Postmodern Leadership Theory

David M. Boje 

December 24, 2000



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    Modernist leadership theory is Inside the Box; it rationalizes society and nature by assigning them a "head." Fascist and totalitarian leadership is an obvious example; less obvious is the headship of capitalism, the socialization of bureaucrats. Postmodern Leadership Theory testifies to the headless condition of leadership pretending to be the phallic head (See What is Postmodern? if this is new to you). The need to step outside the box, was foreseen by George Bataille in the 1930s. To Bataille, leadership is about submission and domination, class oppression and exploitation, fascism and totalitarian requirements of capital accumulation in classical capitalism. "Western prosperity rests on hyperexploitation in the Third World" ( Shaviro, 1990: 58) and  the McDonaldized hyperexploitation in the Animal World (Ritzer, 2000; Burrell, 1997: 150, top, See Also TAMARA Journal on these issue). 

    There are many postmodern theories that speak to leadership (See overview of basic postmodern leadership and organizational theories). I could take the route most traveled and declare postmodern leadership's alliance with chaos and complexity theory (Cilliers, 1998; Coyne, 1996). Or take up the critical postmodern cause of seeing to the emancipation of the masses from capitalist  illusion (Alvesson & Willmott, 1996).   However, I wish to trod off in  a different epistemological, and ontological direction. I wish to call into question the headship of Western leadership theory by unveiling its sexual rhetoric.  Leadership is a hyperreal simulation, a mythic strategic discourse to reduce social life to submissive necessity, the serving of the head, as a way to find bliss in the bottomless abyss.  And this is a rhetoric that creates such spectacle that no leadership theory will speak of sweatshops and slaughterhouses that are everywhere (inner city of First World, and every Third World community).

    Postmodern Theatrics of Leadership - In modern leadership theory, the leader plays star role (takes the lead, becomes the head), all others become bit players, supporting characters, and extras in the play, the theatrics of leadership. Modern leadership is by definition hierarchical, male and phallic spectacle.  Feminist leadership is more circular, bottom up and less male. In postmodern leadership theatrics, we analyze how the leader and the bit players are enslaved by the storyline, slaves to the play and its rhetoric.  The postmodern leader is part of the more headless leadership theatrics, where behind the mask of a head is no head at all (See Existential Leadership

    How did this headlessness happen? First leaders were heady heroes, knights doing battle with the dragons in the abyss.  The fascist spectacle of early modern leadership reunited mythic religion with displays of penetrating force and destruction.  Bataille points to the need for society to decapitate leaders; society is in fear of leaders. Why else would we contain them in the box, and limit their jump to the Will to Serve?  Second, leaders became enslaved in bureaucratic scripts, headless performers who were part of the organic body corporate, or just one more cog in the machine. Third, noticing that only headless leaders were permitted in Western society, a quest was initiated to find charismatic and heroic leaders. In the double, society desires both headless and head leaders, but prefers them without the Will to Power.

    In postmodern society, there are no more heroes, and the charismatic leaders would enslave us in cult plays and self-less theatrics (See Tamara Manifesto). There is a loss of self, a headless identity for both leader and bit player in the postmodern society. Individuals are subordinated in modern bureaucracy to the common unity of strong culture and in postmodernity to the fragmentation of of isolated individuals, brought together on occasions in safely administered, but temporary designer spectacles in Disney or Las Vegas.

    What is the Postmodern Spectacle?  The modern turn was away from oral discourse to the type set onto a page, and the postmodern turn is away from the page to the image screen (TV, Computer, Nintendo).  The postmodern spectacle is a hyperreal TV and Web event designed for the headless. And beneath the spectacle is the safe risk of lines of spectators who appropriate designer, weekend characters, get a non-thrill role, and return to fragmentation. And beneath this safe spectacle stage is the slaughter of the animal world, the experience of violence that is just off stage. 

    Center stage is spectacle, the illusion of progress, culture, and life instinct. It takes a cult of leaderly domination and mass submission to spectacle to ignore the slaughterhouse and what goes on there. Not just the slaughterhouse of the Jungle (Sinclair, 1905) but the postmodern supply chains of Third World sweatshops to First World transnational corporations, placing clean clothes in the mall. It takes a great corporate media spectacle to keep the consumer fascination and euphoria with heroic journey to the mall from being revealed as violent complicity in the production, distribution, and consumption of blood and sweat. Postmodern leadership is the theatrics of headless spectacle, no one is responsible or accountable for the violence of the supply chains.  The postmodern leadership challenge would be to turn the spotlight from center stage heroics to the supply chins, just off stage. This would mean spotlighting the violence of the slaughterhouse and sweatshop to see civilized consumer values as fascist rage against life. For there are leaders with heads, but they are not the ones center stage.  

    A New Situation Leadership - I propose a new situational leadership, the situation of multiple spectacles (Boje, 2000a). First, the biotech spectacle. This spectacle is considered by Rifkin (1998) to be the launch of the Biotech Century, the Second Genesis of designer evolution. If we can play around with plants and animals, why not produce "super humans" in this biotech century? Second,  the eco spectacle of catastrophe with the exhaustion of nature. Population changes are transforming the natural habitat. The Eco-habitat is fragmenting with more highways, development, and deforestation, resulting in a decline in natural resources, increased global warming, less ozone layer, less air and water quality, less rainforests, more desertification, and spreading disease.  Third the spectacle of consumption, the fetish for accumulation and overconsumption. Marx argued that in the world of commodity production, there is a "Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities" (1867: 72). Fourth, the tribal spectacle, the war of the worlds. Besides the four ideal type spectacles, there are combinations, or hybrid "interspectacle" situations.   Table One is an example of spectacle situations in an analysis of science fiction movies. 

Table One: Nine Types of Movies Reflecting Global Spectacles






































Bio-tech Spectacle


Twilight of the Gods



Boys from Brazil



Medicine Man


China Syndrome



The Stand




Eco Spectacle


Deep Impact





Modern Times

Robo Cop

Johnny Mnemonic

Stepford Wives

Total Recall


Inter Spectacle


Fifth Element

Jurassic Park




Mad Max


Water World


Fire Below

Towering Inferno

Civil Action

Soylent Green

Consumption Spectacle

The Game

13th Floor




Truman Show


Enemy of the State


Tribal Spectacle

Star Wars

Star Trek




To summarize Table One, there is a rhizomatics of spectacle, an interspectacle of situations that is not being well addressed in modern leadership theory. The spectacles are interpenetrating, so that the new contexts of leadership are spectacle and not the old stuff of mechanistic or organic organization, dumb or knowledgeable work groups, or certain and uncertain markets. The new situations are about tribes defining themselves by consumption, an ecology collapsing from over-consumption of resources, and the reengineered plant, animal and human in the Second Genesis. 

    Calling Journey into Question  - I call the heroic account of leadership into question, the mythic journey, the quest described so cogently by Joseph Campbell as the hero's journey. The new spectacle situations have faux heroes, super imprinted, morph images of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods (his replacement) onto heroic athletic apparel.  In the heroic journey mythic capitalism, in animal and human production is assigned a head. This metaphor of head and headless and the association to leadership, I attribute to Bataille (OC, VE, IE, GU). 

Human life is exhausted from serving as the head of, or the reason for, the universe. To the extent that it comes this head and this reason, to the extent that it becomes necessary to the universe, it accepts servitude (Bataille OC, 1:445; VE, 180 as cited in Shaviro, 1990: 58). 

Bataille writing during the 1930s, was concerned about fascist and totalitarian leadership and the irrationality of the religious and mythic he saw in capitalist production." Fascism might be called the religion  implicit in modern capitalism" (Shaviro, 1990: 59). For example, capitalism is an endless cycle of destruction and renewal, all excuses to modernize and renew itself (p. 59). Therefore, late postmodern capitalism is a society that prefers a "headless" state, a decapitated government, a power without king (Foucault, History of Sexuality, 1: 91). There is a strong movement to decapitate governmental leadership, as evidenced by the most recent U.S. elections (November, 2000) in which only headless leaders competed. Headless leadership in capitalist society is the triumph of laissez faire, the free market, information capitalism so popular in e-capitalism. 

    Leadership is the double, both head and headless. There is a struggle in leadership and society to seek the head, who will engage the transcendent journey and protect the social from the abyss and alienation. To Bataille, God and unity constitutes the very principle of the head (OC, 1: 469; VE, 199). In headless leadership, not only the supreme leader, but God is dead, something no society is able to permit. And there is the headless attempt to decapitate the leader in bureaucracy, the death of the charismatic and heroic leader, so that everyone and everything is now the head, the superleader (Manz and Sims, 1989) who chops off his or her own head so that everyone can find theirs. Manz and Sims (1989) posit a headless theory of leadership in which the heroic and charismatic leader is replaced by the transactor (bureaucratic headless leadership) and the superleader (who awards everyone their head). Nietzsche sought to replace revere in the headship of supreme domination and administration with a Will to Power, as evidenced in his leadership theory of Superman and Superwoman.  

    Postmodern Questions for Modern Leadership?  Are there heroic journeys?  The heroic journey is mythic device, a theatrics to gain sovereign control of the other.  Is there technological and economic progress.  Progress is the great mythic of modern leadership; call a leaderly strategy to account for exploitation, and presto the domination is a necessary ingredient to creative destruction, the rebirth of economic development.  Call biotechnology and genetic reengineering into account, and one is accused of interfering with progress. The progress myth is everywhere the legitimation of modern leadership theory and practice.  

    Postmodern leadership theory that adapts a deconstructive analysis calls not only journey and progress to account, but universals behaviors, traits, and situations of leadership. The modern universals appear now to vary by country and historical era, with no standard traits of lists of behaviors explaining too much variance. The search for essential traits did not find ones that explained the variance in too many situations. 

    Most of all postmodern leadership theory is a questioning of the spectacle of leadership. Guy Debord (1967) defines spectacle as simply "the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power" (#24, Debord, 1967).  In a comment that speaks to Debord's theory of the spectacle, Horkheimer and Adorno (1972: 136) argue, "the social power which the spectators worship shows itself more effectively in the omnipresence of the stereotype imposed by technical skill than in the stale ideologies for which the ephemeral contents stand in."  Debord posits two types of spectacle:

Concentrated Spectacle - "The concentrated spectacle" says Debord, "belongs essentially to bureaucratic capitalism" (#64). The concentrated spectacle is where both production and consumption are constructed in a totalizing self-portrait of power that masks its fragmentation. The concentrated form of the bureaucratic spectacle translates to: what is good for society (short-term employment) is what is officially and bureaucratically good for corporate power.

Diffuse Spectacle – The diffuse spectacle is one of fragmentation and specialization in the global economy, global marketplace, and global division of labor. In the diffuse spectacle it is difficult to know who made what product and under what labor conditions. It is as if concentrated spectacle reverses to hidden background and all the messiness of fragmentation is now foreground. The "diffuse spectacle" says Debord, "accompanies the abundance of commodities, the undisturbed development of modern capitalism" as it reaches into every nook and cranny (#64).

Both concentrated and diffuse spectacle has an impact on our biotic world. "The spectacle of automobiles demands a perfect transport network which destroys old cities, while the spectacle of the city itself requires museum-areas" (#65). Postmodernists contend that the spectacle is made to appear more real than reality itself (Best & Kellner, 1997). And this legitimates despoiling the ecosystem by making happiness only attainable through accumulating more and more spectacles. I view organizations as concentrated/diffuse spectacles, not just evolutions of nature, not subjects of the laws of nature, but disrupters of nature through spectacle and part of the co-evolution of changes in technology, community, and ecology. Reality is now a designer theory, a spectacle, instead of a fact of linear evolution (For more on these points, see Boje, 2000a).

    Leadership is the Phallic Monument to Unity and Domination.  Leadership abounds with phallic rhetoric, the plunge into the abyss, to claim the prize.  Modern leadership sublimates this rhetoric, and postmodern theory deconstructs its patriarchal force and phallic worship. And this sexual language of leadership is part of the rape of the Third World and the hyperexploitation of the Animal world. Examples of the sexual language of leadership:

The rupture of hierarchy

The penetration of marketplace

Penetrate the void


Be the head

Take the point

Ignoble shaft

Potency of leader




The wimp leader

Transgress the abyss

Transcendental signifier (phallic).

Insufficiency of bureaucracy

Overabundance of this merger

Conquering hero

Dominant leader

Narcissist leader

Oppressive order

Aggressive leader

Strong leader

Sovereign leader

Submissive followers

Submission to power

Despotic leader

Fascist leader

Social construction/erection. 

In sum, the sexual rhetoric of leadership is testimony to the rivalry of males in their search to dominate and subordinate females, as well as the labor of all nature. Leadership is the dance with the abyss, the trip into the void. The leader symbolizes a journey into the abyss, an adventurous penetration, and a return with the goddess Fortuna's (fortune) prizes and possessions. 

    Phallic Language of Leadership - Lacan's term of transcendental signifier (building on Freud's signifier, phallic) looks at how leadership (agency) stands outside language, history, and the hierarchy of discourse communities (Scheurich, 2000). To lead, women must also assume the phallic position, since that is the transcendental signifier of leader in Western society. Western heterosexual male fears of the desire for [sexual] penetration and of sexual inadequacy, and castration anxieties are linked together in theories of modern leadership. Leadership from this psychoanalytic perspective is the symbolic rape of organization, market, and nature, and the love man wooing the damsel in the pending merger .Leadership studies and theories are rich in phallic phantasm. While I do not want to reduce all leadership to the phallic, my point would be to analyze what is there. A phallic rhetoric accompanies strategic and power leadership, as well as simple texts on initiating structure with consideration. The phallic emphasis on the language of leadership is so rarely studied, that one have to wonder if some active repression is going on here.  

    There are some exceptions to the lack of phallic leadership and power study. Most bureaucratic leadership study serves to dephallicize the leadership and subordination spectacle. Ferguson's (1984) analysis of bureaucracy is an exception, with her analysis of the male feminization that is the bureaucratic exercise of subordination. Then there is McDaniel's (2000) study of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). "A lack or flaw in FDP, as love-object or Ego-Ideal of the democratic sublime, reflects and constitutes a lack or flaw in American democratic culture-a blemish on a fundamental site of identification 'containing' the libidinal economy of the nation as a whole." 

Systems of governance based upon representation require that Leaders "have" two bodies: a body-politic and a body-particular, a representational body and a self-referential body. As representational body, the Leader signifies not merely "for" the people but "as" the people's Ich-Meal or "ego ideal"-a fantasmic image of themselves, their values, aesthetic sensibilities-in and through which they may find themselves worthy of admiration, respect, love, etc. (McDaniel, 2000). 

The media conspired with FDR to construct (erect) the spectacle image of a powerful leader to the public. Then there was former President Bush, who projected a wimpish image. Finally, there is Bill Clinton, the leader with libidinal energy engaged in conquests in the White House. 

    Leadership is a an exercise in power to see who is the most male. there is an over-emphasis in leadership study on leader dominance, strength, aggressiveness, and assertiveness; what Manz and Sims (1989) call "strongman" leadership, the leader who is abusive, brutal, and cruel when performance is down. People seem to identify leadership with an aggressive personality structure, someone able to conquer others, and bend them to their will. Tenderness, nurturing, passive, and fearful are signs of weakness in popular conceptions of leadership.

    In a study of charismatic leadership, the "Communicativeness' dimension" is defined by Steyrer (1998) as extending "between `Extroversion/Persuasive Behaviour' and `Introversion/ Irritation/Authenticity'; `Strength/Masculinity' lies between `Phallic Exhibitionism' and `Phallic Discretion'." Phallic Exhibitionism was also associated with heroic leadership. The Phallic Discretion construct includes holding back, being non-interfering ( withholds guidance), and acting indifferent. 

    In Wall Street financial investment and accounting firms, there have been studies of the phallic language of leadership (Reciniello, 1999): 

The women in these organizations often participated in the idealization of the men, and their envy was quite visible. For example, the language of the street was widely used by males and females alike-the "big swinging dick of the day" referred to the biggest deal or trade maker. The jokes were strongly phallic, off-color, and degrading to women... {Women also turn] aggressive... [to prove they are] as tough as the men to prove a point by cursing, threatening, screaming, and pounding the table. 

    Shakespearean theatrics tackles the topic of leadership and sexuality. For example the relationship between narcissism, rivalry, and competitiveness (Boadella, 1999). 

Oedipal narcissism as a form of insecurity about one's sexual identity, compensated for in the exaggerated rivalries and competitiveness that is acted out. It is a form of potency competition, with a struggle for leadership of the pack, in which the younger male may assert his rivalry: the foster son puts his knife at the father's back. 

Re- (and de-)constructing the phallic phantasm of leadership reveals its unmistakable phallic codes. 

    Postmodern Questioning of Modern Slaughterhouse Leadership - 

Upton Sinclair’s (1905) the Jungle contains systematic observations of animal as well as human cruelty in the Chicago meat disassembly business.

There were the men in the pickle rooms, for instance, where old Antanas had gotten his death; scarce a one of these that had not some spot of horror on his person. Let a man so much as scape his finger pushing a truck in the pickle rooms, and he might have a sore that would put him out of the world; all the joints in his fingers might be eaten by the acid, one by one. Of the butchers and floorsmen, the beef-boners and trimmers, and all those who used knives, you could scarcely find a person who had the use of his thumb; time and time again the base of it had been slashed, till it was a mere lump of flesh against which the man pressed the knife to hold it.  The hands of these men would be criss-crossed with cuts, until you could no longer pretend to count them or to trace them. They would have no nails, -they had worn them off pulling hides; their knuckles were swollen so that their fingers spread out like a fan… There were the wool-pluckers, whose hands went to pieces even sooner than the hands of the pickle men; for the pelts of the sheep had to be painted with acid to loosen the wool, and then the pluckers had to pull out this wool with their bare hands, till the acid had eaten their fingers off (Sinclair, 1905: 97-98).


If it was all just ancient history, who would really care. With the trend toward integrating family farms into factory farms, animal cruelty and worker safety rivals Sinclair’s observations. "Slaughter and meat-processing lines are moving faster than ever, with as many as 400 cows an hour and over 200 birds per minute being killed" (Weissman, 2000: 7).  Vincent van Gogh became a vegetarian after visiting a slaughterhouse and so would others if they had to purchase their "meat" there.

Factory farming is an industrial process that applies the philosophy and practices of mass production to animal farming. Few consumers have ever observed animal slaughter, of over six billion animals a year, in the U.S. alone. 

Leadership is constructed in the discourse of organizations. Leadership is male-theatre; women work out their roles within a hierarchical system that is coded in male discourse: 

If a man is colourful, he is said to have charisma. Colourfulness in a woman, on the other hand, easily makes her a troublesome nag. (Article 6) Men like to fiddle around with technical devices, but women want to get the job done. (Article 7) We can say that the
sexist ideology is a type of description of relationships between genders and generally tends to favour men in this particular historical and cultural situation. Furthermore, the aforementioned features that occur in discursive practices as an expressive order
define women leaders' capabilities and status in the physical order, setting them into a social hierarchy in working life. Thus, the subjugated position of women leaders provides them identities that locate them within the hierarchical system of male authority (Lamsa & Sintonen, 2001).

Work on leadership style by Lewin, Lippitt and White drew on observations of 10-year old boys (Mills, 1997). Most theories of effective leadership came from observing adult male leaders. Linstead (2000) and Calas and Smircich (991, 1993) argue that leadership (and organization) theory suppresses the male-gendered values. Research concerning women leaders is fashionable, but the underlying value assumptions are set by male norms.


Postmodern leadership as somewhere beyond headship or fascist dictatorship (a return to Machiavellian Princely politics of male-headship power), a deconstructive unveiling of the headless bureaucratic attempts to decapitate leaders, and the analysis spectacle forms of multinational capitalism in Monsanto, Disney, Enron, Nike, and Las Vegas, where Princes pretend to be knights, and heads pretend to be headless, and vice versa. As Enron's executives put it, "I did not know anything about accounting."  Modern theories of leadership tell their stories about women leaders to legitimate male values. 

In terms of the Theatrics of Leadership, women leaders on the organizational stage threaten patriarchal privilege. Men continue to write the scripts of corporate characters. There is some change in the male-leadership values in postmodern leadership, but there is a long way to go to parity. The male gaze of spectators continues to define female leadership.


Alvesson, Mats & Willmott, Hugh (1996) Making Sense of Management: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage. 

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Bataille, George (1988a)  IE Inner Experience. Translated by Leslie Anne Boldt. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 

Bataille, George (1988b) GU Guilty. Translated by Bruce Boone. Venice, CA: Lapis. 

Best, Steven and Kellner, Douglas (1997) The Postmodern Turn, NY/London: The Guilford Press.

Boadella, David (1999)  "Transference, politics, and narcissism."  International Journal of Psychotherapy. vol. 4 (3): 283-311. 

Boje, D. M. (2000a) "Spectacle and Inter-Spectacle in the Matrix and Organization Theory." Book chapter in Parker, Martin, Geoff Lightfoot, Matthew Higgins and Warren Smith (2001) Science Fiction and Organization, London: Routledge.

Boje, D. M. (2000b) "Global Theatrics of Capitalism." Paper for the 2001 Academy of Management symposium on Theatrics, Washington D.C. August. 

Boje, D. M. (2000c) "Leadership and Theater of the Absurd." First draft November 16, 2000. Focus is on the play, The Leader by Eugene Ionesco.

Boje, D. M. (2000d) "Theatrics of Control:  Tamara of Spectacle, Festival, and Carnival." First draft, November 28, 2000.  This paper is about Nike Theatrics in Asia and presents an example of carnivalesque resistance.

Boje, D. M. (2000e) "Existential Leadership." This paper is based on Paul Sartre's work that seeks to intersect critical theory and existentialism.

Boje, D. M. (2000f) "The Four Voices of Leadership." Paper based on review of Kirkeby book. 

Boje, D. M. (2000f) Leadership in and Out of The Box: See The Leadership of Princes, Heroes, Bureaucrats, and Supermen & Superwomen.

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Boje, D. M. (2001a) Narrative Methods in Communication and Organizational Research. London: Sage (in press). 

Boje, D. M. (2001b)  Spectacles and Festivals of
Organization: Managing Ahimsa Production and
by Boje [Use ID=Guest
PASS=Guest See Chapters on Spectacle, Postmodern Theatrics.

Boje, D. M. and 45 academic scholars from around the world (2000). "Global Manufacturing and Taylorism Practices of Nike
Corporation and its Subcontractors
." A proposal to change the labor practices of Nike corporation. 

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Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Trans. By Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Lamsa, Anna-Maija & Teppo Sintonen (2001). A discursive approach to understanding women leaders in working life. Journal of Business Ethics. Volume 34 (3/4): 255-267.

Linstead, S.: 2000, `Comment: Gender Blindness or Gender Suppression? A Comment on Fiona Wilson's Research Note', Organization Studies 21(1), 297-303. 

Manz, Charles C. & Sims, Henry P. Jr. (1989) SuperLeadership: Leading Others to Lead Themselves. NY: Berkley Books. 

McDaniel, James P. "Fantasm: The triumph of form (an essay on the Democratic sublime)."  The Quarterly Journal of Speech. Volume: 86 (1): 48-66.

Mills, A.: 1997, `Organizational Analysis & Neglect of Gender Issues - "Classic' Errors", A paper presented in the Post Graduate Course "Meaning and Culture in Organizations: tendering Topics", 25-29 August 1997. Helsinki Swedish School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland. 

Reciniello, Shelley (1999) "The emergence of a powerful female workforce as a threat to organizational identity: What psychoanalysis can offer." The American Behavioral Scientist; Volume 43 (2): 301-323/

Rifkin, Jeremy (1998) The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World, NY: Tarcher/Putnam.

Ritzer, George (2000) The McDonaldization of Society. New Century Edition. 

Shaviro, Steven (1990) Passion & Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory. Tallahasse, FL: The Florida State University Press. 

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Steyrer, Johannes (1998) "Charisma and the archetypes of leadership. Organization Studies. Volume 19 (5):  807-828.

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