Knowing, Seeing, Being: Embodying the Leadership Trilogy

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Bissett, Ngaire

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Bamber, Greg

Barrett, Mary

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The purpose of this research study is to explore dominant conceptualisations of leadership in both the business and research domains. Of particular interest is firstly the degree to which these conceptualisations are underpinned by unquestioning, taken for granted essentialist assumptions. Secondly, how both practitioners and researchers involved in leadership work and leadership development activities, may reinforce these assumptions in their attempts to define and drive leadership effectiveness criteria alongside organisational change agendas. In locating the current leadership discourse within an essentialist hegemonic frame of reference, the research study also explores the power and structural dynamics which seek to uphold particular kinds of leadership conceptualisations, thus preventing other anti-essentialist alternatives from being publicly acknowledged. Drawing upon critical accounts of leadership practice and leadership research, this thesis represents an autoethnographic account of conducting research into leadership development programs and strategies set up by a large-scale public sector organisation. This involves a re-reading of existing conceptualisations of leadership in organisations through a predominantly poststructualist and feminist lens along with an illustration/development of this anti-essentialist re-reading via an ethnographic study of LIRO (organisation pseudonym). The major research finding of the study is that leadership may be more effectively conceptualised and practiced as a continuous, co-created, contextualised and relational sense-making process, emerging within interdependent constructions of reality (ways of knowing). Consequently, the continued imposition of essentialist, reductionist leadership premises on organisational participants with the objective of replicating, controlling and measuring their behaviour and actions is likely to have unplanned and detrimental consequences for all concerned. Indeed, these participants were more likely to develop their own leadership understandings and realities in relationally responsive and embodied ways. The major implication of this research finding is to accept that essentialist conceptualisations of leadership cannot be readily imposed on people as a static set of performance criteria in order to produce predetermined forms of behaviour. Along these lines, the recommendation is for those involved in leadership work and research to appreciate the ‘ways of seeing’ leadership that emerge from continuous, co-created, contextualised and relational sense making processes. This awareness will enable them to engage and then utilise the perspectives of a wide range of organisational participants in order to build shared understandings around their own and others’ leadership performance realities. Consequently, this may create the space for meaningful ‘ways of being’ leaders to be recognised and named.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Griffith Business School

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The author owns the copyright in this thesis, unless stated otherwise.

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The request for restricted paper and digital access for a period of 24 months has been approved, with effect from 2 June 2008.

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Managerial leadership

Research leadership

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