Of ‘Spectres’ and ‘Ghosts’: Transitional and Contradictory Identifications with the Founder’s Spirit
In what way does a leader influence an organisation when traces of her/his presence remain after his/her departure? Our paper explores the persistent influence of the spirit of the absent founder on employee identification through the metaphors of the ‘spectre’ and the ‘ghost’. From a single case study, we show that, after a first phase of identity construction and identification of members with the organisational identity established by the founder, his departure leads to changes still influenced by the persistence of the symbolic imprint of his spirit. In a second phase, this influence takes the form of a spectre that remains a malleable reference point and leads to a transitional identification, characterised by the shift between two organisational identities: from the declining old one to the burgeoning new. In a third phase, this conversion is threatened by the symbolic return of the founder, as an imposing ghost, with the announcement of a new company strategy based on the original identity forged by the founder. This return will lead to a process of contradictory identification amongst employees now divided between two organisational identities. Our article contributes to the understanding of the persistence of a founder’s influence by suggesting the existence of two different types of spirit with distinct organisational impacts: the spectre and the ghost. Furthermore, we add to the identity literature by proposing the concepts of transitional and contradictory identification to describe the development of parallel processes of disidentification and identification. Finally, we contribute to research on organisational founders by showing that the return of their ghost may have a negative impact on organisations when employees wish to disengage from the past and engage with new alternative identities.
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