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COVID-19 and the biopolitical moment for leadership

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies professor Brandon W. Kliewer considers an approach to teaching leadership that can further develop our capacity to exercise leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.


The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all of the fragility of human life. As the world assesses the damage and begins to consider appropriate paths forward, leadership scholars, developers, and practitioners are increasingly confronted with a series of biopolitical questions. The objective of this short essay is to introduce the biopolitical as a concept relevant to the interdisciplinary field of leadership studies and leadership in practice.

Biopolitics, as a clearly delineated idea, finds its origins in the writing of Michel Foucault[i]. Since its inception, the biopolitical turn has been taken up by a range of scholars in a variety of disciplinary contexts.[ii] Giorgio Agamben[iii], established biopolitical questions as a stable concept for study and consideration in practice. His argument suggested totalitarian regimes and the degree to which mass genocide was operationalized using principles of 20th century industrialization fundamentally re-shaped the relationship between life and political contestation.

The inherent value of sustaining one’s life was now subject to a type of politicization that had not previously been possible.  Matters of basic human existence became subject to political contestation due to modern technological advancement, bureaucratic processes associated with industrialization, and a recognition that evil was not the result of some extreme circumstance but instead a banal[iv] existence that fails to acknowledge the conditions that allows evil actions to exist. The ways in which power was experienced and the range and quality of choice available to people become contested as it related to matters of basic human existence.


Biopolitics = Life (Recognizing the Intrinsic Value of Life) + Politics (Power and Choice)

            Biopolitics has since become a lens to analyze claims to human rights, reproductive rights, transgender rights, issues of immigration/migration (particularly the US-border crisis) and the legitimacy of the use of force by the state (particularly state-sanctioned violence disproportionately focused on black and brown bodies) – among others. The COVID-19 global pandemic and considerations associated with re-opening society have exposed leadership studies and leadership in practice to questions of the biopolitical. The purpose of this introduction is to highlight ways biopolitical considerations intersect people exercising leadership from positions of formal authority, people exercising leadership from positions of informal authority, and how leadership scholars theorize leadership.


Leadership in practice

Approaches to the process and rate at which communities, businesses, and civic institutions return to “normal” activities unfortunately seems to track ideological divisions in the U.S. An account of biopolitical questions, provides a framework for people trying to exercise leadership, from both a position of formal and informal authority, to navigate this contestation.

Leadership from Formal Authority

Elon Musk provides an interesting case study for how biopolitical questions might be addressed when leadership activity extends from formal position. Musk made the national news when he defied government orders and re-started operations at his Alameda county Telsa factory. Considered by most a decision outside his formal role and the limits of legal authority, Musk’s decision to open his factory raises a series of biopolitical questions. I will highlight how analysis of biopolitical questions helps make sense of the relationship between Musk’s decision to re-open his factory and the employees that fill that factory.

Musk announced on Twitter that he would be on the line with workers when his factory re-opened outside the government’s public health safety order. If workers chose to return to work, knowing the risks to themselves and others, then it seems appropriate to say Musk exercised leadership at the edges of his authority. This assessment brackets any considerations of the ethics of such leadership activity. However, it is not clear the range or the quality of the choice available to the average line worker at the Tesla factory. If the choice was to return to work or be fired, lose unemployment benefits, the ability to eat, to pay rent, and meet basic material needs for survival, the “choice” seem less than free. In fact, if the choice was less than free Musk’s actions would not be considered leadership activity but instead a form of soft coercion. Individuals trying to exercise leadership from a position of formal authority might consider the following questions when trying to take account of the intersection of their leadership activity and biopolitical questions:

What are the circumstances of a choice to return to work? Is there a meaningful possibility to choose not to return to work without significant hardship that threatens essential survival? What were the circumstances of how the choice was made? Is one person, likely the owner of a firm, making the decision for others. Or, are workers organized in a way that helps determine their collective level of exposure, safety conditions in the work environment, and determining when a threat of exposure becomes too high? If power to decide was distributed more evenly between workers and the owner, we might decide that the collective agency or “popular will” of the workers was an appropriate act of civil disobedience. Again, this does not consider the potential health impact beyond the owners and workers of the firm in question.

Leadership from Informal Authority

If you are attempting to influence the way society re-opens from a place of informal authority, the biopolitical lens might provide a different perspective. Our baser instincts might want to coerce pro-social behaviors intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through public shaming. Efforts to public shame others does not align with an understanding of leadership activity that values choice or even evidence-based public health strategies.

A more practical approach might be to educate others on the risks to themselves and others when social distancing and appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) guidelines are not followed. The individual right of choice, to accept exposure and potentially to expose others to COVID-19, is tempered by our civic obligations to those more vulnerable in society – the elderly and those with a compromised immune system. Wearing a face covering, practicing physical distancing, and avoiding large crowds represents a burden on your range of choice, but when understood within a larger context of a global crisis, these temporary limits are reasonable civic obligations that we owe to each other. Consider the following: What obligations do we owe others when trying to exercise leadership? What level of burden should an individual accept when recognizing obligations to others during a global crisis?


Leadership studies

Leadership studies has increasingly created space for scholarship that has taken a critical, collective, and constructivist lens.[v] This stream of scholarship considers how dialogical, relational, and socio-material interactions produce leadership.[vi] From this paradigm and lens a gap in leadership theory has emerged. Existing Leadership-as-Practice (LaP) theory is not currently equipped to account for the intersections of leadership and the biopolitical. LaP is “…concerned with how leadership emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experience.”[vii] Opportunities to better account for the biopolitical in LaP theory is seen in two areas of the literature.

First, from the perspective of LaP, the biopolitical foregrounds the practice of everyday life. If leadership emerges from the interactions of groups and systems, there must be a way to account for biopolitical questions. Determining who, how, and under what circumstance people and systems are exposed to COVID-19 shapes the possibility of leadership activity. LaP theory must account for how biopolitical questions are accounted for in dialogical, relational, and socio-material interactions. The perceived presence or absence of a viral threat to life impacts the ways groups and systems interact to emerge leadership. Demographic information suggests a wide racial and class disparity in who has contracted and died from the virus in the US. Racial and class disparities highlight patterns in groups and systems that impact how and under what circumstances interactions are recognized as leadership activity.

Second, it is well-established that LaP has a socio-material dimension.[viii] However most spatial accounts of leadership limit the operationalization of space to what can be physically seen by the eye and experienced in relation to each other. The COVID-19 outbreak requires leadership scholars to reconsider how space and socio-materiality is theorized in leadership. Spatial dimensions of leadership need to move beyond accounting for the relation between bodies, language, and physical objects to a conceptual level that provides frameworks for how groups and systems make sense of associated interactions. COVID-19 and associated global crisis has shown the upper limits to how space and socio-materiality is currently theorized in Leadership.

One thing that is quickly becoming apparent is that the biopolitical questions of leadership and space are approached differently depending on whether they are situated within rural or urban environments. LaP theory development ought to make more of an effort to not only account for a wider range of conceptual space, but consider spatial dimensions of leadership through the lens of ideology, culture, and context. This theoretical concern quickly bumps up against questions of practice as fundamental assumptions of our global system and society are reconsidered following a pandemic.


[i] Foucault, M “Society must be defended,” Lecture at the Collège de France; Right of Death and Power over Life

[ii] Campbell, T & Sitze, A, Biopolitcs: A reader

[iii] Agamben G, Homor sacer: Sovereign power and bare life; The pollicization of life

[iv] Arendt H, The origins of totalitarianism; Arendt considers how evil is not the result of extreme circumstance, but the banal existence in bureaucratic process and administrative efficacy is what creates the conditions for evil to exist.

[v] Ospina SM, Foldy EG, Fairhurst GT, & Jackson B (2020) Collective dimensions of leadership: Connecting theory and method, Human Relations 73(4): 441-463; Raelin JA (2016a) Imagine there are no leaders: Reframing leadership as collaborative agency. Leadership 12(2): 131-158; Raelin JA (2016b) Introduction to Leadership-As-Practice. In: Joeseph A. Raelin (ed.), Leadership-As-Practice: Theory and Practice. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 1-17.

[vi] Isaacs W (1993) Dialogue: The power of collective thinking, Leadership 4(3):1-4; Crevani L (2015) Relational leadership: In: Carroll, B, Ford, J, Taylor, S (eds) Leadership: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, London, UK: SAGE, pp. 188-211; Simpson, B., Buchan, L., and Sillince, J. (2018) The performativity of leadership talk, Leadership, 14(6), 644-661.

[vii] Raelin, JA (2016) Leadership-as-Practice: Theory and Application. New York, NY: Routledge; 3.

[viii] Salovaara A, Sauer E, and Ropo P (2013) Embodiment of leadership through material place, Leadership. 9(3): 378-395.


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