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Week 5 Leadership as practice

Introduction

This week’s learning will focus on three elements of leadership practice – processes, spaces and technologies of leadership. We will consider how the processes, spaces and technologies of leadership all come together to enable certain practices and restrict others.

After completing this week you will be able to:

  • describe the main features of practices and distinguish between the main dimensions of practice – processes, spaces and technologies
  • critically analyse how your organisation practises leadership, drawing on a visual interpretation of your workplace to do so
  • reflect back on the course and pinpoint in writing one significant thing you do differently as a result of participation.

1 Defining leadership practice

A leadership practice can be defined as any practice that offers direction to a group or organisation (Crevani, 2015; Crevani and Endrissat, 2016). We draw particular attention to three dimensions of practice of value to your development and learning: processes, spaces and technologies. Each will be explored in turn this week and each arethings that make leadership happen in practice (Carroll, 2016; Carroll et al., 2008).

The distinction between viewing leadership as practice and viewing leadership as a person who generates a practice is subtle but important. Leadership as practice does not ask what kind of person you need to be in order to be a leader; rather, it asks about the things we need to do in order to feed a practice of leadership. As stated, we can break these down into processes, spaces and technologies.

You can learn so much about the kind of leadership an organisation values by observing its practices at work. Certain kinds of practices encourage particular approaches to leadership, or vice versa: from very open forms of collective leadership to the very formal and hierarchical forms of individual-focused leadership. Practices shape what is possible in leadership. Having outlined what we mean by practice, you will now go on to consider the first dimension of practice of relevance to leadership, that of processes of leadership. Focusing on processes of leadership is important because it means that we pay attention to what actually happens between people.

2 Processes of leadership

Processes of leadership in this week’s learning stand for all of those verbal, interpersonal and relational practices followed at work. This week you will learn about some common processes through which leadership is practised.

Activity 2 Processes of leadership in your workplace

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Think about a typical day at work. How do people tend to interact? Is it face-to-face, formally in meetings or informally and in a more ad hoc manner? In these forums, how do people communicate? Do they tell stories, make mini speeches, emphasise exploration through asking questions or prefer a more confrontational attitude towards one another?

Comment

All organisations perform leadership differently, depending on a coming together of all kinds of things – people, traditions, spaces and technologies. Ideally, the processes though which an organisation conducts its business are aligned with its professed values and goals. For example, if an organisation is committed to listening to and involving its volunteers, it designs its processes in such a way as to do just this.

In the following sections you will learn about some examples of processes that we believe are important for leadership. These processes represent some important ways of practising leadership for decision making, galvanising support and taking action. These processes are:

  • Critical reflection
  • Constructive debate
  • Asking awkward questions
  • Telling powerful stories

Note, these processes, amongst others, will be expanded upon in much greater detail in the successor course, Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations.

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 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.

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.

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 we have explored a process that individuals can follow, we now move on to some more collective processes.

2.2 Constructive debate

It is a cultural cliché to claim that the British are terribly polite and conflict-shy but there is some truth in this. This is a shame, as good, strong collaborative leadership needs, and in fact thrives, on constructive debate. Without conflict, important issues and concerns are not addressed and poorly conceptualised ideas and policies are allowed to continue.

Prominent Harvard academic Ronald Heifetz talks of good leadership generating ‘heat’ (Heifetz, 1994). By ‘heat’ he means turning the responsibility for a problem back on to the people who should be in a position to offer insight. People in formal positions of authority cannot possibly hold all the answers. One of the course authors recalls a previous line manager who would, without fail, towards the middle of a meeting, ask directly whoever had been silent for their opinions. This move had two consequences. The first is that everyone made sure they were paying attention. The second is that people felt valued. This particular manager was a caring person and had the trust of his employees and so had the authority and legitimacy to pursue such a tactic: this would be harder for a manager who did not enjoy such trust.

Image of a thermometer indicating a temperature of over 50°C.
Figure 1 Good leadership generates ‘heat’

However, some people are more sensitive than others and it is not always politically possible for people to challenge or disagree with others within organisations. With this in mind, you might like to explore how you can make constructive conflict more acceptable within your organisation. You might invite others explicitly to confront you more on your ideas or work. You could instigate a role-playing system where it becomes possible for people in a meeting to play a ‘devil’s advocate’ role. Engaging in debate is of course important, but so is the more inquisitive process of asking questions, which will now be explored.

2.3 Asking awkward questions

Keith Grint (2005a) makes the case that asking questions is the key process of leadership. Asking difficult questions disrupts the flow of practice and forces others to re-adjust their thinking. Grint advocates questions that challenge assumptions or help reveal deeper underlying problems. For example, if you were a medical consultant treating increasing numbers of people for diabetes, you could ask your hospital’s senior management what was being done in a holistic sense to prevent the illness in the first place.

Image of a large, white, 3D question mark.
Figure 2 Asking questions is the key process of leadership

Now, it’s not possible to ask such questions all the time – that would just be too disruptive. Routine is needed in order to be able to get things done and meet obligatory commitments. But Grint’s argument is that people tend to avoid asking such questions too often, which results in a kind of comfort trap: people do what they know and avoid asking about all the complex, messy underlying stuff they don’t know. You can find out more about this approach in our other leadership course, Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations. We now move on to reflecting on how processes of leadership might more explicitly engage people’s imaginations.

2.4 Telling powerful stories

Managers are usually very good at making a rational case for something. They are sometimes also quite good at drawing on evidence and offering a rational argument..

Managers are often less impressive when it comes to telling stories that engage with the emotional side of an organisation. This is strange in many ways, as Aristotle was writing about the arts of rhetoric nearly two and a half millennia ago in Ancient Greece (Aristotle, 322BC/1991), so it is not as if the power of a good story is a new technique. An effective story can change the way people relate to, or think about an issue in powerful ways. We are not suggesting, however, that feelings should be valued over facts. We would agree with the criticism, often levelled at charities, that it is a mistake to dwell too much on tragic stories, with the aim of making people feel guilty or even responsible for others’ suffering. Instead, it is worth considering how an organisation’s purpose can be more compelling than balance sheets and quantitative measures.

Powerful stories used in leadership can be the stories of the people you have helped, or stories drawn from your own personal experience. Stories need not be hugely dramatic, but they do need to abide by some basic conventions. First, they need some kind of plot – usually a scene-setting beginning, an interesting middle and an effective ending, for example, one that contains a purpose, a moral to the story. Such codas (the proper narrative term for an ending) should not feel overly preachy but should speak directly to the purpose of an organisation. Importantly, stories need to contain a real cast of characters – people. Without characters, a story is not a story.

Consider this story from one of the course authors on her involvement with a charity working to end slavery:

Four years ago I had the opportunity to visit Cambodia with a group of women. We ate in cafés staffed by women released from brothels where they had been held forcibly – the women were tiny, under-nourished, quiet. One café made beautifully iced cakes. Their cup-cakes were works of art, and their fabulous tiered creations are ordered by politicians and royalty. We were shown around the immaculate training suite where women learned new skills and achieved their qualifications. We were not allowed to speak with the women, but the contrast between the beauty of their creations and the squalor of their pasts was all too evident. That experience changed my understanding of what it means to be released from slavery.

This story could have been told with a range of facts, statistics and graphs on the impact of anti-slavery work. But telling the story about a real group of women doing ordinary things perhaps taken for granted (making cakes) is poignant.

Activity 3 Telling a leadership story

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

How about trying some storytelling yourself? Next time you speak in a meeting or next time you want to persuade a colleague of something, try adopting a story format instead.

Record how effective you think your story was in your learning journal. What worked and what did not work so well? Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 5 Activity 3.

Comment

To paraphrase a famous beer advert, stories reach parts that other forms of language cannot. This does not mean that we need to be dominated by stories – facts and figures are important too, as are strongly held opinions. Yet used wisely, telling a compelling story can change the tone of an interaction. Stories should be viewed as one practice amongst others. Having considered some important processes of leadership, you will now be asked to think about the spaces in which leadership takes place. It is tempting to think of the spaces in which people work as fixed in advance but it is our argument that spaces can be worked with in creative ways to generate an environment more conducive to leadership.

3 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 3

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.

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. 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. 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.

4 Technologies of leadership

How we practise leadership can be shaped as much by the technologies around us as by our intentional actions as autonomous people – in other words, technologies can lead. This is not quite to argue that technologies can think and feel for themselves, at least not yet anyway. But it is to argue that most thinking on leadership, and indeed most thinking in practice, tends to assume that we are independent people who rely on rational thought alone. This is a flawed assumption that overlooks how interdependent we are in reality. In fact, we are hugely dependent on the technologies we use, as well as the spaces we inhabit.

Leadership depends so much on the interaction between material objects and people. The example used by Grint (2005b) is that of the D-Day landings in World War II, which relied on a vast and complex web of technologies and techniques – weather forecasting equipment, landing craft, covert mini submarines, falsified evidence of alternative invasion plans, the knowledge and judgement of certain leaders and the bravery and intelligence of those involved on the ground (and in the air). Technologies can shape the possibilities for leadership as much as leaders and followers. In fact it could be said that leaders should not be thought of as ‘people’ at all but as person–technological hybrids (Latour, 2007). People exist in a mutually dependent relationship with their technologies.

Technologies can be very simple and mundane or they can be complex and high-tech. Let’s return momentarily to the expansive world of the New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI). Recall that staff hold their meetings overlooking the cityscape. They do so while sitting on a blue sofa and chairs. This seems like a mundane detail but the living room furniture has become an important actor in the work of NZLI, a character in the play of leadership.

What does a sofa overlooking the city offer? Sitting on a sofa or comfortable chair can be relaxing, evoking feelings of being at home, opening one up to more reflective thinking. Relaxing on a sofa can also evoke images of a therapist’s couch: the experience of being asked uncomfortable questions that nevertheless push you into unexpectedly valuable thinking territory. Being simultaneously relaxed and open to critical questioning is of course just where an innovative leadership institute wants you to be. The sofa area has become so much a focus of practice that the sofa itself has started to develop a character of its own and can be spoken about as if it is a living thing with personality.

On the high-tech end of the spectrum, it is often argued that the internet, mobile technology and social media have transformed the way in which we relate to one another and work. If you look around you in a public space, you will notice that many, if not most people are buried in their phones or tablets in a way that would simply have been unthinkable 15 to 20 years ago. Social media in particular has changed the way in which people identify with and relate to communities. Communities are as likely to be stretched across continents now as to be situated in a localised area. Moreover, leadership can be thought of in terms of communities of people and technologies, comprised of a variety of roles and identities. . Perhaps most importantly, due to technologies, volunteers are beginning to have a voice and degree of participation which was previously not possible.

Activity 4 Spaces and technologies in your organisation

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Spend 15 minutes thinking about the kinds of spaces and technologies that dominate where and how leadership is practised in your organisation. If you are able, take a photograph of this space and/or these technologies and post the photo in this activity's thread in the discussion forum. Spend 10 minutes telling your fellow learners a story that captures how leadership is enacted in this space and with these technologies.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of this space and these technologies of leadership? Could you do something to freshen up the space where leadership is practised?

Spend five minutes commenting on the photograph or story of two of your fellow learners.

Comment

Spaces where leadership is practised can be chosen deliberately, as can the technologies that are used in leadership. For example, in the House of Commons and House of Lords, the government benches directly face the opposition benches, so that when a minister addresses either House, she or he faces political adversaries rather than colleagues. This is a design deliberately geared towards the generation of adversarial debate and scrutiny.

Sometimes, however, spaces and technologies and uses of them can become quite habitual and stale. People become accustomed to being a certain way in a particular meeting room, surrounded by certain objects. Over time, certain memories and practices are identified with certain spaces and technologies. There is a lot to be said for freshening up where and how you interact and where you enact leadership. By changing the spaces and technologies of leadership, you also change how people relate to one another and approach one another.

Hopefully this week we have started to stretch your perceptions of leadership and what comprises leadership in practice. We will conclude this week by reflecting back on what we think has been the key practice, that of sociomaterial awareness.

5 Key practice: sociomaterial awareness

‘Sociomaterial’ sounds like a mouthful but actually it just means the connection between the human and physical/material world. We usually take the material world and our connection to it for granted, assuming that humans are the ones in control. Our argument is that the interplay between human and non-human is subtler than that. In fact, it is very often unhelpful to think in human and non-human terms. Instead, it is worth reflecting on how our identities as people are dependent on the technologies we use and the spaces we inhabit.

As you reflect back on the learning this week, you will notice that what you have been doing is unpacking leadership practice as something that is assembled through various uses of processes, spaces and technologies. These are often things people take for granted but actually are dimensions that you can experiment with.

The value of developing sociomaterial awareness lies in you being able to better see and appreciate the practices of leadership as they unfold within your organisation. Think of it as developing an extra sense, a new perspective on the world. Viewing the world sociomaterially may also allow you to start experimenting with how you work with people, processes, spaces and technologies – mixing things up, experimenting with different configurations and patterns.

The key to developing sociomaterial awareness is to try to make the world around you seem strange and new. Try approaching a meeting or reading a communication from management as if you were a total outsider seeing the organisation for the first time – or even an alien seeing everything in an office for the first time. Why are people doing things in certain ways, mixing spaces, processes and technologies in certain ways? Is there a logic behind the dependencies?

We like to think of sociomaterial awareness much like one of those science fiction films or television programmes where a character is able to pause or slow down time to such an extent that the rich and various dimensions of the room become visible. The character is able to walk around the room, exploring it from different perspectives, taking note of people’s deportment, their inter-relationships, of who and how people are using material objects. If you truly and exclusively pay attention to the interdependencies in action at your workplace – in a meeting but also just in the everyday bustle of organisational life – you might be surprised by what you notice.

Summary of Week 5

The main advantage of thinking and approaching leadership as a practice is that it enables you to focus on the work that gets done rather than to become preoccupied with the status and personality of individual leaders.

You saw that the processes, spaces and technologies of leadership can be separated out, and you looked at each in turn, although in reality these three aspects overlap when leadership is being performed through practice. You can’t escape practice – it is what generates what we come to think of as leadership, yet it is amazing how little attention is paid to practices compared to assumptions about the preferences and personalities of individuals. Leadership happens when technologies, spaces, processes – and the people embedded within them – interact in interesting ways and we provided some examples of how these dimensions can come together in interesting ways, as is the case with NZLI. When we considered this week’s key practice, we did so by introducing the idea of sociomaterial awareness, developing a sense of the kinds of things that are assembled together in order to make leadership work (or not).

Course reflection and conclusion

We hope you have enjoyed and gained value from this introduction to leadership in voluntary organisations. The course authors’ intention has been to offer a balance of critical engagement and practice orientation, so that you can think about, appreciate and practise leadership in new and interesting ways.

Activity 5 Reflecting on your course learning

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Which one thing do you now do differently, or do you plan on doing differently, as a result of participating in this course? Spend 15 minutes on your answer. Post your views in the thread for this activity in our discussion forum. Take five minutes to comment on the posts of at least two other people.

Comment

We do hope, naturally, that you will be doing at least one thing a bit differently at work as a result of participating in this course, even if that one thing is developing more of a willingness to experiment in general with leadership at work. We look forward to reading your comments on this activity and will try to read and comment on as many of them as possible.

Moving forward, we hope that this course and our other course on collaborative leadership can act as a way of connecting people who are interested in leadership and in developing leadership in the sector more generally. We want this space to be a genuine community space where we are all learners and developers simultaneously.

If you are interested in taking your leadership further, we encourage you to now enrol in and begin our companion course, Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations. This course picks up and further develops many of the themes that have been introduced here but with more of a focus on practices and certainly more of a focus on how we can collaborate better with one another.

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References

Aristotle (322BC/1991) The Art of Rhetoric, London, Penguin.
Carroll, B. (2016) ‘Leadership as identity: a practice-based exploration’, in Raelin, J. (ed.) Leadership as Practice, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, Routledge, pp. 91–109.
Carroll, B., Levy, L. and Richmond, D. (2008) ‘Leadership as practice: challenging the competency paradigm’, Leadership, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 363–79.
Connolly, W. (2005) Pluralism, Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press.
Crevani, L. (2015) ‘Is there leadership in a fluid world? Exploring the ongoing production of direction in organizing’, Leadership, doi:10.1177/1742715015616667.
Crevani, L. and Endrissat, N. (2016) ‘Mapping the leadership-as-practice terrain: comparative elements’, in Raelin, J. (2016) Leadership as Practice, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, Routledge.
Grint, K. (2005a) ‘Problems, problems, problems: the social construction of “leadership”’, Human Relations, vol. 58, no. 11, pp. 1467–94.
Grint, K. (2005b) Leadership: Limits and Possibilities, Basingstoke, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan.
Heifetz, R. (1994) Leadership Without Easy Answers, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. (2007) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-network Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
New Zealand Leadership Institute (NZLI) (2016) Our Story [Online]. Available at http://www.nzli.co.nz/18/our-story (Accessed 24 August 2016).

Acknowledgements

This free course was written by Owain Smolović Jones and Carol Jacklin-Jarvis.

Except for third party materials and otherwise stated (see terms and conditions), this content is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence.

The material acknowledged below is Proprietary and used under licence (not subject to Creative Commons Licence). Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this free course:

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