Is this Critical Postmodern Leadership? 

From Buffalos to Chicken Run

D. Boje (December, 2000)

A Critical Postmodern perspective seeks to combine aspects of critical theory and postmodern theory.  From critical theory, rooted in Marx and extended by Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Ordorno from WWII, then revitalized with work by Willmott, Alveson, Carr, Magala and others - there is an interest in critiquing managerial capitalism.  Managerialism is looking at complex organizations and society situations only through the eyes of management; perspectives of workers, communities, environment, animals, and all else is filtered through managers as "agents" of the corporation.  Of high concern is the material conditions of work and community brought about through corporate and managerial behavior.  Postmodern theory has several variations. Peter Drucker (1957) wrote about post-modern, as what followed from a post-Cartesian science of management and organization. This would hold Managerialism to answer to actual as opposed to imagined agents. Others look to postmodern theory as what comes after bureaucracy, but since McDonaldization is flourishing, it is difficult to argue we have moved away from bureaucracy. There is a philosophical school of postmodern theory that looks at what has happened since Locke, Hobbes, Newton and other modernists posited an enlightenment. Lyotard (198\4) for example thinks a new postmodern narrative is making the grand narratives of universal theory suspect. Best and Kellner (1993; 1997) argue that Lyotard's dismissal of all grand (modernist) narratives of ethical foundations, progress, and science is too radical. Rather, can we look at the interplay of the grand narratives with the local and material conditions of people and nature.  There are other postmodern theories, such as Baudrillard who contends that we have moved from an age of realism to simulation. It is all simulation to Baudrillard, and searching for authenticity is for him a waste of time. For example, nature is managed and simulated in state forests, these are no longer natural, the ecology has become manicured, crisis crossed with roads and power lines, and with biotechnology the plant, animal and human world is being reengineered.  People go to Las Vegas and contend that King Tut's exhibit is more authentic than the real Egyptian monuments; more clean, less humid, more orderly. Or the Eiffel Tower of Las Vegas is seen as more user-friendly than the Paris, France one, because there are no beggars or hawkers of mechanical wind up birds that buzz about (so you must look to not be pummeled by the machines instead of seeing the tower). While Baudrillard has some strong points to make, there are experiences in corporations that are authentic (some good, others oppressive). My own preference is to look to Guy Debord, rather than Baudrillard or Lyotard (though both contribute in various ways). Debord's focus was on a critical theory that would take consumptions, rather than production (as in the case of Marx) as its base. In modernity, there were more heroes who made things, began enterprises and worked to produce change. In postmodernity, the  heroes are sports, TV, and movie stars who consume more than they produce. We have moved from age of production to age of consumption, and our heroes have changed accordingly (For more on What is postmodern? click here).

In sum, a critical postmodern perspective looks at material conditions of work and nature, as well as the spectacle of consumption engulfing that of production.  The purpose of this brief essay is to look at  Flight of the Buffalo (Belasco & Stayer, 1993). The authors recognizes that managerial capitalism with its command and control mentality has robbed employees of ownership. The posit the emergence of intellectual capitalism. At the same time, getting people more committed to performance is not the same thing as allowing people to grow power and have the ownership of tools and processes (as Marx advocated). The question is how does their theory differ from a more critical postmodern one?

There is a postmodern turn in the book by Belasco and Stayer (1993), but there are some areas the need some deconstruction

1. Empowerment rhetoric is not the same thing as the power of democratic governance. See Boje and Rosile (2000) on "Where is the power in empowerment?"  when people have democratic control over the corporation, then we finally move away from feudalistic master-slave relationships that characterize the modern bureaucratic (mindset) corporation. In critical theory, empowerment would include democratic governance of the firm itself, not just the "feeling" of being responsible for the work process. Empowerment is a reinvention of the word "delegation." It avoids the issue of who has the power to decide daily corporate life, policy, resource allocation, or the rules of the game.

2. Replacing the boss with the customer, is still the slave model.  Making the customer king, is its own form of sovereignty. Customers can be brutal, over-bearing, and abusive.  It is not always the case that the "customer is always right." Such a philosophy privileges customer rights over human rights, and can be dangerous. Not usually a problem for New Mexico, but there are cases, such as in Seattle, where employees of Nordstrom department store worked on their own time to satisfied customer requests, did not report overtime, etc. There are New Mexico examples as well. A customer for Hooters may demand performances that constitute hassle and harassment. A customer may demand services that compromise the integrity and mission of the firm. While customers want better quality service, faster and more dedicated responses from employees there are limits.

3. Animal metaphors are cute, but what if we looked at the role of animals in managerial capitalism. Flight of the Buffalo animal metaphors misrepresent animal behavior. This does not invalidate the metaphoric connections being made. It does raise questions about animal treatment in modern organization. This is ironic since much of the book is based on examples from a meat packing plant, a slaughterhouse of animals. To a vegetarian, such as myself this raises some serious issues.  If you are not a vegetarian or animal lover, skip this next part.  

    How about a new metaphor, "Chicken run." Carol Adams (2000) presents a feminist-vegetarian critical theory in her book The Sexual Politics of Meat. Carol Adams sees feminism as a visionary philosophy that includes stewardship of the earth (press here for interview). If we look at the kinds of violence that permeates the slaughterhouse, then we are reminded that the Fordist factory model is based upon its predecessor the slaughterhouse. We buy animal flesh wrapped in plastic packages that bear no resemblance to the animals sentient being (Humane Faming Association). the spectacle of managerial capitalism sells us the image of the farm animal killed in a clean, orderly factory process that minimizes stress and pain. But, animal rights advocates say it just isn't the way the spectacle present it on TV and in the mall. See for example Gail Eisnitz' book, Slaughterhouse, the Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry that chronicles HFA's landmark investigation. In Slaughterhouse. Excerpts  - Or, see At the Slaughterhouse By Gene Bauston, Farm Sanctuary Copyright 1996 (Farm Sanctuary). According to Carol Adams (2000), the purpose of the spectacle is to set up a fantasy image of animal production such that the life of the animal is the "absent referent."  Press here for slaughterhouse pictures. The spectacle is a cover story for the greed, neglect, and inhumane treatment of animals in the 'meat'  industry.  See article  "A Visit to a Slaughterhouse" by Dave Gifford. See Animal Rights FAQ.

4. If we look at the trend in global capitalism today, we are descending into a form of feudal capitalism where instead of Intellectual Capitalism, we have a system of supply chains linked to Third World Sweatshops. Flight of the Buffalo does not deal with the wider implication of intellectual capitalism. There is an assumption of unswerving progress, that is not consistent with the rise in feudal sweatshops. The Department of Labor, for example, reports that there are 700 sweatshops in the U.S.  The number of sweatshops is growing each year as production from the 1st world migrates to the 3rd world where the choice is work for poverty wage or starve. True, it is better to work than starve, but an intellectual capitalism can be answerable for its ethics. 

    The situation is not that different from the violence observe by Karl Marx (see Das Kapital, chapter 10) in the sweatshops of England and the U.S.  See Sweatshop Watch. Santa's Little Sweatshop article. Liz Claiborne: Sweatshop Production in El Salvador or Unite's Sweatshop action page.  In the digital economy, we have moved from "intellectual capital" to "sweatshop capital." What is life like inside a Wal-Mart, Chinese Sweatshop?  Not only sweatshops in garment and other manufacturer, but sweatshops in the digital economy.  Sweatshops is not just a Third World condition - See Lion Apparel factory in Beattyville, Kentucky, part of a largely female workforce of 15,000 nationwide that sews in the US.  Or, Inside A Sweatshop: An Eyewitness Account by Olivia Given. "In the U.S., the Department of Labor estimates that more than half of the 22,000 manufacturing shops qualify as sweatshops today" (America's Labor StruggleIn the writing about leadership and organization behavior, there is almost total silence about the relationship between sweatshops and the new global economy. We hear a lot of rhetoric about knowledge work and intellectual capital, while the majority of workers in the world work in sweatshop conditions in a thousand factories in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands more around the world. I would say the Buffalo are still doing the same dance.  At the same time, there is an increasing revolution on college campuses that is targeting sweatshop labor, particularly when sweat sews the labels of the university on the garments at the campus store. People want to know why Flying Buffalo companies, like McDonald's, Disney, and Wal-Mart employ child labor to make their toys. How many web sites track the sweatshop reforms, and hide the sweatshop antics of Nike? There are increasing protests not only on college campuses but in Seattle at the WTO, and at the political conventions in the U.S. High Tech sweatshops are all the rage, making claims of Intellectual Capitalism questionable. Sweatshops Overview by BJ Bullert. The United States has by far the highest levels of socio-economic and income inequality of any industrialized nation.  And we are championing sweatshops at home and abroad while authoring leadership books that give it not one mention? A real leader would be out there conducting a sweatshop fashion show. See how United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) is an international coalition devoted to stopping sweatshop labor.

    In sum, the Flight of the Buffalo gives us an uncritical and overly affirmative sense of the transition from managerial to intellectual capitalism.  By applying a more critical postmodern theory to this book, we can begin to decode some of the hidden and implicit textual material in the book. What is not said says more than what is said in terms of Intellectual Capitalism. 

    A revised model of Intellectual Capitalism would pay more attention to the material conditions of work, the actual processes of production, as well as consumption. It would look at how power is crafted, what the animal metaphors mask.


Belasco, James A. & Stayer, Ralph C. (1993) Flight of the Buffalo: Soaring to excellence, learning to let employees lead. NY: Warner Books, Inc.  

Boje, D. M. (2000) "Developing PSL into a Network Organization" - Based on Flight of the Buffalo.

Boje, D. M. (2000) "Leadership: In and Out of the Box"