Where leadership resides in my thesis

My research question is “How do practitioners in the Australian creative industries develop their leadership skills? And what is their relationship to leadership?”  Clearly leadership is central to the whole shebang, but where it actually resides is becoming less clear to me.

If you’ve read my themes, posted through August, there was little talk about leadership within it. It was more about environment and how this influenced communities of practice and learning.  The current paper I’m writing on is a bit the same.  Leadership has been lost a little through the cracks. I’m wondering if this is a mistake on my behalf, as the idea of defining a creative industries based concept of leadership has always been in the back of my head (aligned to the idea of a book post PhD.)

I’m currently transcribing an interview conducted in Melbourne in August.  And it specifically brings up a leadership idea that I haven’t touched on: the idea of the organisational/taste gatekeeper. The positions of power in the arts scene that control most of the power, often most of the money. My interview subject talks about how power lists published in the press always show the same people, often related, often married, who all come from the same schools. There’s a perception that if you “didn’t go to Scotch and play the cello” you want get the key fellowships (and by extension jobs and positions of power.

While I don’t want to swell on gatekeepers as subjects, and I don’t think I have many in my subjects (maybe one or two) I am talking to a lot of those who are bouncing up against them.

The same interviewee says that those who are emerging are doing something exciting, they are playing in the spaces between organisations and power. The operate in the margins, and they demonstrate the power of networks and distributed leadership.  This is something I have seen, even in organisational practice (like theatre.)

My comparison between visual arts and theatre, the subject of my current conference paper, may not only demonstrate the power of environment to shape leadership identity (I argue theatre practitioners lean toward a distributed concept of leadership given their collaborative approach while visual arts people tend to have a more hierarchical old school view) but also show how networked leadership evolves amongst some (theatre) but maybe not so much in visual arts  – where the gatekeepers are strong and prominent.  Or, and I’m ‘typing out loud’ here, the networked leaders in visual arts are not yet seeing the power of what they do, or calling it leadership, in the shadow of the gatekeepers?

Either way I need to ensure that the definition of leadership doesn’t get lost in the learning concepts.

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Individual to collective

Hi – I’m still here.  I have mapped all my existing reading to a matrix and am very happy with my results.  This next week is about filling gaps in my knowledge before I spend the last two weeks of April writing/re-writing my section on leadership theory.

I haven’t been as diligent as I should have been this week, however, so I am doing an extra 2-3 hours per day on the weekend to put my head back in the game.

Crevani, L., Lindgren, M. & Packendorff, J. 2007, ‘Shared leadership: a post-heroic perspective on leadership as a collective construction’, International Journal of Leadership Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 40-67.

This article is a good example of some of the surprising pieces I come across. I’d had it saved in endnote for a while, but now I know what I’ve read and haven’t (thanks to my trusty matrix) I clicked on the first one alphabetically and hit a jackpot of useful material.

These authors firstly provide a really strong overview of leadership theory from the 19th century to today.  They divide it int four sections: trait, style, contingency and new.  Trait being the ‘great man’ theories up until the 1940s, style encompasses behavioural theory until the 1960s, contingency looks at situational variables and was big in the 1980s and new theory, including charismatic, transformational and visionary which are still popular today.  It doesn’t really extend into the critical theory I’ve been looking at recently, but it does tough on feminist readings.

One perspective that grabbed my attention immediately was the shift from individual to collective when examining leadership and the implications that flow from this. All of the theories described previously relate to the role of the individual as leader, and predominantly the vertical leader.  The heroic figure at the top of the organisation, masculine in nature, who exercised command and control authority. There has been some research into the role of followers, but generally they are described as passive figures that as led and ‘saved’ by the more active leader.

More recently, however, there has been a shift toward seeing leadership as a collective action.  In arts administration research there is a lot of focus on dual leadership, especially by academics like Caust and MacNeill.  There is often discussion in these writings about who is the ‘true’ leaders.  And if one subscribes to the theories of Lapierre (2001) (which it seems a large amount do) then within arts leadership dual structures the ‘real’ leader is the artistic director who provides the vision and motivation for the organisations.  The general managers provide the grunt work. (Paraphrasing clearly.)  Something about these approaches always bothered me (maybe because I’m likely to be a general manager over an artistic director.)  This is the reason I embraced a 2001 article by Ruth Rentschler that explores the idea of creativity for leaders in the arts sector, particularly in the managerial sense.  I’ve always felt that leadership within creative organisations was more likely to be seen in multiple roles….I just never had the theory or the research to back it up.

Outside of the creative sector the exploration of shared or collective leadership has been driven by two things – theoretical advancements and changing nature of works and organisations. The theory, as previously discussed, now looks at leadership as a process not just an individual action.  The spaces and interaction between individuals, 360 degree, is where leadership lies.  Organisationally, the shift from industrial to service and knowledge based industries means that people and process can’t be managed in the same way as was done in the past.  Ford and Taylor begone.

The authors say that we have moved to a post-heroic form of leadership – where leaders aim to disperse responsibility and decision making, and develop those around them to the point of making themselves dispensable.  They argue, however, that this type of leadership is often invisible in organisations because when you ask people about leadership they still view it in terms of the heroic narrative.

There is clearly still an emphasis on heroic leadership in the creative sector – the whole concept of the auteur theory in film as the director as the author of a work or the role of the artistic director of performing arts organisations are good examples.  This echoes the identity and leadership narrative, linked to gender, that I’ve discussed previously.  In this article the notion of shared leadership is phrased in gender terms, as being more feminine in ideal with a focus on the domestic realm.

What does this means from a leadership development perspective?  Firstly, there is a need for awareness of how the leadership narrative is constructed.  If leadership is seen as an individual, heroic, activity then development requirements will be seen within that light.  If leadership is a process then there are different skills and capabilities required, and development may be found through alternative avenues.