This paper seeks to understand leaders as material presences. Leadership theory has traditionally explored leaders as sites of disembodied traits, characteristics and abilities. Our qualitative, mixed method study suggests that managers charged with the tasks of leadership operate within a very different understanding. Their endogenous or lay theory understands leadership as physical, corporeal and visible, and as something made manifest through leaders’ material presence. This theory-in-practice holds that leadership qualities are signified by the leader’s physical appearance: the good leader must look the part. Actors consequently work on their own appearance to present an image of themselves as leader. They thus offer a fundamental challenge to dominant exogenous, or academic, theories of leadership. To understand the unspoken assumptions that underpin the lay theory of leadership as material presence, we interrogate it using the new materialist theory of Karen Barad and the object relations theory of Christopher Bollas. This illuminates the lay theory’s complexities and sophisticated insights. In academic terms it offers a theory of how sentient and non-sentient actors intra-act and performatively constitute leadership through complex entanglements that enact and circulate organizational and leadership norms. The paper’s contribution is thus a theory of leadership micro-dynamics in which the leader is materialized through practices of working on a corporeal self for presentation to both self and others.
- new materialism
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Strategy and Management
- Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management
- Management of Technology and Innovation