Jeffrey Zacko-Smith

The Leader Label: Using Social Constructionism and Metaphor to Influence the Leadership Perceptions of Graduate Business and Public Administration Students

by Jeffrey Zacko-Smith
Seattle University

This research examined the use of metaphor as a tool of discourse, applying it specifically to the field of leadership. Utilizing a post-modern social constructionist framework under which the construct “leader” was highly pliable, and was created, enhanced, mitigated or destroyed via language and interaction, this study investigated whether and in what ways the intentional use of metaphor altered the individual leadership perceptions of graduate business and public administration students. Leadership understandings classified as “flexible” and “inflexible” were the primary focus of this inquiry given the hypothesized need for increasingly flexible understandings in globalized contexts. Conventional perceptions of leaders are themselves metaphorical: the leader is actually in the lead, the first to move forward. This is an image appropriate for certain circumstances, but is one seen as less relevant today because it implies an often complex hierarchy, connotes exclusivity, and ignores context.

A two-part research question guided this study: (1) to what extent and (2) in what way(s) were individual graduate business and public administration students’ perceptions of leaders and leadership altered (along a “flexible/inflexible” continuum) by the intentional use of the metaphor “leader as social construction” in focused group discussions?

Investigative methodologies were primarily qualitative and based upon the interaction between Q-Methodology and focus groups; since meaning is generated socially and subjectivity is valued, the aim was to explain individual perception change using interactional techniques. Written interviews added depth to the findings.

The results of the study show that although perceptions were mixed (i.e., they were flexible and inflexible both before and after the focus group intervention), exposure to the “leader as social construction” metaphor increased flexible leadership understandings among a majority of the participants. These findings serve as a catalyst for future research.