Durham Research Online

Leadership has proved impossible to define, despite decades of research and
a huge number of publications. This paper explores managers’ accounts of
leadership, and shows that they find it difficult to talk about the topic,
offering brief definitions but very little narrative. That which was said/sayable
provides insights into what was unsaid/unsayable. Queer theory facilitates
exploration of that which is difficult to talk about, and applying it to the
managers’ talk allows articulation of their lay theory of leadership. This is that
leaders evoke a homoerotic desire in followers such that followers are
seduced into achieving organizational goals. The leader’s body, however, is
absent from the scene of seduction, so organizational heteronormativity
remains unchallenged. The paper concludes by arguing that queer and critical
leadership theorists together could turn leadership into a reverse discourse
and a politics of pleasure at work.
Leadership, Followers, Queer theory, Critical leadership studies, Sexualities,
Charisma, Heterotopias
A huge number of publications on leadership appear each year (Grint,
2005a),1 yet despite this enormous volume of literature consensus on what
leadership actually is has proved elusive. Definitions of both leadership and
charisma (often said to be a fundamental characteristic of leadership) cannot
be agreed (Bass, 1990; Bennis, 1989; Calás, 1993; Conger & Kanungo, 1998;
Grint, 2005a; Grint, 2005b; Robinson & Kerr, 2009; Stogdill, 1974; Tourish &
Pinnington, 2002). This paper’s aim is not another attempt at providing
definitions, but rather an exploration of why definition remains so difficult.
The majority of research into leadership is located in a positivist tradition in
which only quantitative research methods are used (Bryman, 2004; Zoller &
Fairhurst, 2007). A small but increasingly influential body of work in what
can be called ‘critical’ leadership studies is now developing (Alvesson &
Sveningsson, 2003; Barker, 2001; Calás 1993; Calás & Smircich, 1991; Collinson,
2005, 2006; Fairhurst, 2007; Ford 2006; 2010; Ford, Harding and Learmonth

2008; Gemmill & Oakley, 1992; Grint, 2010; Hyde & Thomas, 2003; Learmonth
2005; Robinson & Kerr, 2009; Tourish & Pinnington, 2002; Western, 2008;
Zoller & Fairhurst, 2007). This paper contributes to this emerging field
through introducing queer theory (QT) as a means of interrogating what
might be described as the contingent foundations of leadership, for it is in
those contingent foundations that the cause of the difficulties of definition
may be found. QT is particularly apposite for this task because it allows us to
explore that which cannot be said; it facilitates exploration of what it is that is
unsayable about leadership and prevents coherent definition.
QT’s roots are in gender theory and gay and lesbian studies, but it is now
widely applied in the arts, humanities and social sciences (Probyn, 1999), and
is proving insightful in organization studies (OS). The first paper in OS that
might be called ‘queer’ (although it does not use the term itself) is Brewis,
Hampton & Linstead (1997), which aimed to destabilize concepts of gender in
workplaces. Parker’s (2002) influential article used QT to challenge
management and theory, while Ward & Winstanley, (2003), Rumens (2008a;
2008b) and Rumens & Kerfoot (2009) explore the working lives of LGBT
(lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) people, and Lee (2006; 2007) and
Steyeart (2010) seek to develop broader theory about organizations from
analyses of the lives of gay men. Furthermore, several papers use QT to
develop understanding of various forms of workplace oppression, including
Tyler & Cohen (2008) and Lee, Learmonth & Harding (2008). One of QT’s
strengths is the way in which it exposes how homogeneity of identity is
coercively imposed through the elevation of norms, in this case that of
heterosexuality, to which everyone must conform (Halle, 2004).
As yet, however, QT has had little exposure within leadership studies (for an
exception, see Bowring, 2004). In this paper, we turn QT to the analysis of the
difficulties in articulating what leadership is. We use the theory to analyse
how leadership is talked about in organizations and what there is about
leadership that is unsayable. In interviews exploring leadership development
in UK-based organizations, we found an absence in day-to-day talk within
organizations (as well as in academic theory) of any coherent definition of
leadership. Furthermore, and crucially, few interviewees could provide even
a cursory narrative about leadership. The small number of scant, rather thin
descriptions that were given show what it is that is difficult to say about
leadership: what prevents speech is an understanding of leadership that is
almost impossible to articulate because it is predicated upon a desired
eroticised relationship between leader and follower. This relationship, this
erotics, is homoerotic and it is this, we suggest, that is the unsaid, or the
unsayable, which prevents coherent definitions of leadership. Calás &
Smircich (1991) showed the eroticism inherent within academic discussions of

leadership. This paper takes forward their arguments through suggesting
that managers’ own theory of leadership, a lay theory of leadership perhaps,
has not only heterosexual but also homoerotic desire flowing through it. It is
homoerotic desire, we will argue, that in important ways inhibits talk about
leadership. The paper’s conclusion introduces the possibility of drawing on the
radical politics of QT to develop a politics of change in organizations.
We turn now to discussing queer theory, and follow this with a section on
methodology that opens the way to the exploration of the single, overarching
theme in the interview material.
Queer theory
QT, as used in this paper, involves the pursuit of understanding of how
normative identities, especially but not exclusively normative sexual
identities, serve to construct, control and oppress subjects (Halle, 2004). The
rationale for this definition emerges from our reading of QT’s origins in
poststructuralist, feminist and gender theories (Petersen 1998). Queer theory
brings these modes of analysis together and, in developing them, provides a
complex and nuanced lens through which to analyse organizations. In doing
so, it takes theory to a new dimension (Budgeon & Roseneil, 2004; Doty, 1993;
Seidman, 1997). In particular, QT demands identification of, and challenge to,
norms, discourses and practices that serve to subjugate some to the benefit of
others, rendering lives, or some parts of lives, unliveable (Butler, 2004).
Importantly, it puts into question any activities regarded as ‘normal’, explores
how what is ‘normal’ comes to be regarded as such, and how processes of
normalization rely on rendering certain subjects, or certain identities,
‘abnormal’. The starting point, following Derrida (1976), is a critique of those
binaries that pervade modern Western culture, in which dominant positions
are achieved through resting upon an ‘other’ who is relegated to a position
outside the norms that regulate identity (Jagose, 1996; Petersen, 1998; Roseneil
& Seymour, 1999). The suffering that accompanies being rendered abnormal
can then be explored and a politics of change developed.
Foundational to QT is the work of Michel Foucault (1979, 1986, 1992). Most
notably, Eve Sedgwick (1991) and Judith Butler (1990, 1993, 1996, 2004)
interweave Foucault’s ideas with those of other major theorists so as to
question the essentialist, given nature of grounding categorisations such as
straight/gay; heterosexual/homosexual and, indeed, male/female. In
challenging the ontologies of sex and gender they offer a means for
challenging other ontologies (Butler, 1990, 1993, 1996; Sedgwick, 1991).
Butler’s challenge to social constructionist theories of gender show that what
is constructed is not so much identities but regulatory fictions which govern

identities, and which order and organize the ‘taken-for-granted’ through
which identities emerge. Thus, there is no core or essential centre that
produces an authentic identity; rather it is the very performance of identity
which produces that identity itself. In Butler’s words ‘there is no gender
behind the expressions of gender’ (1990: 25), for gender is constructed
through the very doing of gender according to the norms of how a person with
the relevant genitalia should behave. In other words, we dress up as male or
female, move our bodies in a masculine or feminine way, conform to
expectations (norms) of what it is to be male or female, never question this
doing and this achieving of masculinity and femininity, and thereby perform
ourselves as men or women.
We have no choice in doing this because discourse always precedes and
enables the ‘I’ (Butler, 1993). In other words we are born into cultures in
which rules of gender and other identities already exist. If we are to exist as a
person (that is, as an ‚I‛) we have to conform to those rules and norms.
Refusal or inability to conform leaves only an unrecognizable ‚I‛, an ‚I‛ with
no place and no identity, an ‚I‛ that is therefore strange, subordinate, inferior,
‚queer‛. This can be seen if we imagine what it would be like if someone
with, say, female genitalia cultivates a masculine body (see Whittle, 2005) –
we can write about such a person only by resorting to s/he, and in using that
term we impose gender (albeit ambiguously) upon them.
A word, or a discourse, therefore constitutes the subject – it facilitates the
formation of an identity. Sedgwick, in Epistemology of the Closet (1991), shows
how the appearance of a new word in the lexicon, in her example that of
‘homosexual’, can govern identity. It is only in the last third of the 19th
century that the word appears, leading to a new form of ‘world-mapping’ by
which everyone is categorised not only as male or female, but also as homoor
heterosexual. These categorisations turn practices into identities, in that
words, Sedgwick (1991) suggests in arguments that complement Butler’s, are
performative – they bring ways of being into existence. And in
heteronormative cultures these ways of being necessitate dominant (sexual)
identities that require abjected others.
QT takes apart heteronormative cultures. Heteronormativity is:
the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations
that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent – that is, organized
as a sexuality – but also privileged. Its coherence is always provisional,
and its privilege can take several (sometimes contradictory) forms:
unmarked, as the basic idiom of the personal and the social; or marked
as a natural state; or projected as an ideal or moral accomplishment. It

consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine
than of a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations –
often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions. Contexts
that have little visible relation to sex practice <. can be
heteronormative in this sense, while in other contexts forms of sex
between men and women might not be heteronormative.
Heteronormativity is thus a concept distinct from heterosexuality.
(Berlant & Warner, 2003: 179/180).
Organizations are heteronormative in that everyone is required to conform to
(narrowly defined) heterosexual norms, rendering ‘queer’ anyone who cannot
or refuses to so conform. Further, they are places in which ‘straightness’ in the
everyday practices of working lives is set in hardly-noticed cultures and
practices that are themselves located within models of the heterosexual family
(Ahmed, 2006). For example, to describe some organizations as paternalistic is
to regard them as governed by father figures, and implicit in this is the
concept of the mother and also, therefore, of the heterosexual relationship.
Heteronormativity generates shame, and worse, in those it labels ‘deviants’
(Munt, 2008; Warner, 1993; 1999).
The queer challenges heteronormativity through its difference, its refusal to
conform to dominant norms. The queer is ‘any individual/social aspect not in
alignment with *heteronormative+ norms, but especially the homosexual’
(Jones, 2004: end page). QT shows that norms such as heterosexuality are
fragile and require continuing work if they are to be sustained (Dean, 2000;
Thomas, 2008). Heterosexuality, for example, is not a biological given, with
homosexuality a different biological form, but is a socially-mandated
requirement needing work if it is to be maintained. The queer threatens the
stability of that very fragile achievement. However, so dominant is
heteronormativity in organizations that even managers who openly identify
as gay may construct themselves as the other to gay men while at work (Lee,
2004; 2007). Homosexuality (including the homoerotic) is not acceptable in
such a culture, and where it is present then repair work must be undertaken
to restore the fabric of the culture (Brewis & Bowring, 2009).
Thus, the implications of using QT for the study of leadership are firstly that
it challenges in a fundamental way conventional leadership theory. Where
conventional theory would argue that it is the amazing qualities displayed by
leaders which mark them out as leaders, a queer reading argues that it is the
words ‘leader’ or ‘leadership’ which confer identity upon the (dominant)
leader and the concomitant (subordinate) ‘follower’, with the acts undertaken
by the leader emerging from this identity. But QT also offers a second, more
subversive potential, for QT and politics are interwoven. Queer readings are

not meant to circulate solely within academic milieu, as just another
interesting interpretation of the social. They aim rather to identify and
illuminate forms of injustice, especially perhaps those that are only with
difficulty articulated within language, so hidden are they within the takenfor-
granted of the every-day social world. Crucially, this leads to political
actions whose aim is removal of the forms of injustice so revealed. This is
possible because QT firstly provides a language in which to articulate
abjection, and secondly uses that language to incite and guide a politics which
undermines the constructions which require that some people be rendered
abject. QT ceases to be queer if it loses its political practice; it abdicates from
its task of challenging and eliminating those controls, constructions and
practices which reduce some people to the status of the abnormal, the abject,
the odd, the ‘queer’. It may queer theory itself, as Parker (2002) anticipates, i.e.
it can be turned against theorising per se. Fundamentally, QT thus offers the
potential for a new politics that challenges all forms of oppression in
organizations. We now turn to the study itself.
The study
Our empirical material comes from a study carried out in 2000 into the status
of leadership development in the United Kingdom. It used a mixed methods
approach involving a quantitative survey and qualitative interviews. A
stratified random sample of organizations that are members of the UK
employers’ networking organization which funded the study was chosen. The
sample represented firms ranging from small and medium enterprises to
large multinational concerns, and from across the public and private sectors.
The survey was sent to 44 organizations, and 30 questionnaires were returned,
a 68% response rate. Full details of this part of the study can be found in
Alimo-Metcalfe et al (2000).
The survey was followed by in-depth, qualitative research designed to
provide rich insights to inform the quantitative data. Six of the largest
organizations from the 30 that returned the questionnaire were chosen for this
stage of the study, a number that reduced the sample to a manageable size for
an in-depth interview-based study while at the same time providing sufficient
insights to allow theory generation. They were: two UK-based multi-national
corporations (MNCs), which we here call Chemco and Healthco; an MNC
with its headquarters in the US (Hightechco); an MNC with its headquarters
in mainland Europe (Foodco); and two UK public sector organizations (a local
authority, LA, and an agency of the armed forces, AF). Participants were
selected by each organization, following a request to interview staff with
knowledge and/or experience of leadership training programmes. With the
exception of one woman, all interviewees were white men, aged between 30
and 50 years, characteristics that reflect the preponderance of white men in

senior jobs of this kind rather than an active exclusion of women or non-white
people. Indeed, participants reflect the homosocial world of organizations
(Hearn, 1992) where occupations remain divided largely along gendered lines
(EOC, 2007). We collected no personal information about the participants
beyond their job descriptions.
A total of 34 one-to-one interviews were carried out. In addition, one
organization, AF, had arranged a focus group interview (with four trainee
leaders) rather than the individual interviews originally intended.
Participants were either senior managers responsible for leadership
development or participants in leadership courses. The interviews used a
semi-structured format, starting with questions about leadership
development activities in the organization, and including questions regarding
how leadership is defined in that organization. The interviews lasted 45-90
minutes, and ranged over a wide variety of topics, with participants
encouraged to share stories about leadership and how leadership
development contributed to their organizations. The interviews were all
recorded and fully transcribed. The interviews were conducted as part of
(what was intended to be at the time) a fairly conventional exploration of
leadership development. At that time we had no plans to analyze the
material from a QT perspective, a perspective which emerged as relevant
some time after the study was completed.
Both the quantitative survey and the interview-based study revealed that
everyone shared a difficulty in defining leadership, with a variety of
contradictory descriptions used within and between them. For example,
while several participants defined leadership as based on charisma, others
said it had nothing to do with charisma; while some said it was based on
organizational values, others thought it was related to individual
characteristics (see Alimo-Metcalfe et al, 2000, for full details).
These findings replicate earlier studies (see above) and led us to ask why
definition should be so difficult. If leadership resists definition, then what is
it that eludes language? Two of us have been involved in running leadership
development programmes ourselves (Ford and Harding, 2008, Ford, Harding
and Learmonth, 2010), and all of us share a longstanding interest in critical
ideas about management and leadership. However, although we have
previously explored the performativity of the term ‘leadership’ (Ford,
Harding and Learmonth, 2008), the question remained unanswered. This
elusiveness is what drew us to develop a method using queer theory. We
therefore returned to the qualitative interview data from this earlier study
and reanalysed it using a methodology that emerges out of queer theory

which we outline below, with the aim of exploring what it is about leadership
that eludes any single uncontested definition.
Queer theory, since its inception, has sought to explore the rules that govern
what is sayable, and what is therefore rendered unsayable or confined to the
margins. Its use in analysis therefore involves a search for hints of what is not
being said. The method begins by using traditional methods of analysing
qualitative data: identifying the dominant themes in participants’ accounts
(Silverman, 2000; 2003). It then ‘queers’ these themes by asking what is odd
or queer about them, that is, what norms are active, and what is not being
said and cannot be said alongside that which is said.2 This exercise involves
‘diverse reading strategies and multiple interpretative stances’ (Hall, 2003: 10)
that aim to identify ‘regimes of the normal’ (Warner, 1991: xxvi) and so
‘trouble’ what is regarded as normal.
We firstly re-read all interview material to find instances of accounts of
leaders/leadership. We sought these instances in order to examine lay
theories of leadership, though many people became inarticulate in their
attempts at description, often using the word ‘competences’, a then
fashionable descriptor of what leadership involved, but never listing or
describing the competences. Instead they changed the subject. A typical
example is Jo (all names have been changed), a junior manager from Healthco
identified as having ‘high potential’ who, when asked if anyone in Healthco
embodied the characteristics of leadership, replied:
There are certainly people who are seen that way. A few individuals that are
about at the minute would be recognised from operator level up as being like
that certainly…
Asked to expand on this statement Jo instead described the performance
appraisal policy. Interviewees from Hightechco were critical of their
organization for its absence of leadership, but could not articulate what it was
that was lacking. For example, its HR director, Ronnie, when asked ‘Are there
people within your company who are generally acknowledged as embodying
the characteristics of effective leaders?’ replied with one word: ‘No’, but could
not expand on the ‘No’. Only one interviewee, Chris, a senior HR manager at
Foodco, was critical of the concept, saying
… We seem to think you can call it something and then once you have called it
something you can generalise it, then you can teach people about it. Bullshit.
Quote me if you like …

We found narratives about leadership in only 11 interview transcripts (ten
individual and the group interview of four people) involving 14 people out of
the 38 participants. These were all short accounts, none of which showed
much substance or gave any rich detail. Our first major finding therefore was
the difficulty people experience in translating their ideas about leadership
into words.
The narratives given came from: two managers responsible for designing or
commissioning leadership training programmes, one each from Chemco and
LA (here called Sam and Jay respectively); a further eight managers who had
recently participated in such programmes (for example, Jack from LA, Viv
from Foodco, Les from Chemco and five others who will be named in the
text); four focus group participants from AF; and four managers, two each
from Chemco (Pet and Alex) and Foodco (Chris and Pat) who had no
experience of leadership development programmes but were able to outline
ideas about what leadership entails. Charlie, the senior manager from AF had
a clearly articulated description of leadership, but as this applied to the armed
forces during times of combat it is so different from the general run of
organizations that it has not been included in this analysis. That these
managers were able to articulate something about a concept that leaves many
others silent gave us empirical material that would permit the search for what
is unsayable about leadership – for what haunts the margins of their
As noted above, only small portions of these 11 transcripts contained
descriptions of leadership, with interviewees talking mostly about other
aspects of their work or the organizations they worked in. We isolated these
descriptions and subjected them to repeated readings in order to identify any
major themes within them. Our rereading suggested that only metaphors and
direct references to ‘seeing’ and ‘looking’ were prominent in these narratives.
There was thus only one overarching theme in our empirical material, that of
‘looking’ which, when placed alongside the difficulty of describing leadership,
suggests that leadership is something that can be seen but is not (or perhaps
cannot) be spoken about. We now discuss this reading and then use what has
been said to explore what is unsaid.
The said/the sayable
Participants were asked to state how their organizations identified those who
were to be developed for leadership positions. The following statement shows
that those deemed to have the potential for leadership are identified and
separated, like wheat from chaff, from those lacking the necessary qualities.
Asked about training policies and practices in the organization, Sam, a HR
director from Chemco replied that the majority of junior managers took part

in ‘off the shelf’ courses, but certain ‘bright young things’ were treated
differently. They were deemed to need:
… a little bit of something special and also a little bit of a pat on the back …
through senior management discussions [we] select a group of people and
maybe out of a population of several hundred choose twenty. Bright young
people to go on an event which would open their eyes much more to broader
issues in the organization …
Foodco similarly tried to identify and categorise managers at this early stage
of their careers. As their training manager Pat put it:
… You can spot some of these trends even at graduate level. We bring
graduates in …. and at a very early stage …..we seek to decide which ones are
going to be the higher [potential] … and when we are not sure will call them
high-grade potential. And those people we would watch very carefully …
We see here visual metaphors being used to describe (potential) leaders. Not
only are their eyes opened, but those whose eyes are opened are ‘bright’.
Leaders can be seen, so they stand out from the crowd, though they have to be
watched very carefully. Jay, the LA commissioner, articulated what he
thought would be the experience of someone visiting an organization famous
for its leadership. They would:
… simply wander around like on another planet going ‘shit’, you know, ‘this
is far out’. But it is like ‘yes so is Tibet’ – ‘and your point is’ – ‘well it is just
really different’. … There is something about the quality of the light and what
those people are doing over there. … What’s this thing about the quality of the
light in the place why does it seem brighter? – what is it? – are you nearer the
sun on this bit of the planet? – what is it about?…
So metaphors of the visual, of looking, of being seen, and the light which
facilitates seeing recur when people envisage leadership. But what is it that
marks young managers out as ‘high potentials’, as having the stuff of
leadership? What is it that makes them ‘bright’? The identifying markers are
not articulated and indeed the characteristics seem elusive, but the recurring
notion throughout the interviews is that leadership is visible, it can be seen, it
is ‘bright’, and those with it emanate it from near the start of their careers. For
example, Sam from Chemco observed that at the courses attended by the
‘bright young people’ in his company:
… The presence would be seen of senior finance people, heads of department or
towards executive level. And possibly executives from across the business to

really make them feel loved and wanted and wow that’s something to go on.
….. But for those who go on it very much ‘opened my eyes and gave me a
sense of confidence, strong sense of attachment to the organization …
Note the phrases here that refer again to seeing and being seen: ‘the presence
would be seen’ and ‘opened my eyes’. This manager is espousing the belief
that nothing more than the opportunity to look upon the senior managers, to
see them there in front of them, is needed to motivate the company’s future
leaders. Implicit here is an assumption that leaders possess something that
cannot be described in words but is knowable when seen. Indeed, Sam went
on to further develop his thought:
… our Chief Executive Officer is seen to be a very good leader, he is very
inspiring. Anybody that sort of has a presentation from him says ‘wow, I
really bought that’. And a number of Senior Managers when they come into
contact with people are seen to be ‘wow’. However, unfortunately there is still
a large group of senior management that talks the talk but doesn’t translate
into practice …
The chief executive is seen to be a very good leader, and others who possess
this inarticulable leadership ‘thing’ are ‘seen’ to be ‘wow’. Those who can talk
about leadership (‘talks the talk’) but do not possess this indefinable, but
highly visible, something are not regarded as good leaders. This is expressed
most precisely by Jack from LA:
… I know from the …. course I have got some of the concepts in with mine
now, and I can look at people perhaps in that way now and sort of think ‘that
person has and that person hasn’t…
Jack believes that merely the act of looking at people allows him to divide
them into those who have and those who haven’t got whatever it is that good
leaders can be seen to possess.
‘The leader’, these accounts suggest, is believed by managers to be someone
who radiates something which can be seen when in contact with others.
Indeed, relating to other people, meeting them (and not being locked away in
the office), appears to be one of the fundamental distinctions, in mainstream
texts, between management and leadership. Where management is about the
achievement of tasks, leadership involves interpersonal relationships
involving the persons responsible for ensuring aims and objectives are met
(leaders) and those responsible for undertaking the tasks that will achieve
those aims and objectives (followers). This often discussed distinction
between management and leadership, originating in the work of Zaleznik

(1977) and Kotter (1990), is not therefore merely between tasks undertaken
but between types of interpersonal relationships experienced. Our reading of
the empirical material suggests that managers understand leadership to be
the ability to have an impact upon people through the power of something
they emanate which can be apprehended by others.
This lay theory of leadership suggests that in organizational practice the
distinction between managers and leaders is understood to be that managers
lack that certain irresistible something, a je ne sais quoi, emanated by leaders
whose very presence motivates others. The manager may give out tasks but
her/his physical presence is not motivational. This replicates academic
theory, in which it is the embodied presence of a leader that is deemed to
have an impact on the follower because of an elusive something labelled
‘charisma’ (Bennis, 1989; Bass, 1990; Goethals, Sorenson & Burns, 2004; House
et al, 2004, Stogdill, 1974, van Maurik, 2001). Indeed, charisma was
mentioned by a number of interviewees, although sometimes it was felt to be
evident only in other organizations. Pat from Foodco said:
… It is a lot about in another sort of intangible really like charisma kind of
thing. You hear stories … about Asda and Alan Layton’s approach and before
him Archie Norman wandering around the floor, sitting down with somebody
saying ‘what are you doing? How are you getting on? What are your issues?’
….And Asda have it and seem to do it well, you know the Richard Branson
stuff, that charisma that makes you want to fall in behind somebody …
In the same way, Alex regretted that Chemco’s senior managers did not
embody such charisma:
< to what extent are those qualities modelled by our most senior board
people? I am not convinced and indeed many people are not convinced yet
that they are modelled …
Charisma has long been identified in academic theory as an attribute of ‘the
Great Man’ who has informed leadership theories since the 1920s (Calás 1993;
Conger & Kanungo, 1998; Grint, 2005b). Although the Great Man appeared to
have died by the 1980s, deemed irrelevant to the ‘post-heroic’ models of
leadership that have developed since then (Bradford & Cohen, 1984; Heifetz
& Laurie, 1997), commentators have noted how his presence continues to
underpin theories of leadership (Baradacco, 2001; Buchanan & Huczynski,
2004). The very few examples of ‘Great Men’ (Churchill, Gandhi, Mandela,
Hitler, Napoleon, etc.) continue to be referred to over and over again in books
on the subject (Grint 2005a). The Great Man was, and is, believed to have an

irresistible charisma (Jackson & Parry, 2007; Western, 2008). It is charisma
which makes onlookers go ‘wow’.
This, therefore, is what is sayable about leadership by managers articulating
their understanding of the concept. The dominance of the theme of the visual
in the interview material is because beliefs about, or theories of, leadership
circulating between managers revolve around the charismatic ‘Great Man’
who emanates a certain alluring but indefinable something. This ‘charisma’
disarms followers so that they line up alongside the Great Man, sharing his
‘vision’. Indeed, the leader’s task is to ensure followers share this ‘vision’.
For example, Viv from Foodco, who a month before the interview had
attended a ‘blinding’ leadership development course, could now describe
leadership as concerned with:
… appealing to people’s hearts and souls rather than to their minds and their
wallets kind of thing. And the way to people’s hearts and souls is a difficult
one, but things like a clear shared vision of where the company and the
department that you lead is going in support of the company. And a lot more
emotional humanistic kind of approach with your team. I don’t know?
Les, a senior manager from Chemco, had a similar understanding of
leadership following the course in which he had participated:
… I guess, to me, leadership is having a vision for where you are going, being
able to articulate that vision back into practical steps that are going to take you
there. And being able to manage, support and develop people so that they
actually go with you …
Similarly, Chris from LA, although he thought leadership was ‘bullshit,’ when
pushed nevertheless defined it as helping:
clarify setting their direction, [and] help individuals understand their
connection with what they do to the top …
No-one attempted to define vision, but everyone who used the term
emphasized it had to be shared with staff, so that leader and follower could
analogously gaze into the future and see the same thing. There is no
questioning of how this is done, or indeed if it is achievable at all.
We searched through the narratives to find out more about this indefinable
‘charisma’ that overwhelms followers, but with the exception of a few hints
the narratives were silent. However, these few allusions facilitate insights into
what is unsaid and/or unsayable.

The unsaid/the unsayable
Managers, these hints suggest, believe leaders can overwhelm followers
because they can penetrate the follower. Pat said the leader can
‘get [ … in]to people’s hearts and souls’
while Les observed that the leader will
‘take people’s hearts and minds and you go into battle together’
because leadership
‘has to be in the soul. …. You have really got to get under the skin of your
people’ (Charlie).
This is all that is said, but these few references suggest that an erotic discourse
circulates within ideas about leadership. It is erotic because the only way to
approximate the merger desired in these statements is through the ecstasy of
the sexual act (Dollimore, 1991). Managers are imagining a scene of seduction
where the follower’s mind, heart and soul are entered by the leader. Here we
have an erotic fantasy of ‘polarities of omnipotence and utter powerlessness’
(Sedgwick, 1985: 67) – so overcome is the follower presumed to be by the
leader’s charisma that s/he loses all power of resistance to this penetration.
It should perhaps not be surprising that sex informs lay theories of leadership.
Foucault (1979; 1986; 1992) has notably shown that sex3 is everywhere, and
organizations are not exempt, despite a long-held presumption (or pretence)
that things are, or should be, otherwise (Brewis & Sinclair, 2000). But, as
Hearn & Parkin (see also Brewis & Linstead, 2000; Burrell, 1984; Pringle, 1988;
Roper, 1996) have suggested, sexuality and work:
are related to each other because we all know and experience them as
related, if we are honest. The ways we talk, walk, flirt, touch and so on,
as women or as men, may all be instances of being sexual at work, and
at the same time be means to (sic) displaying different sexual identities
that are at least partly work-based and organizationally-determined
(1987: 13/14).
Gherardi’s (1995:58) study observed these displays of organizational
sexualities in action, through ‘heterosexual attraction, according to the canons
of courtship and flirtation, homosexual attraction in single-sex groups, and
the pleasure of sado-masochism’. Organizations, Gherardi argues, provide an

‘extra-territorial arena for the expression of sexuality’ (1995: 58), one which
stands on the borderline between the private and the public. Gherardi’s
thesis is that three features of organizational sexualities make them inherently
ambiguous and contradictory: they are driven by pleasure as they enable
people attracted to one another to meet in a safe place; they support the
interdependence of relationships fostered through work to relieve the
boredom and invigorate organizational life; and they also have a disciplinary
function as a means of organizational control and policing.
Nevertheless, in most management discourse, as in our interview material,
obvious and overt expressions of sex still generally reside at its margins. It
can be seen in certain colloquialisms which suggest, as Burrell has argued,
‘that sexual satisfaction is inimical to good, effective administration < such as
‘it’s buggered’, ‘what a cock-up’, ‘it’s fucked’ and so on’ (1992: 72). Another
way in which sex is present by its absence in organizational life may be
evident in what Roper argued is ‘the erotic subtext of all-male intimacies’
(1996: 213) – intimacies which may appear to be non-sexual. For Roper, this
erotic subtext was evoked, for example, by a manager he interviewed who
described his relationship with an older male colleague as being one ‘where
‘high levels of energy’ flowed from the ‘chemistry being right’’ (1994: 79).
Roper’s observation takes us back to our interview material, because here we
have men talking about relationships between male leaders and followers, so
the eroticism that informs this lay managerial theory is, in many ways,
homoerotic. Other writers have identified male/male erotic desire in the
homosocial organizational world. Sinclair, for example, (1998) provides a
direct link between leadership, male/male desire and sex. Drawing on
Jungian archetypes, she proposes (1998: 30) an understanding of leadership in
which the ‘collective and often unconscious purposes that leadership serves,
helps to explain the tendency to homogeneity and [what Kanter, 1977 calls]
‚homosexual reproduction‛ among leaders’. More recently, Sinclair has
shown empirically how sexual power is used in the leadership training room:
female teachers of leadership are rendered powerless in comparison to male
presenters whose power is located within seductive interactions:
Gender prefigures the way in which seductive performances by men
and women teachers play out. Our interest in gendered seduction
should not obscure from view the fact that leadership development is
often a seductive exchange between men – just as charged and
sexualized as any heterosexual seduction (2009: 281).
What Sinclair hints at in her more recent work, and can be seen also in Bruni
(2006),4 is that in the homosocial workplace desire between men may be

refracted through a female. The accounts in our material, however, are given
by men talking about men, albeit that the allusions to penetration suggest a
heterosexual imaginary at work, one which cannot conceive of the erotic as
involving anything other than penetrative sex (Berlant and Warner, 2000).
Our interview material therefore contributes to explorations of sex within
organizations as it shows how sex informs understanding of organizational
concepts. However, to understand better the brief allusions that suggest this
erotic subtext we must explore why it is that just as quickly as the erotic scene
appears in our interview material it disappears. Studies of organizations and
sex/sexualities show that in some ways this is perhaps to be expected – sex
resides at the margins. But when we turned to analysing the unsaid or the
unsayable within these hints, these possibilities, we found that that which
was present throughout these managers’ narratives but also always absent is
the body of the leader.
The material presence of the leader is implied as the source from which his
charm emanates. This is what is said. What is not said is anything about this
body that must be present as the site at which desire is invoked. This is
surprising, given the clear understanding that it is being in the physical
proximity of, and thus being able to look at, the leader, which is presumed to
disarm followers. Apart from the brief references to hearts, minds, souls and
skin, all in relation to the bodies of followers, there is in all the interviews
only one reference to leaders’ bodies, given by Nicky, one of the participants
in the group interview. As a member of the armed forces, leadership training
throws Nicky into extreme physical environments:
< I can remember the first exercise or whatever when I was …. internally
grappling with the idea of ‘crikey I am going to be Commander soon, I really
don’t want it’. And I would much rather be sort of just a ‘bod’ somewhere not
really doing much. Now I know when I go on exercise I don’t like being the
person doing nothing, I like to be in command because that’s how you deal
with being cold, hungry and wet. Because your mind is taken off that, and
you are so much more interested in having your skills of leadership and
getting things right, that all of a sudden that 24 hours when you are in
command just goes so quickly. And when you are the ‘bod’ doing nothing, it
is just so boring and then every five minutes you are going ‘crikey my feet
hurt’ or ‘it’s wet’ …
The body remains unspoken in all other interviews: this officer, working in
demanding physical conditions, has to mention that which is unsayable
elsewhere. In doing so, does he not reveal the reasons for the absence of the
body of the leader: that is, the leader has to transcend her/his body? The
opposite of the leader in this quote is the ‘bod’, a slang term for ‘body’

(http://www.thefreedictionary.com/BOD, accessed 6th January 2010). The
opposite of leader, it seems, is a body. Could it be that leadership replicates
with followers that which de Beauvoir (1949/1973) argued existed between
men and women: the party regarded as the inferior takes responsibility for
the disavowed embodiment of the other? This may be the case, but these
speakers are all men, and QT offers a somewhat different trajectory.
Sedgwick’s (1985: 133) analysis of ‘the modern, homophobically cloven terrain
of male homosocial desire’ is particularly apposite because she explores
male/male intimacies in the modern period.
Her focus is upon homosexuality as a form of control not only over
homosexual but also heterosexual men. The boundary between the two (if
there is such a boundary) is always an ‘invisible, carefully blurred, alwaysalready-
crossed line’ (p. 89) – what distinguishes ‘the’ homosexual from ‘the’
heterosexual is fluid, porous and constantly transgressed. Importantly for
current purposes, the power to wield the distinction gives ‘a structuring
definitional leverage over the whole range of male bonds that shape the social
constitution’ (p.86). What Sedwick’s analysis allows us to propose therefore
is that the lay managerial theory outlined above is a theory of how control
over followers can be achieved through homoeroticism: that is, the
charismatic leader should awaken desire in the follower such that the
follower will willingly do the leader’s bidding. The leader here is ‘top’ to the
follower’s ‘bottom’ (Hocquenghem, 1978). However, no sexual act is
envisaged in this theory, for the seductive allure of the leader, in the
managerial imagination, is something that will arouse a desire which will
never be acted upon, because the leader’s body that should evoke this desire
disappears from the scene. The leader, therefore, remains untouched by the
scandal that accompanied homosexuality throughout the 20th century and,
although in some places now somewhat ameliorated, continues into the 21st
Managers’ theory of leadership is therefore of the leader’s desire: a desire to
be desired. Once desire is aroused then, the thesis holds, the follower will be
in thrall to the leader and the libidinal energy of that obsession will be
transferred not towards consummation but towards the achievement of the
organization’s goals.
In other words, the understanding of leadership espoused in this lay theory of
leadership entails the leader as a penetrative but disembodied perpetrator,
whose charisma is part of the control mechanisms within organizations. The
leader is deemed to be charismatic in virtue of the effect he has on his
followers, that is, he arouses in them an erotic desire that makes them work
harder. But the leader remains disembodied, and so not only is the desire that

is imagined to be evoked not consummated, the leader remains untainted by
any homophobic aspersions that could be cast against him. Organizational
heteronormativity, so painfully and precariously upheld, will not crumble;
the libidinal energies are not turned towards hedonistic pleasures but to
Summary: Managers’ theory of leadership
This is where our analysis of interview data using QT has led us: sex is
everywhere in organizations and it infuses managers’ understanding of
leadership. What is unsayable about leadership, what prevents its definition,
is a lay theory that the leader’s charisma arises from an irresistible sexual
attractiveness which evokes a homoerotic desire whose libidinal energies can
be diverted towards the achievement of organizational goals. Managers’
understanding of leadership presumes that followers will be so overcome by
an erotic desire to be possessed by the leader that they will forget their own
objectives and fall in with the leader’s ‘vision’. They will, in theory, see only
what the leader wants them to see and they will thus, in theory, become
controllable. This is a theory which informs managers’ understanding of
leadership, a theory that ostensibly has no supporting ‘proof’ that, in the dayto-
day world of organizational practices, followers desire the persons charged
with the task of being their leaders. But does the theory articulate something
that is otherwise unsayable, that is, the sex that is everywhere in
organizations is not homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual, but is a
polymorphous desire of bodies for bodies? Queer theorists have long argued
that it is societal constructs which require that sex be categorised and
controlled, and we suggest that it is these constructs which insist that the
leader’s body be removed from the potential scene of seduction at the same
time as it is presumed to be willing the follower to succumb to its attractions.
Within a heterosexual matrix, the immanent, seductive presence of the leader
threatens the always fragile heterosexual matrix; his transcendent, controlling
absence takes away that threat, but leadership taps into a knowledge of the
polymorphous pleasures that could be available were sexualities not rigidly
controlled, as we explore further below.
This, then, is the ‘passion’ (as one of our participants put it) envisioned in
leadership. Desire, seduction and passion: our data lead us back to Calás and
Smircich’s influential discussion of how ‘the myth of leadership and its
associated romantic appeal … creates the most vital sexuality in the
organizational literature’ (1991: 567). Indeed, we fully concur with them that
if leadership works, then it does so not by ‘suppressing desire … *but+ because
it embodies desire, while covering its traces with the sign of truth’ (1991: 568).
But almost two decades after their paper was published we can recognise
more readily that the seduction between leader and follower may, and often

will, be homoerotic. Our speakers are all men: as male speaking subjects they
presume that leaders, possessing that je ne sais quoi, will have a disarming
impact upon followers regardless of their gender.
Where Calás and Smircich (1991) found seduction informing influential
published texts about leadership, our own analysis shows seduction also
informs managers’ lay accounts.5 Where Calás and Smircich (1991) wrote of
heterosexual seduction, our analysis is informed by homoerotic seduction.
Our interviewees were all men, save for one woman who did not define
leadership in any way. Many leaders and followers will be female. Were
women to talk about leadership in similar ways, then by extension the
leader/follower relationship comes to be understood as involving male/male,
male/female, female/female, and indeed any potential forms of erotic desire.
The person casting a desiring gaze upon the leader (who may be male or
female) may be a man who in looking would be seduced into desiring another
man, or a woman desiring another woman, or it may be opposite sex desire.
We could say that in managers’ unacknowledged, unsayable, working
assumptions about leadership, both homoerotic and heterosexual desires are
brought into play, but to say this would be to freeze desire within dominant
cultural constraints. Hocquenghem (1978) saw desire as neither homosexual
nor heterosexual but as a poly-vocal flux – bodies are attracted to bodies –
however ‘civilisation’ demands suppression of the play of desire. We suggest
therefore that talk about leadership includes a non-vocalised (perhaps nonvocalisable)
but nevertheless present recognition of organizations as places
where a poly-vocal flux of sexual desires circulate, where bodies desire bodies
regardless of gender or sexuality.
We are indeed perhaps schooled in such ways of desiring bodies: consider
that for the last 30 years magazines and other publications have educated
readers in the scopophilic pleasures of looking at members of the same sex.
Nixon (1996) shows how men’s magazines since the 1980s have invited their
readers to gaze openly at highly masculine and openly sensual male bodies.
In so doing they have signified a loosening of the binary opposition between
gay- and straight-identified men, allowing the display of an ambivalent
masculine sexual identity. Lewis & Rolley (1997) meanwhile show that from
an early age women are schooled, primarily through ‘the matriarchal
subculture’ of fashion magazines, into an active and desirous consumption of
the female body. Today’s organizational subjects are thus already trained,
even if they do not recognise it, in enjoying a sexualised looking at members
of the same sex.
Foucault’s project, as Halperin (2004: 44/45) summarises, was to explore
sexuality as ‘an element in a larger political-discursive technology; <.. as an

instrumental effect; <<<.. as a social and political device’. His project was
to explore not what sexuality is or does, but ‘how it works in discursive and
institutional practice’. Sex and sexualities, in this reading, become a ‘social
and political device’ to further the interests of the organization, but they could
be something else entirely.
That is what our paper has led us to conclude. Our own reflexive account of
how writing this paper has worked upon us, its authors, will perhaps explain
this conclusion further. We found writing a reflexive account in a paper such
as this very difficult to construct, and we initially railed against reviewers’
requirement that we provide one. Through our discussions we came to
recognise that we were eventually struck by the recognition that words had
literally failed us: but why? What we can articulate, over and over, is our
dreams of changing organizations so that they become places of pleasure
rather than domination. We have had longstanding concerns about the ways
in which leadership theory denigrates those it calls ‘followers’, and our own
research has shown the anxieties and confusion aroused in managers who are
told they must be leaders (Ford at al, 2008). We therefore recognise that we
are not objective when we explore leadership: we start from a position that is
critical of the entire concept as it has developed in organization studies. This
is why QT holds such an appeal for us, because QT is both theory and
political practice.
Nevertheless we do work in organizations: if our reading of these interview
materials speaks some form of truth, then we too must experience
polymorphous desires of bodies for bodies, and we too must suppress these
desires so as to sustain those fragile sexual and gendered identities that allow
each of us to be an ‘I’. We have therefore turned the ideas in this paper back
upon ourselves so as to explore some of the mechanisms by which we,
ourselves, construct our sexual identities. This took us back to where we
started: to ‘looking’.
Imagine the scene: one of the authors is walking through the grounds of the
university and an attractive body walks past. The author’s immediate visceral
response to the look of the other person is ‘wow’, a response followed almost
immediately by a suppression of the sexual pleasure evoked in looking at that
body, because the body is the ‘wrong’ sex. If suppression has not been quick
enough, and we found ourselves aware of our response, we put it down as a
mistake: the desirable body was so similar to a man’s/woman’s (the fault lay
in them, or in our short-sightedness, or in the poor light). For the authors
constructed as heterosexual, the desired body was the same sex as theirs so
conscious knowledge of attraction was either speedily repressed or denied;

for those constructed as homosexual the desire for an opposite sex body was
treated similarly.
This scene brings us to a possible research endeavour: having recognised the
mechanisms of repression, authors immersed in reading Butler’s work could
set out to find out what would happen if they inhibited the swift raising of
barriers against desire of the ‘wrongly’ sexed body. Could such an
experiment result in enjoyment of a desirous looking at bodies regardless of
their sex? Would new, polymorphous scopophilic experiences emerge? Our
reflexive account has therefore led us to ways in which we may understand
more of the polymorphous pleasures of being embodied in the workplace, if
universities became sites for the conduct of autoethnographic ‘experiments’
that would help further our understanding of organizational sexualities.
Conclusion: Towards heterotopic organizations?
So what can be done with the knowledge that leadership theory seeks to use
erotic desire to achieve greater output from staff, but also that at the same
time it may hint at other possibilities?
Halperin argues that with QT’s absorption into the mainstream of the
academy comes its institutionalization and its canonization; it becomes just
another way of thinking, one without a radical edge, without a drive to
transform. He argues the need for a revivification of QT, a reinvention of its
‘capacity to startle, to surprise, to help us think what has not yet been thought’
(2003: 343). Our paper is written in this spirit. We want it to make a
contribution toward the sort of revivification Halperin seeks. To that end, we
argue the advantages of moving queer politics from the lecture hall or journal
page to the office and shop floor. To what end? Rather than workplaces being
sites of domination, subordination, boredom and alienation, they should
become places of pleasure as well as production, of fulfillment alongside
employment, of enjoying our lives whilst earning a living. One way of doing
this is through reversing the discourse of leadership, turning ‘leadership’ back
upon mainstream organizational theory and developing ways of encouraging
leadership to provide an alternative politics for working lives (Learmonth,
2009; Zoller & Fairhurst, 2007).
What we are advocating here follows Steyeart (2010). For Steyeart, QT
implies that ‘*l+ife and work, practical living conditions and aesthetic forms,
personal concerns and political contexts are not separated but become
interwoven and intertwined in transitional space’ (2010: 62). In what Steyeart
calls heterotopic organizations, difference would be celebrated, work would be
redesigned so that its focus would be joy in production rather than the meanspiritedness
of profit-making; and hierarchies would be abolished (Harding

2003; Reedy & Learmonth, 2009). Such ideas share affinities with authors
who have called for the re-eroticization of organizations (for a review see
Brewis & Grey, 1994), which could be usefully informed by a return to
Hocquenghem’s work. Such a re-eroticization would rebel against any
‘Organization of Pleasure’ (Burrell, 1992: 68) which sought to organize
pleasure for the purpose of controlling it and putting it to the organization’s
use, but would insist that pleasure should, at the least, not be suppressed.
Butler (1997: 121) writes that ‘The line that demarcates the speakable from the
unspeakable instates the current boundaries of the social’. We have shown
that the line which separates the speakable from the unspeakable in
leadership theory is an erotic one. Pushing this line in a new direction has
possibilities of changing the social world of organizations.
QT, as noted above, is a political endeavour. Business school academics who
align themselves with what is known, albeit loosely, as critical management
studies, seek ways to bring about radical changes in organizations. Their aim
is a political one, of turning work from something that controls and
subordinates people into something that becomes a thing of joy. With the loss
of faith in a Marxist revolution, the types of changes sought, and ways of
achieving those changes, are vague and unclear. QT, we have suggested here,
provides a direction: towards heterotopic organizations. Further, QT’s
capacity for providing a language through which the previously unspeakable
can be articulated, allows management scholars to break through the dumb
impasse in which current ways of working are regarded as ‘normal’. QT
therefore offers a way of articulating the taken-for-granted abjection of many
working lives, and so offers news ways in which to speak about organizations
and therefore open them to change.
At the same time, is there not the opportunity for the insights from critical
scholars working in business schools to inform QT’s political agenda? In our
understanding of how organizations work, can we not contribute to a practical
politics of queer, one that turns its attention to ways in which the heterosexual
organizational matrix continues to render many staff as ‘other’ on the
grounds of their sex, sexuality and gender identity?
We conclude this paper therefore with a call for the creation of collaborative
spaces where queer and leadership scholars and others can work to develop
heterotopic organizations. We need to ignore disciplinary divides and get
together to learn from each other and plan how to eradicate the norms that
render anyone vulnerable or abject. Management scholars need to go to
conferences, seminars and other meetings that explore sex, sexualities and
genders, where we can listen, learn, debate, discuss and develop plans of
action. And if more queer theorists would come to Academy of Management

conferences in the US, and to EGOS and CMS conferences in Europe, and the
British Academy of Management conference in the UK, then perhaps they
(we?) would shake up our ideas, while we could offer different ways of
thinking about the practicalities of bringing about meaningful change.
Career Research Forum – no grant number given.

  1. This literature is so huge (Grint, 2000) that an attempt at summary would
    be futile. See Ford et al (2008) for a relevant summary and critique.
  2. These sorts of analytical approaches trouble conventional ways of thinking
    about validity or trustworthiness. This is because conventional thinking
    generally assumes that validity claims are based on what is in a text – as
    opposed to what is not in a text. In as much as we would want to use the
    rhetoric of validity or trustworthiness for our work, we are attracted to
    notions such as Lather’s transgressive validity, which, she argues,
    ‘undermines stability, subverts and unsettles from within’ (1993:680).
  3. Throughout this paper, ‘sex’ refers to the physical act of sex in all its
    manifestations, from attraction to flirting to consummation. Sexuality, on the
    other hand, refers to the object of sexual choice and, notably, how that
    preference is productive of identity.
  4. We are re-reading Bruni’s (2006) work to make this claim. He explores how
    the vignettes that inform his analysis demonstrate heterosexual desire, but a
    reading informed by queer theory would suggest that the overtly sexualised
    language used by males encountering Bruni as he accompanied female staff
    could have been signalling their desire for Bruni, the male, refracted through
    the female (Nixon, 1996; Sedgwick, 1985).
  5. Though we recognize that ‘lay accounts’ can never be disassociated from
    academic theories completely, because each informs the other.

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Corresponding author:
Nancy Harding,
Bradford University School of Management
Emm Lane
T: +44 (0)1274 234423
F: +44 (0)1274 235837
E: [email protected]
Other authors:
Hugh Lee,
Bradford University School of Management
Emm Lane
[email protected]
Jackie Ford,
Bradford University School of Management
Emm Lane
[email protected]
Mark Learmonth,
Durham Business School,
United Kingdom
[email protected]