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Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations
Developing leadership practice in voluntary organisations

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7 Key practice: critical engagement

This week you have been engaging critically with leadership theory and with a case from the voluntary sector. Critical engagement is perhaps the important practice within leadership and it is something that we urge you to continue.

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Figure 5 Thinking and speaking critically

Danger for organisations emerges when people are unable to speak out in critical ways, because it may be held against them. Leadership scholar David Collinson (2012) has referred to this phenomenon as ‘prozac leadership’ (Prozac is a type of anti-depressant medication). Overly positive thinking in leadership practice leads to a synthetic high, a false positivity that passes over real problems that really ought to be addressed through good, critical leadership and followership. In fact, most of us will have worked in organisations where really bad ideas come to fruition simply because people were too cautious to speak up.

A useful example of the ‘positivity’ of leadership contributing to disastrous consequences is provided by Smolović Jones et al. (2019) in their analysis of the language of the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in the build up to the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. The authors show how Blair’s use of the word ‘leadership’ is positioned in a wholly positive way where any dissent or contrary opinions are cast in negative terms and are not regarded as ‘leadership’. In turn, the category of leadership is reserved for ‘decisive’ and ‘strong’ acts from an individual (Blair, the then US President George Bush and other supportive figures) and within the logic of the language deployed, war seems like the only moral and, perversely, ‘democratic’, solution. Overly positive use of the language of leadership can therefore lead to restricted options and potentially catastrophic consequences.

Critical thinking does not need to be purely negative, although sometimes engaging in purely negative thinking can be useful – sometimes ideas just need to be very carefully analysed and thought through. This is really about constructive critique.

Critical engagement means that we are participants, full members of our organisations. We have skin in the game. This means that we can think critically but with a purpose – the purpose being to make leadership in our organisations better.