Changing notions of leadership

real-panopticonThree articles on the changing notions of leadership

Bordieu (1997) defined capital as “accumulated labor which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.” He also identified three types of capital: economic capital, cultural capital and social capital. He discussed the last two types. He stated that cultural capital can exist in three forms: in the embodied state wherein cultural capital is embodied in person as he accumulates long lasting dispositions, in the objectified state such as in works of art and in the institutionalized state such as academic qualifications conferred upon a person. He also defined social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.” He pointed out the relationships of the three types of capital emphasizing that economic capital is necessary to accumulate cultural and social capital and the latter two are merely disguised forms of economic capital.

MacKinlay and Starkey (1998) analyzed the later Foucalt within the context of the theories of philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Max Weber and management theorists Federick Taylor and Peter Drucker. He discussed the contributions of Foucault to “our understanding of organizations, accounting and the control of work.” He pointed out that Foucault wrote about the beginning and development of the formal organization which is the seat of power and knowledge. Foucault also studied accounting and its impact on the management. Through a study of the Panopticon prison, Foucault used it as a lens through other organizations could also be viewed in terms of the inherent characteristic of organizations to control human beings in space and time.

Burrell (1998) looked at the contributions of Foucault to organizational analysis through archaeological and genealogical approaches to the study of organizations. The archaeological approach “seeks primarily to understand the ‘archive’ –the diversity of autonomous and sometimes amorphous discourses” while genealogy is “surface events, looking at the meaning of small details, minor shifts and subtle contours.” The former digs deep for depth while the latter looks at the superficial or the surface.


Capital is the means in which organizations are formed because it enables “an agent” or “group of agents” to purchase the other factors of production, land and labor. These three factors of production enable the creation of goods and services that when sold, create more capital. Thus, those who have ownership of capital usually end up owning the other factors of production, effectively ensuring control of an enterprise. This is characteristic of a “capitalist economy” wherein capital, in all of its forms, is privately owned.

By its very nature, a capitalist enterprise engenders many forms of oppression since the management of the enterprise is in hands of only a few owners and their representatives, known as management. Relationships in these organizations are on a superior-subordinate level which, by these very terms, assume that some are “superior” to others. Owners and managers exert authority, which include coercive and non-coercive actions, over subordinates in order to achieve the desired organizational performance. This type of relationship leads itself to an authoritarian, almost dictatorial type of organization which spurs resistance from organizational members. With the rapid developments in technology and mass media, this resistance has grown stronger with people becoming more empowered in organizations in both the private and public sectors.

In this context, leadership as defined by Joseph Rost to be “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes” finds relevance in the management of organizations. Leadership can be exercised both without authority and with authority. However, Ronald Heifetz said, “The practice of leadership almost always takes place in structures of authority.” Thus, formal organizations today present an opportunity for the practice of leadership so that organizations are able to move from rigid bureaucratic structures to flexible organizations that tap the collective wisdom of its members. However, as organizational members contribute to the best of their abilities to achieve their organizations’ objectives, so should organizations move towards a more equitable sharing of the fruits of labor. In this light, it may not be too far off in the future that, while ownership of capital determines organizational types, the emergence of empowered organizations may impact capitalist structures.

In studying empowered organizations, it would be relevant to look at Foucault’s theories on management and organization. Drawing from Bentham’s theories, he used the image of the Panopticon to characterize the post-modern organization. To us who are now part of a knowledge economy, the Panopticon seems to be an archaic contraption and the comparison of prisons with other organizations seems ridiculous. However, centuries ago and up to today, control has been very much a concern of organizations. Taylor’s time and motion studies was an attempt at controlling the factory; Drucker’s “management by objectives” sought to ensure organizational results. The Panopticon as an idea has vestiges in today’s organizations. Technology, such as CCTV, mobile phones and the Internet, has replaced the Panopticon and management control systems such as budget, accounting, performance management and the code of conduct have the same objectives as the physical control of prisoners in the prison system.

While Foucault’s theories on discipline enable us to understand the historicity of management control practices today, his views of society seem to me rather dim. Burrell states that “Foucault maintains that the despotic character of the disciplinary mode of domination built into the heart, the essence of contemporary society and affects the body of the individual.” While mankind’s beginnings bear out this statement, I believe that the history of mankind has shown that we can grow out of these despotic beginnings and continue to progress towards an empowering and collective mode of society, an emerging future that is evident in the uneven development of organizations globally today. An illustration is the experience of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who lived through his incarceration in the concentration camps of Auschwitz. His search for meaning freed him from his horrible circumstances and proved that nothing can imprison a human being, physically, mentally and emotionally, if he uses his free will to choose to be free, regardless of his physical reality.

Foucault’s view of punishment in the exercise of power also seems to be no longer applicable in view of current researches. While punishment and discipline can act as an external motivator to push people towards performance, it is not lasting. Based on decades of behavioral research, what lasts is intrinsic motivation or the satisfaction that one derives from doing the work. Supporting this further, in the book “Drive, the The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” author Daniel Pink, based on 40 years of research on human motivation, contends that while reward and punishment worked successfully in the twentieth century, it is no longer the case in present times. Pink says that there are three elements of true motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Further, research on creativity and motivation have also shown that punishment adversely influences creativity. This finding is significant because in today’s world, innovation is a necessity to enable an organization to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing environment.

Foucault’s world of power and knowledge, discipline and punishment may seem to us to be a world long past. We already see and know that organizations can be run with leadership, empowerment and collective wisdom. Unfortunately, the reality is that Foucault’s world still exists today in many parts of the world, in many societies and in many organizations. Thus, the challenge to leadership is clearly laid out: to lead change for a better future for mankind.


Burrell, G. (1998) Foucault and organizational theory, pp. 14-28. Foucault, management and organizational theory. Edited by Alan McKinley  and Ken Starkey.   London: Sage Publications.

Bourdieu, P. 1997.  The Forms of Capital.  In Education, culture, economics and  society. Edited by A.H. Halsey and  others,  pp.  46-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Pocket Books.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press.

McKinley, A. and Starkey, K. 1998. “Managing Foucault”,  pp. 1-13. Foucault, management and organizational theory. Edited by Alan McKinley  and Ken Starkey.   London: Sage Publications.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Penguin Group, Inc.

Rost, J. C. (1991). Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Author: Regina G. Reyes