Sarah von Billerbeck | 2022

Talk from the Top: Leadership and Self-Legitimation in International Organizations

in: International Studies Review, Volume 24, Issue 3

How do leaders create legitimacy in international organizations (IOs)? It is widely acknowledged that legitimacy matters to IOs, but little research examines internal self-legitimation—the creation of legitimacy for staff, rather than for external audiences—and who specifically undertakes these self-legitimation activities in IOs. This paper fills these gaps by examining the particular role of leaders in self-legitimation and I develop a theoretical framework that shows (1) how leaders have a unique role to play as legitimators due to their high social status within the IO and their access to discursive resources for legitimation, (2) how leaders create internal legitimacy through the introduction or reintroduction of narratives and the creation of self-referential language, and (3) how leader-led self-legitimation entails three potential risks. I illustrate these points with three case studies, one from the World Bank and two from the United Nations. I conclude by proposing a new research agenda for this underexplored area of IO and legitimacy scholarship.

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