*head desk*

My inability to formulate a comprehensive research question is clearly indicative of my capacity to complete this PhD. Here’s my current thinking. Note, there is no one question.

The reluctant leaders: Constructing leadership identity in the Australian arts and cultural sector

My topic: The construction of leadership identity in the Australian arts and cultural sector.

My research problem:   As the arts and cultural sector has become a more visible contributor to the Australian economy there has been a renewed discussion about the importance of leadership within it.  While the organisational approaches to, and the relative effectiveness of, arts and cultural leadership have been debated both theoretically and within the media, we know little about how arts and cultural leaders construct their identity. Arts management approaches to leadership are built on functionalist assumptions of a positive relationship between individuals and leadership, but evidence suggests that this is not always the case.  Emerging leaders within the arts and cultural sector often have a complex, sometimes reluctant, relationship with their own leader identity and the concept of leadership.

My purpose: This research uses critical approaches to identity construction to examine nine disciplinary based communities of practice located within the Australian arts and cultural sector, analysing emerging leader identity development, identifying influences that contribute to identity work, exploring the issue of leadership reluctance and identifying the strategies that have emerged from within the communities that mitigate it.

My research questions:

  • What factors contribute to identity work of arts and cultural emerging leaders?
  • Are arts and cultural practitioners “reluctant leaders”, and if so why?
  • How do communities of practice contribute to positive construction of leadership identity?

A revelation (with a lot of help)

I was complaining to my supervisor yesterday. I know, what a surprise. This particular complaint was about just how hard writing is. Again, surprise. I really find the process of pulling together chapters to be more physically and psychologically challenging than I expected. I thought that by now, almost three years in, it would be ‘coming together.’I keep waiting for what I call the tipping point where I feel comfortable in my knowledge of my subject.

The tipping point on leadership theory came early last year.  I now comfortably roll my eyes when someone extols the virtue of authentic leadership as I know enough to debunk it.* But theoretically and methodologically my own thesis is far from that point. My ever helpful supervisor said “oh it will likely come just as you finish.” Great.  Which means eight months of sweat and tears.  

Of course this is a job.  A different sort of job, but still a job.  It’s not all coffee and yoga breaks. So I have to keep that in mind and remind my husband frequently. 

On another note my supervisor and I talked research question and how I haven’t cracked that yet either.  She said I don’t technically need a simple question, but I feel I do. We agreed that the words leadership, capability, understanding, identity, creative industries and Australia all need to be in there.  But then she added one more that blew open the door to my thinking: comparison. 

Given I’m writing on nine different sectors within the creative industries I always planned to do some ‘compare and contrast’ work.  But I had always positioned my thesis as a comparison to the broader economy, to the corporate sector that tries to learn creativity from the arts. “But you’re not talking about the broader economy in the study” my supervisor said quite rightly. That is way too broad.

What I’m doing is a comparison on how different sectors within the creative industries develop leadership capability, understanding and identity. How they differ in uses of social learning, how their views toward leadership shift and how organisations play varying roles in that development. 

I almost feel like it’s cheating. Like she gave me the answer.  That one word suddenly repositioned my whole structure. I’m currently in the midst of re-listening and coding my interviews and, even though I’m only three sectors in, the key themes are so strong it’s crazy.  I can see three distinct chapters, one on the rejection of leadership/construction of leadership context and identity, one on the differences between sectors, with emphasis on organisational development and precariousness of employment, and one on confidence and its links to development of capability, identity and understanding. But all looking between the cases not outside them. 

Of course this isn’t the tipping point. As see the road is not walking along it. But it’s the first step. 
* I was looking at the publications of the academic who got my ‘dream job’ at Melbourne Uni. He has about 15 publications and two books and graduated with his PhD 2015.  This is why I’m now applying for jobs with Craft Victoria. But he had written some book reviews, which I read, and the confidence (there’s that word again) with which he unpacked and critiqued books I had read and valued made it clear why he will have a long academic career and why I will be more happy where I can teach in a professional context. Jealous, absolutely, but realistic. 

Research question dilemma

I mentioned in a few previous posts that my once rock solid research question has suddenly started to falter.  I changed from one, to another, and now  I am in a real limbo.  Everything is coming down to definitions in flux.

Originally I was examining leadership development in the Australian creative industries.

  • How do emerging leaders in the Australian creative industries develop their leadership capabilities?

Which then added the sub question of…

  • How do emerging leaders within the Australian creative industries relate to, and define, leadership?

But then it moved towards the issue of identity, and became:

  • How do members of the Australian creative industries develop their leadership identity?

But now I realise my definition of leadership development constitutes three different areas:

  1. Leadership capability – having the skills, knowledge and attributes to act as a leader.
  2. Leadership understanding – have knowledge of leadership concepts (learned either consciously or unconsciously) to form an individual view of what constitutes leadership.
  3. Leadership identity – having formed a position regarding one’s own relationship to leadership, i.e. willingness (or not) to be called (and act) as leader.

You can reject the title of leader but still act as a leader, and probably vice versa.

I basically need to combine my three questions together.

Complicating this is my view of the differences between leadership and leaders, which I have articulated here many times. So I’m trying to examine how creative practitioners in Australia learn leadership capability and understanding and form leadership identity.  But that’s not really a snappy question is it?

I played around with…

How to practitioners in the Australian creative industries learn to be leaders?

But that a) uses the world leaders, which I don’t like as much as leadership and b) it feels too direct.  I never actually asked that question. I asked if my subjects WERE leaders, not how they became leaders.

Which brings me to

How to practitioners in the Australian creative industries learn leadership?

Which feels too clunky for me and doesn’t really cover the breadth of what I’m doing either.

I still feel leadership development is the way to go – I can then unpack the concept into the three categories listed above without the question becoming torturous.  SO the original question works, except for the focus on capabilities.

How do practitioners in the Australian creative industries develop their leadership capabilities, understanding and identity?


Suggestions welcome.