The Social Development of Knowledge and Leadership

Luc Viatour /

As I have mentioned in my blog and website I am writing a book with a friend ofmine, Douglas Board, called The Social Development of Knowledge and Leadership.  Next month we will be arranging workshops and discussion to test the ideas and get feedback before we submit the final manuscript to the publisher towards the end of the year.Here is a taster of our book, if you have any comments or thoughts it would be great to hear from you.

Who the book is aimed at

The book is for people who, at a certain point in their career, are asking some fundamental questions about their leadership within the social melee in which they have found themselves. They have questions left unanswered by the formulaic advice and prescriptions offered by the many books on leadership.  It is aimed at people who want to work seriously with their own experience, not the abstract experience of others, so as to improve their own practice.  For some this may lead to a further programme of study, such as a doctorate or master’s degree, in which personal experience is going to be an important theme.  And by addressing the experience of their own leadership they will have something new to say to the community that they are a part of; in other words they will be creating practical knowledge.

Structure and inspiration for the book

The book has a varied ‘texture’ and pace ranging from narratives of our experiences to detailed argument.  This is intentional; the aim is to reflect the experience of everyday life.   In other words, life is not a clear linear passage of events presented with clarity and offering rational choice, a presentation that can often be seen in many books on leadership.  It is in the context of everyday life that leadership has to have meaning.  We therefore argue that attention should focus on the practical day to day realities that people face as they interact with others– emotionally, viscerally, and intellectually and so on.

We draw inspiration from the complexity sciences.  Drawing on the recent work of weather scientists and the natural sciences generally complexity provides an opportunity to consider organisational life as being non-deterministic and non-linear.  It allows us to raise our heads from the post Enlightenment ‘comfort’ of cause and effect, linearity and certainty.  Here we explore complexity though the power, or anticipated power, between people as they work together; not within discreet organisations but across the web of connections that they are part of, both knowingly and unknowingly.


There are many theories on leadership and in the book we give a brief overview of some.  It can be tempting to be weary of the variety and the ease by which people offer a view into this crowded space without criteria to judge one idea from another (criteria that exists with knowledge).  However, for us, leadership is both important and meaningful, whatever the complex and ambiguous edges.  Between those moments of ‘significance’ (such as a presentation to the board) and the ‘routine’ (such as 1:1 with a member of staff) there are differences that can matter, differences that can be recognised as leadership.

Instead of offering models or frameworks we emphasise the importance of the essentially contested nature by which we all have to get along with each other.  It is here that acts of leadership are made in the context of unique situations that people find themselves in.  The leader, in paying attention to their own practice with others, becomes more aware of the connections, interconnections, the impact they have on others and the practical effects they have.  It is here that the complexity sciences form a useful analogy.


For knowledge to count as such there is a tendency to privilege the abstract, detached and universal.  This can be at the expense the continually contested nature of ongoing human interaction in which logic, ‘common sense’, anxiety, fear and hope all play out as people face those multiple and ambiguous choices in everyday life.  To us, all of this is important, not just the logical, post-hoc interpretation of the detached observer.  And it is in the rigorous process of working with one’s experience, as expressed in narrative, as part of a group process that valuable insights and knowledge can be gained.

The interaction of leadership and knowledge

As a leader engages in a process whereby they consider carefully their own experience new insights become apparent to them.  Once apparent they have a choice to act differently and in doing so new patterns of interaction occur.  At a practical level this might include meeting with different groups of people, engaging in different types on conversation or challenging the ‘way things are done’.  From this both the leader and those they interact with start to notice what has been hidden by a veil of familiarity that is shared amongst the group.  A familiarity often termed as ‘culture’.  It is in this process that both the leader can change and develop, but also create knowledge for the group.  And it is also our argument that these insights will be of value to organisations and to academics.

In practice

The importance of narrative has already been mentioned.  This is in the context of what we have termed immersed reflexivity.  A group of people, or learning set, is formed and with the support of a facilitator they draft narratives of important events.  These are written close to the time of the event so as not to lose the ambiguous choices and the emotion that can quickly dissipate when a person looks back in hindsight.  These narratives are shared with the set and discussed.  Areas that seem obvious, ‘clear cut’, or not worth a mention are noticed by set members and form a focus for conversation.  In noticing these and acting differently (which can in itself be a risk that needs to be carefully managed) at work relations change as do the interactions and power dynamics.  This becomes available for further discussion.  It is here that the opportunity arises to compare experience with accepted knowledge.  This might include those unsaid customs within an organisation’s culture and the accepted wisdom reflected within the professional press or in academia.

It is here that both the development of leadership and the creation of knowledge coincide.

Where we draw our inspiration from

These include: the complexity writer Ralph Stacey; the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, Norbert Elias and Sudhir Venkatesh; the philosophers George Herbert Mead and Gilbert Ryle.


5 thoughts on “The Social Development of Knowledge and Leadership

  1. Thanks for your comments. Over the last couple of weeks or so we have achieved two important milestones. Firstly, we tested out some of the practical ideas in a workshop. Secondly, we asked a trusted academic friend to read through our script and to challenge and test our ideas. We have had very positive feedback and I will reflect on this in my next blog posting.

  2. Dear Mr Warwick, I also look forward to reading the book; we all need such texts to put what complexity science (especially the Hertfordshire school) has to say into practice. Althought you may already be aware, may I suggest a Mary Uhl-Bien et al paper: Uhl-Bien, Mary; Marion, Russ; and McKelvey, Bill, “Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era” (2007). Leadership Institute Faculty Publications. Paper 18.

    They seem to have formulated a theory named complexity leadership. Their approach seems to be somehow different yet it may be interesting to examine how they formulated their ideas into a theory.

    Best Regards.

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