…thoughts on and about my PhD journey and beyond…

One of the benefits of undertaking a PhD is the constant opportunity to reflect on my assumptions and ladders of inference and to work through the sticking points to my own personal development (I think that this ‘journey’ part of the process will be more valuable to me than the ‘destination’ part too!).

As I am researching the topic of leadership I can’t help but reflect on my own experiences of leadership–as both a leader and follower–and I have come to the understanding that:

1.  I’m an ‘accidental’ leader

2.  I have, for most of my life, been a ‘reluctant’ leader. 

This blog will be in two parts, the first about accidental leadership and the next on the reluctant leader.

I see now that the way I have always worked are the very attributes for leadership in the knowledge era hence my claim to be an accidental leader.  I have always worked collaboratively, preferred to work in teams and as an enabler and always prided myself on being resourceful.  Margot Cairnes summed this up as:

Leaders make unexpected connections.  They organise and lead conversations among people who do not normally interact with each other and they see the kinds of patterns that allow for small innovation and breakthrough ideas (Cairnes, 2003, p. 30).

In a knowledge-driven economy leaders have a different set of literacies to absorb and they are very different to the command and control doctrine of the industrial era.  Leadership literacies for the knowledge era focus on people-centred competencies and encourage leaders to see themselves as teachers, enablers and stewards who encourage commitment and responsibility in themselves and their followers by tapping into intangible qualities like trust, values and commitment.  

Contemporary leadership literacies are also closely connected to, and expand the notion of, learning.  In times of paradigmatic change the definition of learning grows to include notions of deep impact learning, re-learning and un-learning.  

The rationale for my research, at its heart, is about the individual and an individual’s capacity to change and influence their wider groupings, be they leaders or followers (or more likely both leaders and followers to some extent) within an organisational setting.  The overarching theme of my PhD is the interrelationship between leadership, language & literacies and learning—not only what they are now, but also what they may become—as the drivers of change in a knowledge intensive era.

So, upon reflection, it is very comforting indeed to realise that by simply being ‘me’ I can build on these attributes that are the cornerstone of appropriate leadership literacies for the knowledge era.  Taking this a step further and being reflexive about it leads me to think about the people out there who either naturally, or by training, have leadership patterns and attributes more suited to a machine-age industrial era.  How ‘discomforting’ it must be to sense that their ‘command and control’ leadership style is just not cutting it.  Deb and I wrote a bit about this in 2007 (and for a table of typical thinking patterns of the industrial and knowledge era see here from Davis, 2008): 

Even today we see examples of the cultural lag described by James (1996) in the proliferation of command and control mechanisms of the industrial era.  Increasing reliance on compliance and surveillance, for example, are attempts to control order in an increasingly complex global, networked and information rich world.  The machine-age scientific worldview of if it can’t be measured it can’t be managed is no longer appropriate because it does not identify the real key performance indicators now required for success in the new millennium. 

Perhaps the old adage itself needs to be shifted from what can’t measured can’t be managed to add what is left out can’t be leveraged.  We argue that the overuse of such control mechanisms and an economic rationalist single bottom line management approach is actually part of the problem, not a solution. 

This behaviour is an example of regression under pressure to outmoded foundation values, diverting energy from thinking about the true purpose of governments, learning institutions, corporations and individuals for the future.  ‘Working with’ practices, based ostensibly on values, are an appropriate vehicle for moving this agenda forward  (Nanschild & Davis, 2007, pp. 138-139).

I think the challenge for leadership development in the short and medium term will be to support people as they work through this discomfort–and it will be uncomfortable and perhaps even scary–for as many as a generation of people.  Peter Senge when talking about the contribution of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, summed this up very well:

The fantasy that somehow organizations can change without personal change, and especially without change on the part of people in leadership positions, underlies why many change efforts are doomed from the start (Senge, 2003, p 48).

I’d be interested to learn how you see yourself as a leader for the knowledge era?  Are you a knowledge era leader native, immigrant or accidental?

See Pt 2 – The Reluctant Leader here.


Cairnes, M. 2003, Staying sane in a changing world: a handbook for work, leadership and life in the 21st century, Simon & Schuster.

Davis, H. (2008 ) Golden Capital, Living Asset Stewardship and other kindred intangibles: Can we measure up? International Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Change Management, 8(1), pp. 137-146.

James, J. (1996). Thinking in the future tense: a workout for the mind Simon & Schuster.

Nanschild, D. & Davis, H. (2007) The ‘V’ Factor:  Thinking about values as the epicentre of leadership, learning and life.  Refereed conference paper presented at the 13th International Conference on Thinking, Norrkoping, Sweden, June, pp. 137 -143.

Senge, P. 2003. Taking personal change seriously: the impact of organizational learning on management practice. Academy of Management Executive, 17 (2), pp. 47 – 50.


Comments on: "Accidental and Reluctant Leadership (pt 1)" (5)

  1. hey – you ought to feed yer blog posts to twitter/friendfeed etc. And some interesting folk I am “following” in this space – a lot of intellectual mumbo jumbo afflicts the whole leadership stuff. Maybe simplifying the lingo might help get at some interesting/useful stuff.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: