Wheels on the Wagon

November 9, 2008

faded old bandwagonThe wagon of neoliberal ideology rolls on, despite the rotting of its chassis. As Paul Mason says, writing in the New Statesman,  ‘an ideology does three things: it justifies the economic dominance of a ruling group; it is transmitted through that  group’s control of the media and education; and it describes the experience of millions of people accurately enough for them to accept it as truth’[i]. While Alan Greenspan’s post-Lehman Brothers congressional testimony may have marked the collapse of the neoliberal ideology, that ideology persists, as Mason states, as a dominant philosophy that underpins the educational practices of business schools (at least). Tariq Ali goes a step further and claims that the pillars of the Washington Consensus world order have been viewed as almost divine institutions whose authority derived from the mere fact of their existence [ii]. When the popular press muckrake over the recent falls from grace of the god-like banking masters of the universe, can we expect a similar casting out of the divine institution of neoliberalism from the curricula, methodologies and philosophies of business-schools – those elite clearing houses of the language of market fundamentalism, anti-statism, and deregulation? What cataclysms, above and beyond the bankruptcy of the neoliberal ideology itself, are left to fall on those educational institutions tasked with professionalizing the executant class of that ideology? None.

Then what counts as progressivism in the education of executants of the post-neoliberal world order is surely any pedagogic platform from which the failings of that old world order are addressed, in the manner talked about in this blog. And what better place to seed a new (Obama-esque?) post-neoliberal lexicon than from business schools themselves – the venerable coaching houses of most management and organisational bandwagons. The register of such a revolutionary lexicon is defiance towards an old guard that persists in championing Friedman-ite shareholder profit over human emancipation. The logic of this new lexicon is polarizing, deciding whether you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. As Philip Kovacs says, ‘I think there is a moment here where we can and should separate business leaders who genuinely want to contribute to the world we share (we’ll call them progressive) from those business leaders who follow a consume/produce/dominate model. The former need to be recognized, rewarded, and encouraged, and the latter critiqued, punished, and avoided’ [iii]. Via the register of defiance and the logic of polarisation, the new grammar of a post-neoliberal pedagogy for executives could do a lot worse than embrace the emancipatory potential of the political philosophy of  Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou. In the fashion of this blog – that of offering new angles of approach to the process of overturning the stagnant educational philosophies underpinning the practices of business schools – I’m hoping my next post will begin to show the utility inherent in the work of Badiou and Ranciere (the ‘change’ and ‘new hope’ heirs to the fading poststructuralist tradition) that might rescue business schools from complete irrelevance in the face of a new demand in executive competence.

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[i] Paul Mason, ‘A Last Chance’, p.22. New Statesman, 10 November 2008. [ii] Tariq Ali, (2008) ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope’, London, Verso. [iii] email to the author.

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kevkerkev's "contestation"Following Alain Badiou – writing in the ‘New Left Review’ [Jan/Feb 08, 49] about the ages of socialism in Sarkozy’s France and about the precarity of the communist hypothesis – it would appear that similar forces of ‘capitulation and servility’ [ii] explain the inertia regarding the cultivation and uptake of hypotheses of contestation to the hegemony of neoliberalism within business schools: key sites in the maintenance of the neoliberal orthodoxy within executive and leadership education. Says Badiou,

“A wide variety of 19th century phenomena are reappearing: vast zones of poverty, widening inequalities, politics dissolved into the ‘service of wealth’, the nihilism of large sections of the young, the servility of much of the intelligentsia; the cramped, besieged experimentalism of a few groups seeking ways to express the communist hypothesis… Which is no doubt why, as in the 19th century, it is not the victory of the hypothesis which is at stake today, but the conditions of its existence” [iii] [emphasis added].

What counts as ‘progressive’ in the education of the executants [iv] of the neoliberal order? It is, as Badiou states, the creation of the conditions for the existence of countervailing hypotheses, this time on our sedate business-school campuses. As an inhabitant of the university, it is not difficult to see how higher education business schools are contributing to the process of neoliberalization of the economy [v] through the servility of much of its intelligentsia and the apolitical character of its educative practices. This servility and capitulation towards the dominant regime explains not only the besieged communist hypothesis but any contestation to neoliberal globalization within the b-school’s ambit of narrative authority. Progressivism in the education of executants, then, is the consideration of a range of alternative realms of practice, such as those identified by Leitner, Sheppard, Sziarto and Maringanti [vi]. Arising from within the discourse of urban geography, their four realms of practice for progressive contestations of neoliberalism are:

  1. direct action
  2. lobbying and legislative action
  3. alternative knowledge production
  4. alternative economic and social practices.

As a radicalising framework for a shadow academy tasked with educating neoliberal executants, Leitner et al’s alternatives praxes appear realistic, balanced and capable of affecting a reformation of the capitulative pedagogic stasis within the existing structures of executive education. Such structures are legitimate sites of struggle, given the hopelessly utopian and largely rhetorical claims of the anti-capitalists, anti-corporatists and anti-globalists: and as the basis of reformatory praxis these sites represent hope for the ‘conditions of existence’ of contestatory efforts.

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[i] New Left Review, No.49, Jan/Feb 2008, pp.29-42: [ii] ibid, p.33: [iii] ibid, p.42: [iv] after the distinction Castoriadis makes between directors and executants and how the elimination of this crucial distinction is the means of eliminating capitalism – see T. May, The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, pp. 42-43: [v] M. Casa-Cortes, S. Cobarrubias, “Drifting Through the Knowledge Machine”, p.121, in Shukitis, Graeber, Biddle Constituent Imagination, AK Press, Oakland: [vi] H. Leitner, E. Sheppard, K. Sziarto, A. Maringanti, “Contesting Urban Futures: Decentering Neoliberalism”, p.15, in H. Leitner, J. Peck, E. Sheppard, Contesting Neoliberalism: Urban Frontiers, The Guilford Press, New York

John Dewey, Philosopher (1859–1952) The ineluctable primacy of application and utility within the field of leadership education is both the consequence of embracing ideologies typified by dictums such as ‘knowledge into action’, as well as the ground on which such pragmatist catchphrases are founded. Asking which of these values came first – is the value ascribed to pragmatism, or is the value attributed to the intentionality of the lexical device? – is not only a good determinant of one appetite for philosophical analysis, but holds to account the notion of pragmatism itself. Some instrumentalist educators[i] look to pragmatism as a ruse to bolster the fiercely unphilosophic[ii] tendency in their thinking. Few in leadership education are sufficiently politically brave to ‘dare question the ontology of the market, or the causality of customer demand, or the superordinacy of economic efficiency, or the sanctity of profit’[iii], say Carter and Jackson, quoting the poststructuralist philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. The notion of ‘perfectibility’ (of apparently discretely defined organizations and individuals) inherent in the instrumentalist’s faith in the ‘application of knowledge’ is strongly critiqued by Deleuze and Guattari, for whom perfectibility is a meaningless construct. My contention is that leaders are ‘understood to be only ever in a state of becoming and emergence [where] [p]erfection cannot (literally, is not possible to) be prescribed [and where] [m]oreover, the very concept implies the desirability of a stasis, which is unachievable’[iv] no matter how pragmatic one’s thinking is.

Pragmatism (or anti-Platonism or anti-foundationalism as it is sometimes called) has strong links with the Nietzschian anti-essentialist traditions on which much of so-called continental philosophy is based, and from which my philosophical and political arguments are based. According to Rorty, the late recent champion of the Deweyan tradition of American pragmatism, Nietzsche is of little use to political theory apart from how ‘his thought can help contemporary, liberal societies recognize the groundlessness and contingency of their values and their existence’[v]. Like me, Rorty does not believe that one can get ‘outside our language’[vi] to ‘a self which is [not] a tissue of contingencies’[vii]. As a formal philosophy, pragmatism concerns the view that inquiry aims at utility for us, as language users, rather than an aiming for an accurate account of how things are in themselves. Pragmatists, not unlike Illich, cannot make sense of the idea that we should pursue truth for its own sake: pragmatists cannot regard truth as a goal of inquiry. So, says Rorty, ‘[t]he purpose of inquiry is to achieve agreement among human beings about what to do, to bring about consensus on the ends to be achieved and the means to be used to achieve those ends’ [viii].I argue that whilst pragmatism is an apparent first choice philosophical basis for examining the truth claims of leadership education of the ‘knowledge into action’ orientation, it fails to acknowledge the political import of action. Whilst Deweyan pragmatism claims to be an educational philosophy of action, ‘a philosophy that takes action as it most basic category [emphasis in orginial]’[ix], I share Mouffe’s[x] serious concern over Rorty’s treatment of politics as ‘something to be deliberated about in banal, familiar terms – terms which do not need philosophical dissection and do not have philosophical presuppositions’ [xi].My claim is that an explicit political formulation of leadership education is prescient of the issues of pluralism, multiculturalism, and antagonism that lay dormant in the educational language of leadership education. These issues are neither familiar nor banal. Instead they will allow me to conclude that a significant displacement of meaning in the concept ‘action’ in the innocuous phrase ‘knowledge into action’ ushers into leadership education new forms of activism and new forms of educational practice. As to which of these comes first, that is yet to be seen.


[i] R. Barnett, Beyond all Reason (Maidenhead: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press, 2000), p.17

[ii] N. Blake, P. Smeyers, R. Smith & P. Standish, The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.8

[iii] P. Carter & N. Jackson in S. Linstead (ed) Organization Theory and Postmodern Thought (London: Sage, 2004), p.113

[iv] Ibid., p110

[v] N. Widder, in D. Boucher and P. Kelly (eds), Political Thinkers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.451

[vi] R. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), p.59

[vii] R. Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.32

[viii] R. Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin Books, 1999), p.xxv

[ix] G. Biesta & N. Burbules, Pragmatism and Educational Research (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), p.9

[x] C. Mouffe (ed), Deconstruction and Pragmatism (London: Routledge,1996), p.6

[xi] R. Rorty in C. Mouffe (ed), Deconstruction and Pragmatism (London: Routledge,1996), p.17

Chauvinism Of all the projects of educational theory, leadership education theory is the project under the most extreme pressure to conform to the new and pervasive educational pragmatism situated within the current macro-economic market and political contexts of neoliberalism[i]. Blake et al claim that ‘[t]his new educational pragmatism, impelled by globalization, seems to be draining practice of normative interest and validity.’ They go on to claim that ‘[t]he traditions that have long mediated teaching and learning are currently under radical assault from managerialist reformers, operating within a taken-for-granted worldview of economic crisis[ii].’ I do not call into question the taken-for-granted-ness of these pressures felt by traditional liberal, or leadership, education, i.e. I do not oppose capitalism, as this is the global context whose emergence and continuation we, as leadership educators, find ourselves in. But consequently, I do take issue with the form of idealism represented by Blake et al’s call to a revised educational theory to ameliorate the affects of this managerialist and economic crisis. Only, my critique of this idealism concerns the absence of an acknowledgement of a political formulation to leadership education as the basis of a solution to the pressing concerns of neoliberalism, rather than a straightforward complaint that such education is overly prescribed by this particular cultural and political regime. Instead, my claim is that leadership education – both its creation and consumption – is not just situated within the global contexts of neoliberalism, but that it actually bolsters that regime. It is not just a case of politics entering into leadership education endeavours as the content of that education. Leadership educators have a political responsibility to those whom they claim to educate. But this balance of responsibility is an act of ‘becoming’ that cannot ever be completely fulfilled. Paraphrasing a reference Chomsky[iii] makes about neoliberalism’s aversion to gaining general public consent, ‘the people who own leadership education ought to govern it’ – which, of course, begs the question of who owns leadership education? Rather than new theories of leadership education simply critiquing the impact of dominant political worldviews on, say, the politically inert ‘instrumental versus intrinsic’ debate, progressive theories of leadership education should, as Giroux urges, [d]istinguish professional caution from political cowardice and recognize that their obligations extend beyond deconstructing texts or promoting a culture of questioning. These are important pedagogical interventions, but they do not go far enough. We need to link knowing with action.[iv]

To this end, I believe it is necessary to trouble the axiomatic status of the sentiment embodied in the phrase ‘knowledge into action’ as it relates to leadership education, and to radically destabilize the duality between the instrumental and intrinsic divide outlined at the start. My post-application viewpoint breaks with the tradition[v] of employing purely educational philosophy (principally of the analytic and positivist varieties) and instead draws on political philosophy (mostly from poststructuralist-inspired and communitarian thinkers) as the more relevant basis for examining the truth claims made in reference to ‘action’ in the name of so-called ‘pragmatic leadership education.’ The political framing’s novelty rests on a deliberate intention not to continue to valorize explicit educational inputs, educational outputs or any other educationally chauvinist claims or processes that institutions of leadership education espouse; but instead to re-cast those claims as entirely political. I am not claiming that there is nothing else to be learned, or that higher educational endeavours are bankrupt or that technical training in leadership serves no purpose; nor, even, that one cannot learn via politics. Rather, my claim is that by positively discriminating in favour of a political conceptualization of leadership education, and by consciously substituting a pedagogic term for a political term when describing organizations, the acts of organizing and the execution of decisions within hierarchical structures, one is acknowledging an all-consuming aspect of the leader’s role of determining and undertaking action in the social realm. This activist role of the leader has hitherto been obscured by the language of pedagogy. This activist-building aspect of the education of the leader comes through the development of collectivist political agency. Amy Gutmann says of education that ‘it is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency, to the ability to struggle with ongoing relations of power, and is a precondition for creating informed and critical citizens’[vi]. The same is true when these relations of power are viewed conversely, such as when Gramsci claims that ‘every relationship of hegemony is necessarily an educational relationship’[vii]. Henry Giroux, referencing Gramsci, urges us to view education as a cultural pedagogic practice which takes place across multiple sites as it signals how, within diverse contexts, education makes us both subjects of and subject to relations of power[viii]. This is illustrated when institutionally oriented processes of leadership education (e.g. business schools in particular) play a part in creating the subject position of ‘leader’ by creating and accepting onto ‘programmes’ of leadership such subjects. By continuing to privilege a humanist and individualistic conception of education stripped bare of the antagonisms of ‘the political’, normative leadership educators are embargoing an entire realm of action (namely, activism) that has increasing validity and currency at a time in the world when the overthrow of hegemonies is rife[ix]. I will come on to critique the belief in the liberal hero, the dominant individualist orientation of leadership education, via communitarian political theory as I believe this critique is one of the few capable of countering the unstoppable force with which a psychologistic conception of leadership education is nullifying debate in the field, and perpetuating educational chauvinism.


[i] Mark Beeson [‘Competing Capitalisms and Neoliberalism’, in K. England & K. Ward, Neoliberalization: States, Networks, Peoples (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p.47n.] says “the basic tenets of neoliberalism have been captured by John Williamson’s (1994) idea of the “Washington Consensus,” which provides a template both for neoliberal public policy and for an “appropriate” environment for private sector economic activity. The key ideas are now the familiar staples of much governmental rhetoric in the “west,” at least: small government, low taxation, deregulation, privitization, and enhanced competition.” For some useful critical commentaries about neoliberalism and its consequences, see N. Chomsky, Profit over People (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999); H. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2004); D. Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); M. Peters, Poststructuralism, Marxism and Neoliberalism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001); K. England & K. Ward, Neoliberalization: States, Networks, Peoples (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007).

[ii] N. Blake, P. Smeyers, R. Smith & P. Standish, The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Education (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p. 8.

[iii] Chomsky was referencing the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the US, John Jay; see N.Chomsky, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), p. 46.

[iv] H. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), p. 123.

[v] A tradition embodied in the work of Ronald Barnett, Colin Symes and John McIntyre.

[vi] A. Gutmann, Democratic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 42.

[vii] A, Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Press, 1971), p. 350.

[viii] H. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), p. 138.

[ix] R. Koch & C. Smith, Suicide of the West (London: Continuum, 2006).

3. A Political Framing

February 25, 2008

Nolan Chart Using this political framing, I want to acknowledge the hegemony inherent in leadership education itself, distinct from hegemonic practices of leaders themselves. The hierarchical status implicit in the ‘leadership-ness’ of this subject position – the individual who is both the subject and object of leadership education – is the practice of a political, not an educational, discourse. So, not surprisingly, I believe there to be utility present in linkages from this political framing to a host of intractable problems that a pure educational framing – what I term educational chauvinism – seems less qualified to pronounce on. Namely, the struggles and antagonisms over limited resources, inequality, responsibility, goods, rights, injustice, suffering and freedoms as they relate to both the subject position of the leader, the constituents whom they influence, and the wider geopolitical (neoliberal) environments affected by the actions of leaders. By using the word ‘framing’ my intention is to represent both a distinct adoption of an existing conventional discourse and its associated ideology, as well as an acknowledgement of the contingency of that frame as a representational system. From a poststructuralist perspective education ‘re-presents’ (i.e. presents back, via a mediating interpretation) the world, in just the same way as politics re-presents the world. This is in contradistinction to the redundant epistemological view that sees the world ‘out there’ to be discovered, objectively somehow, in its pristine and uninterpreted form. Leadership educators – and education establishments – sometimes forget about the representational powers of education, either assuming them to be neutral or, worse still, invisible or entirely transparent. I believe that it is often only through novel framings (in this case, political) within an established and conventional discourse (i.e. education) that one sees the inadequacies of existing framings. Traditional conceptions of leadership education rely, at the very least, on a degree of unquestioned referentiality (a term borrowed from Saussarian[i] semiotics, denoting that to which leadership refers) that sees the need for this tradition to interpret various texts and events according to a wider context (whether described as psychological, organisational, social, national, or cultural) to which these phenomena remain unbreakably tied. This unquestioned referentiality accords the traditional and normative conceptions of leadership education a basic level of coherence. By challenging this coherence I hope to rouse and radicalize leadership education from its political slumbers. To this end, by using a political framing, I intend to split apart weak and strong conceptions of the signifier ‘action’ in the phrase ‘knowledge into action.’ And then, as part of a process of radicalization of leadership education, promote a ’strong’ and decidedly off-median conception of the signifier ‘action’ that draws its inspiration from contemporary anarchist political philosophy and which, more boldly, creates new borderlands between education and politics and moves some way towards meeting the need for innovative thinking in the field of leadership education in times of ecological and political crisis.

I claim three things from the distinction between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ senses of action in the phrase ‘knowledge into action’. Firstly that the weak sense of action currently dominates leadership education: secondly, that the distinction is only made possible by an explicitly political analysis of leadership education: and thirdly, that both senses only gain their meaning from the difference between each other and that they possess no intrinsic weakness or strength.


[i] F. Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (Geneva: 1916).

4. Weak Action

February 25, 2008

weak link There are three interrelated characteristics of the weak sense of action; an ahistorical and asocial individualism; a subjectivity defined by a lack of relation to ‘an other’; and a confusion of universalism for particularism. I state these characteristics in the negative, in distinction to the correspondingly positively affirmed theories on which they are based, as an indication of my partisan allegiance to the strong sense of action, and the belief I have in this second sense as being the future direction of a politically oriented leadership education.

Firstly, as Michael Peters recognizes, in advanced neoliberal states individualism has now become the prevailing ideology[i], since the individual as a concept first came to prominence courtesy of the ancient Greeks. With the exception of a post-conventional[ii] discourse on distributed leadership, the majority of leadership education assumes the basic unit of study is the individual and their particularistic actions within the field of leadership. This apparently self-evident viewpoint emerges from the Enlightenment heritage unquestioningly adopted by most leadership educators. For Caroline Williams, via a genealogy ‘[f]rom the social contract theory of Hobbes, Locke and Kant, to its contemporary presentation in the work of John Rawls, there is a dominant presupposition that the subject is a self-contained, unencumbered, rational and a priori entity who performs a voluntary act of political contract’[iii].It is usually from this heritage that leadership educators employ the dominant en-framing of psychology to articulate the autonomous rationality of leadership agency. This individual-based, atomised conception of leadership action is now commonplace across leadership education[iv]. But an assault on the isolated and politically unreflective enclave that leadership education has become has been taking place within poststructuralist (political) philosophy for some time now. Says Foucault of this atomized subject,

I don’t think there is actually a sovereign, founding subject, a universal form that one could find everywhere. I am very sceptical and very hostile toward this conception of the subject. I think on the contrary that the subject is constituted through practices of subjection, or, in a more anonymous way through practices of liberation, of freedom[v]

This classical liberal concentration on the individual, which seems so unimpeachable, and on which so much of our assumptions about leadership education is based, is strongly opposed by, inter alia, the political theory of communitarianism[vi]. Along with Peters, I believe an understanding of this political theory ‘is a useful theoretical antidote to the excesses of an overconfident individualism’[vii]. According to Mouffe, the communitarian critique of liberal individualism ‘denounces the ahistorical, asocial and disembodied conception of the subject that is implied by the idea of an individual endowed with natural rights prior to society…’[viii]. So this first characteristic of the weak sense of action suggests that leadership educators view the individual as existing prior to and independent of the societal and organisational contexts in which s/he operates. The individual, in this conception, is defined by their capacity to choose an action, not by the specific and particular actions they choose. Those choices are not constitutive of that individual: the individual is not ‘made’ by those choices, which is the counter view of communitarianism and the departure point for a stronger sense of action.

Secondly, and related to the constitutive nature of the individual, the weak sense of action is characterized by a conception of the subject as isolated and self sufficient. In this characterization of the individual liberal hero, identity is not constituted by others and their influence. Instead, as Mouffe states, the identity and interests of these individuals ‘are defined prior to and independent of the construction of any moral or social bond’[ix] between the individual and others. With respect to how ethics is treated in the liberal individualist tradition, the weak sense of action regards moral action, of what constitutes the ‘good act’, as existing secondary to what constitutes ones personal rights. John Rawls, against whom the bulk of communitarians direct their criticisms, affirms justice as the primordial virtue of social institutions. Liberal individualism of this variety appears very strong: stronger, perhaps, than my ‘weak’ designation of these characteristics. It would appear to be wrong to say that the picture of the individual leader given here in the traditional liberal conception, whose identity was their own making; who has a clear and rational conception of their autonomy; who has an innate sense of their own and others rights; it seems inappropriate to call this conception weak. I would disagree. The weakness comes from what Critchely calls a ‘motivational deficit’ that I see in this weak conception of action. As he states, ‘it might be claimed that there is a motivational deficit at the heart of liberal democratic life, where citizens experience the governmental norms that rule contemporary society as externally binding but not internally compelling’[x]. One can (conceivably) be educated in leadership and encouraged to apply that knowledge in action, but if one is not motivated by that form of action, both of these forms of knowledge and action are useless.

This motivational deficit is compounded by the third of my characterizations of the weak sense of action. This concerns the tendency of current leadership education to employ rational and totalizing universals as a basis of educational interventions. By universal I mean a term, a concept or body of thought nominalised into a word or phrase, which is presented as universally to be the case, and which stand independently of any particular instantiation of that universal. Examples relevant to both politics and leadership are democracy, equality, human rights, justice, individual freedom or whichever principle is invoked that makes ‘universalist claims’. As a weak formulation of ‘knowledge into action’ this classical liberal notion of leadership action, like political action, is oriented around, a universal term. Yet, for Critchley, that universality is ‘always already contaminated by particularity, by the specific social context for which the universal term is destined’[xi]. Ernesto Laclau is the political theorist credited with reintroducing the topic of the universal back into a philosophy discourse long suspicious of totalizing fundamentals and essences. To back Critchley’s earlier point about contamination, Laclau states that an early assumption about the distinction between universals and particular is that ‘a) there is an uncontaminated dividing line between the universal and the particular; and b) that the pole of the universal is entirely graspable by reason. In that case, there is no possible mediation between universality and particularity; the particular can only corrupt the universal’[xii]. In a sense, then, leadership action can only ever be particularistic: it can only ever operate within a particular social context. It is not possible for either a singular leader or leadership collective (e.g. a market leader) to incarnate a universal essence of leadership, other than particular instances of action, in particular (non-universal) contexts. Leadership education will forever remain fixed to unobtainable universals, so long as that educative process relies on the application of specific knowledge – imparted during that educative process – as the basis of action. That is, for as long as education remains supplemental[xiii] to action. For the weak conception, leadership education’s singular employment of rational, totalizing universals as the foundation of its educative endeavours, e.g. nomothetic research-based findings, ensures that the knowledge of those universals, as universals, remains untranslatable into particular and contingent action[xiv].


[i] M. Peters, Poststructuralism, Marxism and Neoliberalism (Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), p. 124.

[ii] K. Grint, Leadership (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 5.

[iii] C. Williams in A. Finlayson & J. Valentine (eds.), Politics and Poststructuralism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), p. 23.

[iv] As an indication of the pervasiveness of the notion of the individual Kock & Smith go so far as to claim that ‘if there is one single ever more powerful, trend driving individualism in the West, it is the personalization of business and business success’ in R. Koch & C. Smith, Suicide of the West (London: Continuum, 2006).

[v] M. Foucault, Foucault Live (New York: Semiotexte, 1989), p. 313.

[vi] For further reading about communitarianism, see M. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1981); M. Walzer, Spheres of Justice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983); C. Taylor, Philosophy and the Human Sciences, vol. ii (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); W. Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[vii] M. Peters, Poststructuralism, Marxism and Neoliberalism (Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), p. 125.

[viii] C. Mouffe, The Return of the Political (London: Verso, 1993), p. 28.

[ix] Ibid., p. 29.

[x] S. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding (London: Verso, 2007), p. 7.

[xi] S. Critchley, Is there a normative deficit in the theory of hegemony? (University of Essex: The Centre for Theoretical Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences, http://www.essex.ac.uk/centres/TheoStud/onlinepapers.asp

[xii] E. Laclau, Emancipations(s) (London: Verso, 1996), p. 22.

[xiii] This is the converse of Derrida’s conception of supplementarity [J. Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1974), p. 154] which sees the supplemental action as defining mainstream action, distinct from merely acting as an optional ornamentation.

[xiv] The approach of technical rationality is characterized as the view that professionals need to have command of a body of disciplinary knowledge which they then draw upon to analyze and solve the various problems that they encounter in their daily practice. However, such a technical rationality does not fit well with the actual practice of professionals, for whom ready-made problems seldom present themselves.

5. Strong Action

February 25, 2008

strong In contrast, rather than standing merely as the producers of an official memory[i] from which action in the weak conception is enacted, the strong conception of action draws political and activist conclusions from the contingency of such official narratives. The interrelated conclusions are twofold: that adoption of political communitarian theories moves leadership education beyond the language of instrumentalism and educational chauvinism towards collectivism; and that, consequently, acknowledging the ethical subjectivity afforded by a collectivist responsibility to others, paves the way for a new kind of leadership activism and educational practice.

Firstly, leadership, like language, is public. As Wittgenstein[ii] states, a private language is unlearnable and untranslatable, and yet it must appear that its speaker is able to make sense of it. But this, as Wittgenstein asserts, would constitute and incoherent language and, as such, is not a language at all. Similarly, private leadership, untranslatable into any behaviour, is not leadership at all. Leadership is an entirely social phenomenon. Consider then the radically isolated liberal hero of the weak sense of action, bearer of natural rights, the utility maximiser and rational subject. Says Michael Walzer, for this untenable subject ‘[t]here is no consensus, no public meeting-of-minds, on the nature of the good life – hence the triumph of private caprice, revealed, for example, in Sartrean existentialism, the ideological reflection of everyday capriciousness’[iii]. Community is the exact opposite of the atomized fragmentation of liberal society; so any notion of leadership education founded on liberal principles of individualism, which is true of most instrumental pedagogies, is immediately orphaned from social union and from the collective force of action that that union holds. This conclusion would not be a problem, had not so many pages been written by instrumental educational chauvinists on the impact of leadership behaviour on teams and wider communities. Secondly, throughout the management and leadership education literature, insufficient attention has been given to ethical and social responsibilities[iv]. A modest clarion call to this effect from Burgoyne and Reynolds states that [a]lthough ‘values’ are much discussed, it is usually in the context of their dissemination, sharing or reconciliation, rather than their legitimation and justification. [Leadership] learning as an arena for the moral and ethical debate about organization, management and the learning process itself can be promoted with some confidence as a priority for the future.[v]

I believe that one way to promote considerations of ethical issues for conceptions of leadership education is to work though the arguments of the liberalism-communitarianism debate. One of the claims of liberal individualism in the weak sense of action is that the ‘right’ is prior to the ‘good’: that justice and fairness are antecedent to what is agreed to be morally good. In leadership education this would translate as what is considered fair for a particular individual, or even fair for a collective, must take priority over considerations of what is morally good for that individual or collective. But as Michael Sandel affirms, ‘one cannot define the right prior to the good, for it is only through our participation in a community which defines the good that we can have a sense of the right and a conception of justice’[vi] in the first place. Once we recognize the dependence of the creation of leaders on society, ‘then our obligations to sustain the common good of society are as weighty as our rights to individual liberty’[vii]. And yet, in the context of neoliberalism – or ‘capitalism with the gloves off’[viii] as it is termed – the common good is often an inconvenience to leaders, who, as Chomsky states, ‘must be free to operate in “technocratic insulation,” to borrow current World Bank terminology’[ix].

Conspicuously absent from the standard conceptions of the homo economicus leader that constitutes the axiomatic basis of pragmatist conceptions provided by neoliberals, is an acknowledgement of the elitist nature of this individualist conception. David Harvey’s seminal history of neoliberalism recognizes that advocates of the neoliberal way now occupy positions of considerable influence in education[x] (business schools and universities): interestingly, the same institutions that provide leadership education from within the unquestionable dominance of the neoliberal polity. When Harvey is able to interpret neoliberalism as ‘a political project that re-establishes the conditions for capital accumulation and which restores the power of economic elites’[xi], can we conclude that this is the sole telos of ‘action’ for leadership education? In other words, should we (do we not already?) harness the entirety of our leadership educative endeavours to further the ends of the current global economic-political regime? Even defending, let alone attacking, this singular focus would require that leadership education practices be sufficiently political in the first place to legitimise such an articulation and basis of action. Instead, the academy’s vapid conceptions of action, based only on knowingness[xii], have been drained of any progressive campaigns of activism. For instance, it is not difficult for members of the community of liberal leadership educators to delude themselves into believing that they are maintaining a ‘neutral, value free’ position when they are simply responding to intellectual and practical demands set elsewhere. Such collusion is equal to ratifying the existing distribution of power, authority and privilege within educational regimes and to take on a commitment to reinforce such regimes[xiii]. My claim is that the academy(s) of leadership education are not just intellectual spheres but politically active ones too. To borrow from the activist energy of Kitty Krupat[xiv], I do not advocate abandoning the classroom: whose interest would that serve? Instead we must go back to the classroom and workplace to continue to learn about leadership, but now with a heightened sense of responsibility to those whom we educate, and for those who can be impacted by that education. This requires that academics and public intellectuals, on whom we rely for inspiration about leadership, function within institutions as ‘exiles,’ as Edward Said[xv] suggests they become. It is the job of these political intellectual exiles, homeless and living in the ideological borderlands, to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than produce them), to refuse to be co-opted by the dominant economic-political polity or those that are unable to countenance questioning such regimes.

Which brings me to the role that I see articulated by the spectacular tactical politics of contemporary anarchist theory[xvi]. Actually existing anarchism – distinct from the anti-capitalist ‘anarcho-primitivsm’ of Kropotkin, Bakunin and Proudhon that give rise to the popular conflation of anarchism with chaos and violence – for me is typified by Bakhtinian carnivalesque humour, non-violent warfare and new languages of civil disobedience[xvii]. I claim that it is through radical politics that one finds a clearer engagement with an ethical moment that, in turn, provides the motivational force into my strong, and heterodox, conception of action[xviii]. If leadership education is to unshackle itself from the deadly instrumentalism[xix] that has shaped the dominant (neo)liberalist leadership educational model, and to extirpate its political lethargy, it must use dissensus, antagonisms and the techniques of anarchic multiplicity to call into question the authority of ‘the individual’ and its associated totalizing notions of truth espoused by educational ideologues. From an anarchist viewpoint, why is there so little adversarial politics in the hallowed halls and classrooms of leadership education institutions? Why does so little agonism surround the professing of truth claims in what are hotly contested business and leadership topic areas? Why is there not an overthrow of educational hegemony and academic ‘author-ity’ by those intrigued to re-establish a non-educational, non-academy equality to this process of professing? Given the complete absence of student militancy[xx] within formal postgraduate programmes of business education that include aspects of leadership education (e.g. the Masters of Business Administration) it seems apt (lexically at least) that the ranks of the ‘professing underclass,’ the revolutionaries that strive to overcome the iniquitous apparatuses of education, the amateur professors that are willing to introduce agonistic practices, be mustered from a body of practicing ‘profess-ionals.’ But the temptation of the apolitical educational chauvinists is to smooth over the partisan nature of these distinct constituent groups,  namely the educational ’supply side’ professionals and consumer ‘demand side’ professionals. An embarrassment towards the political in leadership education manifests itself as a relegation of overly partisan, combative and adversarial behaviours to an uncivilized and bygone era from which leadership education has long since progressed. It is from this untainted and rational liberal vantage point that the ‘clerisy’ – the authorized class of learned persons – of business, management and leadership education subconsciously lay the foundations of inviolable professing practices, via the mechanisms of the individual and the universalizing aura of research and intellectual stability.


[i] H. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), p. 133.

[ii] L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), p. 91.

[iii] M. Walzer, Politics and Passion (Yale: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 145

[iv] J. Burgoyne & M. Reynolds (eds.), Management Learning (London: Sage, 1997), p. 330-1.

[v] Ibid, p. 331.

[vi] M. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 133.

[vii] W. Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 212.

[viii] R. McChesney in N. Chomsky, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), p. 8.

[ix] N. Chomsky, Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999), p. 54.

[x] D. Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 3

[xi] Ibid, p. 19.

[xii] R. Rorty, Achieving Our Country (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 126.

[xiii] N. Chomsky, ‘The Function of the University in a Time of Crisis’ (1969) in N. Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy & Education (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003), p. 181.

[xiv] D. Cornell & K. Krupat in J. Downs & J. Manion, Taking Back the Academy (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 127.

[xv] E. Said at www.opendemocracy.net and at http://www.16beavergroup.org/mtarchive/archives/000568.php

[xvi] S. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding (London: Verso, 2007), p. 12.

[xvii] D. Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004)

[xviii] S. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding (London: Verso, 2007), p. 93.

[xix] H. Giroux, The Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), p. 151.

[xx] J. Downs & J. Manion, Taking Back the Academy (New York: Routledge, 2004).