Start ‘Em Early: Pastoral Power and the Confessional Culture of Leadership Development in the US University

Nicole Capriel Ferry*, Eric Guthey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


We apply a critical perspective on leadership development discourses and practices to the case of student leadership development programs in the US universities and colleges. We leverage the first author’s personal experiences as a facilitator in such programs to focus on the manner in which they adapt and deploy a variety of commodified pop and positive psychology techniques—including prominently among them icebreakers and psychological assessment tests—that encourage participants to share personal and emotional insights about themselves as the necessary prerequisite for becoming leaders. We draw on Foucault’s notion of pastoral power to argue that these quasi-therapeutic practices help to produce and to normalize what we describe as a confessional culture of leadership development that prepares would-be student leaders to submit themselves to similarly or even more psychologically demanding regimes of governmentality in the workplace after they graduate. We conclude with a call for future research on the central role of such leadership development practices—and the institutions, industries, and actors that promote them—in folding together the ways that individuals seek to claim agency and to develop themselves as leaders with the ways that organizations function to constrain that agency and to govern them as willing but compliant subjects.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)723-736
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Published online: 4. July 2020


  • Critical leadership studies
  • Higher education
  • Leadership development

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