Weeks 13 and 14 — Leadership and the Dark Side of Organizational Communication

Who do you consider a leader? This person(s) you think of need not be a head of state or a CEO. What specific characteristics about that person make her such an effective example of a leader? Keep this person in mind while you’re reading and writing — let me know if you think of someone else who exhibits qualities of a leader or how you come to see this person’s choices and behaviors more analytically.

Historical Theories of Leadership

Leadership has long been an important part of organizational communication research, and the chapter opens with some history. It begins by describing five theories of leadership:

  • trait leadership
  • leadership style
  • situational leadership
  • transformational leadership
  • discursive leadership

Trait leadership emphasized particular genetic characteristics of people recognized as leaders and uncritically identified them as necessary for leadership. Though we certainly now understand that physical attractiveness does not necessarily makes someone a good leader, we do often still discuss leaders in physical terms. The book gives the example of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential race, and we can see examples in the current election (on all sides) where the candidates’ appearance becomes a topic of discussion about his or her ability to lead the U.S. Whether the comments are about Chris Christie’s weight, Donald Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s hair, Bernie Sanders’s “look”, or the candidates’ heights, looks still come up in the discussion. So maybe we haven’t made as much progress as we’d like to think.

The leadership style approach often presents theories in terms of continuum or grid positions. Do leaders have all the power, or do they share some with their subordinates? How much concerns for relationships and tasks does the leader have? The Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid is one of the most popular of these approaches:

Situational leadership is the first of the theories to focus more on the behavior of leaders than their traits or preferences. It emphasizes responsiveness as an important skill and posture leaders possess — it’s demonstrated through their abilities to adjust their behaviors depending on the situation their organization faces.

Transformational leadership focuses on organizational change as leaders’ most important task. Transformational leaders need to be able to articulate a vision for the organization and to persuade others to pursue it.

Discursive leadership emphasizes the interactive behaviors of leaders and comes in two “flavors”: little d discourse and Big D discourse. Little d refers to the moment-by-moment choices people make when interacting, and Big D refers to broader narratives of knowledge and power and how they are reflected in talk.

We can see from these earlier approaches that there are tensions for scholars in figuring out whether leadership is something inherent in an individual, dependent on a situation, or determined during communication. More recent theories that focus on habits of mind, habits of character, and habits of communication try to incorporate all three components in a single theory.

Habits and Modern Theories of Leadership

One of the main contributions of the “habits” approach to thinking about leadership is that habits can be learned. Of course, learning new habits or unlearning undesirable ones is difficult, but it’s not impossible like growing extra inches. Habits of mind are patterns of thinking that define how a person approaches situations and issues. Our book recommends habits of mind that are focused on possibilities (p. 276). Habits of character are ways of being in the world. Again, our book recommends one dominant habit, and here it’s humility. The argument is that humility inspires others and pairs effectively with an openness of mind that allows one to recognize opportunities for learning and change that will help the organization. It recommends a specific leadership approach called servant learning that blends drive and humility in leadership and shares these qualities (p. 277):

  1. Valuing individuals (having genuine concern for others’ well-being and development)
  2. Networking and achieving (being an inspirational communicator)
  3. Enabling (empowering, delegating, developing potential)
  4. Acting with integrity (being consistent, honest, open)
  5. Being accessible (being approachable, in touch with others)
  6. Being decisive (being a risk taker)

A discussion of habits of authentic communication closes out this section. By this point in the semester, you should have some pretty good ideas about effective communication. What’s new here is the “authentic” idea, and it means that leaders relate to others in ways that reflect their own values and beliefs. It recognizes that we each have particular communicative strengths and weaknesses and can use those to effectively motivate and inspire people to action — the main goal of a leader. The book uses examples from politics (Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ronald Reagan) to business (Mary Kay Ash) to entertainment and philanthropy (Oprah Winfrey) to illustrate the idea. Imagine in Oprah communicated like Reagan or if Reagan tried to speak like Dr. King. None of them would have been as effective as they were communicating with and about their own values. All of these examples come from the U.S. What examples of leaders outside the U.S. illustrate the important of authentic communication?

Influencing Through Communication

“Communicate authentically” is easier said than done, and the book next offers some characteristics of effective communication than may be more immediately useful:

  • openness
  • supportiveness
  • motivation
  • empowerment

Focus on this section (p. 281–287) of the chapter if you are interested in becoming a leader — they are most practical discussions you’ll find in the chapter.

The Dark Side

It’s no accident that the chapter covers both leadership and the dark side of organizational communication. Though the theorists and approaches discussed in the chapter focus on effective leadership, they also, for the most part, respect subordinates. It is possible to come to power and to exercise power without this respect for persons and to use communication to coerce or exploit instead of inspire and motivate. Two particular results of this dark side of communication — bullying and sexual harassment — are the main topics of the rest of the chapter.

P. 287–288 provide an overview of bullying definitions from around the world. Some features they share are that bullying is abusive and creates unsafe environments for the targets. None of us want to be bullied, and nearly all of us would like to avoid bullying altogether, so why does it still happen? The two main reasons, according to our book, are that bullies aren’t held accountable and that victims don’t tell their stories. The section closes with some recommendations from the government of South Australia. How do you think bullying can be stopped?

Another dark side of leadership and communication is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, or “any verbal or nonverbal communication of a sexual nature that interferes with someone’s work” comes in two legally recognized forms: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. In quid pro quo sexual harassment, the harasser threatens retaliation for reporting or promises benefits for sexual favors either implicitly or explicitly. In hostile work environment harassment, harassers intimidate and/or offend victims and interfere with their abilities to do their jobs. Again, here, the harassment need not be explicit to matter. Off-hand comments and even those harassers meant as compliments can create hostile work environments. Here are just a few things that can constitute sexual harassment:

  • sexual or dirty jokes (you can probably think of some)
  • inappropriate touching (e.g., patting, preventing someone from leaving a room)
  • inappropriate gestures (e.g., obscene gestures, unwelcome looks)
  • talking about another person’s sexual behaviors (usually examples are about false rumors, but even talking about someone’s actual behaviors counts)
  • inappropriate visual displays (e.g., porn or nude calendars)

Bullying and harassment appear in this chapter in part because leadership sets the tone for an organization. Leaders who tolerate bullying and harassment and who champion closed, hierarchal, coercive approaches to organizational communication are definitely out there. Those aren’t places where I hope any of you will work or lead, though, and so I hope the first part of the chapter, even now out-of-date leadership theories, are what you encounter instead.


The “watching” for this chapter addresses many of the issues of leadership and the dark side and it’s a movie about the U.S. Presidency. You may find it’s arguments about campaigning and representation somewhat dated, especially during an election season, but please bear with the movie. I’d love to read in your stories about what approaches to leadership you see Dave, Ellen, Bob, Alan, and Murray take. What works for them? How do their approaches reflect their own values or beliefs about the world? Who would you want to lead your country, and why?