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

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3 Aesthetic spaces of leadership

If you ever walk through the glass doors of the New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI) on the fourth floor of the University of Auckland Business School, you will be struck by the panoramic view of the city visible from anywhere in the open-plan space. In front of its expansive windows onto the city is an informal seating area where the team gathers to thrash out its thinking on leadership.

Logo of the New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI).
Figure 5 Logo of the New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI)

NZLI is a charitable trust affiliated with the University of Auckland. Its mission is to ‘grow understanding of leadership and to use this understanding to build leadership capacity within New Zealand and beyond’ (NZLI, 2016). This might strike you as an ambitious mission – and you would be correct in that assumption. In practical terms, NZLI has translated this mission into the design and delivery of leadership development programmes and cutting-edge research into leadership development.

NZLI is committed to a form of collaborative leadership as practice that emphasises discussion, critical scrutiny, debate and the surfacing of ideas. Practising what they preach, everyone at NZLI is expected to participate and to speak out. Returning to that informal seating area, it makes sense that it is in this space that the team raises and debates new ideas. When they engage with one another it is with views over a wide open space – a panoramic view across the city, in fact. The meeting space has over the years developed a personality of its own. People now have strong associations of previous meetings, conversations and even celebrations that have unfolded at that spot above the city of Auckland.

Here is a common question relating to spaces of leadership: Do these meeting spaces create the practices of leadership or do the practices necessitate particular spaces? However, perhaps this is the wrong question. Perhaps it is more valuable to think of spaces of leadership as locked in a give-and-take relationship with practices of leadership, where both shape one another over time – work spaces inform practices, and vice versa. Regardless, rather than simply referring to spaces of leadership, we should say that these are aesthetic spaces of leadership possibility. The aesthetics of a space can help open our engagement and imaginations (Carroll and Smolović Jones, 2018).

Two implications become apparent from this discussion. The first is that if you want to change your organisation’s practices of leadership, then one way of approaching this may be to change the spaces where leadership is pursued, to adjust the aesthetic stimulus and ambience. New spaces can provoke new ways of relating to one another. For example, a senior leader at The Open University Business School told the course authors recently that he used to find himself becoming restless and unsatisfied when he was tied too much to the formalities of desk work: he knew there was more meaningful work and insight out there in the organisation, insights that could be gleaned if people were not tied to rigid and formal processes. He therefore consciously started to make use of all of the communal spaces in the business school – the stairs, corridors, kitchen and canteen, anywhere he felt he could generate a qualitatively different kind of conversation with people. The second implication is that spaces can be subverted and reconfigured in interesting ways, as can artistic rules when painters or sculptors defy conventions. Even something as basic as modifying the seating arrangements in a room can generate a different kind of dynamic and conversation.

You will now move on to think about how leadership can be generated through the technologies people use every day at work.