possesses a basic definition.

Leadership is an idea we are constantly at work with, and play with.

Simon Western, Leadership: A Critical Text, page 27

As Western himself writes in the epilogue, this is a book that is difficult to summarize. It needs to be read, digested and probably read once more. Let me, however, pick up a few points that he makes in the book, that are very important not only to understand his reasoning, but also to start re-thinking the way we intend Leadership.

The complexity of defining leadership

Western recognises the complexity of finding a definition of Leadership that can be accepted universally. Other researchers have tried to do so. He instead agrees with this multitude of meanings precisely as a sign of the complexity of researching this domain, and of its extension, touching many different types of settings, organisations, people, cultures.

We experience leadership as an idea, we give it meanings, names, structure and form, attributing formal and informal social roles to leaders and followers. Leadership is performed on us, within us, between us, and all around us. Leadership is not symmetrical and neat, but asymmetrical, dynamic and complex. How we experience leadership depends on our personal history, our collective socialization and the context.

Simon Western, Leadership: A Critical Text, page 51

It is not therefore much of a problem of definition, but instead of experience, which also gives a different taste and meaning in the remainder of the book.

The concept of Discourse

Western uses the concept of Discourse derived from Philosophy, and particularly by the work of Foucault. His use of Discourse as ‘systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak’, suits particularly well the concept of Leadership, because of its link with Power. In a specific context, the Discourse essentially states what can be said and what can’t.

Acknowledging and naming an underlying discourse can be liberating as it brings something that was hidden into the open, allowing it to be thought about and making it debatable and contestable, e.g. understanding the discourses around sexuality and how the ‘hetero-normative’ discourse marginalizes and undermines single people and gay people.

Simon Western, Leadership: A Critical Text, page 155

The concept of Discourse can be a bit unsettling at the beginning, and probably also a bit cloudy. It initially feels detached from reality, but the truth is that it feels convenient at the end, because it is observable. When Western analyses the concept of leadership symptoms, seen from a psychoanalytical perspective, he gives further proofs, again with an image that is not immediately easy to grasp, about the way we can better understand how each Leadership discourse is embodied in the lives of many types of organisations.

The Four Discourses of Leadership

Western identifies Four Discourses of Leadership.

  1. The Controller Leadership discourse: ‘Controlling resources to maximise efficiency’. 
    Controller Leadership is underpinned by scientific rationalism and the drive for efficiency and productivity. It became dominant as industrialisation took place, moving from the factory to the office. Following its demise, as the Therapist approach became dominant, new forms of leadership control are now rapidly rising as the digital age produces audit cultures and algorithmic management. Controller Leadership is vital in all organisations to ensure management control systems deliver success. The dangers arise when Controller Leadership dominates at the expense of more humane and strategic approaches.
  2. The Therapist Leadership discourse: ‘Happy workers are more productive workers’.
    Therapist Leadership focuses on relationships and motivation. It emerged in the post-war period reflecting the endeavour to humanise and democratise the workplace and society. It became dominant after the 1960s boom in individualism and as therapy culture entered the workplace through the human relations movement. Therapist Leaders are excellent with people but can create dependencies, and lack the strategic vision to see the big picture.
  3. The Messiah Leadership discourse: ‘Vision and strong cultures’.
    Messiah Leadership focuses on transformational leaders who provide vision and lead by creating strong corporate cultures. The Messiah discourse began to dominate from the early 1980s, and it remains a robust discourse today. Visionary leaders and strong cultures are essential, their weakness is when strong cultures turn into conformist and totalising cultures.
  4. The Eco-Leadership discourse: ‘Connectivity, networks, and (ethics)’.
    Eco-Leaders conceptualise organisations as ‘ecosystems within wider ecosystems’. Their focus is on networks, connectivity and interdependence breaking down silos and distributing Leadership widely. They make strong connections with external ecosystems, i.e. with stakeholders, customers, regulators and wider society. Commercial Eco-Leadership describes how companies utilise new technology and platform economics to exploit the power of networks. Ethical Eco-Leadership aligns technological, people and environmental networks. They see the connections between utilising digital platforms, distributing Leadership and placing ecological values at the heart of their leadership task.

The below table summarises the key characteristics of each Discourse.

Table: Summary of the four discourses of leadership. Source: Simon Western, Leadership: A Critical Text, page 308
Table: Summary of the four discourses of leadership. Source: Simon Western, Leadership: A Critical Text, page 308

A critique on the meta-discourse idea

There is only one element of this book that I have not fully digested. And it is the idea that the “eco-leadership” discourse is a “meta-discourse”, capable of encompassing the ones that preceded it. This is the only moment where Western seems to slip into the normative approach of so many leadership authors that we know, suggesting what feels like a recommendation for a “Good Model”. He is cautious about this, but still, there is the feeling of a proposal and preference that slightly contrasts with the idea that each Discourse has both criteria for validity and shortcomings. If the Discourse does trace a path of evolution, then the more recent once should embed the previous ones. If instead, it is not an evolution, but merely a change process, then there should not be a model that holistically encompasses them all.

The idea of the eco-leadership Discourse is appealing and is a lot more consistent than some models that suggest a complete “revolution” of the forms of organisation of work that we have been used to see. The problem is that, probably, it is much more difficult to identify with the characteristics of the Eco-Leader. I think that a lot of the features of ethical and post-modern consciousness that Western highlights are for sure relevant, but it’s yet to be proven if they will become a majority and infuse a dominant discourse. To me, a lot of the commercial eco-leadership resemble some of the lessons of the past, with further exploitation of technology.

Conclusion

Despite the note above, I feel this book is a must-read for anybody interested in Leadership and organisational development. The chapters on Diversity, Culture and Leadership Development are in their treasures of enormous value. It helps to frame the topic from an entirely different angle. But it also pushes forward, to help redefine concepts such as that of Work, or the role of HR.

Read it once. Maybe twice (as I will for sure do again). And let me know what you think.

Sergio Caredda - Blog Signature
Leadership: A Critical Text
Genre: Leadership | Rating: 5/5
By Simon Western
Paperback | 456 pp. | SAGE publications | 22/04/2019 | 3rd. Edition
ISBN: 9781526459527
Buy on Amazon

Leadership: A Critical Text Reviews on GoodReads

  1. Sergio thanks for such a thoughtful review- very much appreciated. I am responding to a couple of the points you make (which are very on the mark- as I encounter these elsewhere in my work).
    Not Evolutionary
    I am not claiming an evolutionary approach and I believe this idea is very problematic in the Integral leadership thinking. I do not think there is a natural evolving towards a more progressive state, but do think that economics, social and cultural forces shape organisations and leadership and that these forces are rarely accounted for in leadership studies. From our histories and experience we can and do strive for improvement and learn from our pasts- as well as repeat the mistakes (note the return on nationalism and populist political leadership). I am not saying that Messiah Leadership is an improvement on Therapist leadership at all. Both have merits and both have shadow sides and context is everything. In my book Global Leadership Perspectives, Insights and Analysis, regional authors from around the world discuss how culture, history politics shape todays leadership in their countries. I find that all 4 discourses show up in all different regions and cultures – but with a very specific flavour. Strikingly Eco-Leadership shows up alongside Controller leadership as a dominant force in unexpected places e.g. China. Also note how Controller leadership is on the rise again (audit culture, target culture, algorithmic management) due to the new mobile technologies and mass data collection. We are now controlled not by the factory supervisor but by the mobile device that monitors us. Discourses shaped by technologies and social change …

    Eco-Leadership as a meta-discourse.
    My work develops through learning from practice. Having worked internationally in organisations from diverse sectors for over a decade, 2 things become clearer for me.
    1. That all the four discourses are necessary and useful (and can be problematic and have a shadow side). The question is in what balance and which should dominate in any given setting and context. This depends on the product/service, the region, the department (finance would have more Controller perhaps than Customer service)
    2. To make the above judgement and to try and influence change to ensure the discourse provide the right leadership for any given context must take an Eco-Leadership approach. Eco-Leadership therefore has a dual role- it is one of the four discourses and it acts as a meta-discourse guiding the others. It differs from the other 3 as it embodies distributed leadership, systems and networks approaches. It is therefore uniquely placed to assess, learn from and adapt the internal ecosystems of an organisation in relation to the external tech-social-environmental ecosystems that disrupt and change. E.G. When Covid19 Pandemic strikes, an Eco-Leadership position is necessary. Controller leadership is required to ensure safety in office- clear rules for social distancing following a science and rationality approach. Therapist leadership is required to allay anxiety, to ensure clear communication, to listen to employees and learn about virtual work and its impact etc. Messiah Leadership is needed to retain a strong culture in the company in the face of radical change and disruption taking place, plus a vision for the future is needed that accommodates the new pandemic reality. Eco-Leadership is required to distribute leadership further- virtual work means more freedom and more responsibility and leadership needs to be taken by employees everywhere- to remain safe and mentally healthy and to adapt to innovative the new conditions requires central control to give way to Eco-leadership at the edges.

    The challenge of working with Eco-Leadership is that in the west we find it difficult to work with paradox and non-binaries. The other 3 discourses are easy- we know them, we can attribute individuals, teams, CEOS and ourselves to these approaches. Eco-Leadership offers a less tangible approach- harder to pin down, less about the individual and more about the distributed nature of leadership in the network. Also its a non-binary as its both one of the four, and takes up a different position.
    The four discourses circulate and are fluid pending on context and culture- The Eco-Leadership discourse influences this circulation.

    It is both in the organisation functioning as a discourse alongside others, and it sits at the edge- assessing the external ecosystems and influencing the discourses within the organisation accordingly to adapt to disruption, to leverage advantage. Todays digital age, environmental crisis and the rapid social changes taking place, do demand we pay attention to the social, technological and environmental ecosystems that organisations work within- This attention positions Eco-Leadership as a particularly important discourse of these times.

    Thank you for stimulating my response- I hope it helps!

    • Thanks, Simon for the extensive feedback.
      On the evolutionary piece, I’m with you. I think we keep getting this eschatological view in the West that everything needs to evolve… and by doing so why loose insights that directionality doesn’t necessarily exist, and that we can move to the future by preserving (or rediscovering) elements from the past for example. As I read your book, I took mental note of how much the first three discourses have probably been applied, in some shape and form, also in the past. And probably some elements also of Eco-Leadership (I’m reading about some of the Guilds developed in the past, but also how the Venice republic developed and expanded.

      On the Eco-Leadership as a meta-discourse, probably it is just that this concept is the most complicated to grasp. But I understand now more your intentions. As well as the complexity being a “moving subject”. I believe the example of the current working-from-home situation has shown how much some leadership discourses don’t fit this reality. Yet some organisations are not equipped with this “eco-leadership” logic at all. And getting them on board is not easy.

      Thanks again for this book, really insightful and thought provoking.

      Sergio

  2. […] that is not uniquely defined, but where we can trace some elements of Servant leadership. If using Simon Western’s Discourses, we are in a Commercial Eco-leadership discourse with a few details still evolving. The diffused […]

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