Themes that bind knowledge and leadership

Confluence of river Rhone and Arve in Geneva

I have mentioned before that I am writing a book with Douglas Board called the Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge.  This will be published next year by Palgrave Macmillan.  Four key interconnected and practical themes have emerged that bind knowledge and leadership together.  In summary these themes are:

  • Emphasis on the temporal.  Many methods of researching organisations or talking about leadership privilege an approach that takes data (figures, questionnaires, and interview accounts) and stresses a separation of the subject and object. It downplays the temporal in favour of the spatial; at least in the way that it is often described.  Phrases such as ‘stepping back from the data’ and ‘let’s be objective’ and ‘let’s see this through another lens’ are not uncommon.   This spatial way of thinking plays down the emergent feeling of ambiguity, sensemaking and conflict as individuals in a group inch forward into an uncertain future in favour of an un-reflexive post hoc rationalisation. We suggest there is merit in drawing attention to the temporal. In other words paying close attention to one’s own practice and its development. This is not to say that one can be entirely ‘temporal’ or ‘spatial’. Instead, there is an important need for reflexive awareness of the limitations of each. 
  • Immersed reflexivity.  With our emphasis on the temporal, immersed reflexivity calls attention to reflexive acts as social processes of action in themselves, not processes with privileged position or separation from  action.  Here the role of narrative is important.  A person writes accounts of important occurrences close to the time of happening when post hoc rationalisation has not dimmed the ambiguity, fear, power relations between people, hope and those multiple decisions that could have been taken.  In other words, paying attention to the concrete working out in action of paradoxical processes including those of logic and emotion, rather than splitting these.  Ideally working in small diverse sets, individuals are encouraged to engage with each other’s narratives and experience to enable noticing of what has not been noticed.  With these insights the individual engages in the risk of unsettling patterns of relations, of doing new and different things and of encouraging others to notice and discuss them.  And in doing so, knowledge develops that can be used to engage those unsaid and unrecognised ways of working.   
  • Epistemic wake.  Immersed reflexivity draws attention to the game(s) that we are all participants in, games that we have a stake in – with something to gain and lose.  These are games that change and develop over time.  Looked at from a distance (or from long term memory) there is clarity and linearity, and stories become reified.  At the time of happening things are confused, the rules of the game can make little or no sense, other than to those involved who have a stake in the process.  Reflexivity can open up new, previously unsuspected interpretations, patterns or perspectives, some of which, in the social process of the game, extend the game’s meaning.  Standing on the stern of a ship looking towards the horizon, one sees the wake as a clear stable white line that separates the sea.  Looking downwards to the propellers the full churn and mix of the water and air becomes apparent. The straight line wake is not a thing but a transient pattern of flux.  It is this metaphor that we use to engage with the contextual nature of knowledge as events occur, before they become fixed and distant. We believe that this is a more realistic way to describe organisational life. For example, it means that in inviting attention to leadership processes understood in terms of vision, courage and conflict, we are not offering yet another leadership recipe with supposed fixed ingredients. Instead we offer them as fruitful themes for observation and exploration, each one a turbulent wake of co-created meaning whose content is unpredictable and unboundable yet retaining coherence.
  • Anchoring leadership discourse.  The epistemic wake also extends to how we discuss leadership.  Tales of leadership and characteristics of leaders are often spoken about in terms of the distant wake of linearity and certainty.  What we are drawing attention to are the dilemmas, the risk, and the confusion of a leadership in terms of future direction that is seen, sensed and unknown.  With knowledge there are accepted tests, at least in academia; these are: generalisability, validity and reproducibility.  These tests are applied in various ways and in different fields of knowledge: each is a contested game, an epistemic wake.  Despite the enormous field of leadership literature, no such consensus on critical themes exists.   We offer vision, courage and conflict not as the right, or best, anchors – in the sense described in the preceding paragraph – for leadership discourse, but as an example of what an anchoring with prima facie relevance to practitioners might look like.

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