As a German national, I have always been both fascinated with and troubled by the romantic belief in leaders that seems to dominate life in organisations based in English speaking countries. When – as an undergraduate student – I first encountered the idea of the effective leader who can pretty much save a team or organisation single-handedly by winning followers’ hearts and minds and showing them the path to enlightenment, I was excited. This is the answer that nobody had talked about when I was growing up in post-WW2 Germany! Studying for a degree in Industrial Relations where conflict was a given assumption of daily reality in the workplace, this idea of leadership felt nicer, warmer and promising harmony (Collinson, 2012; Learmonth and Morrell, 2017). It was like leaving the cinema after watching a big blockbuster movie where, through tenacity and bravery, the hero comes forth to save the day.
Alas, this fascination was soon marred when I embarked on my PhD in leadership studies and cracks in this positive image of the heroic, effective leader started to appear when trying to compare forms of leadership in Germany and the UK. As a native German speaker, I was lost for words. I simply could not translate the words leader, manager, leadership and follower into the German language (Jepson, 2010). The meaningfulness and indeed power of the language of leadership, intertwined so deeply with and dependent on the denigration of management (Ford and Harding, 2007), was lost. The realisation that language mattered and that without an ability to articulate a sense of self as leader or indeed follower was significant and opened up avenues for exploring my own aversion to being called a leader or follower.
Through my research into leadership, language and identity, I have explored some of the manifold ways in which language matters for our understanding of the concept and practice of leadership. By exploring notions of leadership and management in the German language (Jepson, 2009; 2010) and in Welsh (Schedlitzki et al., 2016), for example, I have highlighted the importance of paying attention to culturally and historically embedded meanings of leadership but also warned of the dangers of oversimplifying and stereotyping the connection between nationality and leadership so as to recognise diversity in meaning within and across languages. With colleagues (Schedlitzki et al., 2016; Schedlitzki et al., 2017) I have called for a research agenda in leadership studies that pays attention to the importance of language, giving voice to currently muted and diverse meanings embedded in non-English languages and regional dialects. This may bring to the fore other, culturally embedded notions of organising that are more meaningful for individuals’ sense of self in the workplace than the idea of the effective leader.
But we do not have to venture ‘abroad’ to realise how much language matters for our understanding of who we are – our identity in the workplace. Myself and colleagues (Schedlitzki et al., 2017) have joined others (e.g. Ford and Harding, 2015) in questioning the ease with which we assume that individuals will see themselves as leader and/or followers in their daily working life. Whilst some may identify quite readily with being a leader, others will experience the daily frustration of wanting to be a leader but feeling like they never quite reach the mark of the effective, great leader depicted in the media and literature. Why is this so? Some argue it is the lack of ‘real’ followers in the workplace (Harding, 2015); others (Collinson, 2011; Ford, 2010; Liu and Baker, 2016) argue that the language of leadership conjures up an image of the ideal leader that is predominantly white, male, masculine, middle class, able bodied, heterosexual and middle aged. Coupled with near heroic abilities of a leader promoted through popular theories like transformational leadership (Alvesson and Karreman, 2016), we start to realise that this effective leader image is highly exclusionary and often unattainable (Ford et al., 2008).
So, where does this leave us? Gaining an understanding of the manifold ways in which language matters for our understanding of leadership and sense of self in the workplace may indeed give us a sense of control over who we can be. Understanding the language of leadership in our workplace may enable us to see the image that it creates of an effective leader and the extent to which we fit into this image or resist it. This may help to make sense of barriers we are experiencing to developing a sense of self as a leader or follower. This insight may also invite us to try and influence both the organisational language of leadership and the image conjured through this language to make space for alternative meanings and images of leadership – or indeed other forms of organising – that are more meaningful for our sense of self.