Humor in Leadership Discourse — a Mystery of the Abominable Snowman

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Humor in Leadership Discourse — A Mystery of the Abominable Snowman

Introduction

Bennis and Nanus (1985:19) describe leadership as “the abominable snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but who is nowhere to be seen”, which indicates its complexity but also its attraction for academics and practitioners. Although humor has been considered an crucial aspect of leadership discourse, only in recent years there appeared empirical investigations regarding this topic and the number of related studies seems quite small, not compatible with its academic status. The aim of this project is to explore the humorous discourse as a construction form of workplace identities in a new stuff reception meeting (a scenario in BBC multi award winning sitcom The Office S02E01). Speeches of two managers have been recorded for data-analysis to illustrate the subtle application of humor in leadership discourse, as one succeeds, and the other fails.

Background

As multiple the opinions on abominable snowman, there is hardly agreement on the definition of leadership. However, those theoretical approaches imply general trends in leadership research: Traits approaches concentrating on who leaders are had been replaced by behaviour approaches on what they do. The former was represented by Thomas Carlyle, who believed heroic leadership and made comparison among different types of heroes, such as Odin, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon and other great historical figures, even the Prophet Muhammad included. Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) found six main leadership traits: drive and ambition, leadership motivation, honesty and integrity, self-confidence, cognitive ability and knowledge of the business. At the same time, they acknowledge that traits alone are unable to support business leadership success. As traits being a kind of precondition, leaders have to take certain moves towards the destination of success leadership (Kirkpatrick & Locke 1991). Ever since the 1940s, researchers have been primarily occupies with determining the behaviors of leaders, especially those of ‘effective’ leaders (Bryman 1992). Lippitt and White (1943) conducted a classic experiment, in which groups of children had been exposed to different leadership styles and they found that it was operated most effectively when the leader was democratic rather than autocratic or laissez-faire. In order to investigate the causal direction between leaders behaviour and followers related variables, researchers began to consider the influence of environmental factors. The interesting thing about scientific researches is that, it seems more complicated when more studies have been done over certain topic. Contextual theories of leadership have brought more questions than solutions, which in fact is good for leadership research, as there are more inspirational theories proposed, collectively called ‘new’ leadership. As core concept of new leadership theories, charismatic leadership is mainly achieved through discourse. As Stephanie Schnurr (2009) pointed out, it seems that certain crucial leadership performance, for example, creating and describing a prospect, encouraging, motivating and instructing subordinates, establishing targets for the groups as well as ensuring subordinates’ compliance, all require language. To investigate the essential role of discourse in leadership, the study has define discourse as “closely associated with ‘discursive practices’”, i.e. “social practices that are produced by/through discourses” (Baxter 2003). It is predictable that discursive practices are considered as one major expression form of leadership. Just as Schurr (2009) concluded, through leadership discourse, the leaders for one thing take charge of the whole office, for another, create their instinct styles of working image, which can be either positive or negative, conditioned by their discursive practices. As social and environmental factors work on leadership, there are also contextual...
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