chapter  7
Organization as Communication and the Emergence of Leadership: A Luhmannian Perspective
ByJochen Koch
Pages 20

Despite an increasing interest in understanding leader-follower-relationships from an interactive perspective, mainstream leadership research does not tend to focus on the process of interaction between leaders and followers. One exception is the approach of leader-follower identity construction (DeRue & Ashford, 2010), a second very instructive field is that of discursive leadership (Fairhurst, 2007). From both of these perspectives, we can learn that the distribution of membership categories (leader/follower) and the difference between leader and follower (i. e., the boundary: /) should not be assumed as given, without any further consideration of the development of the leader-follower relationship and the context in which it is embedded. Both leading and following refer to the mutual and iterative construction of a relationship, which is at the same time, the result and the resource of an ongoing interaction (see also Fairhurst, 2008). Leading and following implies to draw and to redraw multiple boundaries that are, in turn, the ‘essence’ (understood as both the result and point of reference of communication processes) of that relationship. Therefore, leading and following can be seen as boundary management. Whereas

the growing literature on leader-follower-identity (DeRue & Ashford, 2010; Hirst, van Dick, & van Knippenberg, 2009; Lührmann & Eberl, 2007) assume these boundaries are built up by a mutual alignment process including expectations, behaviors/actions, and reflections, the discursive leadership approach adopts a broader perspective. Not least by distinguishing between a small ‘d’ discourse and a big ‘D’ Discourse (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2000; Fairhurst & Putnam, 2004), we can understand leaders and followers as both subjects and objects of their relationships and the context in which they are embedded (e. g., groups, organizations, society). Furthermore, with the focus on small ‘d’ discourse, the role of language use and communication ultimately comes to the fore. Adopting a discursive perspective, we can analyze the performative nature of membership categorizations (such as (leader/follower). In a more abstract


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sense, this performativity rests with the constitution of a difference between two distinguishable social positions (A/B) and on basing that difference on a communicative asymmetry between A and B. This is the perspective I suggest to pursue in this paper. Accordingly, I will focus on the emergence of such relationships and therefore on how and why specific kinds of asymmetries come into play. Following the idea of a communicative constitution of organization (CCO; Cooren, Kuhn, Cornelissen, & Clark, 2011), I propose a micro foundation of leadership in organizational communication. On this basis, I provide answers to two different but interrelated research questions: (1) How are asymmetries communicated in leader-follower-relationships? (2) How are asymmetries inscribed into leader-follower-relationships by an ongoing process of communication? In contrast to approaches from the field of discursive leadership (e. g., Fairhurst,

2008; Kuhn, 2008), I do not assume that any form of asymmetry between A and B already implies power (or is the result of power). Instead, I argue that we should assume that the boundary constituting leadership (A =leader/B =follower) is based on a specific type of communication and that there are other forms of communication, aside from power, which nevertheless induce asymmetric relations beyond (or also ‘in’) leadership relations. Further on, it is important to address the following questions: Are these asymmetries permanently communicated? What kinds of asymmetries are communicated? And how are they interrelated? In addition to the Montreal School’s work (Taylor & van Every, 2000), I therefore propose to rely on the communication theory of Niklas Luhmann (1995). By doing so, I will focus on Luhmann’s conceptualization of communication as a process of interconnected communication events. In this conceptualization, different theoretical constructs are important; not least power as the prototypical form of an asymmetric communication. In contrast to many other theories of power (Foucault, 1979; French & Raven, 1959; Weber, 1976), Luhmann (1979) conceptualizes power as a symbolically generalized communication medium and as a functional equivalent to other forms of communication media (such as love, truth, money, etc.). In this regard, the Luhmannian approach differs considerably from other approaches of communication, leadership, and power (Fairhurst & Uhl-Bien, 2012; Schoeneborn et al., 2014) (for a comparison, see Tost, Gino, & Larrick, 2013). As we will see, this holds true especially for Luhmann’s radical idea of understanding communication from the basis of communication events. That perspective offers the opportunity to understand communication in the first place beyond the distinction of symmetric versus asymmetric relationships. Therefore, relying on Luhmann’s approach provides the opportunity to deconstruct given (i. e., assumed) asymmetric relations and hence to understand how these asymmetries are built into the process of communication.