Janet Johansson
Janet Johansson

Embracing the symbolic interactionist view of the notion of self, applying dramaturgical theories of self-presentation, this study unpacks the linkage between leaders’ lifestyle behaviours (in athletic endeavours) and the formation of their sense of self as occupants of the leadership role from a self-expressive perspective.  

I conducted a study of a group of sporty top managers in Sweden. With interviews and observations, I anchored the research focus in verbal expressions within storytelling and in performative expressions of the top managers. Drawing on social interpretations of sport and athleticism and with a dramaturgical analytical frame, I examine how the sporty top managers interpret their athletic endeavours to express important values, beliefs and concerns to express ‘whom they want to become’ as occupants of the leadership role.

The analysis shows that lifestyle behaviours in athletic endeavours serve as a new source of self-meanings with which the sporty top managers create and express wishful notions about themselves as occupants of the leadership role. By incorporating athletic values with their distinctive understanding of a ‘good leader’, the top managers seek to present themselves with an idealized image of ‘athletic leaders’.

In this process, the top managers outline a role-script that is mainly characterized with self-disciplinary qualities and masculine values, they define the leadership context with athleticism in the centre, and they express an overt intent to elevate some people and exclude others in organizational processes based on athletic values in which they personally believe.

Hence, the process of formation of self as ‘athletic leaders’ is not only ‘self-relevant’, but it is personally, interpersonally and socially (organizationally) meaningful. The analysis also shows that the top managers seek to give legitimacy and an elitist status to the idealized view of self by using expressive strategies to appropriate their appearances, regulate emotions and bodily senses, and mould a gendered self-image.  

This thesis contributes to leadership studies in several ways. First, the study expands on extant literature theorizing the linkage between lifestyle behaviours and the formation of sense of self as occupants of the leadership role from a new angle. It contends that lifestyle behaviours such as athletic endeavours have become a prime site where business leaders express creative narratives regarding an idealized view of themselves.

Second, this study further advocates that the formation of sense of self of leaders is not a simple outcome of different forms of regulative discursive regime.  Rather, this process involves creative self-reflexive activities that address individuals’ personally held values, their distinctive pursuits in becoming an idealized leader, relations with others, and some prevailing leadership notions that they believe to be closely associated with the nature of lifestyle behaviours in which they engage and commit. Third, this study confirms the notion that the formation of the understanding of self of leaders is not only a function of verbal expressive devices, but that it also involves individuals’ performative strategies in ‘expressive control’ (e.g. Down & Reveley, 2009; Goffman, 1959).

This thesis adds to understanding this point of view through a discussion of self-presentational practices in non-work related activities. Finally and most importantly, this study suggests that the process of formation of the sense of self of business leaders is expressive of meanings on personal, interpersonal and social dimensions in its own right. That is, through creating new self-meanings in micro-level practices in lifestyle behaviours, the occupants of the leadership role define the situational characteristics (the leadership context), express intentions to enact the power feature of inclusion and exclusion of others; generate new understanding of the leadership role, and they reproduce and strengthen some prevailing leadership ideals.