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

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2.1 Critical reflection

An important part of collaborative leadership is opening oneself up to others’ views of the world. This is not about tolerating others. In fact the language of tolerance is unhelpful when discussing how leadership with other people is enacted, as it evokes merely putting up with someone, rather than creating something with someone.

Being open to others in leadership involves first interrogating one’s own views and practices as a practitioner and perhaps also as a person more broadly. This means taking a critical approach to exploring the limitations of one’s worldview, preferences and expertise. How you see and experience the world is shaped by upbringing and social, political, economic and cultural influences.

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Figure 2 Challenging one another’s thinking

A great deal of people’s actions and thoughts are in fact quite habitual. In addition, professions can be influential in shaping identities. A finance manager is expected to behave and think in a certain way, and so is a critical academic. Likewise, organisations shape personalities and thinking: a local government officer is likely to view social care challenges differently to a charity worker or a central government civil servant.

Being self-critical means developing an appreciation for the ambiguities and blind spots in your own perceptions, while also learning more about how others might view or approach a problem. This is what is known as bicameral practice (Connolly, 2005). A bicameral approach advocates keeping an ever-present openness to alternative ways of being in the world and of seeing the world. In practice, a bicameral approach usually means trying to be generous and hospitable to others, making the assumption that they have a valid perspective or concern – even if such a concern comes wrapped in initially unhelpful behaviours and/or language.

We can think of this approach as distinctively aesthetic. When we engage with a piece of art we place ourselves open to being disrupted by it, to being carried away and beyond our everyday and mundane concerns. Likewise, in critically reflective leadership practice we make ourselves and our bodies open for ‘disruption’ by recognising that we only have a ‘partial’ view of the world (Carroll and Smolović Jones, 2018). We allow others to affect us and to help us gain fresh appreciation of an issue or context.

Critical reflection also involves sometimes giving oneself a mental break. Many of the pressures and anxieties experienced at work really are nobody’s fault and no one person can hope to solve the underlying issue. A single individual cannot solve societal poverty and ill-health, for example. More mundanely, organisations can be expert at shifting responsibility for big issues onto the shoulders of individuals, quite unfairly. Critical reflection on what you can realistically achieve within an organisation is a duty, as is openly raising these restrictions with others. Now that you have explored a process that individuals can follow, you can move on to some more collective processes.