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‘Leadership’ as a Project: Neoliberalism and the Proliferation of ‘Leaders’

Learmonth, M. and Morrell, K. (2021) '‘Leadership’ as a Project: Neoliberalism and the Proliferation of ‘Leaders’.', Organization Theory, 2 (4). pp. 1-19.


It is increasingly common for anyone with formal, hierarchical status at work to be called a ‘leader’. Though widespread, this relatively recent change in day-to-day discourse is largely passing by unnoticed. We argue that using ‘leader’ in this way is not simply fashion or empty rhetoric; rather it can be understood in relation to neoliberalism. We argue that the language of ‘leadership’ represents a particularly subtle but powerful opportunity for the pursuit of individual elite interests to be disguised so that it look as if it is for the benefit of all. This opportunity has arisen because using ‘leader’ has tangible effects that reinforce implied values and assumptions about human relationships at work. In terms of implied values, the label ‘leader’ is celebratory and predisposes us to see elites in overly positive ways. In terms of implied assumptions, referring to executives as ‘leaders’ draws a veil over the structured antagonism at the heart of the employment relationship and wider sources of inequality by celebrating market values. Making ‘leadership’ recognizable as a political project is not intended primarily to suggest intentionality, but to help challenge representational practices that are becoming dominant. ‘Project-ing’ leadership also helps us to emphasize the risks inherent in taking this label for granted; which, we argue, is an important contribution because the language of leadership is increasingly used but is hardly questioned within much contemporary organizational life as well as organization theory.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License ( which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (
Date accepted:20 April 2021
Date deposited:22 April 2021
Date of first online publication:09 August 2021
Date first made open access:22 April 2021

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