Sacrifice and the crypto-theologies of management

Sacrifice and management are not words that one expects to hear in the same sentence. But – as those who read my earlier post will know – I’ve been reading theology in my spare time, so when Marcia Pally invited me to talk on sacrifice and the economic world at an interdisciplinary workshop I was happy to accept. Here’s an expanded version of my Huberlin-logo.svgcontribution to Marcia’s workshop ‘Sacrifice: Biological and theological investigations for economic and military/political praxis’, held at Humbolt University, Berlin, 16-17 June 2016 funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University-Berlin. Many thanks to both funders and to Marcia for her kind invitation. This piece was first published on the Telos website.

“Sacrifice, or at least the discourse of sacrifice, is a recognizable aspect of popular management discourse and management scholarship of the ‘post-bureaucratic’ variety, especially popular in America from the 1980s to the 2000s (Child, 2005; Peters, 1992; Peters & Waterman, 1982). The absence of bureaucratic structures of command necessitates other forms of authority, and notions of sacrifice form part of the symbolic armoury of the post-bureaucratic chief executive – though, of course, post-bureaucracy is itself a symbolic myth more than a practical solution (du Gay, 2000). In this talk I will set out some aspects and suggest, playfully, that there are crypto-theologies at work in management discourse and scholarship; I will finish by connecting these to the sacrifice and excess inherent in neoliberal forms of organisation.

So let me start with two exemplars. The first is American businessman Lee Iacocca, Iacoccacelebrated for his self-sacrifice in saving the struggling automotive giant Chrysler for a salary of $1 a year. Certainly, Chrysler received government bailout – some $1.5bn in loan guarantees and huge military orders of trucks, but Iacocca put the company’s turnaround to his own sacrifice, and its inspirational effects on those around him. The second is Mark Zuckerberg, who has committed to give away 99% of his holding in Facebook stock – worth $45bn dollars, in his lifetime. What is interesting from the perspective of sacrifice is his decision to do so through the legal form of a limited liability corporation, and I’ll return to this point later on.

Both of these are very high profiles of management sacrifice; both are accompanied by other, less newsworthy, everyday sacrifices – the jobs lost in Chrysler’s reorganization, or Facebook’s value built on the unpaid contributions of millions (billions?) of users (Scholtz, 2013). This kind of discourse speaks to a very specific notion of sacrifice – one that is calculative, strategic, and self-aware. It is part of the armoury of the charismatic or transformational leaders vaunted in management literatures: typical findings include that self-sacrifice leads to the attribution of charisma, the establishment of legitimacy the encouragement of follower reciprocity, an increase in organizational commitment and team efficiency and a decrease in perceived autocracy (Śliwa, Spoelstra, Sørensen, & Land, 2013).

Such discourses and expectations trickle down through organisations, and pervade organizational structures. If the use of self-sacrifice as an organisational trope is rhetorical in nature and calculative in intent, then it should not surprise us to find that expectations of sacrifice police access to senior positions within organisations. Would-be senior managers are expected to sacrifice themselves to the good of the firm, sacrificing friendships and local routes for the sake of geographical mobility, sacrificing leisure and relationships to comply with the norm of extensive availability, even sacrificing a spouse’s career (Guillaume & Pochic, 2009). Such self-sacrificial norms give rise to a highly gendered image of the manager, and have equally gendered effects on workforce, which is subject to an extensive normative policing. As an aside, a cynical reading of such compliance might be that sacrifices elsewhere, such as in parenting or through taking maternity leave, perform other values and make the self-sacrifice of those would-be managers seem vain and empty. On the other hand, the leadership scholar Keith Grint’s (2010) analysis of sacrifice suggests that its three constituent parts – setting the leader apart, sacralising the leader, and settling fears and dissent among followers – is crucial to leadership activities. For Grint, sacrifice is an essential part of the structuring of organizational leadership.

Self-sacrifice plays another role in the literature of charismatic leadership. Absent the organisational norms implicit in bureaucracy and the associated ethics of office, how might we tell the benevolent charismatic leader from the tyrant-in-making? The ethical charismatic leader, write Howell and Avolio (1992), uses power to serve others; so the act of self abandonment distinguishes the truly moral leader, and makes possible explicit comparisons with figures such as Ghandi, Socrates and even Jesus. At times, the claims made shift from the hyperbolic to the plain ludicrous, as in this marvellous quotation (courtesy of Śliwa et al., 2013) from leadership guru Koestenbaum (2002): ‘The bottom line is the willingness to die.’ Having drawn such a definite line under the ultimate sacrifice, Koestenbaum goes on to define what he means by death (clue: it doesn’t involve dying). To risk death is to risk oneself, even sacrifice oneself, for the sake of the company or the customer, the partnership or the client—for what is right’. Again, the self-sacrificial charismatic leader is motivated more than anything by her own moral compass (Howell & Avolio, 1992), so the management guru Ken Blanchard can encourage us to find our ‘leadership point of view’ based on those who have inspired us. Indeed, the highly problematic nature of such free-floating, relativistic morality seems entirely to escape such writers.

Why are these images of (self) sacrifice so powerful? It seems that these notions speak to the rich cultural resources available within their audience. Management theory, especially popular management theory, is embedded in what Weber described as the Protestant work ethic, a secularized version of Calvinist Christianity with focus on self-sacrifice as a means of demonstrating one’s place among the elect (Weber, 1930). Protestant striving is a fundamental characteristic of American capitalism; where a European observer might see the self-sacrifice of those on a graduate trainee scheme as a purely instrumental competition for scarce resources, within the American context there is nothing contradictory about striving in competitive self-sacrifice for the common good of the firm (my thanks to Marcia Pally for elaborating this point in discussion). Leadership studies, especially popular leadership studies, focus on the heroic individual and are frequently hagiographic in character: there is St Steve Jobs, for example, though his story is one of exile and triumphant return. Or there is Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric (GE), who has been called a visionary “prophet”, and a “modern saint” whose “miracles” have inspired a host of “apostles” (Dyck, Starke, & Dueck, 2009). Welch is famous for his brutal rank-and-yank system, the annual cull of the bottom 10% of employees. Here it is the worst performers who are sacrificed, cast outside to the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Such narratives serve a functional purpose in legitimizing organizational decisions, cementing identity and brand, and gathering support from external actors. To say they are rhetorical is not to say that they are ‘just’ rhetoric: they are powerful, performative organisational forces, the effects of which are very, very real.

So this is one crypto-theology of management, Protestant striving and self-sacrifice in pursuit of a place among the elect. In the final moments of this talk I would like to push the notion of crypto-theology a little bit further. We can follow Foucault’s (2008) account of the secularisation of notions of Providence into neoliberalism. The Enlightenment thinkers folded the idea of God into the idea of Nature, and then conceptions of natural order into understandings of the market (Lubasz, 1992). The market, of course, is driven by competition. Foucault sees competition elevated to a sublime object, something towards which we must strive, but which we can never attain. Competition is an organising principle built upon sacrifice: in any situation where just the top one or two percent may be chosen, the rest are necessarily discarded. Competitive organisation evokes ideas of evolutionary selection and survival of the toughest. The sociologist William Davies put it nicely with his metaphor of ‘heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest’ (Davies, 2014). Yet, as we all know, you ‘have to be in it to win it’, and willingness to compete, entailing an almost certain self-sacrifice, becomes under neoliberalism a sign of worth.

zuckerberg donationAll of which takes us back to Mark Zuckerberg. His limited liability corporation is interesting because it provides a means for Zuckerberg to direct philanthropy as investment: to insist upon competitive structures and rates of returns as a condition of the gift. It necessitates an ecology of sacrifice amongst supplicants to show worthiness. Philanthro-capitalism (McGoey, 2012) writes the calculative nature of neoliberal management into the heart of the gift-sacrifice and vice versa. In fact (and here I thank Stephan Schwarzkopf for making the point in discussion and invoking Georges Bataille’s ‘accursed share’ as a theoretical lodestone), such excess can be seen as part of the theatrical excess of neoliberalism, the chilling spectacle of overconsumption and waste, even among those who would receive a philanthropic gift.


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