Critical Perspectives on Leadership

Critical Perspectives on Leadership

Emotion, Toxicity, and Dysfunction

New Horizons in Leadership Studies series

Edited by Jeanette Lemmergaard and Sara Louise Muhr

Situated in the field of critical leadership studies, the chapters of this book set out to challenge the general assumption that emotionality is the antithesis of rationality. The authors expand upon the existing discussions of leadership emotions and reveal how toxicity and dysfunctionality are not merely simple, negatively coercive, or repressive phenomena, but can also have productive and enabling connotations. The book includes comprehensive overviews of traditional leadership thinking and in addition provides readers with critical reflections on concepts such as ignorance, authenticity, functional stupidity and vanity in leadership.

Chapter 1: Broadening the critical leadership repertoire: emotions, toxicity and dysfunctionality

Jeanette Lemmergaard and Sara Louise Muhr

Subjects: business and management, organisation studies, politics and public policy, leadership


The conventional literature on leadership and emotions is complex and multifaceted, focusing on norms and techniques, correct–incorrect and/or desirable–undesirable (see Lemmergaard and Muhr 2011). The under- lying assumption is that leadership is a self-evident force for good that represents an (imperfectly) rational instrument for achieving shared goals. We challenge this mainstream understanding of leadership by focusing primarily on leadership toxicity and dysfuntionality, however recognizing that leaders’ emotions are contagious and create affective events (Brief and Weiss 2002; Lockyer and McCabe 2011) that trigger both positive and negative emotional reactions. Since leaders socially constitute and construct emotional boundaries of appropriate emotional display, they also strongly influence the way employees interpret and respond emotionally to a given situation (Rehn and Lindahl 2011). It is traditionally assumed as a given fact that employees watch the leaders and take their emotional quest from the leaders. We do not question this assumption per se, but argue that the dilemma raised by this assumption is far more complex. We argue that behind the face of efficiency, equity and humanity – which surrounds formal organizations – lie distinct concentrations of emotions, which cannot be understood as specific understandings of toxic–nontoxic or functional–dysfunctional. Not only is it restrictive to rely on the traditional distinction between good and bad, also the leader–subordinate relationship is far more complex than is depictured in the traditional literature on leadership (for example, Cluley 2008). Not only do the leaders’ emotions rub off on the employees, also the opposite occurs as employees’ emotions rub off on the leaders.

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