Entry 7: Storytelling as the 'Other' (Part 2)

Puzzles, Puzzling, Piecing. This is like slowly putting together a 5000-piece puzzle. Before the whole picture begins to materialise (is it a gorgeous scenic vista or a magical wonderland?), I have to build the edges. And in this lovely little analogy, the edges are the theory. And since I don’t quite know yet what the puzzle will end up looking like, I suppose it’s more like a Wasgij Puzzle!

In a previous entry, I included this statement by Rapaport (2011): “The theory should illuminate a work, and a work should illuminate a theory” (p. 9). I would like to explore this claim further, investigating how it can be applied to women’s leadership development. What interpretative method/s could I apply to reading literature so as that the text will effectively illuminate issues surrounding women’s leadership? In this post I will take this question into the theoretical realm of post-structuralism and deconstruction, and consider the potential usefulness of these methods for my analysis.

But before answering this question, I want to take a step back and look at how Badaracco (my original inspiration for this project) has structured his analysis of literature in Questions of Character. As I’ve said before, I do find Badaracco's style to be a little too neat and idealistic, with the main problem being that he focuses on the primacy of the ‘leader;’ a ‘type’ of objective person who fits into a universal definition of ‘leadership.’ He writes:

The basic challenges of leaders appear so widely, perhaps even universally, because they reflect enduring aspects of leadership. One is the humanity of leaders – the hopes and fears, traits and instincts of the human nature we all share. The other is the unchanging agenda, in all times and places: developing a goal…and working with and through people to make it real. (p. 6, emphasis added)

The problem with this approach is that it collapses ‘leadership’, a collective process “which encompasses not only leaders but their followers and the context in which they come into contact, into ‘leaders’, into an individually-based unit of analysis” (Ladkin, 2010, p. 5). Subsequently, this ‘great person’ construct only serves to strengthen the widespread tendency in Western society to idealise leaders, implying that only a select few have the ‘right’ traits to exercise initiative (Gemmill & Oakley, 1992) [Excerpt from my Research Project].

However, I like the way he raises thought-provoking questions by making well-known novels and plays such as Death of a SalesmanThings Fall Apart and The Love of the Last Tycoon speak deeply about moral issues in a business context, substituting the carefully crafted, prosaic business case study with the multi-layered, messy reality of everyday life. 

I’ve chosen to look at Chapter 2: “How flexible is my moral code?” Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, as I’ve recently read this novel (which is excellent by the way! I even managed to get my hubby to read it). The key question Badaracco poses in this chapter is: “Will my moral code help me make the right decisions for my organisation, even as business conditions change?”

The first thing that Badaracco does is problematize the notion of moral codes and the ‘moral compass,’ asking: Should leaders really be as moral as possible in all situations? To counter this popular supposition, he uses Okonkwo’s tragic story, which, in part, can be blamed on the African leader’s intransigent and uncompromising moral ideals. Badaracco points out that Okonkwo’s death raises a very difficult and uncomfortable question: “Should we abandon the familiar idea that good leaders have a moral compass? This is a disturbing question because we want leaders with moral clarity, who can guide and inspire organisations, especially in tough times. But Okonkwo’s moral compass is a liability when Umuofia is fighting for its survival” (p. 32).

Badaracco then goes on to discuss a contemporary case featuring a business leader who was uncompromising on his moral code, and rather than work to find alternative solutions, walked out at great cost to the firm and many of the employees. As an alternative to the popular moral compass trope, Badaracco claims that “leaders need moral codes that are as complex, varied, and subtle as the situations in which they often find themselves. This does not mean abandoning basic values or adopting moral relativism. It does mean…embracing a wider set of human values” (p. 33).

But how do you develop a sensitive, flexible moral compass? In answer to this question, Badaracco uses Okonkwo’s story as a lesson, drawing from it a series of questions which are intended for “honest reflection” on the reader’s behalf. I think what is so gripping about Badaracco’s approach here is that while there is an expectation that you have read the book/play/short story, he retells key moments from the story (and not in any particular linear order), making the narrative come alive and providing compelling and memorable examples. There is no 'obvious ending' or simplified moral lesson, such as those found in traditional business case studies (Boje, 2001). He also briefly considers the intertextuality of the book – the perspective and intentions of the author, the historical setting, the wider social issues the novel addresses, and the reader’s active role in producing and creating meaning from the text.

Badaracco spends the bulk of his discussion on five key reflective questions:

1.     How deep are the emotional roots of my moral code?

2.     What do my failures tell me?

3.     How have I handled ethical surprises?

4.     Do I have courage to reconsider?

5.     Can I crystallise my convictions?

Each of these questions are explored using examples from Things Fall Apart and with the support of current leadership theory (although Badaracco doesn’t cite many, if any, of these ideas or theories). Badaracco is careful not to prescribe answers, but rather attempts to stimulate debate and self-analysis/reflexive thinking. It's a guide to a better ‘way of being’ in the world: “Okonkwo’s life shows the importance of a leader’s moral code and offers several basic ways for leaders to test the soundness of their own deep convictions. It also warns us against viewing moral codes as simple, mechanistic devices” (p. 51).

In summary then, Badaracco takes a popular business concept (in this case a leader's in-built ‘moral compass’), problematizes widespread ideas/norms surrounding individual morality, demonstrates why there are flaws in this way of thinking (using the story of Okonkwo’s downfall), and proposes possible solution/s in the form of self-improving reflexive questions. Essentially, he is providing aspiring leaders with ideas to help them become better, more ethical, moral leaders. It’s like bookclub on steroids basically, but for men.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I really do like Badaracco’s book – it’s practical, easy-to-read and insightful, and its depth, in terms of the literary analysis, is something I really appreciate. However, the overall message is that we are all on a self-directed teleological journey towards an elusive future where you/me will have become the moral leader. If only me/myself/I work hard enough to develop emotional intelligence and authenticity, then there is no reason I won’t succeed as a leader in any environment and in any situation. As Ford, Harding and Learmonth (2008) explain: “Leadership discourses are very much concerned with changing the self so as to become this good leader. In being urged to develop self-awareness, the subject is required to analyse the self as if the self were an object that can be looked at, assessed and then worked on so as to change (p. 21).

At this point it’d be nice to say: ‘Well, this method and style works really well – it’s interesting, engaging and Badaracco’s already proven it works, so let’s just substitute male narratives with female ones and discuss (using women's literary examples) how to become more collaborative, relational and authentic leaders.’ End of story. A beautifully written, practical thesis tested on a myriad of wonderful female leaders who found it vaguely ‘empowering.’

But unfortunately (or fortunately!) I can’t bring myself to write something so blatantly post-feminist; buying into the wider discourse of Western individualism and over-simplifying the pressing issues surrounding women’s leadership by relegating problems to the ‘I/me/you’. And so I would like to turn to feminist post-structuralism, deconstruction and critical reflexivity (scary names, huh?) as potential ‘methods’ or informing strategies for discourse analysis. 


Deconstructing Texts to Story ‘Others’

First off, what does deconstruction even mean? Although providing a set definition is, as Boje points out, rather contradictory to Derrida’s original intentions, deconstruction can be explained “as an analytic strategy that exposes in a systematic way multiple ways a text can be interpreted. Deconstruction is able to reveal ideological assumptions in a way that is particularly sensitive to the supressed interests of members of disempowered, marginalised groups” (Boje, 2001, p. 19).

According to Derrida, all Western thought is based on the idea of a centre – a Truth, Ideal Form, a Presence, etc… which guarantees all meaning. So deconstruction can be employed as a method of reading/understanding that decentres and unmasks society’s ‘grand narratives’ or essentialist ‘Truths’ (i.e. the ‘great man’ theory of leadership or ‘heroic masculinity’), making room for less visible or marginalised voices and ideas (i.e. women’s perspectives, leadership as shared process, etc...). By enacting alternative narrative analysis that stories ‘Others’ and the author, new narratives in organisation studies that are “multi-voiced, rich with fragmentation and lacking linearity” can emerge and, ultimately, work to actively destabilise hegemonic masculinities and taken-for-granted assumptions and stereotypes (Boje, 2001, p. 9).

However, caution is still in order. As Boje points out: “If we just replace one centre with our own authoritative centre, we have fallen into our own trap. The point then is not to replace one centre with another, but to show how each centre is in a constant state of change and disintegration” (p. 19). Several of the novels/short stories/plays I’ve read do attempt to deconstruct central visions, essentialist concepts and transcendent principles. The play Welcome to Thebes and Le Guin’s ‘The Matter of Seggri’ are both particularly interesting in this regard as they explore a reversal of the binary opposition, overthrowing patriarchy with matriarchy. But rather than just replacing one hierarchy for another, both Le Guin and Buffini open up the analysis and encourage the reader to think differently about the adverse effects of socially-constructed, gendered societies.

How does Deconstruction relate to Poststructuralism?

Boje (2001) writes that “for me, deconstruction is a poststructuralist epistemology” (p. 19). But what is post-structuralism? In very brief terms:

In post-structuralist perspectives that build on the performative effect of language, there is no such thing as a passive reading of a text or looking at a film: the ‘gaze’ is actively engaged both in interpreting the text (and thus the reader becomes part of the text) and in the production of the self, or subjectivity, through the very act of looking. Thus reader and text are caught up in one another – the text confers subjectivity. (Ford, Harding & Learmonth, 2008, p. 5).

By taking a poststructuralist stance, one can argue that reading, writing and talking are not innocent activities, but are actively productive (Ford, et al., 2008). For example, since popular leadership discourses are impregnated with images of the ‘hero’, visions informed by a battle between ‘the good hero’ and its binary opposite, the ‘dastardly villain’ (Ford, et al., 2008, p. 21), the performative effect is such that leader = leadership in the business world. Similarly, “where men have been regarded as logical, non-emotional, aggressive, occupiers of the public world” and women the opposite (nurturing, emotional, empathetic, unstable), “these descriptors not only create the genders they supposedly do no more than describe, but become norms by which we do not feel we are truly men or truly women if we do not live up to them” (Ford, et al., 2008, p. 132).

So the aim, in terms of leadership development, is not to provide people with ideas to help them think through how to be/come good leaders as Badaracco does (although this is still a legitimate and helpful exercise), but instead, as Ford, et al. (2008) recommend to look at “the demands that have been placed on them and the ways in which those demands may be influencing who they are, as individuals, as subjects, as people involved in the on-going process of constructing the persons who turn up at the workplace each morning” (p. 11).

This critical method of reflexivity, informed by deconstruction and post-structuralism, requires the reader/leader to go beyond the self and embrace wider social, moral and historical contexts, making what was hitherto invisible (stereotypes, expectations, prejudices, ‘centres’ and ‘grand narratives,' etc...) visible and open to critique and resituation (as Boje would say). I'd like to end with a quote by Ford, Harding & Learmonth (2008), the authors of Leadership as Identity: Constructions and Deconstructions, they write:

The encouragement of self-reflexivity and critical questioning of taken for granted aspects of the experience of managers [and leaders] may facilitate a determined critique among managers that can lead to resistance to organisational control. This may be possible through active interpretation of storied accounts of peoples’ experiences and reflexive dialogical critique in which many interpretations can be surfaced (p. 184).

And by ‘storied accounts,’ why not novels, short stories and plays which explore the complexity of women’s leadership from multi-dimensional, multi-voiced 'Other' perspectives?


Badaracco, J. L. (2006). Questions of character: Illuminating the heart of leadership through literature. Boston, MA:  Harvard Business School Publishing.

Boje, D. M. (2001). Narrative methods for organisational & communication research. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd.

Ford, J., Harding, N., & Learmonth, M. (2008). Leadership as identity: Constructions and deconstructions. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gemmill, G., & Oakley, J. (1992). Leadership: An alienating social myth? Human Relations, 45(2), 113-129.

Ladkin, D. (2010). Rethinking leadership: A new look at old leadership questions. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.