2.1 Grappling with the unknown through language

We are now going to invite you to participate in some practical work with language. The purpose is to explore how a speaker grapples with the unknown – to help you see possibilities in your own leadership work for exploring the unknown. The example comes from a paper by Smolović Jones et al (2016). The paper adopts the case of a women’s group in an unnamed Pacific country that, at the time of the data collection, was under military dictatorial rule. The women’s group was in fact an umbrella organisation whose purpose was to try to unite a diverse group of women across the various communities of the country. The group wanted to encourage more women to participate in public life but also to develop policy ideas and submit official responses to government consultation.

Activity 1 Listening, interpreting and the unknown

Timing: (15 minutes)

The following extract is an interview with an elder, indigenous member of the community (Filo, a pseudonym). When you read the extract, we would like you to take note of the following:

  • the identity communicated by Filo to the researcher asking the questions
  • the gaps, pauses, contradictions and so on in Filo’s language – what do these tell you about what she is trying to convey?
  • what kind of things would you ask Filo in order to help her progress her thinking into the unknown?
Filo (F):Speaking as someone indigenous of this country, the level of things that were going on in equality with every race [in the group] was ok. I understand and I accepted that. But...we were not recognised as indigenous...to give us some recognition.
Researcher (R): Like special recognition?
F:Yes...no...to take us away from the main...you know, to at least recognise that these are the first people of this country. Because according to this country development and things like that...within the rural areas and things...to understand us as a nation, or globally - they are left out.
R:How, in your view, have other women failed to recognise you?
F:My expectation is, for example, women from the rural areas to be...We cannot involve them, the transportation and getting them across is expensive. To go to them and see how they feel, how they view things. Mostly we are meeting on the level up here. A higher level.
R:You feel that women from rural areas should also be included?
F:Now and then to be represented…from the rural areas…from the grassroots level. There are some who are only in the rural areas, which are only indigenous. Mostly that’s how I feel…Only the heads are coming.
R:I see, but what was the reason for not voicing it with other women?
F:I was thinking it was, like, selfish.
R:How was it selfish?
F:...Just because I don’t want to be named like...They probably think otherwise, not the way I think. Sometimes when you say things, get involved emotionally…it touches.


The first thing to note here is that Filo clearly identifies as a member of the indigenous community. This is significant for two reasons. The first is that the context of the interview is a country that experiences significant tensions between indigenous people, more recent arrivals (many of whom have been in the country for a century or more) and a colonial past where both of these sections of the population were exploited. One valuable contribution of the women’s group was to bring people together from across these communities to try to develop a collective voice on behalf of all women.

Filo is indicating that shaping a collective identity of women is in itself problematic for her. She feels that her indigenous perspective has been undervalued. Specifically, she is trying to communicate that the work of the women’s group has not done enough to include poorer people from the country’s more rural communities.

Crucially, she cannot quite express what it is the group should be doing differently. That is not the point. She is moving towards unknown territory for the group, signalling potential for further conversations. It is the role of her colleagues in collaborative leadership to help her explore this issue in more depth and support her in getting there.

Filo both stumbles over her words (unusually for her) and also brings her emotions to the fore (also unusual for her). Filo is stretching at the boundaries of the identity of the women’s group and we can see this from the numerous pauses and changes of direction in her speech (marked by ellipsis in the text). Her emotional attachment to this issue is apparent in the simple statement, ‘it touches’. There are also flashes of shame as she expresses trepidation at seeming selfish if she tries to discuss the issue with her group colleagues.

In the next section, you will consider some of the implications of this analysis.

2 Language, identity and exploring the unknown

2.2 Communicating the unknown