Towards a negative ontology of leadership

Abstract

Drawing on recent critical debates concerning the ontology of leadership, this article
outlines a radical rethinking of the concept – not as the study of heroic individuals, skilled
practitioners, collaborators or discursive actors – but as the marker of a fundamental
and productive lack; a space of absent presence through which individual and collective
desires for leadership are given expression. Where current critical debates tend to
oscillate between variants of the physical and the social in their analyses, this article
considers the potential for a negative ontology of leadership; one in which absence,
ideological practices and the operation of empty signifiers form the basis for empirical
investigation and critical reflection.

These quotations have two things in common. In different ways they both consider the
ontological assumptions that underpin our experience of reality. They also describe
objects that illuminate. For leadership researchers McCall and Lombardo, the subject of
leadership has the potential to be ‘bright orange’ – the use of bright evoking a brilliance

normally reserved for similar orange celestial objects like our Sun. According to the
authors, it is only through the way in which we choose to study such objects that we rob
them of their colour and brilliance. Compare this then to Eustace’s encounter with an
object of similar illumination in CS Lewis’ novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
When faced with an aged (and talking) star, Lewis’ protagonist overlooks what might
make this object so special and instead seeks to reduce it to its component parts. Both
McCall and Lombardo’s lament and Eustace’s encounter with Ramandu the talking star
are a reminder that even if we think we know how something works, or even what it is
made of, it does not necessarily follow that we understand anything about what that
object is. Where McCall and Lombardo still hold out for the possibility of somehow
encountering leadership in all its glorious and colourful totality (if only we knew how
and where to look), the words of Ramandu present us with an altogether more ambiguous
and ambitious proposition; a proposition that also provides the starting point for this
article. However hard we search and whatever methods, tools and techniques we use to
capture and illuminate the substance, inner workings and complexity of an object, subject
or phenomenon, there might always be something left over or hidden. A surplus of
magical stuff that makes that thing what it is.
Following this proposition, this article presents an alternative theoretical perspective
for situating and researching the phenomenon of leadership. This is a perspective based
not on a positive description of what leadership is made of, but on a negative ontological
analysis of what attempts at description must always lack.1 This is leadership as something
that resists full presence as an object of knowledge. It is something that cannot be
encountered directly through the senses or through language and that lacks a positive
ontological foundation, or logos, through which we can discern its inner workings and
content. Instead, ‘leadership’ as a term or concept should be understood as an absent
presence; one that must always be described and represented by somebody or something
else. It is these ‘proxies’ for leadership that has preoccupied the leadership research community
for over a century while other ontological possibilities for understanding our
continual fascination with leadership remain under-examined. In making its case for a
negative ontology, the article begins by exploring recent concerns with the ontological
foundations of leadership (Crevani et al., 2010; Denis et al., 2010; Drath et al., 2008). It
asks why such questions of ontology have become of interest to critical leadership
researchers and how the continuing and unreflexive search for positive ontological foundations,
and the privileging of a metaphysics of presence risks committing what some
have described as an unacknowledged ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’, or persistent
‘category mistake’ in leadership studies (Kelly, 2008; Wood, 2005). In seeking to avoid
such mistakes, the article draws on poststructuralist theory to explore how the status of
leadership might be approached differently through the application of two interrelated
theoretical schemas that together form the basis of a negative ontology.
The first is a recognition that leadership as a term or concept has a distinct and unusual
status in language as a ‘floating’ or empty signifier (Laclau, 1996; Laclau and
Mouffe, 2001). Unlike other forms of description or expression, ‘leadership’ does not
signify anything specific or fixed, but instead serves to create the conditions of possibility
for many competing and complementary definitions, meanings and interpretations.
As such, it is suggested that ‘leadership’ as a term has a distinctly ideological rather than

ontological character. The second schema is drawn from Roland Barthes’ study of contemporary
mythologies and his assertion that mythical speech is both prolific in everyday
communication and operates as a ‘second order’ form of language that relies on the
production of floating signifiers for its perpetuation and maintenance (Barthes, 1993).
Using Barthes’ schema for tracing the parasitic relationship between ordinary language
and mythical speech, the article demonstrates how ‘leadership’ similarly operates as part
of this second order sign system. Here again, it is the ideological rather than the ontological
that gives the language of leadership its force and influence. Rather than seeking to
‘debunk’ or dismiss leadership, this article provides a starting point for studying the ideological
character of leadership in language, while also paying attention to the myriad
ways in which subjects and objects of language and action come to ‘stand in’ for, and
temporarily fill, the empty centre of this seductive and endlessly adaptable signifier. As
the article concludes, it is perhaps this mistaking of the ideological for the ontological
that marks the most significant fallacy of contemporary leadership studies, and it is here
that a negative rather than positive engagement with leadership might have important
and productive theoretical, methodological and practical implications for doing critical
leadership research.
Positive ontological foundations of leadership
Implicit in McCall and Lombardo’s statement above is the suggestion that leadership
research traditionally limits itself to a particular palette; a specific set of ontological
assumptions regarding the nature of the reality under study. Traditionally, to study leadership
is to study special individuals who possess some essential qualities that have a
unique influence over others. In other words, it is the measurement of the personalities,
acts and actions of these specially endowed heroic individuals that come to shape leader–
follower relations and that constitute the lived realities of organizations, societies and
their members. Whether this is through divine providence, or a position earned through
military or political acumen (Carlyle, 1840); the correct balance of traits, context and
action (Fiedler, 1997 [1976]; Kirkpatrick and Locke, 1991); or individualized charisma
and authenticity (Avolio and Gardner, 2005; Conger and Kanungo, 1998), it is the person
and not the group or collective that determines the force and flow of influence that marks
out leadership as a unique phenomenon. It follows then that the source of empirical
knowledge about the reality of leadership must exist in some form in the make-up of this
special person.
More recently, efforts have been made to emphasize the role of other actors in this
relationship of influence. Leader–member exchange theory (LMX), in particular, has
developed a science out of measuring and evaluating the factors that contribute to certain
leader–follower dynamics (Graen and Uhl-Bien, 1995; Uhl-Bien, 2006), and still
others have suggested that it is ‘followership’ that determines how leaders are perceived,
how traits are attributed, and how actions and outcomes are arrived at (Carsten
et al., 2010; Gabriel, 1997). For those contributing to the new wave of critical leadership
studies,2 however, the site of study is less well defined and demarcated. Leadership
is no longer reducible to a tangible act of influence between stable categories of ‘leader’
and ‘follower’ with ‘leadership’ standing for a kind of dialectic that emerges from the

joining of the two (Collinson, 2005, 2006). Instead, leadership might involve an array
of heterogeneous factors, elements, networks, discourses, subjects and objects. For
example, leadership might exist in discursive regimes, metaphor, ordinary language,
attributions, unconscious symbolic projections, or even in non-human ‘actants’ that provide
the conditions for a complex leaderful relationship or dynamic to emerge (Alvesson
and Spicer, 2011; Fairhurst, 2007; Kelly, 2008; Raelin, 2011; Sveningsson and Larsson,
2006). What each of these critical approaches has in common is the notion that leadership
does not exist within a person, or even within a relationship between bounded
figures called leaders and followers. Instead, leadership represents a kind of epiphenomenon
that organizes and determines our experience of social reality and our experience
of ourselves.
This move ‘outwards’ from individual actors, to a shared socially constructed reality
comes at a cost, however. First, the method through which leadership can be
researched and data collected has to be reconsidered. As Fairhurst and Uhl-Bien
(2012) have recently observed, when leadership exists as a social and relational phenomenon
there are many possible discursive routes and methodologies for gaining
access to the empirical lived reality of leadership. The second and more significant
cost is that as the data begin to accumulate, researchers must find a means of identifying
the leadership concept at work in these myriad forms of communication, social
relations and actions. In short, when leadership becomes ‘relational’, the problem of
‘what is leadership?’ is quickly compounded by ‘which relationships really matter?’
and ‘how do we identify specific forms of leaderful influence?’. It is perhaps no coincidence
then that the plurality of relational and critical studies of leadership has been
accompanied by a questioning of the very nature and ontology of the leadership concept
itself. Among a vibrant and sophisticated emerging literature on this topic there
are two overriding ontological themes that characterize this concern: the function of
discourse and the role of collective action. In the sections that follow, studies that
exemplify these interrelated themes are introduced and their ontological claims and
assumptions explored.
From relational tripods to collective action
The theme of collective action has recently been explicitly tackled by Drath et al. (2008)
who suggest that most starting points for any concern with leadership (be it research,
development or practice) begins from what Bennis (2007) terms the ‘tripod’ of leadership.
This tripod is made up of relationships between ‘leaders’, ‘followers’ and ‘shared
goals’, and underpins a long-established understanding of leadership as the sum of
actions and causalities between two groups of actors. For Drath et al., this tripod also
marks a set of deep ontological commitments that are rarely challenged or acknowledged
by academic leadership researchers. As the authors state, it is not that the tripod ontology
lacks usefulness – indeed, most insights into leadership very much depend upon and
draw from intellectual insight from this model. It is rather that there may be alternative
ontological structures and commitments that have equally valuable intellectual insights
that researchers might turn to instead.

In this spirit Drath et al. offer what they dub a DAC ontology in which leadership is
not the summative actions of individual leaders exerting power and influence over followers,
but an emerging and on-going set of outcomes of collaborative organizational
processes of direction, alignment and commitment. For Drath et al., any group activity,
or form of organization governed by a shared sense of direction, an alignment of purpose
and values, and a collaborative spirit of commitment towards said goal, constitutes an act
of leadership. This is a radical move that blends well with existing and subsequent perspectives
on leadership as a situational and relational phenomenon through which leadership
emerges as an outcome of shared collaboration, rather than through individual will
or authoritative power. This ontological move has also paved the way for alternative
methodological approaches for how leadership as on-going collective action might be
studied in the field.
From collective outcomes to processes of becoming
Drath et al.’s ontological move has recently been taken up and expanded upon by
qualitative researchers Crevani et al. (2010) by drawing attention to the theoretical
weakness of DAC as an outcome oriented perspective. For Crevani et al., leadership as
‘outcome’ risks undermining the very collaborative and distributed nature of leadership
as process. For if outcomes are the measure of leadership then leadership is still
treated as a discrete object or entity that acts upon the world in some way, rather than
an open-ended process of becoming. Crevani et al. represent an emerging interest in
the qualitative study of leadership and particularly the ontological study of leadership
as an everyday moment-by-moment practice. Dissatisfied with both the narrow world
of questionnaire items and the stilted questions of structured interviews, authors like
Crevani et al. extend Drath et al.’s DAC ontology further by emphasizing the openended
and plural nature of process and the social embeddedness of leadership. Here,
leadership as an on-going process of becoming can take multiple forms, consist of
multiple actors, and serve and disrupt multiple outcomes. As such, it is process between
rather than discrete entities either side that characterizes the ontological structure of
leadership. ‘Process’ in this context refers to a particular philosophical movement represented
in the writing of Ancient Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus and 20th
century writers such as Alfred North Whitehead. The ontological underpinnings of
reality do not conform here to either tripods or the outcomes of DAC, but consist of
unceasing and meaningless process; the never ending cycles of movement and change
that make up our lived experiences that we as subjects must try to interpret and in so
doing ‘entifiy’ the world. As Crevani et al. (2010: 81) add: ‘It is the situated, moment
by moment, construction of direction that becomes interesting . . . all interactions are
potential instances of leadership’. From a process perspective, the very treatment of
organization (Chia, 1995, 1996), or leadership (Wood, 2005) as entity, is to engage in
an act of conceptual violence upon the world in order to wrest an empirical ‘object’
from a recalcitrant process of becoming. As a result, according to process theory, we
tend to engage in acts of reification, inversion and forgetting (Chia, 1995) through our
research practice and so produce objects of study such as people, organizations, leaders
and followers through a fallacy of misplaced concreteness (Chia, 1995; Wood,

2005). Instead, researchers like Crevani et al. seek to circumvent these acts of reification
by examining leadership in process, as it happens, as a collaborative act that takes
place in ordinary taken-for-granted organizational settings like meeting rooms or corridor
conversations with colleagues. Here, leadership as on-going process emerges –
not through the charisma of an individual – but through the shared discursive
constructions of ‘boundaries’, ‘positions’, ‘roles’ and ‘issues’ in which multiple voices
arrive at concrete decisions as collaborative work tasks are completed and others
begin. To understand leadership is therefore to understand the strategies employed by
organizational members to make sense of the complexity and open-endedness of everyday
organizational life. More importantly from a process perspective, there is nothing
particularly special about leadership.
From process to messy practice
For other critical scholars the ontological foundation of leadership may be processual,
but the manifestation of process is best captured through the study of material practices.
Leaving aside the philosophical frameworks of process theory, such studies draw on a
range of qualitative tools for capturing the lived experience of doing leadership – the
ordinary everyday actions that individuals and collectives must engage in to accomplish
work tasks. It is the sometimes messy and partial accomplishment of such ordinary work
that comes to be represented as instances of ‘leadership’. Drawing on social psychology
and empirical sociology, these studies emphasize the importance of complex and heterogeneous
work activity rather than the cleaned up or abstracted accounts of leadership
represented in questionnaire items. So where on-going ‘process’ formed the unit of analysis
for Crevani et al., discrete patterns of ‘work’ as a creative activity for shaping the
self and the material world is the focal point for the practice scholar (Corradi et al., 2010;
Miettinen et al., 2009; Schatzki et al., 2001).
However, both perspectives understand ‘leadership’ to be a shorthand label for a
more sophisticated and complex set of actions. As Denis et al. (2010) demonstrate in
their analysis of the management of change in healthcare organizations, what we think
of as ‘leadership’ is actually made up of a plurality of discrete and researchable collective
work practices each with their own benefits, challenges and unintended consequences.
For managers who must oversee programmes of organizational change, their
perceived position as a leader-figure is closely tied to their ability to navigate these
myriad dynamic, collective, situated and dialectical work practices. It is the ‘messy’
and material world of action and those leadership actors that embody and are shaped
by this action that marks out acts of leadership from the backdrop of organizational life
(Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2003a, 2003b; Currie et al., 2009). Leadership, therefore,
has no ontological foundation of its own, it is always epistemological; a second order
construct through which judgements about persons, processes and outcomes can be
arrived at post-hoc. Yet both process and practice approaches beg the question of why
it is necessary for researchers and their participants to reduce these complex interactions
down to instances of leadership in the first place – especially when such a reduction
seems to have little obvious analytical or practical value for explaining complex
forms of organization?

From ontological to ideological practice
The collective, process and practice approaches discussed all make ontological claims
about leadership and in different ways seek to look to the underlying realities of leadership
and what it is made of. Unlike traditional leadership psychology or its contemporary
variants in the form of transformational and authentic leadership, or LMX in
which it is individuals (leaders and followers) that make up the reality of leadership, a
turn to process and practice redefines the deep ontological foundations of leadership
studies as something that is social rather than individual; something that is complex,
shared, distributed, involving difficult, messy and open-ended labour. More specifically,
they draw attention to the importance of language, meaning, interpretation, and
action in the production and maintenance of the leadership concept. Turning leadership
into a social reality rather than a physical one also provides researchers with an alternative
and fertile ground upon which to conduct empirical research and theoretical
development.
As Raelin (2011) has recently observed, this move outward in the literature from the
individual to the social might also warrant a change in descriptive category from ‘leadership-
as-practice’ to the shared experience of ‘leaderful’ practices. This is a subtle, but
important move for Raelin in that decentring the very ontological status of ‘leadership’
as a thing in itself (with its own agency) acknowledges its role in organizing and providing
an interpretive space for collective action and collective responsibility. To be ‘leaderful’
maintains the importance of the leadership concept, but reallocates it as an
aspirational marker for those virtuous aspects of everyday life that are too multifarious
to describe in their entirety. More significantly, leadership is no longer something that
is done to others and so opens up new discourses of participation, collaboration,
accountability and liberation; discourses and virtues consistent with a 21st century neoliberal
ideology.
Raelin’s move from a logic of ‘leadership-as-[fill in the blank]’ to ‘leaderful’ also
draws attention to another common factor that connects each of the ontological perspectives
discussed above: they all advocate a strong spirit of western democracy. Implicit
within the DAC ontology of Drath et al., the process philosophy of Crevani et al. and the
messy shared practices of Denis et al., as well as others who embody these same commitments,
is an unquestioning belief in the saving power of western democratic values. In
such studies we are implicitly and explicitly told that participation is preferred over
direct instruction; power and authority are shared by the many rather than held by the
few; decision making is emergent and consensual rather than imposed from above, and
so on. What is important here is not the content or appropriateness of these values, or the
distinct ideology they represent, but the unacknowledged ideological practices that they
embody and promote.
The use of ideological rather than ideology is essential here. An ideology is a coherent,
narrow – some might say mis-leading – set of political beliefs (Abercrombie et al.,
1980: 189–190) and the claim has been made that some schools of leadership thought
have a likeness to such strong belief systems (see Tourish and Pinnington, 2002), but
more often in leadership studies the diversity and plurality of approaches and perspectives
makes a coherent ideological position impossible. Instead, leadership as an

intellectual discipline produces multiple ideological practices (Smith, 1974); sets of
incomplete micro-politics that share a family resemblance, but which lack the necessary
organization and force of a distinct political or social movement. Indeed, it is this
fragmentation and incompleteness that arguably gives discourses of leadership their
longevity. Where fully formed ideologies can be challenged, overthrown or become
outdated, the ideological practices of leadership can be endlessly recycled, adapted,
applied and reworked to fit any purpose. Indeed, as a recent study of social movement
organizations (SMOs) as exemplified in the Arab Spring and Occupy movements suggests,
far from offering ‘leaderful’ or even ‘leaderless’ alternatives, these movements
often tend to reproduce and subvert forms of traditional hierarchical leadership. These
are temporary, progressive and radical forms, but they still involve recognizable leaders,
followers and shared goals (Sutherland et al., in press). Even their identity as ‘leaderless’
collectives sometimes requires traditional notions of leadership to organize
against. This is the power of leadership – not its ontological reality as personality, relation,
practice or process – but its ideological function to organize, direct, deflect, categorize,
centralize, marginalize, inspire, control, liberate, improve, stimulate, seduce,
transform, stabilize, threaten, protect and reassure. There is no tension or contradiction
in leadership’s ability to speak to any and all of these aspirations since it has no content
of its own that might cause such antagonism.
Through the adoption of a negative ontology we might say that leadership does not
deal in content or substance, but in the organization, containment and reproduction of
desire.3 If leadership has an ontology it is perhaps to be found in the individual and collective
desire for a better future, a saving power or saviour, and the wish to make the
world a better place (Gemmill and Oakley, 1992). This may also be why leadership has
the potential to burn bright orange for McCall and Lombardo as it has the endless potential
to intervene, transform and inspire. In short, leadership (good or bad) makes a difference.
It is no wonder then that the sometimes dry and methodical quantitative and
qualitative tools for generating data about leadership are such a disappointment for
McCall and Lombardo as they are akin to using a ruler to measure the face of God.
However, for the critical and reflexive leadership scholar, accepting the ideological function
of leadership in all its empty, but luminous brilliance presents a unique problem for
managing the relationship between researcher and researched. For example, does an
acceptance of the ideological in place of the ontological also turn the researcher into
an ideologue, politician, activist, cultist or soothsayer, or does it merely reveal the terrain
that leadership researchers have always stood upon?
Towards a negative ontology of leadership
If one is sympathetic to, but also prepared to move past ontologies such as DAC, process
and practice theory, the ideological practices that underpin leadership research are
not difficult to find and accept once a conceptual shift has been made. In fact, one does
not have to look far beyond the discipline of leadership studies itself to find certain
figures, texts, phrases and quotations that, by their reiteration, gain a force and authority
that highlights and amplifies their ideological character – and perhaps ironically as a
consequence perform a peculiar kind of ‘leadership work’ of their own. Take the often

cited opening to James MacGregor Burns’ book Leadership: ‘If we know all too much
about our leaders, we know far too little about leadership. We fail to grasp the essence
of leadership that is relevant to the modern age’ (Burns, 1978: 1). With this phrase (and
its repetition here) we have the ideological nature of leadership laid bare. As with
McCall and Lombardo, this is a rallying call to all those who study leadership to try
harder, do more, be relevant, and eventually try to know and say more about what leadership
is. But this is not the search for some kind of final objective truth as to the existence
of leadership. This is a contingent truth that must fit with the needs and demands
of the modern age; a truth that is relevant. Presumably then, when the historical circumstances
change along with the criteria for this relevance, a new truth will have to be
found that captures the new essence of leadership. This is the ideological at work – the
replacement of truth and fact with the need for beliefs that fit with the socio-political
and economic demands of the day. This is perhaps why leadership studies of the 1930s
and 1940s were concerned with the efficient selection of peoples with the traits and
skills necessary to occupy officer-class positions or operate complex and expensive
military equipment (Gould, 1981; Hollway, 1991; Richards, 2002). It may be why the
leadership studies of the 1980s reflected the need to confront the twin threats of unionization
and Japanese competition, resulting in the invention of the US and European
manager-as-transformational-leader (Bass, 1985; Burns, 1978). This would also account
for why the current interest in authenticity, ethics, corporate social responsibility and
sustainability reflects today’s need to tackle the global economic crisis and the challenges
of a changing natural environment. In other words, it is the ideological that
drives and shapes leadership theory and practice rather than a search for positive ontologies.
The question then becomes one of how to approach leadership if it lacks any ontological
foundation? The answer to this may lie in radically rethinking the relationship
between leadership and ontology.
Accentuating the negative
Working through a negative ontology of leadership requires a fundamental shift away
from treating the phenomenon of leadership as a discrete object of analysis. As we
have seen in the discussion above, studies that examine people, questionnaire items,
processes, practices and so on are engaging in leadership research, but it is often difficult
in these studies to point out that discrete subject, object or moment that is the
leadership. Instead, ‘leadership’ always seems to exist elsewhere, out of sight and out
of language. In fact it would make a fascinating research methodology to walk into a
large organization and ask its members ‘where is the leadership?’. After some initial
blank looks, a curious (and brave) researcher would most likely find that organizational
members have a variety of competing and complementary views, opinions and
judgements about where and what the leadership is (see Alvesson and Sveningsson,
2003a; Bresnen, 1995). By their very nature these views, opinions and judgements
once again take us into ideological rather than ontological territory, as it is very
unlikely, for instance, that organizational members will direct the researcher to a
building, office or cupboard and upon opening a door reveal ‘the leadership’ waiting
inside.

It is, of course, an absurd suggestion that leadership might somehow exist independently
in a particular location that can be visited. Yet this is an absurdity that we do seem
to tolerate in language. As a linguistic term, ‘leadership’ occupies a curious position in
everyday talk in that it is a signifier that has multiple possible signifieds. Likewise the
term can slip and slide along a sign system to also become either signifier or signified –
to exist as both means and end; cause and effect. The only thing that stops leadership as
a term from losing meaning altogether is the context in which the language of leadership
is used (see Calder, 1977; Fairhurst and Uhl-Bien, 2012; Kelly, 2008). This provides
some temporary fixity and closure, and it is also here that the ideological work of leadership
takes place. For example, let us return to this imaginary large organization for a
moment. Having been asked this unusual question ‘where is the leadership?’ by our curious
researcher, organizational members may eventually agree (if only to get rid of this
strange visitor) that the leadership in their organization exists in the body of the CEO –
they may even point upwards to the office where this body is usually located. When the
researcher returns to their university and shares these findings with academic colleagues,
they may disagree and say that the leadership in this organization actually exists in a
relationship, a collective, a process, a practice, or a discursive regime. They may even
cite published studies that support this argument. How then does the leadership researcher
know how to proceed?
Through a negative ontology it is possible to say that all of these answers are correct
and incorrect in equal measure. Leadership can mean the body of the CEO for this group,
but it can also mean a collective, process or practice to academic researchers. This does
not mean that we descend into relativism, but instead that we recognize that leadership
as a term is an empty signifier, the very purpose of which is not to provide a single meaning,
but to create a space through which possible meanings can be negotiated and navigated.
In this imaginary scenario, the empty signifier ‘leadership’ provides the space for
an exercise of power in the form of deciding whose interpretation matters most. For our
researcher caught within this context, the only way to navigate this empty signifier is to
consider the following:
1) Which interpretation provides the most acceptable and relevant response in this
context?
2) Who or what holds the power to decide, enforce or prohibit this interpretation?
3) What purpose is being served by allowing one interpretation to hold over another?
4) What substitutes or ‘proxies’ for leadership have been introduced and mobilized
to allow the dominant interpretation to hold?
Our researcher will now have to decide whose interpretation is most valid, the practitioner
discourse of the organizational members, the scholarly discourse of academic colleagues,
or another. They may even have to consider whether their chosen interpretation
may enhance or potentially harm their academic reputation and professional esteem, as
well as considering the reasons for visiting that particular organization and asking questions
in the first place. Finally, the researcher may have to decide which substitute for
leadership will provide the more suitable means of representing the negative space left
by the empty signifier. Is it the body of the CEO sitting in his or her office, the observable

language and practices of organizational members, or is it the theoretical frameworks,
categories and labels listed in the stack of highly regarded academic publications sitting
on the researcher’s desk?
For Laclau and Mouffe (2001) this imaginary scenario is not unusual, as working
within and around empty signifiers is an essential and unavoidable part of everyday life.
Unfortunately, encountering empty signifiers can also be highly political and divisive as
the above example demonstrates. Indeed, it is this heady mixture of the quotidian and the
political that deserves special analytical attention and, as Laclau and Mouffe argue, we
need empty signifiers to make sense of a world that is often beyond comprehension and
expression in language. To ease our anxieties we need empty place holders that can cover
over these limits of our language and provide an illusory means of discursively taming
the world. Laclau’s famous example of an empty signifier is ‘society’ (Laclau, 1991,
1996). Like ‘leadership’, the term ‘society’ can signify and so contain almost anything
provided that it equates to what the empty signifier might need to represent. For Laclau
these substitutes form ‘chains of equivalences’; those things that contribute to, stand in
for or somehow embody part of what ‘society’ might be. Chains of equivalences might
include the problems of crime (including how we measure it, prevent it, live with it) or
the decline in social values, the challenges of the economy, the environment, education,
welfare and so on. They can all then be attributed to, blamed on or contained by the signifier
‘society’. We can even build entire social science disciplines around how to study
and quantify ‘society’. Problems arise, however, when an empty signifier like ‘society’
or ‘leadership’ is treated as having a positive ontological foundation; as something that
has its own unique essence and characteristics that can and must be studied, measured,
predicted and put to work. As Gemmill and Oakley (1992) have observed, this growing
dependency on the possibility of leadership and its saving power can resemble a modern
day ghost dance in which any organization (or indeed any enterprising individual) that
cannot locate and foster its leadership is thought to be doomed to failure. What is required
then is not just an acknowledgement of empty signifiers, but a means of identifying the
work and politics that are performed in their name. It is here that a turn to myth might
provide a useful addition to a negative ontological analysis of leadership.
Becoming a reader of myth
Leadership is arguably an empty signifier par excellence in that it has evaded attempts to
confront its emptiness for hundreds of years. The 20th and 21st century development of
the science of leadership studies has further disguised this emptiness through many interconnected
chains of equivalences in the form of complex questionnaire designs, theoretical
models, statistical formulae, case studies, and new and ever more complex research
methodologies. Yet from Stogdill’s dissatisfaction with the ever expanding set of leadership
traits, to the rallying calls of Burns, McCall and Lombardo, and many others, there
is a regular return to the basic problem of what leadership is and why the leadership
research community cannot seem to find a suitable answer to this question. As demonstrated
in the previous section, the answer to this question is that leadership as a term is
empty, but this emptiness is not without effect or consequence. As an empty signifier,
leadership provides the possibility for filling the gap that exists between language and

our experience of reality, and in so doing provides a space of productive fantasy through
which hopes for a better future or a better world can be expressed, but perhaps never
realized.
Stating that leadership is an empty signifier may provide a useful explanation for why
leadership resists definition and why leadership scholars occasionally lament the gap
between the essence of leadership and the results of academic research, but beyond this it
perhaps does not add much. The previous section outlined an imaginary scenario facing a
leadership researcher and demonstrated the ideological practices that may have to be participated
in to reconcile practice, process, language and empty signifiers. This involved
working with those available equivalences that stand in for leadership such as bodies,
discourses, symbols, texts and spaces, but what of the ontology of the empty signifier
‘leadership’ itself? Are we to simply ignore the production of this strange term and only
study those subjects and objects it produces to represent it? That is certainly one option
and if carried out in a reflexive manner can reveal much about the work that is done to
preserve and perpetuate leadership in various forms of social life, but this is only half the
story. If we want to understand the nature of an empty signifier, as well as its function, we
must turn to a different set of theoretical resources and become a reader of myths.
In combination with Laclau’s notion of empty signifier, Barthes’ semiotic analysis of
contemporary mythologies provides a powerful tool for examining how leadership gains
and holds on to its status as empty signifier in language. For Barthes, myth is not an
illusory or fictional form of knowledge. Individual myths may take the form of stories or
narratives, but myth also has a very special function as a type of speech. That is, myth is
not set aside from ordinary language, but is part of it and supports it. Like Laclau’s empty
signifier, according to Barthes (1993) ‘myth cannot possibly be an object, a concept, or
an idea; it is a mode of signification, a form’. Instead, and as an empty form of speech,
myth must feed off other existing sign systems in order to transform them into mythical
speech through the production of a second order sign system or meta-language. This
process elevates ordinary language to give it an ideological force, but in the process
impoverishes any first order meaning that this first sign system might have had.
One of the examples that Barthes offers to illustrate myth as a form of speech is
through his analysis of the image on the cover of a French magazine depicting a young
male soldier of African-French decent wearing a French military uniform and saluting an
unseen flag. When read through Barthes’ semiotic analysis, this image becomes a sign
system in which signifier and signified are produced through the apparent age and gender
of the young man, the colour of his skin, his uniform and his bodily position. Together
they form a ‘sign’ (young African-French soldier saluting an unseen flag). For Barthes,
however, this ‘sign’ is merely the beginning of a more powerful mythical second order
system in which the young soldier saluting signifies something greater than himself.
Elevated from sign to mythical signifier, it no longer matters who this young man is, his
family background and life history. It doesn’t even matter that the flag being saluted is
out of shot for it is presumed that the viewer of this image will know and understand the
political context of this mythical signifier (i.e. the Algerian war of independence) and
that its central figure signifies the scope and influence of French imperialism. As such,
the myth of French military might and geo-political status requires this young man for its
foundation, but only in so far as he is now used to represent a necessary signification of

national pride and military dominance. Of course, this final signification is never settled
and so provides an opportunity for many other possible ideological agendas and interpretations
– particularly as time passes. However, for Barthes what this image illustrates is
how mythical signification is produced and how it gains its force and authority through
its parasitic reliance on and subsequent manipulation of the ordinary.
Where this example provides a vivid instance of how the mythical can be used to
serve the explicit ideology of a nation state, a more subtle production of mythical speech
can also be traced out using Barthes’ sign system to analyse the production of almost
taken for granted discourses of leadership in mainstream contemporary business literature.
Take the following example of an often cited phrase that has almost become a
mantra for advocates of leadership over management: ‘The distinction is crucial.
Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing
[emphasis in original]’. Versions of this phrase are attributed to several leadership texts
(and even authors), but the above is taken from the original Bennis and Nanus (1985:
21). In its simple formulation it creates a powerful and enduring popular and implicit
mythical sign system based on the concern that many organizations ‘tend to be overmanaged
and underled’ (p. 21). To support this claim the couplet above plays off the limitations
of management against the possibilities of leadership using a system similar to that
described by Barthes.
This particular mythical chain of signification begins with the first order sign system
of ‘a manager’ (signifier) > ‘managing’ (signified) = ‘doing things right’ (sign). Existing
as it does as the raw material for the rest of the couplet to feed off and so providing the
foundation over which the mythical speech of leadership can then be overlaid. With
some minor adjustments ‘doing things right’ can then be transformed from a tired sign
for unimaginative ‘management’ and into a new and vibrant signifier for dynamic ‘leadership’.
‘Doing the right thing’ now provides a powerful and leaderful moral imperative,
rather than simply a practical managerial task. Like the erased personal history of the
young soldier described by Barthes, the status of ‘manager’ is necessary only as linguistic
raw material to be downgraded and then sacrificed in order to produce the mythical
connection between morality and leadership; a connection based on the production of an
empty signifier that gains force and authority as mythical speech with every reiteration
of this famous phrase.
It is this interplay between empty signifier and mythical speech that underpins the
ideological practices of leadership by giving the appearance of an ontological reality.
Indeed, phrases like Bennis and Nanus’ have almost become leadership folklore and
clearly demonstrate the ideological power of mythical speech for shaping the apparent
ontological reality of leadership and management. What this adapted form of Barthes’
semiotic analysis also provides is an appreciation of the paradoxical status of leadership
when it is analysed as part of a sign system. When paired with management, it appears at
first that it is leadership that is the more dominant and powerful term. After all, it is leadership
that we supposedly need in an overmanaged organizational world. However, upon
closer inspection it is possible to glimpse the cracks and weaknesses in this empty signifier,
for without the idea of management to provide this initial (and supposedly inferior)
first order system, it would be impossible to extoll the virtues of leadership. Without its
proxy, leadership as a term struggles to find any meaning of its own and its emptiness is

revealed. This is not a problem for a popular couplet like ‘managers are people who do
things right and leaders are people who do the right thing’, since this is itself a form of
mythical speech − an ideological practice designed to inspire some and shame others.
But this form of signification is a problem when one seeks to approach leadership as a
thing in itself; as having its own unique and independent ontological status as collective
action, practice or process as discussed at the beginning of this article. At this point it
becomes increasingly difficult to find any essential meaning in the term leadership at all.
Conclusion
This article began with two quotations that described an encounter with objects that illuminate.
One possible response to McCall and Lombardo’s lament is that empty signifiers
may appear colourful, but they do not illuminate. Instead, they only provide an opportunity
to ‘gloss over’ the gaps in our occasionally slate grey language to enable conversations
about topics too complex to be temporarily tamed and to allow other work to be
done. It is the accommodation of this surplus that Ramandu cautioned Eustace to consider
as it provides a marker for (and reminder of) the inevitable lack in our understanding
of the world. Similarly, it is these linguistic and conceptual knots described in this
article that demand a negative ontological analysis of leadership. As an empty signifier,
‘leadership’ can contain and express any number of possible definitions, characteristics,
ontologies, epistemologies, subjects, objects, discourses and so on. The problem is that
when something either signifies or is signified in relation to leadership this does not
really provide any insight into the essence or reality of that thing. Following recent discussions
concerning ontologies of leadership, this article has suggested an alternative
perspective in which researchers should allow for the possibility that leadership has no
ontological foundation at all. Instead, like other empty signifiers such as ‘society’, ‘the
public’, ‘excellence’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ (Jones and Spicer, 2005; Laclau, 1991, 1996;
Readings, 1996), the purpose of leadership is to offer up ideological spaces and practices
through which to express that which cannot be captured in language. It is perhaps for this
reason that Grint’s (2005) mythical association with leadership and the hydra of ancient
Greece is particularly apposite. As an empty signifier, ‘leadership’ will always produce a
surplus of meaning in the same way that the hydra produces heads. There will always be
the possibility of a better definition, research design, methodology, theoretical framework
and so forth. Every attempt to sever a head will merely result in the growth of two
more. Perhaps then this is a sign that we should put down our intellectual weapons and
attend to the nature of this mythical creature that we feel compelled to combat. Until this
happens Stogdill’s famous statement that ‘there are almost as many different definitions
of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept’ (Stogdill,
1974: 7) will continue to stand as an uncomfortable truth. However, in replacing questions
of ontology with those of ideology we might find that both the ontological proxies
and ideological practices of leadership have always been available for study if we know
where and how to look for them. Through this it may then be possible to question the
wider ethical and practical value of certain appeals to ‘leadership’ and to consider the
value of alternative interpretations, forms of speech and action, and spaces of resistance
that might challenge or even replace the leadership concept.

Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
not-for-profit sectors.
Notes
1 The theoretical vocabulary used to articulate the notion of a negative ontology owes a considerable
debt to those working in the related fields of critical management studies and psychoanalytic
studies of work and organization. While not directly a Lacanian formulation, the
notion of a negative ontology presented here draws on Lacanian motifs and principles, such
as the empty and master signifier, lack, surplus, desire and the sublime object. These concepts
and principles have already been explored in recent applications of Lacanian psychoanalysis
to the study of organizational learning (Driver, 2010), work and employment (Cederström
and Heodemaekers, 2010), entrepreneurship (Jones and Spicer, 2005) and managerial identity
(Harding, 2007). However, leadership studies as a discipline has yet to receive an explicit
Lacanian analysis and it is here that this article seeks to demonstrate the possible points of
departure for such an investigation.
2 The term ‘critical leadership studies’ is used here as an umbrella for a range of theoretical and
methodological approaches that share a common interest in challenging traditional assumptions
about leaders and moving towards the study of leadership as a collective and shared
accomplishment, rather than one based on individualism. For a review of approaches that
make up this emerging field see Collinson (2011) and Alvesson and Spicer (2011, 2012).
3 This formulation of leadership as lacking and its associated impossible surplus of meaning
echoes and builds upon a similar study of ‘entrepreneurship’ by Jones and Spicer (2005). Here
the authors explicitly apply Lacanian principles and concepts to understand the impossible
space of ‘the entrepreneur’ and the inevitable failure of the discourse of entrepreneurship.
Like leadership, entrepreneurship resists a universal definition and yet seems to have endless
explanatory power. As Jones and Spicer argue, ‘the entrepreneur’ is not a person, but a marker
of a fundamental lack; a category of fantasy that cannot be fixed and placed, but through its
empty centre provides a powerful means of organizing and directing desire. Where Jones and
Spicer explore questions of subjectivity and resistance through the phantasmatic figure of the
entrepreneur, this article eschews subjectivity in favour of the ideological and the ontological
as they are produced in both mainstream and critical leadership studies. Leadership research
has a long and rich history of producing subjects of leadership discourse and so before engaging
with questions of subjectivity this article advocates a more foundational starting point in
which notions of the ontological are explored and interrogated. By revealing the ideological
underpinnings of supposed leadership ontologies it is then possible to reconsider questions
of subject formation, subjectivity and resistance. However, such a thoroughgoing analysis
requires additional intellectual labour and space that is beyond the scope of the current article.
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Simon Kelly is Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Organizational Behaviour at the
Bradford University School of Management, UK. His research interests include the critical analysis
of leadership and leadership development, and the value and challenges of using qualitative
research methods in leadership and organizational research. Simon’s work has been published in
journals including Journal of Management Education, Human Relations and Leadership. [Email:
[email protected]]