Leadership: A categorical mistake?


As growing numbers of scholars become disaffected by the
research traditions laid down by leadership psychology, there is a
steady turn towards treating leadership as a discursive phenomenon.
In response, leadership researchers are increasingly adopting
interpretive and observational methods in the search for the
practices of leadership in everyday life. This article suggests that
while there are many advantages to an interest in discourse and
action, there are also many subtle difficulties in making leadership
observable and knowable in the field. Taking Louis Pondy’s notion
of leadership as a language-game as its starting point, this article
argues that leadership studies as a discipline suffers from a persistent
category mistake; a category mistake that some recent
interpretive studies of leadership reveal, but inadvertently
reproduce in the search for leadership’s essential character. Instead,
this article takes Pondy’s thesis to its logical conclusion and outlines
a programme of research that confronts this category mistake,
whilst demonstrating the potential for, and limitations of, treating
leadership as a language-game.

Have we been misled by the existence of a single term in our language
to think that it reflects some uniform reality? Gregory Bateson (1972)
has argued that our language is thing-oriented and is impoverished
when it comes to thinking about, describing, and talking about
relationships [. . .] Does our insistence on the single term ‘leadership’
say something about our familiarity or experience with it?
(Pondy, 1978: 88)
This article attempts what sociologist Harold Garfinkel described to his
students as a creative ‘misreading’ of a text (Lynch, 1999: 216). The text
chosen is from an edited work by Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo
(1978) entitled Leadership: Where else can we go? This collection of radical
essays explores new ways of conceptualizing and researching the problem of
leadership. Three decades on, the text raises questions arguably as relevant
today as they were when the collection was first produced. The specific
chapter selected is Louis Pondy’s ‘Leadership is a Language Game’, in which
the author tentatively outlines a programme of research in which the
relationship between language and leadership can be taken as a serious topic
of inquiry. The chapter is ‘misread’ in the sense that, although I welcome
Pondy’s assertion that our familiarity with the term ‘leadership’ may be one
of the central problems of researching it, there are important differences
between Pondy’s thesis and the notion of language-games as originally
developed by Wittgenstein (1953) in his Philosophical investigations.
Taking Pondy’s thesis as a starting point, this article begins by
situating a concern with language-games within an ongoing, albeit loose,
community of interpretive studies that have sought over several decades to
challenge the long tradition of leadership psychology by examining leadership
as a discursive and locally produced phenomenon (Collinson, 2005,
2006; Fairhurst, 2007; Zoller & Fairhurst, 2007). The examination of the
relationship between discourse and leadership has also emboldened many to
question the theoretical underpinnings of leadership as a robust analytical
concept (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003b; Bresnen, 1995; Calder, 1977;
Pfeffer, 1978; Stogdill, 1974), and for others to call for more studies that
situate leadership in everyday practices as an observable (and presumably
recordable and teachable) social process (Barker, 1997; Bryman et al., 1988;
Greene, 1976; Hosking, 1988; Mintzberg, 1982). In other words, the decades
following the publication of Leadership: Where else can we go? have
witnessed a steady turn towards a concern with leadership as practice and
leadership-in-action. As this article contends, however, a twin concern with
language and action brings with it its own theoretical and methodological
dilemmas. As recent ethnographically inspired studies have shown, making

leadership the topic of observational research often means that leadership as
an empirical object of inquiry has a tendency to disappear among the milieu
of everyday life (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003b; Bresnen, 1995; Kelly et al.,
2006a, 2006b). Yet this vanishing act may well be a symptom of a historical
and unexplicated mis-categorizing of the leadership concept during the
research process; a category mistake that lies at the heart of the discipline’s
approach to the complex relationship between language and action. As this
article demonstrates, the dilemma for leadership studies lies in both ignoring
this category mistake and in seeking to rectify it through longer and more
detailed observational studies of action. Instead, this article suggests a
revising of Pondy’s original speculative work on language games, away from
a concern with the linguistic construction of leadership as a language-game,
and towards what Wittgenstein calls ‘a form of life’.
Leadership, language and action
The turn towards what has recently been called ‘discursive leadership’
(Fairhurst, 2007: 3) began with a more general dissatisfaction with the results
and lack of coherence in trait and style based psychological research (Bass,
1981; Bryman, 1986; Stogdill, 1974). As a result, studies of leadership in the
management and social sciences have increasingly questioned the very
theories and methods used during the research process in making the various
guises of leadership visible, knowable and calculable (Barker, 2001; Bryman,
1992; Mintzberg, 1982; Pfeffer, 1977; Rush et al., 1977). Attribution theory,
as advocated by Calder (1977), represented one early and largely underdeveloped
alternative to the traditional study of leadership that sought to
challenge the individualism and essentialism that characterized much of
mainstream psychological research (see also Lord & Maher, 1991). Instead,
Calder sought to ‘respecify’ leadership studies by separating the methods
used by members in actively constructing perceptions and accounts of leadership
in everyday life, from the work of the researcher in overlaying such
perceptions with ready-made leadership theory. Although not without its
critics (Knights & Willmott, 1992: 764–5), a lasting contribution of the
attribution approach is its attention to the key role of language and an
understanding of the organizational member as a sophisticated user of the
vocabulary, interactional rules, and power relations of leadership in the
practical accomplishment of other kinds of work.
In a similar vein, writers such as Smircich and Morgan (1982) have
drawn attention to the socially constructed and situated character of leadership
as a process of meaning construction between the leading and the led.

This dialectical relationship recasts leadership as a process through which
the actions of the leader provide others with a point of reference and a
‘variety of interpretations that set the basis for meaningful action’ (Smircich
& Morgan, 1982: 262). Likewise, in the field of educational research Peter
Gronn’s groundbreaking work on the everyday character of leadership
(Gronn, 1982, 1983, 1985, 2002; Gronn & Ribbins, 1996) has also called
attention to the subtle interpretive work of leadership as a practical, and
often administrative, accomplishment. Furthermore, Gronn cautions the
researcher in distinguishing between how such work is ‘done’, on the one
hand, to how such ‘doings’ are then made accountable as part of the interactional
fabric of the social setting (Gronn, 1982: 26). For Gronn, this
distinction is important as the first concern requires an ethnographic sensitivity
to the process of work done (however mundane), whereas the second
requires an ethnomethodological approach to understand how such work is
made accountable to others. This separation between language and action is
therefore vital as it adds a necessary degree of complexity to the often
homogenous notion of ‘interpretive work’.
In general, we might remark that this turn towards the situated
character of leadership, the role of language, interpretive work, and action
marks a turn towards topics usually associated with that branch of sociology
known as ethnomethodology. Since its emergence as a worked out
sociological programme, ethnomethodology has similarly been interested in
the local production of order, the machinery of everyday conversation, and
the accountability and indexicality of language and action (Bittner, 1965;
Boden, 1994; Garfinkel, 1967; Lynch, 1993; Sacks, 1992; Sacks et al., 1974;
Zimmerman, 1970). As such, we might add to the above discussion that these
early interpretive studies of leadership share a common epistemological
commitment with ethnomethodology: that organizational members are not
‘cultural dopes’ (Garfinkel, 1967: 68) when it comes to understanding the
value of taking part in leadership as a language-game. Before applying
ethnomethodological principles wholesale to leadership research, however, it
is necessary to explore the subtle relationship between language and action
that continues to underpin a discursive and interpretive approach to contemporary
leadership research. It is here that a return to the work of Louis
Pondy proves invaluable.
Is leadership a language-game? Revisiting Pondy’s thesis
As the quote at the beginning of this article suggests, Pondy contends that
leadership researchers have been misled by the sheer ubiquity of the term

‘leadership’. Our very familiarity with it is our undoing and its seemingly
unlimited elasticity when deployed to describe and explain any kind of social
phenomenon threatens to render it meaningless when subjected to critical
analysis. What Pondy proposes, therefore, is that we seek to look beyond an
epistemological need for a single conceptual definition, or unifying meaning,
to instead focus on the myriad ways in which the term is put to use. In other
words, rather that closing down ways of thinking about and researching
leadership, Pondy suggests treating leadership as a language; a language with
its own rules of grammar and potentially infinite applications. Central to this
is that such a language not only represents or enables social action, but that
action opens up a space for language and meaning to exist. Indeed, later
Pondy suggests that leadership might be more accurately thought of as a
‘collection’ of language-games that can be deployed in and through a particular
setting (1978: 96). When paraphrasing Wittgenstein, he adds that the
‘meaning of a word is the set of ways in which it is used’ (1978: 93). Thus
any understanding of leadership as, say, a process of ‘social influence’ (Yukl,
2002) must begin by studying language as it is produced in and through the
production of a particular setting:
In case it is in doubt, I believe the set of leadership acts is of the same
order of magnitude as the set of sentences in a natural language.
Language is after all one of the key tools of social influence.
(Pondy, 1978: 91)
Although citing Wittgenstein on several occasions, Pondy stops short of fully
developing this notion of the language-game as directly constitutive of a
setting produced through action. Instead his thesis remains deliberately
speculative and centres primarily on a concern with the linguistics of leadership
rather than its relationship to ‘leadership acts’ or action. Whilst this is
a deliberate move for Pondy, it does leave the reader unsure as to the relationship
between leadership as an act of social influence and leadership as a
linguistic expression from which such action results. This is important, since
for the Wittgenstein of The philosophical investigations – as opposed to his
earlier Tractatus – action precedes and creates the conditions of possibility
for language. This is in stark contrast to other social constructionist readings
that hold that language creates the possibilities for action – something that
some critics argue grounds social constructionist readings of Wittgenstein
firmly within the boundaries of cognitivism (Button & Sharrock, 1993).
As it is, Pondy’s interest in leadership as a language-game shifts
between several themes; from a concern with the linguistics of Chomsky
(pp. 90–1), to the actual words spoken by world leaders (p. 95), to the

influence of technology and ‘remote leadership’ (p. 91), to metaphors involving
musical conductors (p. 94). This constant shift of focus is partly due to
Pondy’s self-conscious attempt to outline a set of notes, or partial thoughts
on the notion of leadership as a language (pp. 96–7), but it is also due to an
acknowledged lack of understanding of how exactly to develop an empirical
programme of social scientific study around Wittgenstein’s philosophy
and the epistemological commitments that such an approach would
demand. Perhaps this is why it is not until the very end of the chapter
that Wittgenstein is directly quoted by Pondy from aphorism §23 of
Philosophical investigations:
But how many different kinds of sentences are there? Say assertion,
question and command? – There are countless kinds, countless different
kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’, ‘sentences’. And
this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new
types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into
existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten [. . .] Here the
term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that
speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life [. . .] If
you do not keep the multiplicity of language-games in view, you will
perhaps be inclined to ask questions like: ‘What is a question?’ – Is it
the statement that I do know such-and-such, or the statement that I
wish the other person would tell me . . .? Or is it the description of my
mental state of uncertainty? – And is the cry, ‘Help’ such a description?
(cited in Pondy, 1978: 97, emphases in original)
The key point for Pondy is that meaning is established through ‘use’ (p. 97).
Yet it is the very matter of how this idea of ‘use’ is characterized that is of
central importance to an understanding of language-games. This, therefore,
brings us squarely back to the relationship between language and action. As
Wittgenstein states above, leadership as a language-game is more than a
spoken language – a language-game is an activity, it is a form of life. It
follows that talking about leadership, writing about leadership, using the
concept in any way, shape, or form is the product of some kind of action.
More importantly, as a ‘form of life’, actions have a reflexive quality. Forms
of life constitute and temporarily stabilize the language-games that describe
them and make them sensible as forms of life. As both Wittgenstein and
Pondy state, however, there is no single stable language-game in which we
can participate. Rather there is a multiplicity of games in play at any one
time. Games that come into existence through their use can also become
obsolete and are then forgotten and replaced with new ones.1 The question

that remains, however, is not whether leadership is a language-game – as
Pondy phrased his chapter – but how these games take shape, how they are
played, what forms of life they produce, and in turn are produced and
sustained through activity. It is at this point, therefore, that we must depart
from Pondy’s thesis and turn our attention to the less developed notion of
forms of life. However, a move from language to the relationship between
language-games and forms of life potentially requires a move from philosophical
debate to the development of a programme of empirical inquiry: a
social science of language-games if you will. Nevertheless, such a programme
of research comes with its own dilemmas for the leadership researcher. Chief
among these being what exactly should be the object of study?
Leadership (missing) in action: Committing Ryle’s
category mistake
Despite persistent calls for studies of leadership-in-action, and the separation
of theoretical idealizations from everyday practice, few researchers have
taken seriously members’ own methods in the practical accomplishment of
leadership. One consequence of this focus on theory testing has been a
gradual sense of confusion as to the exact object of inquiry to be tested. Even
in contemporary interpretive research that seeks to address this very
problem, there remains a tension between the researcher’s desire to develop
an explanatory framework and the need to understand the local production
of a setting through observable and accountable social interaction. For
instance, in a recent series of challenging papers, Alvesson and Sveningsson
(2003a, 2003b) have questioned the very existence of leadership as an
observable phenomenon in daily organizational life. As they state: ‘Our
general impression is that it is difficult to say anything of the possible existence
of leadership in the great majority of organizations and management
situations’ (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a: 377). Having conducted interviews
with managers in a research and development company, the authors
found that the accounts given of leadership were ambiguous, often contradictory,
and seemed to suggest that the participants used ‘tactics’ during
interviews for ‘. . . carrying out the trick of the mysterious disappearance of
leadership’ (2003a: 374). Concluding their argument, the authors state:
The empirical material points to the disappearance of leadership. A
closer look sensitive to the incoherencies and deviations from the
claimed characteristics of leadership means that it dissolves; even as a
discourse it is not carried through. Not even the massive presence of

scripts for leadership articulation in contemporary organizations,
provided by popular press and management educators, seems to be
sufficient to produce coherent treatment of the subject matter.
(Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a: 379)
While the present article is encouraged by and supportive of the interpretative
approach to leadership research advocated by the authors – particularly
their call for ‘leadership agnosticism’ in future studies (2003a: 377) – the
question remains as to whether it is leadership that is mysterious and predisposed
to dissolving and disappearing, or whether it is a consequence of the
research methods being used to make leadership visible and researchable in
the first place. The problem it seems is that Alvesson and Sveningsson, like so
many researchers, are somewhat disappointed that leadership may not be
robust enough to withstand the scrutiny of the critical analysis of interpretive
social science (see also Bresnen, 1995). This apparent fragility, however, is
perhaps not surprising given the amount of work it takes to render leadership
visible through the gaze of the researcher. It is only when one attempts to see
leadership from a member’s point of view – one that deliberately sets aside
(or brackets off) explicit theories models and assumptions as to the essential
character of leadership – that one is able to see that other kinds of work
are being done; work that, for instance, might be accounted for within a
setting as:
managerial work – cash-flow management, listening to superiors,
passing on plans from seniors, and determining that people complete
(Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2003a: 365)
Even though the authors state that such work ‘does not seem for us to be of
immediate interest in this specific study’ (2003a: 365), this is precisely the
kind of work that should be of primary interest to the interpretive and
reflexive researcher of leadership. Depending upon the activity that is
examined, it may be that leadership is expressed through the holding of
budget meetings, team meetings, through the telling of jokes, a chat over a
coffee, giving speeches, dealing with complaints, sending e-mails, opening
post and generally getting on with everyday ordinary work (Boden, 1994;
Gronn, 1982; Kelly et al., 2006a, 2006b). The discounting of such work
activity (including accounts and judgements about it as ‘ordinary’ work) as
somehow not contributing to an understanding of leadership implies that
‘leadership’ as a form of life exists elsewhere.

As Alvesson and Sveningsson and others have found, when such
observable everyday work is discounted, leadership has a tendency to vanish
from view. This disappearance suggests two things:
1) that leadership may not be of the same conceptual order as ‘cash-flow
management, listening to superiors, passing on plans from seniors, and
determining that people complete reports’, and perhaps therefore needs
to be reallocated from the category of ‘technical work’ to some other.
2) The explicit recognition by leadership researchers that such technical
work is not leadership and should be discounted, implies some other
taken-for-granted interpretive resources used by the researcher in
determining what is not (and by implication what is) leadership.
Of course, the problem here is that what counts as leadership cannot
be articulated, it is only available indirectly through what it is not. In this
sense, leadership as a social science research topic becomes apophatic in
character and so demands careful and critical reflection as to how it should
be approached empirically. Particularly as each move towards the apparent
object of leadership research is merely a means of extending the horizon of
research possibilities.
For the philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1949, 1954), the committing of a
category mistake, like that arguably facing leadership researchers, arises out
of the production of just such an apophatic phenomenon. For Ryle, this is
best captured by the notion of the myth:
A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts
belonging to one category in the idioms appropriate to another. To
explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate
(Ryle, 1949: 8)
To illustrate how category mistakes are committed Ryle uses the example of
a foreign visitor arriving at Oxford or Cambridge wishing to see ‘the
University’. After having been shown the number of colleges, libraries,
playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices, he
then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the
colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and
the rest. But have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the
members of your University’ (Ryle, 1949: 16). As such, this foreign visitor
was ‘mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to

which the other institutions belong’ (Ryle, 1949: 16). As Ryle explains,
following this mistake the University then becomes another unit that can be
supposedly visited, looked at and so forth, rather than an abstract description
for a collection of related organizations. For Ryle these category
mistakes are most persistent when made in relation to the concept of ‘mind’.
Something which, according to Ryle, began with the original category
mistake: the Cartesian separation of mind and body, through which ‘mind’
is defined not through its constituent parts (which in Ryle’s opinion are
unknowable), but by what it is not. For instance:
The workings of minds had to be described by the mere negatives of the
specific descriptions given to bodies; they are not in space, they are not
motions, they are not modifications of matter, they are not accessible to
public observation. Minds are not bits of clockwork, they are just bits
of not-clockwork.
(Ryle, 1949: 20)
There are strong parallels here with the categorization of leadership in
comparison to everyday work described above. As such, leadership is
characterized by what it is not. It is not merely made up of constituent parts
such as the tasks we might describe as management or administration.
Likewise leadership is not merely reducible to followership, headship, social
influence, power, control, empowerment and so forth. As with the conceptual
category of ‘the University’, leadership can be indirectly observed as
an essential ingredient, component, or supplement of each of these, but a
detailed study of each as an object of inquiry does not itself constitute a
study of leadership. The result is that what exactly leadership is remains
perpetually deferred either as an idealization yet to be discovered through
better observational research, or as an inadequate category for some other
kind of work practice that is observable. Given this, perhaps the challenge
for leadership research is, as Ryle suggests, not seeking to explode the myth
of leadership by, for instance, practising leadership agnosticism, but instead
seeking to reallocate leadership within another category. As Pondy has
suggested, the treatment of leadership as a language-game offers one
possibility for such a reallocation.
Re-categorizing leadership: The contribution of
As Pondy reminds us, Wittgenstein’s aphorism §23 states, ‘If you do not keep
the multiplicity of language-games in view, you will perhaps be inclined to

ask questions like: “What is a question?”’. This rather ambiguous statement
represents a fundamental principle of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of languagegames.
That is, meaning is constructed, sustained, disrupted and replaced
through use, and that language, meaning and action cannot be understood
as distinct from one another. Therefore, what is important is not the
essential definition of ‘a question’, but rather the work that is accomplished
through the invocation of this particular language-game. For the leadership
researcher, not keeping in view the potential multiplicity of language-games
(and therefore the multiple meanings and actions) runs the risk of asking the
question ‘what is leadership?’ and thus conflating the possibility of an
abstract universal idealization of leadership with the actual use to which the
term is put.
Take the example used by ethnomethodologist Michael Lynch (1993:
190) in which he describes similar attempts by science studies writer Bernard
Barber to try and make sense of the multiplicity of meanings surrounding
the concept of ‘trust’. Barber (1990: 133) begins by noting that ‘trust’, like
leadership, has ‘. . . very frequently been used ambiguously by past social
thinkers, by the man-in-the-street, by journalists, and by contemporary social
scientists’. As Lynch explains, Barber seeks to remedy this ‘conceptual
morass’ of meanings by constructing a definition: a definition that will
‘. . . put us on more solid analytical and empirical ground’ (Barber, 1990:
133). For Lynch, however, such a move whilst typical of traditional
sociology offers little of the solid ground that is sought:
By addressing the ordinary concept of trust by considering all of the
uses of the term together under a single conceptual heading, Barber
finds a ‘morass’ of different meanings that he hopes to remedy by
stipulating a more restrictive definition. Both his definition and the
theoretical apparatus he uses in his analysis derive from a coherent
theoretical source (Talcott Parson’s model of the social system). By
subsuming the various uses of the concept of trust under a general definition,
Barber never considers that those uses – however diverse and
confusing to consider all at once – may be orderly and investigable in
their own right.
(Lynch, 1993: 190)
In the same way it can be argued that leadership researchers have also sought
to subsume various uses of concepts of ‘leadership’ under a general (and
restrictive) set of definitions. Even those that are open to exploring
‘incoherence, variation, and fragmentation’ (Alvesson & Sveningsson,
2003a: 378–9) are cautious about ‘privileging’ such a position in their
analysis. Nevertheless, without privileging such a position – at least for the

purpose of analysing empirical material – there is a danger of staying within
the traditional systems model in which framing social interaction remains
ultimately ‘explainable’ (but not ‘describable’) through the theoretical lens
of the researcher without considering that each use, however diverse and
confusing, may be orderly and investigable in its own right. By ignoring
Lynch’s words of warning to Barber, leadership studies is in danger of
committing the same category mistake of attempting to deal with the morass
of definitions, studies and theories of leadership by applying a more restrictive
category or definition to the object of inquiry.
More than this, in making this move towards creating a coherent
theoretical framework at the expense of plurality, studies of leadership risk
performing what Dorothy Smith (1974) has referred to as ‘the three tricks
of ideology’ in which social facts are produced as such through three discursive
moves. The following is reproduced from Smith (1974: 41):
Trick 1. Separate what people say they think from the actual circumstances
in which it is said, from the actual empirical conditions of their
lives and from the actual individuals who said it.
Trick 2. Having detached the ideas, they must now be rearranged.
Prove then an order among them which accounts for what is observed.
Trick 3. The ideas are then changed ‘into a person’ that is they are
constituted as distinct entities to which agency (or possibly causal
efficacy) may be attributed. And they may be re-attributed to ‘reality’
by attributing them to actors who now represent the ideas.
In other words, when ignoring or forgetting that such a move was made
(including the forgetting of the erasure itself) the newly constructed object
(i.e. ‘trust’, ‘leadership’, etc.) appears to stand up to critical analysis.
However, as researchers have found, such social objects of inquiry also have
a tendency to then disappear when examined ethnographically. Regrettably
throughout all of this, the apparently mundane practices that are made
accountable and therefore observable remain unexplicated and actively
ignored since they have seemingly no bearing on the production of the object
as it has been conceived theoretically. This leaves such studies in a perpetual
and perennially failing programme of research that seeks to define what is
‘trust’, what is ‘leadership’ and so on.2 As Lynch argues, however, advocating
the use of ethnomethodology to resolve a category mistake will not rectify
such epistemological problems. Instead, ethnomethodology will remain

indifferent to the aims of this kind of theorizing to focus instead on the
‘organized uses of indexical expressions’ (Lynch, 1993: 190) of a work
activity, or form of life, whether such activity is accounted for in terms of
leadership or not.
As with Wittgenstein’s language-games, for ethnomethodology the
indexicality of language is a key resource for explicating and so understanding
how a setting is organized as ‘sensible’ by its members, and of
course this includes an understanding of what it means to be a competent
member (Fairhurst, 2007; ten Have, 2002). For ethnomethodologists, as for
Wittgenstein, action is what enables language to emerge and take shape:
action comes first, then language (Button & Sharrock, 1993). In other words,
the language-games that are a resource for our interpretations are made up
of a backdrop of what Wittgenstein termed ‘natural reactions’ (Button &
Sharrock, 1993). That is, the taken-for-granted machinery of social interaction,
the exhibited regularity that makes language possible. As we saw
when Alvesson and Sveningsson drew upon some unexplicated resource for
determining what was not leadership, these natural reactions are the basis
upon which our formulations, accounts and interpretations rest. As such, we
might take Pondy’s thesis one stage further to suggest that leadership itself
is not a language-game, but rather a family resemblance among languagegames;
games which are themselves built upon a stock of taken-for-granted
interpretive resources. Leadership, therefore should be treated as what
Wittgenstein (1953: §71) calls a ‘blurred concept’ around and through which
language-games orient themselves and can be played out in the practical
accomplishment of other kinds of work.
If we are not sensitive to this subtle relationship between natural
reactions, families of language-games and forms of life, we can quickly and
easily re-categorize leadership either as 1) a distinct and essential form of
language-game, as Pondy suggests, or 2) as an object existing independently
in the world which is simply represented through language. Both moves
commit the category mistake of treating leadership as a linguistic construction
representative of a potentially knowable reality. Also both contain
within their formulations the impossibility of ever knowing leadership as a
practice. Either because they unknowingly produce another kind of leadership
object through the construction of ever more elaborate techniques of
measurement, or by conducting detailed interviews and observations of other
work practices in the hope of somehow teasing out some essential qualities
of leadership. Both approaches have been applied in leadership research with
less than satisfactory results, as both commit the category mistake of assigning
a particular reality to leadership based on a representational view of

language. The result is that leadership will continue to occupy that paradoxical
space of Ryle’s university in which leadership is both potentially real
and knowable, but upon closer inspection just manages to slip out of sight.
Where else can we go?
Pondy’s thesis provides a useful link with Wittgenstienian and ethnomethodological
concerns and perhaps it is through an analysis of the production
and performance of families of language-games that an insight into
leadership-in-action may be achievable. Take the following transcript
recorded as part of the author’s own ethnographic study of everyday leadership
during a public sector workshop for educational leaders in the UK in
which the author participated:3
Author: I mean, how useful is this distinction between leadership
and management? Is there anything in leadership that is
useful, or are we actually talking about a more sophisticated
understanding of management?
Jane: There’s these little catchphrases that you pick up, one of
them for me last week, one was ‘managers do efficiency;
leaders create change’. I have this written up on my wall in
my room at the moment and it irritates everybody [. . .]
And it is all very well talking about leadership, and on a
good day it can feel inspirational, but actually we have to
do a lot of management as well, because we have to do the
figures, we have to do the numbers, we have to be efficient.
Don’t try being a leader when you’re doing that, you’re
being a manager when you’re doing that.
Richard: . . . that’s what makes the leadership special.
Louise: . . . and that other side of it is, ok you can now think, you
can be creative, you can be negative, that’s where you can
create the change through other people. But frankly I, I
don’t think you can be either one or the other, I think you
have to be able to manage both.
[Nods of agreement among the group]

Louise: . . . and actually be able to manage the points when they
come up and potentially collide, you ought to work your
way through that. But I’m not pretending I’m, I’m going to
be exclusively a leader – although it would be nice – but
walking six inches off the ground, y’know, everyday, is
going to take it out of you.
Sarah: I think, I think that’s the issue isn’t it? That, y’know, I don’t
think we go around describing ourselves as ‘leaders’
because it does imply something more magnificent than the
reality really is.
Here ‘leadership’ is produced within the setting of the workshop as the topic
of a language-game about leadership versus management. As can be seen in
the above interaction, leadership is produced as the ambiguous, but important
idealization of work against the background reality of mundane management.
As such, it is easy for a leadership researcher to take from this that
leadership actually constitutes work outside of this setting (albeit work that
is routinely deferred in favour of doing management). However, if we take
this as an example of a form of life produced through this participation in a
family of language-games, we can then re-categorize this exchange as ‘doing
participating in a leadership workshop’ (Sacks, 1984) rather than simply as
‘leadership work’. This analysis avoids the temptation to commit the
‘category mistake’ of presuming that the work of participating in a workshop
(during a time of considerable sector reform surrounding leadership)4 is of
the same order of statements made about working life in a school or a
college. Instead, we have a form of life – participating in a leadership
workshop – then we have language-games about leadership and management
which are played out through the natural reactions of participants willing to
follow the rules of this interaction (i.e. being interviewed in a focus group).
The importance of this kind of analysis is that the role of the researcher
now becomes a key analytical object in the ‘occasioning’ of leadership in
this setting. As Garfinkel found during his own problematic study of selfreporting
in a hospital records system:
If the researcher insists that a reporter furnish the information in the
way a form provides, he runs the risk of imposing upon the actual
events for study a structure that is derived from the features of the
reporting rather than from the events themselves [. . .] forms –
whatever they may consist of – provide not only categories with which

clinic personnel describe clinic events, but simultaneously and inevitably,
such forms consist of rules that for personnel define the
correct self-reporting conduct as a work obligation.
(Garfinkel, 1967: 195)
In my own position as a researcher taking part in a leadership workshop I
inadvertently contributed to (some might even say introduced) a languagegame
about leadership within a setting in which leadership was already a
background feature. As with Garfinkel’s clinic personnel, I provided participants
with the grammatical rules of correct self-reporting conduct through
which we could organize our interaction. Perhaps ironically, my questioning
also allowed these individuals to successfully demonstrate their skills as
competent leaders; leaders able to successfully recognize this grammar and
seamlessly take part in a language-game about leadership. Notice that these
participants do not question the pairing of leadership and management; they
do not ask for clarification, or take issue with my status, or my question.
Instead, as adept players of this particular language-game, the interaction is
a means for participants to demonstrate why leadership is important in their
sector at this particular historical moment. As Garfinkel suggests, they understand
the work obligation placed upon them as managers to show a desire
to be leaders, even in the face of other administrative pressures. Within this
form of life, therefore, the ability to competently recognize (and not question)
the blurred edges of the leadership concept within such language-games may
be the most appropriate means of demonstrating that one is a ‘good’ leader.
Gale Miller (1997) deliberately draws upon the metaphor of the bridge for
discussing the relationship between ethnomethodology, ethnography and
Foucauldian discourse studies. For Miller the bridge is unique in that it does
not seek to occupy territory, or blend territories to make them indistinguishable.
Bridges simply provide a link between two or more land masses at their
shortest distance from each other. Inspired by Miller’s sentiments, this article
has sought out the shortest distance between the diverse approaches to
ethnomethodology and interpretive studies of leadership. Ethnomethodology
does not seek to offer a ‘unifying theory’ for the study of organizational life.
Rather it is presented here as a counter-point, or as Miller describes it, as an
opportunity to build bridges between complementary disciplines. Pondy’s
language-game thesis as informed by ethnomethodology provides an alternative
analytical framework for the study of leadership. This is not one that

replaces (or indeed should replace) existing approaches, but unlike existing
methods, models, theories and so forth, the consequences of its epistemological
commitments need to be understood before it can be satisfactorily
applied. As with ethnomethodology, this is not an explanatory method, but
one which seeks to re-specify or re-allocate the nature and purpose of
description in social research.
Any concern with leadership-in-action, or leadership as an observable
phenomenon, should include an appreciation of the shared forms of life and
subsequent interpretive work that underpins the ‘occasioning’ of leadership for
both the researcher and research participant. What is needed, therefore, are
not more observational studies, longer periods in the field, or more detailed
descriptions of supposed ‘leadership work’, but instead an interpretive
approach that is sensitive to the production of and relationships between
language-games. This demands a serious consideration of the relationship
between ‘natural reactions’, language-games and forms of life in the production
of an organizational setting. Without such a consideration, leadership
as a programme of research will remain politically important, but intellectually
impoverished as the object of inquiry continues to travel along a receding
horizon; a horizon in which every attempt at definition and explanation merely
serves to reinforce and reiterate a subtle but persistent category mistake.
I would like to thank the principals, managers, college staff and course participants
who kindly agreed to take part in the research presented in this article. I
would also like to thank the reviewers and Prof. Gail Fairhurst for their guidance
and encouragement in developing this article. Finally, I would like to thank Adele
Senior, Dave Martin, and Mark Rouncefield at Lancaster University, who
provided comments on earlier drafts of this article.
1 This idea of a collection of language-games has come under criticism by deconstructionists
like Culler (1983: 124), who uses Wittgenstein’s comment that bububu
can never mean ‘if it doesn’t rain I shall go out for a walk’ as an example of the
boundlessness of context. As Culler points out, once uttered, bububu now can mean
precisely this. For Culler this is evidence that the static notion of the language-game
does not adequately take into account the undecidability of language. Yet as
Wittgenstein goes on to state (and as Culler conveniently leaves out) ‘It is only in a
language game that I can mean something by something’ (1953: 18e), as such the
intelligibility of bububu is now part of this new game.
2 According to Grey (2003: 14) the leadership literature as a whole is ‘depressingly
tedious’ for this very reason.

3 A more detailed description and analysis of this ethnographic study is described in
Kelly et al. (2006a, 2006b).
4 At the time of this fieldwork a leadership succession crisis framed discussions,
consultation documents and white papers on the role of leadership within the UK
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Simon Kelly is a lecturer in the Department of Organization,Work and
Technology, Lancaster University Management School, UK. His research
interests include leadership development in the UK public sector,
management education, and the application of ethnomethodology in
organizational research. In particular, he is interested in examining the
contributions of critical management studies, post-structuralism and
interpretive sociology for investigating the production of contemporary
organizational forms and management practices. His work has been
published in conference papers and journals including Leadership and
International Studies in Educational Administration.
[E-mail: [email protected]]