Last week, you were introduced to the idea of identity as important for learning about and practising collaborative leadership in order to tackle wicked problems. This week’s focus is on ourselves as people deeply involved in leadership work. Guiding our exploration this week will be this simple question: what kind of work can we do on ourselves in order to make us more engaged and critical participants in collaborative leadership?
In order to address this question we will cover two areas. The first is how we might become more responsive and appreciative of our own identities and those that are different to ours: opening ourselves up to collaborative leadership possibilities. The second is a reflection on some important identities that seem to predominate in the voluntary sector and the potential of these identities to form the basis for collaborative work. Ellen discusses these two areas in the next section.
By the end of this week you will be able to:
Listen to another extract from Ellen’s story.
Ellen is getting to grips with the difference she sees around her – in her organisation, within other organisations and in the communities in which Family Time works.
Rather than assuming that others are simply wrong or wrong-headed, she is trying to open herself up to the possibility that her own identity prevents her from seeing the full range of possibilities open to her and her organisation. We will later call the mindset in which Ellen is working a ‘bicameral orientation’.
That sounds technical but it is really just an orientation to everyday thinking where we are both passionately committed to our own identities but also maintain an openness to their limitations – and therefore to the legitimate positions of others. Key to thinking in this way, we will argue, is to develop the habit of critical reflection upon one’s own identity and positioning in the world.
Crucial for any form of collaborative leadership is the basic idea that it involves working closely with other people. There are two other things to bear in mind regarding collaborative leadership. First, it usually involves working with new people or groups – people we do not necessarily think of as regular, day-to-day collaborators: this is because wicked problems seem to need the input of a wide variety of perspectives. Leadership, as outlined in Week 1, involves stretching the boundaries of organisational and social problems. If problems are not to be regarded as more complex and unwieldy, then it stands to reason that they will require a broader range of people to put their minds and talents to work at these problems.
Second, and most crucially for this week, collaborative leadership means relating to other people – and ourselves – differently. Let’s take this one step at a time. In terms of ourselves, we become accustomed to thinking of ourselves in certain ways, professionally and otherwise and last week we referred to this as identity. Identity is simply a word that describes how we think of ourselves and how others think of us.
When we think about and relate to other people, we inevitably filter our impressions through the prism of our own identities. It is sometimes hard to appreciate that others will see the world very differently to us. We are each exposed to various experiences, relationships and pressures that contribute to how we think of ourselves and how we are thought of. We cannot really know what it is like to occupy the identity of another, but we can remain open to exploring what it might be like.
Bear in mind here that organisations, professions and even sectors have identities, as well as people. They develop collective – if also contested – ways of thinking about and seeing the world.
Let’s provide you with an example of how identity can shape our work: I (Owain) cannot, professionally, remove my knowledge of political discourse and language: I tend to see patterns that can be enlightening but also sometimes dispiriting. I was brought up to think of myself in the world communally, of my responsibility to others and find it hard to think of only myself and my own interests in politics. Materially, I cannot escape the fact that I, at present, live a fairly comfortable life, in a pleasant middle class neighbourhood, employed in a fulfilling job in a stable and respected organisation. My parents did not have this privilege, of course, but it is impossible for me to understand what life would have been like for my father growing up in a working class community in west Wales. I do not know what it is like to live in social housing, getting by on insecure employment, people who have felt the brunt of globalisation and tough economic times.
Does this mean that my identity is always sealed off to difference, to being able to reach out and stretch my thinking? No, of course not.
In the next section we will think about a couple of ways in which we can reflect on our own identities as a means of opening our own identities to difference.
When we think of identity, our minds usually turn to what we are and what we identify with (be it profession, beliefs, values and so on). But let’s turn this normal way of thinking on its head for a while and consider the case that our identities are as much defined by what they are not as by what they are (Connolly, 2002).
Let’s unpack this statement with an example. Owain recently conducted some in-depth research with elected politicians and council officers in a large English local authority. The purpose of the research was to explore the journey leadership goes through as it is put into practice in a workplace. What was interesting about this research was the different ways in which people identified with the concept of leadership. For some, leadership was very much collaborative, about bringing people together in novel ways to tackle complex problems. But for others, leadership was defined as the acts of strong individuals – leadership was just a name for the collection of things a leader does (we will call this view leaderism).
What was interesting about this case is that both sets of people defined their view of leadership against a caricature of the other side. For the collaborators, people who invested in a leader-centric view were too stuck in the past and traditional. For those who believed in strong leaders over leadership, the collaborators were too interested in talk and process over action. Neither side could know its own identity outside of how it knew the identity of those people it opposed. Had both sets of people reflected on how their own identities were shaped by difference, they might have been able to open themselves up to some interesting and exciting collaborative leadership possibilities.
This example also brings to the fore the fact that identities are as much held by groups and organisations as by individuals – we can develop collective sense of identity as well as a collective orientation to difference.
The examples drawn upon are of course extreme cases but such examples do make a point. The key point is that all our identities are built as much by what they are not – by difference – as they are by any positive content. The identities of all of us always contain this element of the ‘foreign’ that helps define them (Honig, 2003). Identity is difference. Because our identities are so dependent on difference, this demonstrates that our identities are necessarily limited and always will be. They will never provide all the answers we need. We will now consider how to work with this insight in practice.
We will now reflect on how we can use this idea of identity being built upon difference, developing ourselves so that we can be more effective collaborators. In a nutshell, what we are aiming for is a parallel process of reflection where we come to recognise better:
This process of reflection and recognition is what Connolly (2005) referred to as a bicameral orientation.
There are two key points to be made. First, we need to recognise that all of our identities are highly dependent on others for their everyday functioning: we are connected to others, whether we like it or not. This recognition should spark the realisation that our identities in isolation are incapable of fully understanding the world and its problems. Second, because our identities are so relational and partial, we should try to maintain an openness and generosity to the identities of others: to really understand how they see the world and their beliefs, which are as dearly held – and as partial – as our own.
Developing a bicameral reflective approach enables us to know our own identities more rigorously. It also helps us cultivate a generosity that opens up possibilities for new conversations with colleagues. We become genuinely inquisitive of their perspectives, seeking out differences as they offer interesting and valuable possibilities for future collaboration.
Through developing an appreciation of the difference our identities are rooted within, we might also begin to develop what Connolly (2005) refers to as ‘critical responsiveness’. By this he means an appreciation and awareness of alternative views of the world and a sensitivity to other, emerging identities and perspectives.
Being attuned to difference means that we can be more open to noticing certain movements and causes outside our regular view of the world. Being critically responsive means being open to the emerging concerns of our communities. It also means developing an understanding of the work of others and how such work may find common cause with our organisations.
Now it is time for you to test this thinking in relation to yourselves and your organisations.
Spend 10 minutes thinking carefully about why you decided to work in the voluntary sector. Do you still feel passionately about these identifications and values? How does this identification translate into the way you see and approach your work? Spend 20 minutes making a note of your answers in your learning journal. Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 3 Activity 1.
Now spend 10 minutes thinking about the differences your professional, organisational and/or sector identities are rooted in: what are your identities defined against? Spend about 20 minutes to make a note of these in your learning journal. Does thinking about this difference offer you any clues to the kinds of groups or people you might seek out in order to better understand certain problems or issues facing your organisation or community?
We will build on this activity later this week. Thinking of our identities as rooted in difference helps to open them up to growth and should enable you to see some interesting possibilities for collaborative leadership, or at least to indicate some specific people or groups you might seek out for further conversations. Returning to the local government example provided earlier in Ellen’s story, what might have happened had our two groups with opposing views of leadership reflected more deeply on how and why they thought of leadership in certain ways? It might have opened the way for a constructive set of discussions about where each was coming from – what people valued and the kind of problems they saw leadership as tackling.
The voluntary sector attracts such a diverse range of people – from the professionals from other areas giving their time for free, to enthusiastic and idealistic volunteers, people with deep sector expertise and to those simply volunteering to enjoy themselves and learn. These are all people who need to come together to engage in collaborative leadership.
Here are some of the work identities we think are important to the sector:
There are two key points to be made in relation to these identities. The first is that each is assembled over the years due to training and experience. The second is that none of us fits neatly into any of these boxes. We break the confines of our own identities – within our own heads and externally, in our interactions with others in collaborative leadership. It has already been noted that people become volunteers, for example, for a number of different reasons and pursue volunteering in a number of different ways. As we reflect on the difference that helps to build our identities, we appreciate even more how much our identities can be opened up, even as we remain committed to our own beliefs and values. Working and talking with others in collaborative leadership can also help us see possibilities for stretching and growing our identities.
Even if we see our work identities in certain, quite narrow ways, others do not construct our identities in this way. They see us predominantly via the filter of their own identifications. For example, Harrison et al (2012) note that the role of the charity board chair, despite the statutory obligations of such a post, are perceived in ways that exceed these boundaries. The authors note that chairs are looked upon by members of staff and volunteers for leadership, despite leadership not being in the job description. Chairs are also expected to demonstrate a range of ‘softer’ behaviours (emotional intelligence, affinity for teamwork) not normally associated with this role.
In other words, identities, even professional ones, are capable of growth, and it is worth us reflecting on whether we are able to make the most of the diverse identities housed within our organisations - and beyond in our collaborative leadership work.
Now watch the following video, an interview with Alison Miller, Chief Executive, and John Wallace, Chair, of St Francis’ Children’s Society. In the video Alison and John reflect on how they work within their identities as chief executive and chair.
John and Alison talk explicitly about their shared leadership but as we know, these things are simpler in principle than practice. Voluntary organisations are a mix of very diverse people and identities. John refers to himself as a ‘critical friend’, which is a powerful way of saying that good chairs will feel able to offer constructive critique (you will learn more about this in Week 5). Offering critique from a position of difference is an important part of collaborative leadership. Most importantly, Alison and John talk about building and nurturing personal relationships of trust. Putting the work in at this level enables them to tackle difficult problems when they arise and make the most of their diverse identities in practice. With that in mind, you will now move on to think about ways in which voluntary organisations can draw on the strengths of diverse identities.
We can now propose some ways in which voluntary organisations can make the most of the diverse identities housed within them and beyond them.
The key point with all of these approaches is that they can help us see beyond the boundaries of the identities we establish for ourselves and our organisations: their aim is to put together a range of perspectives in order to generate something new.
Building on your insights in this week’s learning journal, spend 15 minutes thinking about someone either in your organisation, your community or another organisation that you think offers a very different perspective on an issue you think your organisation could help to address. Ask that person for their view, emphasising that they can help stretch your thinking and enrich your perspective as a practitioner. Spend 20 minutes writing about your experience in the discussion forum. Then spend 5 minutes commenting on the posts of two other learners.
Engaging with people at the level of identity necessarily means that you are exploring issues and ideas in ways that exceed the everyday activity and detail of an organisation. You come together with an ethos of openness and generosity. You should also share a critical commitment to probe the limits of one another’s identities. Exploring the world in this way provides the foundations for a successful collaborative leadership endeavour, one that engages with important values and issues, rather than something far more instrumental.
Developing a bicameral orientation to identity is an important reflective practice. It means maintaining a strong commitment to your own identity but also recognising that identity is rooted in difference and so is also only a partial account of the world. Being bicameral therefore means that you stay open to the possibilities and learning of others: you operate at a level of generosity towards others and their identities. It means seeking out opportunities to learn from others – people from other faiths, other ideologies, other professions, other organisations. Engaging with someone at the level of identity means that you begin to explore issues and problems at a deep and sophisticated level; you begin to appreciate new possibilities, while also developing a deeper appreciation and understanding of your own commitments.
Check what you’ve learned this week by taking the end-of-week quiz.
Open the quiz in a new window or tab then come back here when you’ve finished.
This week, we covered the importance to leadership practice of reflecting on our identities and those of others. You were asked to think carefully (and critically) about your own identities and your reasons for doing what you do within the voluntary sector. Such identifications help to guide us, they provide an ethical anchor for our leadership work. Nevertheless, it was noted that all identities are ultimately rooted in difference, that it is impossible to know of our identities outside of what they are defined against. Such an insight underlines the fact that no identity is fully capable of capturing the full richness of human experience. Although a challenging idea, this is also encouraging when planning collaborative leadership work, as it seems as if we are already reliant on others.
We have already noted that relying on others and bringing others together is important in tackling wicked problems. Bearing this in mind, we also thought about the range of identities often associated with the voluntary sector, stating that while important, these categories also conceal a range of subtlety and degrees of variation. The intimate connection between identity and difference, and the fundamentally relational character of all identity, identifies potential for collaborative leadership work. It is by maintaining a commitment to our own values, but also to learning from the identities of others, that interesting and fresh collaborative opportunities might emerge.
Now go to Week 4.
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