Post-truth leadership of organizational change and transformation

Post in 52 words What if leading organizational change and transformation truths business schools disseminate were largely appeals to emotion and personal belief with little grounding in objective facts?  Wouldn’t post-truth leadership offer us a critical moment to question the current orthodoxy of leading change and transformation in favour of thinking critically about how leadership could change?

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Enough is enough In my youth Chumbawamba used to challenge racism and fascism through songs such as Enough is Enough, urging listeners to open their eyes, urging us to realize it is time to wake up! They challenged homophobia through the wonderful song ‘Behave’.  More recently women have robustly and very publicly challenged sexual harassment by men.  For myself change in terms of race, sexuality, and gender are never encouraged through orthodoxy, which by definition seeks to maintain the existing status quo.  Societal and organizational changes are far more likely to be counter-cultural and radical, in seeking to question accepted beliefs and assumptions.

Business as usual: 35 years of writing about the leadership of organizational change In reviewing the leadership of organizational change literature (Hughes, 2016) I was shocked and saddened by how leadership orthodoxy resisted any form of meaningful change, aided by conscious or unconscious collusion of businesses and business school academics.  In each decade, I would encounter writers questioning the emphasis on heroic leaders and the disparaging of so-called ‘followers’, yet nothing really changed.  The most cunning deception of leadership orthodoxy was to maintain leadership business as usual, whilst espousing for ‘followers’ the importance of change and transformation and when these ‘followers’ resisted change to disparage them, simultaneously encouraging more and stronger leadership.

A huge and apparently never-ending income stream Leadership research, education, and development is a huge income stream for universities in this country and globally.  Disruptive notions of post-truth leadership would have profound financial implications for the so-called ‘fat cat’ leaders of such institutions.  The self-serving actions of these leaders have been repeatedly challenged by their staff, their students, and even Conservative government ministers.  However, any challenge to the current orthodoxy of leadership truths would have implications for the identities of these leaders, how they lead change and transformation, and the income streams funding their enhanced remuneration packages.

Intellectuals disparage ‘post-truth’ The Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2016 was ‘post-truth’.  In 2017 The Collins Dictionary word of the year was ‘fake news’. We are thrown intellectual baubles to play with like little kittens.  Yet, in the UK today words such as ‘inequality’, ‘austerity’, ‘rough sleepers’ and ‘sexual harassment’ may be closer to what is being debated or we should be debating.  Word of the year constructions of reality encourages us to value truth over post-truth and news over the fake news.  Certainly, we need to challenge any threat to empirically informed social science truths and vigorously challenge the dishonesty and deceit of fake news.  Accounts of inequality, austerity, rough sleepers and sexual harassment are informed through truthful social science research hopefully reported as valid and reliable news.  These requirements are not being challenged here, they are integral to a fair and just society.  However, beyond the excessively individualistic pre-occupations with certain deceitful political leaders, the concept of post-truth contains the latent potential to profoundly disrupt the current organizational leadership orthodoxy as taught in business schools and espoused by consultants and leadership developers.

Appeals to emotion and personal belief The Oxford Dictionary (2016) defined post-truth as ‘…circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’  You would reasonably assume that leading change and transformation currently experienced in many organizations is based on objective facts (truthful leadership), rather than appeals to emotion and beliefs.  However, the more I reviewed this literature the less convinced I became.  Post-truth leadership as envisaged here is neither anti-truth nor anti-empiricism. Post-truth leadership is about moving beyond reassuring belief in leading change and transformation influenced by objective facts and recognizing that the current leading change and transformation orthodoxy is a social construction primarily grounded in appeals to emotion and personal belief.  I offer a detailed challenge to the leadership of change and transformation orthodoxy in Hughes (2016), although without reference to post-truth which was not as prominent then as it is today.

Post-truth leadership: A critical moment? At the time of writing this post, I see post-truth leadership as a critical moment inviting us to question the objective facts and truths underpinning the current leadership of change and transformation orthodoxy.  Universities are keen to differentiate the leadership truths that they sell and market from post-truth leadership, consequently, they will invest time and money in critiquing post-truth leadership.  This is their prerogative, but I see reasons to be cheerful, even to praise post-truth leadership, if only we can see beyond pre-occupations with the very dodgy dealings of political leaders.

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Praise for post-truth leadership of change and transformation My praise for post-truth leadership of change and transformation is organized around a set of closely related themes.  I offer them here as introductory points, I hope to elaborate on some of these in future posts, in the interim many of them are elaborated in Hughes (2016).

1)Implicit convergence assumptions of truthful leadership studies are questioned as they impede the divergence and dissensus of post-truth leadership.

2)Change leaders were socially constructed rather than being an outcome of undertaking social science research.

3)Transformational leadership which Burns (1978) originally envisaged was denuded of all radical intent, particularly in terms of the mutual purpose of leaders and followers and his emphasis on moral leadership. Transformational leadership was then misunderstood and misrepresented.

4)If post-truth is concerned with objective facts being far less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief (Oxford Dictionary, 2016), then Gouldner (1971) and Davis (1971) were early post-truth pioneers.

5)Despite too much being written about leadership studies we rarely read about coercive persuasion and aggression which interested influential leadership writers.

Enough is enough, open your eyes it is time to wake up!

Further Reading

Burns, J.M. (1978) Leadership. New York: Harper Row Publishers.

Davis, M.S. (1971) That’s interesting! Towards a phenomenology of sociology and a sociology of phenomenology. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1(2): 309-344.

Gouldner, A.W. (1971) The coming crisis of western sociology. London: Heinemann.

Hughes, M. (2016) The leadership of organizational change. London: Routledge.

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