Through difference comes a deeper confidence

cropped-picture-of-dunes-2.pngThis week I was at conference in Bristol, UK on the ‘contemporary relevance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu’ where I presented my paper on the connections and opportunities between Bourdieu’s thinking and action learning. It was one of the best conferences I had been to drawing people from all over the world and importantly working with Bourdieu’s ideas in very different ways.

I have been deeply affected by his work which has influenced a number of my books, papers and thinking in general. But I have lacked confidence on two counts. Firstly, his life’s work was enormous, there are few who have a deep understanding of his work and the context from which it emerged. Secondly, appreciating the contemporary ways in which those ideas were being taken up by people at the conference. In other words, I was very aware that my interest was focused on a small area of a far wider moving project.

Over the three days it was great to see the myriad of ways that people were working with his ideas. Some I was deeply drawn to, attracted by the interaction between excellent empirical work and theory. Others like Lisa Mckenzie’s work on the working class in London made me wonder what sort of world we had created. But others took Bourdieu’s work and applied multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) and other quantitative techniques that left me cold wondering what Bourdieu would have thought. Similarly, words and phrases such as ‘technique’, ‘tool’, ‘using’, ‘framework’ were applied to some of Bourdieu’s concepts in a way that just seemed to miss the shifting, relational, emergent qualities of his ideas reminding me of his comment: ‘Everything conspires to encourage the reification of concepts, beginning with the logic of ordinary language, …’ (Bourdieu, 1973, p62). Despite these differences and affinities my thinking was being challenged.

Through these differences and talking with those people who saw his work from other angles I became more confident about my areas of interest, that of reflexivity and the ‘friction’ between his concepts of habitus and field. This was not an arrogant confidence; I knew that I had something that was worth saying but with a humility to explore other ideas and how these were being taken up.

What implications does this have more generally? It is by being with other people of differing views and exploring their ideas that we become more confident and curious about our own position and how that position might develop. But that is not what I see around me. Politicians talk of building walls (metaphorically, literally and implied in their ‘dog whistle’ speeches), or they just talk and don’t listen. Perhaps we do the same; we surround ourselves with likeness amplified by our interaction with Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Here I am suggesting a different type of deeper confidence. I am not talking about an arrogant confidence that is defensive, inward looking and is brittle to challenge. I am talking about confidence that is open to the development of thought and keen to engage others with differing and challenging views. I think Bourdieu himself would have had views on this …

Bourdieu, P. (1973). The three forms of theoretical knowledge. Social science information, 12(1), 53-80.


Leadership and conversation – being assertively humble

cropped-picture-of-dunes-2.pngLeadership isn’t a science.  There is little by way of hard fact and formulae.  It seems odd then that the tone of much of the leadership literature is deterministic, implying that this or that is the right way forward.

Experience has taught me that it is messy; success, failure, puzzlement are all ingredients in the leadership soup.  So why doesn’t the way we talk about leadership reflect this?  Perhaps it just won’t sell.  Perhaps people who buy such books are looking for reassurance when faced dilemmas that are scary for them and those around them.  This may be partially true, but it is not the whole storey.  For me there is something about being assertively humble in facing the future.  This means paying close attention to the interplay between a person and those around them, of being reflective and thougthful as we all inch forward into the future.  And not pretending to have the answers.

It also raises the question of how we should write and talk about leadership.  In our book, Leading Mindfully, Pete Burden and I engage in a conversation; one that took place over several months.   We don’t offer solutions but we try to make sense of leadership dilemmas that we see around us and have experienced as well as how others have thought about such issues too.  Conversation seems a more authentic way to talk about the success, failure, puzzlement of leadership.  In doing so we hope to make connections that the reader can identify with that might be useful to their practice, not as a promise, but as a humble offering to make sense of the challenges ahead.