Leadership: from ‘mainstream’ to critical perspectives

Leadership is a phenomenon that has received much attention in both academic and practitioner circles. However, there is still little agreement on a single definition of leadership, or how it should be studied. Traditionally, ‘mainstream’ studies assume that leadership is simply the product of individual leaders, and thus focus on attempting to draw out their various traits, styles, behaviours and skills (e.g. Fulop and Linstead, 2006; Jackson and Parry, 2008). Furthermore, Grint (1997) notes that from this perspective, leaders are often cast as romanticised heroes who are able to single-handedly lead organisations to success. In recent years however, scholars located within the Critical Leadership Studies (CLS) paradigm—such as Collinson (2011) and Alvesson and Spicer (2012)—have sought to question the foundations of how leadership is conceptualised, instead seeing it as a socially constructed process, which is emergent and embedded in context and culture, and decided upon through an ongoing process of meaning making and reality definition (Smircich and Morgan, 1988; Fairhurst and Grant, 2010). Rather than concentrating their efforts on what leaders do, emphasis is placed on seeking to understand what leadership actually is. In doing this, theorists have been keen to simultaneously emphasise the ‘dark side’ of mainstream leadership research, and have highlighted the negative and destructive potential of relying on single individuals (Gemmil and Oakley, 1992; Calás and Smircich, 1991). This brings up a number of interesting questions: Is ‘leadership’ always a positive phenomenon? What are some of the potential problems of relying on mainstream conceptualisations? In this post-bureaucratic age, is it really best to understand leadership as something that only a select few can perform? Or can it be redefined as a more collective process? These issues are all areas of debate within contemporary leadership studies, and offer a number of different avenues for a literature review of the topic.

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