“Management Studies in Crisis”

I have written before about the problems associated with muddling the words “management” and “leadership.” Such muddling has a long if not exactly distinguished history in both management and leadership studies – and there are practical consequences as well. For example, graduate students in, say, business and public administration typically find the courses they have to choose from do not distinguish between “management” and “leadership.” The words are usually used, in effect, interchangeably, as if they were synonymous. This is not to say that no academic has ever addressed the difference between the two. Some have. But the distinctions that have been made between “management” and “leadership” never became common currency, so the confusions persist.

Most academics in management and leadership think of themselves as experts in either the one or the other. All of them must, however, or they should, grapple with questions of definition. In other words, even though I, for example, roost in leadership studies as opposed to management studies, questions of how I define leadership and distinguish it from management come up.

Here though I set semantic issues aside. Not only will I not define either “management” or “leadership,” I will conflate the two as if they were interchangeable because, for the purposes of this post, they are.

Anyone familiar with my work knows that for more than a decade I have found fault with the field of leadership studies.  For example, in my book Bad Leadership (2004) I asked why we fixate on developing good leaders while ignoring virtually entirely the ubiquitous, pernicious problem of bad leaders. Somewhat similarly in my book Followership (2008), I raised the question of why we obsess about leaders while neglecting almost entirely their necessary counterpart, followers.

As I wrote in a more recent book, Professionalizing Leadership (2018), for many years I was almost alone in my critiques. While all along there was some bitching and moaning in addition to mine, by and large what I came to call the leadership industry remained unscathed, untouched by the missiles that I and a handful of others regularly launched.  

In recent years this began, however, to change. More specifically, in recent years I have been joined by a small but fierce cadre of critics who point to, among other things, the yawning gap between what the leadership industry claims to do and what it really does. For example, Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of business at Stanford University, concluded in a book titled Leadership BS no less, that the leadership industry had “failed.” Similarly, Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria, while they were still primarily faculty at the Harvard Business School (now they are primarily administrators), wrote that the “current state of leadership education lacks the intellectual rigor and institutional structure required to advance the field beyond its present (and precariously) nascent stage.”

Today’s post is motivated by a new book and article that make clear their author has joined the ranks of the loyal opposition. Both were written by Dennis Tourish, Professor of Leadership and Organization Studies at the University of Sussex. The titles of his book, Management Studies in Crisis, and his article, “The Triumph of Nonsense in Management Studies” (published in Academy of Management Learning & Education) say it all. I cannot in this piece do justice to the totality of Tourish’s argument. So here just a line from the abstract of the article: “I argue that our discipline is in crisis. We neglect really important issues in favor of bite sized chunks of research that are more likely to find quick publication in leading journals…. We pretend to be doing more important work, and more competently, than we really are.”    

In addition to his academic post, Tourish edits the well-respected journal, Leadership. He is, then, in a position to know. He is not new either to the field of management or to leadership – he can, in fact, legitimately lay claim to being expert in both. Which is precisely why attention must be paid. When someone of Tourish’s breadth and depth takes aim it is for good reason. Academics and, for that matter, practitioners who ignore his cautions and concerns do so at their professional peril.     

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