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

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5 Key practice: aesthetic awareness

The word ‘aesthetic’ is usually reserved for the world of the arts – for paintings, sculptures, creative writing and performance. But so much of our everyday experience is influenced by aesthetic engagements – we find certain experiences, people and spaces pleasing in an embodied and sensory way. Such an aesthetic response is beyond the purely calculative and rational – it is the poetry of everyday life, and is what brings us pleasure.

As you have already learned, leadership can be thought of as an intrinsically aesthetic phenomenon (Carroll and Smolović Jones, 2018). This is so much the case that we can even think of our responses to individual leaders as an aesthetic practice. We find that certain leaders – their imagery and use of language – appeal to our senses and generate a form of excitement that we feel through our bodies. Of course, such aesthetic forms of communicating with us can be highly manipulative, with language and even pictures used in ways that are meant to heighten our feelings towards good or ill. Without people responding, positively or negatively, to the aesthetic presentations of leaders, they would be somewhat pointless, performances to an empty theatre. It is our responses that mean that these are in fact practices – we can choose whether to participate or not.

It is therefore worth reflecting on the extent our sense are being manipulated when we consume the words or imagery of leaders: how this leader has been positioned and set in a photograph to excite our feelings; how certain wordplay has been deployed to inspire or scare us; how the timing of a statement or picture of a leader has been introduced to appeal to our emotions.

We can think of practices of leadership in collective forms of leadership in aesthetic terms too. As we outlined earlier, seeing collective forms of leadership as aesthetic experiences felt between the bodies of participants can be an unsettling and uncertain process (Carroll and Smolović Jones, 2018), a more fluid one than we can be accustomed to amidst the more rational language of organisations. We can learn, however, much like artists, to hone two practices in particular.

The first is composition – recognising that we enact leadership in conjunction with our material environment (room layout, objects, etc.) and that these can be composed in ways that may accentuate or dampen energetic and creative forms of leadership. The second is being present, placing ourselves in the service and in the presence only of the moment as it unfolds. Being present means focusing on the intimate unfolding of a scene – the visual cues we receive from others, their tone of voice, the rhythm of their words and their body language. Our role in such situations is to help accentuate and support the overall performance of collective leadership rather than being preoccupied with making ourselves look good. An aesthetic approach to leadership therefore means being committed to a collective co-performance (Carroll and Smolović Jones, 2018).