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Transformational Leadership Education and Agency Perspectives in Business School Pedagogy: A Marriage of Inconvenience?


  • The authors are grateful to Dr Naheed Tourish for valuable insights on agency theory and to three anonymous reviewers and the guest editors for many helpful suggestions.

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We critique transformational leadership education in university business schools based on a literature review, a study of the websites of 21 leading business schools, and an analysis of two presentations to business school students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University by the former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. Our critique draws attention to the unresolved tension between two motivating ideas that underpin much teaching in business schools: collective interest ideas that permeate transformational leadership education; and self-interest ideas derived from agency theory. Transformational leadership tends to be depicted as a process by which leaders exert a ‘top-down’ influence over the activities of others, while simultaneously asserting that their organizations have a common purpose and pursue a collective interest. We highlight the risk that business schools are producing graduates who will attempt to appeal to common needs (guided by precepts of transformational leadership) but who will simultaneously enact contradictory performance management systems (guided by agency theory). We encourage business school educators in leadership to adopt approaches which are more critical, relational and reflexive. We suggest some general directions for an alternative leadership prospectus, based on followership, the promotion of critical upward communication within organizations, and the recognition of leadership as a contested, discursive and co-constructed phenomenon.