Investigating the Theoretical Notion of Leadership: A Critical Realist Contribution

Maria Qvist Clemens

Student thesis: Master thesis


The confrontation with the paradoxes and conundrums of contemporary management serves as a starting point for the forthcoming thesis, which seeks to illuminate the structure of Leadership in academic literature, mainly from the perspective of John P. Kotter, representing and presenting the mainstream ideals, and Suze Wilson, representing critical theory. These initial considerations enable the three main questions to be investigated in this thesis: Firstly, what is leadership, and how is it characterized by mainstream and critical theory respectively; secondly, to what extend is Wilson’s critical methodology able to challenge mainstream theory; and thirdly, how might a third, new reading of leadership theory present itself. The third research question will be elaborated by including the philosophy of critical realism, developed by Roy Bhaskar. The thesis will show that proponents of mainstream leadership theory are confident in the potency of leadership, as being capable of instigating change and transformation. However popular the established dogma on leadership theory is, the necessity for rethinking only becomes more urgent. As such, the critical reading of leadership theory, proposed by Wilson, will be investigated for its ability to adequately challenge the mainstream notion of leadership. The analysis of her critical take will however illuminate that even as her findings are comprehensive and certainly challenge mainstream ideals, her conclusions don’t provide an adequate alternative for understanding and explaining leadership. The argument of this is that as she adopts what critical realists term an actualist view on powers, she is not able to explain the origin of the powers working to produce the notion of leadership. Finally, the thesis will propose that a critical realist reading of leadership theory provides valuable insights into the social structures and generative mechanisms, which can be said to produce the social phenomenon of leadership. The purpose of this critical realist reading of leadership theory is to challenge the tendency to adhere either to a positivist or constructionist dichotomy in methodical approaches, and to provide new understandings of the structural workings and manifestations of leadership.

EducationsMsc in Business Administration and Philosophy, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2017
Number of pages74
SupervisorsMichael Pedersen