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 9: Socrates’ mission against reproachable ignorance: leaders who refuse to acknowledge their ignorance and instead suppress criticism

Nathan Harter

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


Leaders who refuse to acknowledge their ignorance and instead suppress criticism create conditions for dysfunctional leadership. By ignoring evidence of their own doubt and uncertainty, they persist in inadequate beliefs. By suppressing criticism from others, they avoid acknowledging their own doubt and uncertainty. They also prevent the critical thinking that can transform doubt into more adequate beliefs. It is the absence of doubt that contributes especially to unethical behaviour, as leaders go heedlessly toward outcomes they will regret and others will condemn. Finally, by suppressing criticism, they prevent followers from developing their own powers to think critically and improve morally as a result of open, frank dialogue. This leaves followers no better-off and probably inhibits their contributions. For these reasons, we might label leaders who refuse to acknowledge their ignorance and instead suppress criticism as pseudo-leaders (Heidegger 2002). Fields of inquiry lying alongside leadership studies such as political science, organizational behaviour, economics and law have investigated the tension underlying this phenomenon. Oksenberg (1998), for instance, describes as a ‘classical dilemma’ in politics the choice between sup- pressing dissent, on the one hand, and bolstering political participation as a way to establish legitimacy, on the other. Neither choice always works. Larson and King (1996) characterize dissent in organizations as part of its ‘negative feedback loops’ necessary to avoid information distortion, yet they note that at some point the organization has to make and implement decisions. Dissent can delay execution and distract from going forward. Argyres and Mui (2000) approach the topic from a cost-benefit analysis,

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