…thoughts on and about my PhD journey and beyond…

Archive for the ‘PhD journey’ Category

Social complexity theory for sense seeking: Unearthing leadership mindsets for unknowable and uncertain times

I have just had a paper published which outlines the thinking behind the framing of my PhD study.  It is published in the Emergence: Complexity and Organization Journal (E:CO 17.1) and this issue as well as all others, are currently offered for the time being as open source as the journal moves into a new online platform.

Abstract: This exposition considers perspectives underpinning contemporary leadership studies given we are located in what Hawking describes as the ‘century of complexity’, also understood as a Knowledge Era. Social complexity as context allows consideration of the turbulence our times without looking for guaranteed, certain, or ‘right’ answers and allows us to work with these conditions, rather than succumb to threat rigidity, pretend they do not exist, or think they are someone else’s problem. To make sense of these conditions requires ontological and cognitive shifts of mindset that more closely match the ‘requisite variety’ of the complexities of our times. The paper draws upon a PhD interpretive inquiry which identified cogent leadership literacies for the 21st century and explored them within Australian university settings. Various cognitive frames feature in this paper and serve to illuminate possibilities for scholars and practitioners seeking fresh approaches for leadership studies for a Knowledge Era. Whilst there are many contemporary scholars already doing so it is also clear that the ontological shifts are not easy and that archaic mindsets are difficult to dislodge even in light of wicked problems like the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 or environmental disasters.

You can find this issue at https://journal.emergentpublications.com/article_tag/volume-17-issue-1/


Myths about research cultures

This blog is a repost from  , aka The Research Whisperer, Great work Tseen.

The Research Whisperer

As I was digesting information about the funding cuts a few weeks ago, I read Kate Bowles’ considered piece on the folly of applying an “efficiency dividend” to higher education.

At the time, I wanted to blog more specifically on the idea of applying such a mechanistic and corrosive idea as an “efficiency dividend” to research institutions and the effect it would have on research cultures.

When I sat down to type it up, I realised that it would be a long, tedious rant that no-one would want to read.

What I thought might be more useful is a post focused on myths about research cultures, and letting these cultures’ specific, complex forms speak for themselves.

Universities and institutes scrambling for pieces of the (often shrinking) grant pie is a narrative as old as time. OK, maybe not quite that old, but certainly old enough to scar the past…

View original post 723 more words

Taking a punt on Leadership Development: Improving the ‘odds’ for R&D of leadership in changed and changing times

This post is the abstract for a workshop I will be co-presenting with my colleague Dr Fiona Kennedy, Senior Leadership Facilitator and Researcher, New Zealand Leadership Institute at the ILA Oceania Conference in Auckland next week.  There are a couple of questions at the end you are most welcome to respond to here on the blog.

DiceTo take a ‘punt’ on leadership development invites the surfacing of knowledge claims, and the mindsets that underpin these claims. This approach is supported by Cilliers (2002) who argues that only modest claims for ostensibly unknowable conditions exist, and that we need to be careful about the reach of our knowledge claims as well as the constraints that make any such claims possible (p. 256). Therefore considering the reach of our knowledge claims and as well as surfacing contemporary constraints invites all of us who are involved in leadership development to delve deeper into conversations about we might be gambling with and what we might do to improve the ‘odds’.

In this session we identify and investigate ways of working with, and talking about, contemporary conditions for leadership development that are marked by volatility, ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty (VUCA). We focus on leadership development that is characterized more as ‘mindset’ work rather than ‘skillset’ work since the former orientation is more strongly connected to contemporary conditions and less attached to ‘known’ outcomes. We identify some of the language and ideas that can help us engage and work with unknowns while also ‘knowing’ something worthwhile about our effort and investment.

This session will proceed as follows. First, Heather will set the scene by describing the sense-making frames of social complexity. Next Fiona will describe mindset oriented leadership development work and some of the implications for evaluation in conditions of uncertainty. However the real work of this session is to bring “researchers, developers and learning and development practitioners out of their respective worlds and into conversation together”. Therefore the bulk of this session will be focused on activities to elicit discussion amongst participants in order to grow our understanding of the tensions, conflicts and opportunities that are faced by different dimensions of the leadership development community as we negotiate more modest claims for the important work we are invested in in these times of uncertainty.

Questions to begin these conversations may include:

1. What language might practitioners be using to address conditions of uncertainty on the one hand and the inherent pressures associated with expected ‘outcomes’ of leadership development to be known ahead of time on the other?

2. What conflicts and tensions are at play as we encounter uncertainty and how might academics and practitioners help or hinder themselves and each other in negotiating this terrain?

3. Who is ‘the house’, if the ‘house’ always wins?


Cilliers, P. 2002. Why we cannot know complex things completely. Emergence, 4(1/2): pp. 77-84.

Thesis is passed and published

Happy to report that my PhD thesis ‘Leadership Literacies for Professional Staff in Universities’ has now been published at http://researchbank.rmit.edu.au/view/rmit:160335.

This blog was part of my action learning approach to my research and study and my grateful thanks go to all who engaged with this work along the way.


This interpretive inquiry explored leadership approaches for professional staff working in contemporary universities. It was underpinned by an emergent methodology grounded in American Pragmatist philosophy, Critical Management Studies theory and was framed as a qualitative act of inquiry.

A framework, comprising Worldly, Sustaining, Leadingful, Relational and Leadingful Leadership Literacies was constructed. This framework emerged from reflections about, and the critical examination of, leadership studies in changing times. Influences such as complexity as a sense making frame; mindsets emanating from different eras; as well as language and power relations were explored.

The framework was empirically explored by looking for signs of these Leadership Literacies in relation to professional staff working in universities. This was undertaken, first with a thematic exploration of two published Australian university leadership research reports for signs of theoretical congruence with the Leadership Literacies. Second, a survey of professional staff eliciting lived experiences of work and leadership were analysed for signs of the Leadership Literacies in practice, using a qualitative Framework Analysis.

This research found indications of the five emergent leadership literacies identified in the framework having theoretical congruence and observed in practice of professional staff working in Australian universities. This suggests that the Leadership Literacies framework is well positioned to ground ongoing research and analysis of these emergent leadership concerns for professional staff working in universities.


2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,600 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 9 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

The thesis has been submitted…Leadership Literacies for Professional Staff in Universities

Typeface: Thesis from Lucas de Groot

Lucas de Groot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I’m very happy to report that I submitted my thesis ‘Leadership Literacies for Professional Staff in Universities’ last week. Here is a snippet about the findings and also my acknowledgements page.

Leadership Literacies for Professional Staff in Universities

The first discovery of my thesis was the naming of the Worldly, Sustaining, Leadingful, Relational and Learningful Leadership Literacies that I proposed were appropriate for leadership for professional staff in 21st century universities.  These indicate that the focus of leadership studies has moved from all about the leader (as it was in the 20th century) to the work of leadership that everyone does in knowledge-intensive enterprises (and into what is termed in the literature, a post-heroic leadership space). The next two discoveries found that these LL’s were evident in i) theorisations of higher education leadership research projects (The Scott report Learning Leaders In Times of Change and the Jones & Ryland report that synthesised 4 ALTC research projects about distributed learning prospects for Australian universities); and ii) in the data elicited from the lived experiences of work and leadership given by 226 ATEM professional staff members.  In naming one of the LL’s ‘Sustaining’ I was able to test for human sustainability indicators and these results are less rosy than the rest, and this is reflected in my final reflections. These discoveries led to my finding that the Worldly, Sustaining, Leadingful, Relational and Learningful Leadership Literacies were appropriate and indeed indicated as congruent with leadership for professional staff working in universities.

7.3 Final Reflections

My final reflections I turn to three ideas emerging in unison as I contemplate putting the final full stop in this thesis. These are about amplification, the idea of ‘leadership as the business of energy management’ and how these relate to the people I have featured in this thesis, professional staff in Australian universities.

I have spoken several times already about amplifying the considerable body of literature that is now encapsulated within the Worldly, Sustaining, Leadingful, Relational and Learningful Leadership Literacies. This thesis has also amplified the voices of professional staff working in universities, who as Szekeres (2004) reasoned in her search for them in higher education discourse, were ‘invisible workers’. I captured as many of these voices that wanted to be heard and they had much to say about work and leadership in universities in this early part of the 21st century. One of the key messages I discerned from their accounts was about energy management, having positioned this as a leadership concern within my Sustaining Leadership Literacy. Given the recollections in Martin’s (1999) research that I shared in this thesis, about the effects of change and turbulence on academic staff, there are similarities in the responses given by professional staff, some ten years later. I gave two accounts of academics voicing their frustration and sense of despair from Martin’s research*. These sentiments have been shared by my participants, and one quote, from Martha, eloquently encapsulates similar frustrations (and risks):

We seem to be working longer and longer hours—I regularly work a 50+ week and also work on the weekend. Most of my colleagues are in similar positions, this situation will increasingly take a toll on our health, work productivity and organizational sustainability. However, what can we do about it? Martha (Generation Jones (Late Boomer), Go8 Manager)

I regard this as a key leadership challenge in universities at this time. I am also struck, yet again, by the prescience of Mary Parker Follett, and her grasp of these concerns so long ago. She was a person ahead of her time. This leads me to ponder whether she may also be ahead of ours in light of her messages about making the connection between leadership and energy management stronger.

Whoever connects me with the hidden springs of all life, whoever increases the sense of life in me is my leader (Follett 1928, p. 294).

*This from earlier in the thesis in the chapter on Australian HE leadership…

Another notable work is Elaine Martin’s Changing Academic Work: Developing the Learning University (1999). Connecting student learning theory with then nascent ‘learning organisation’ literature to frame her study, Martin captured the effects of change in academic work through the lived experience of academics. In this snapshot of change in the UK and Australia, Martin reflected that it did “not make happy reading. They paint a picture of despondence and frustration, with the occasional pocket of optimism” (p. 13). The research revealed 60% of leaders, as well as 80% of academics (in non-leadership positions), complained that accountability was excessive (p. 17). Their concern was “not with accountability itself, but with the battery of accountability mechanisms which they saw as getting in the way of real work” (p. 17). In addition, Martin captured the effects of change on people, something that I emulate in the next chapter, albeit with a different cohort of university staff. She found that while 77% of leaders felt ‘undervalued’, so did 88% of academics (in non-leadership positions) [p. 21]. Two statements from contributors to Martin’s study are especially poignant, and support my argument that energy management is a key leadership responsibility in the 21st century:

The first, airs frustration: “I feel like the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin. Each day I do the impossible, I perform the miracle—but there is only greed for more, never gratitude for what I am doing” [Senior Lecturer, Social Science] (p. 21).

The next is simply heartbreaking: “I gave to my work what I should have given to my family, I now have no family … and soon may have no job” [Lecturer, Economics] (p. 22).


I gratefully acknowledge my supervisor Sandra Jones for her encouragement, single-mindedness and considerable understanding of what it takes to stay on course as I traversed a lot of territory; and for knowing when to let me explore and when to rein me in. As a practice-led researcher I came with ideas and a passion for this topic which, under Sandra’s counsel, were galvanised into a plan of inquiry. I sincerely thank her for her encouragement, good humour, intellect and staying power. Special mention and thanks, Sandra, for your ability to finally move my resistant focus stemming from these ideas and passion for my profession to what is expected to be in (and out) of a thesis in the discipline of management.

Peter Macauley, my second supervisor, is acknowledged for his encouragement and the collegial working relationship we have shared for thirty years. Having someone who knew me well was invaluable for my own personal journey especially since my identity has shifted, was unmade and remade in the process of this experience. Thanks Pete for your practical and strategic advice, gleaned from your own doctoral education research focus, it was invaluable.

I also acknowledge the support and assistance of RMIT for their research training program, their RMIT/APA full-time Scholarship, as well as the opportunities afforded by presenting at international conferences in Rome and London.

I have many people to thank for their support during this time. Of special mention are my fellow doctoral students Deb Nanschild, Anne Hiha, David Holzmer, Ailsa Haxell and Robyn Ward for the many conversations shared which led me to deeper understandings of my inquiry (and theirs). Thanks to Chris Bigum for the generous chats about all things philosophical. Thanks also to Terry Evans for his initial encouragement to begin the journey and for wisdom shared during many coffees since.

Special thanks to the 226 Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM) colleagues who took the time to participate in this research project. This would not have been possible without the support of Maree Conway and Giles Pickford (ATEM Secretariat) who agreed to act as the conduit between myself, as researcher, and the potential participants for this study. Thank you, Linda McKellar, ATEM Vice President, for your wisdom and as conference travelling companion for several overseas conferences; Stephen Weller, President of ATEM, for your commendations of support and encouragement. Thanks also goes to my focus group of experts who tested the survey for relevance and ease of use.

Last but no means least are my family. I would not have been able to take time out to undertake this inquiry as a full-time student without the support of my partner, Philip. His encouragement, support and culinary skills sustained me during this time. I dedicate this thesis to my children Ashleah and Rohan who have been as supportive of my studies as I have been of theirs. They have been the inspiration to look afresh at leadership and hopefully they (and their generation) will benefit from, and indeed champion, the kinds of 21st leadership literacies I have introduced in this thesis.

Leadership as Energy Management: Reconnecting Humanist Concerns with Leadership for Knowledge-Intensive Enterprises

I presented at ATEM’s Bass Region Conference: Wellbeing: People and Places on May 11.  Here is the abstract.

We find ourselves today, in the second decade of the 21st century, embedded in a knowledge-intensive era (Uhl-Bien et al 2007) framed by the interrelationships between knowledge production as the main driver of growth and wealth creation, globalisation, massification of education and deepening concerns about our world’s environmental sustainability.  The shift is towards a different approach, not yet named or fully understood, yet emerging as leadership perspectives appropriate today’s VUCA[1] (Johansen, 2009) conditions that frame our work in Australia Tertiary Education today.

One definition of leadership that accords with these conditions is that “leaders are in the business of energy management” (Kets de Vries, 2003 p. 111).  This definition acknowledges that leadership is deeply bound to the sustainable use of our creative energies.  It also elevates the judicious governance of energy of self, others and the environment alongside, not subordinate to, financial governance, and therefore towards more holistic approaches to governance (Elkington, 1998; Bragdon, 2006).  This approach calls different and deeper ways of thinking about our world, our worldviews and our leadership and research practices.  It has resonance with the Human Relations Movement from the 1930s (Follett 1925) that remained unprivileged for much of the 20th century but has since been rediscovered in the 21st century as a theoretical basis to work with effectively with today’s VUCA environment.  For example, it can provide the language for leaders and followers to articulate what they may have long felt—that profits above all else and rampant consumerism are not serving the purpose of our lives and they are leading to unsustainable business practices that are harming people and the planet (Evans, 2008).

Human Sustainability Development excercise.  This is how audience members rated institution, all in second wave development stages.

My research has found that appropriate leadership literacies for the Knowledge Era rest on these humanist principles which expand governance to include human, environmental and financial energies.  Such leadership understandings bring issues of sustainability and complexity into the leadership fold, based on the premise that leadership is not set apart from the living systems—human and environmental—that we serve (Davis, 2010a, b).  Here the term literacy suggests more than just the ability to read and write, to be literate also implies a deeper understanding of the particular phenomenon under review and the ability to make sense of, embody, interpret and interact with complex sources of information and experiences inherent in that domain.The literacies emerging from my inquiry have been named as ‘Worldly’, ‘Sustaining’, ‘Leaderful’, ‘Relational’ and ‘Learningful’ Leadership Literacies for the Knowledge Era and these have been tested for signs whether they have yet been theorised and experienced in Australian universities.  To test for signs of observation and experience, some ATEM members were asked about their lived experience of work and leadership during the period November 2009-February 2010 in an online survey.  The results relating to whether the ‘Sustaining Literacy’ had been observed or experienced will be the focus of this presentation, particularly the results pertaining to human sustainability development and energy management drivers that have been investigated as part of this inquiry. 


Bragdon, J. H. 2006. Profit for life, how capitalism excels:  Case studies in living asset management. Cambridge, MA: Society for Organization Learning Inc.

Davis, H. 2010a. Other-centredness as a leadership attribute: From ego to eco centricity. Journal of Spirituality, Leadership and Management, 4(1): pp. 43-52.

Davis, H. 2010b. The sustainability zeitgeist as a gps for worldly leadership within the discourse of globalisation, European Academy of Management 10th Annual Conference: Back to the future. Rome: EURAM.

Elkington, J. 1998. Cannibals with forks: The triple bottom line of 21st century business. Gabriola Island, BC ; Stony Creek, CT: New Society Publishers.

Evans, P. 2008. Is an alternative globalization possible? Politics Society, 36(2): pp. 271 – 305.

Follett, M. P. 1925. Dynamic administration: The collected papers (H.C. Metcalf & L.F. Urwick 1940 ed.). New York: Harper & Bros.

Johansen, R. 2009. Leaders make the future: Ten new leadership skills for an uncertain world. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Kets de Vries, M. F. R. 2003. Leaders, fools and imposters:  Essays on the psychology of leadership (Rev ed.). New York: iUniverse Inc.

Klenke, K. 2008. Qualitative research in the study of leadership. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. 2007. Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4): pp. 298-318.

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