Paying attention to the ambiguity of leadership

A few days ago I attended a workshop/conference called ‘Understanding Leadership: A Multidisciplinary Workshop’ at Cass Business School.  People came from the US, Europe as well as various business schools in the UK along with a scattering of high profile names.  During the course of the day the voice of the management scientists seemed to gather pace, particularly those with an interest in quantifying what it is to lead and to be human.  Questions relating to the ‘accuracy’ of research were defended by reference to sample size, questionnaire design and statistical techniques.  When the question was posed, ‘how can the ambiguous nature of leadership (and being human) be reconciled with the quantification of that experience?’ the answer again came back to questionnaire design, proven techniques and the ‘extensive body of research’.  The question was an invitation to reflect on the nature and limitation of this way of thinking.  I should know, I asked the question.  It reminded me of Donald Levine.  From his book that explores the loss of capacity in the modern world to deal constructively with ambiguity, he makes the following point:

In their quest for precision, social scientists have produced instruments that represent the facts of human life in one-dimensional terms.  They have defined concepts with rigour in order to represent dominant traits and tendencies univocally.  …  For the truth of the matter is that people have mixed feelings and confused options, and are subject to contradictory expectation and outcomes, in every sphere of experience (Levine, 1985, p. 8).

Here Levine is highlighting a problem between people’s experience and how we choose to think, represent and engage with that experience in muting those mixed feelings, confusions and contradictions of life into a liner red thread of cause and effect.  I am not saying that there is not a place for this approach.  In fact there was a presentation on the impact of female leaders had on organisations, this was highly quantified and was excellent.  I could see how these insights could be of importance to policy makers, practitioners and researchers alike.

However, there is another voice; that of accepting how difficult, messy and ambiguous leadership can be and working to get meaningful sense out of this.

Douglas Board and I pay attention to this in a rigorous way; this is the aim of our book, The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge.  Next week in our blog for the book, see, I discuss working live with this narrative in a session with 30 or so organisational development practitioners as an example of reflexivity in action.

Ref: Levine, D. (1985). The Flight from Ambiguity – Essays in Social and Cultural Theory. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press


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