I had the great privilege of conceptualising and presenting a leadership masterclass for the higher education sector last week, based on my PhD topic “leadership literacies for the knowledge era”. There were 11 participants and three main presenters and we all came together to learn/unlearn and reflect about our part in leading the sector.
The HE sector in Australia and New Zealand faces competition from many quarters–global competition for students and talented staff; competing tensions for resources and time–where both are scarce and the issues and the ‘must haves’ and ‘must dos’ are many–in a sector whose purpose has a nation building agenda as well as the more visible teaching, research and service imperatives.
There is so much I could say about the masterclass experience, suffice to say that I well and truly feel I’m on the right track with my PhD study and I’m glad I didn’t wait until after I finish my study before I offered this program as it is clear leaders need this support now. Both the masterclass and my PhD stem from the same source–as a pratictioner/researcher with a very strong sense of disquiet about health of the HE sector.
However, the focus for this blog comes from a conversation and subsequent reflection about one of the experiential learning activities from the Equine Assisted Learning session on day two. As you can imagine we were all very much out of our comfort zones when confronted with how to persuade four horses–rather than people–to cooperate with our teams in completing the activities we were set.
There were 3 activities: the first an observation activity which was not too taxing; next ‘the mane event’ where we had to peg bits of cardboard with words about values and resources on to the mane of the horses, with a set of ‘policies’ to guide the group; and the final activity was called ‘horse billiards’ where we had to persuade the horses to move into one of the four spaces designated ‘pockets’–again with all sorts of policies and rules. The participants had been divided up into two teams and a lot of the learning came about by watching how the first team did the activity and how that could be improved.
What really struck me was how, for a person who rated 0% on compliance in the Windows on Work Values questionnaire, I could be so concerned with doing right by the set rules and policies–pushing them as far as I could, sure, but nevertheless keeping within them–because of my concerns of being ‘disqualified’. I was equally taken aback when the other team seemingly disregarded some of the ‘rules’ when it was their turn. This struck me as a major disjunct at the time and in subsequent conversations with participants afterwards and one of the explanations that was mooted was perhaps it was because of my overarching role as masterclass convenor as well as participant in the exercise?
Talking through the experience with Gill a few days later (Gill was one of the EAL instructors) it was clear that there was more to it than that. Both of the instructors saw that both teams kept very much to the rules, even the team that I perceived had ‘broken’ some of them. Gill went on to explain that this is very common in EAL activities and they put this down to the fact that people who are in new situations, feeling discomfort, or say, unable to use their usual rationale for doing things tend to find comfort in rules to guide them–as a way to frame or bound their situation. Gill then asked me, “so what were the consequences of breaking the rules/policies?” They had not provided any (but we hadn’t noticed at the time) so it was clear to me then that we had created our own internal consequences… Now this was an ‘aha’ moment indeed!
This ‘aha’ moment was partly due to the earlier reading on ‘the identity work of leaders’ (Sinclair, 2007) and in particular her explanation of Foucault’s ideas about discipline and surveillance symbolised by the ‘panopticon’–a surveillance tower in prisons, located so that all prisoners may be watched without knowing when or how, and ultimately compelling prisoners to take on the burden of disciplining themselves.
Further, there is extensive evidence that individuals in work organisations not only become intensely self-regulatory, but also police their peers more punitively than any watchtower guard. Working conditions, systems of remuneration, career paths–in short, how we are at work seems increasingly to be under someone else’s, or worse our own, punitive control (Sinclair, 2007 p. 133).
This whole experience and reflection led to further thinking about creativity and how it can be dampened. It is very difficult to be creative in situations that give rise to fear or discomfort–until one can find one’s comfort boundaries and then push beyond them. What is interesting here is how people react to situations, depending on their appetite for new things and past experiences to draw from. Given more time in the EAL activities I’m sure many of the 13 participants would have identified the boundaries and pushed past them to find creative solutions outside the ‘box’ we’d put ourselves into. The constraints on the day, however, led to the most enlightening learning experiences for me displaying as the gap between my rhetorical self and myself-in-action on the day.
These reflections about creativity and boundedness have now helped me to explain to myself why I am so seemingly creative/brave/foolhardy in my approach to representing myself in the PhD journey when what I propose is clearly not the norm in the discipline of management. I realise now that I have two distinct experiences to draw from that are not common to people undertaking i) PhD study or ii) PhD study in the discipline of management, in that:
i) Most people don’t think about ‘doing’ a PhD until they sign up to ‘do’ a PhD. Gill’s argument about rules and policies providing comfort in new and/or uncomfortable situations makes sense then that most PhD students accept the set procedures as they stand.
ii) Most PhD students studying in the discipline of management don’t have the same perspective on qualitative inquiry as I do.
In my case, my work between 1998-2007 was in the management and support a PhD program in a Faculty of Education that was renowned for qualitative inquiry excellence and doctoral education (see references below for books by Terry Evans and Barbara Kamler). I worked with qualitative inquiry scholars and PhD students pushing the boundaries of what constitutes scientific practice. These people saw qualitative inquiry as a ‘way of being’ (methodology) not just as research method so the thought of the ‘researcher as research instrument’ is the norm for me . When I came to my own PhD study (albeit in a different university and a different discipline), I found myself in the unique position of feeling less bounded by convention because I had seen the PhD process and journey unfold dozens of times–some successfully and some not so–and have this knowledge to draw from.
This doesn’t mean that the PhD journey will be any ‘easier’ for me, but at least I have these experiences to draw upon to help me through the difficult times. This sharing of insight highlights that my PhD study flows through me and is not necessarily about me, and that every PhD candidate comes to their study with a unique set of skills and experiences. These inner resources should always be encouraged to be used as a resource within the PhD experience.
Denholm, C. J. & Evans, T. D. 2006. Doctorates Downunder : keys to successful doctoral study in Australia and New Zealand. Camberwell, Vic., ACER Press.
Kamler, B. & Thomson, P. 2006. Helping doctoral students write: pedagogies for supervision. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, Routledge.
Sinclair, A. 2007. The identity work of leaders, in Leadership for the disillusioned: moving beyond myths and heroes to leading that liberates. Allen & Unwin, pp. 132-133.