The Elusive Nature of Leadership Practice: An investigation into the distribution, practice and discursive processes of leadership in universities and other large organisations
Bolden, Richard Ian
Date: 22 February 2010
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
PhD in Leadership Studies
This thesis outlines a personal attempt to explore leadership in a holistic manner that recognises the contribution of both individuals and the collective whilst remaining sensitive to contextual factors. It endeavours to do this through presentation, analysis and discussion of two empirical studies of leadership, informed by distributed ...
This thesis outlines a personal attempt to explore leadership in a holistic manner that recognises the contribution of both individuals and the collective whilst remaining sensitive to contextual factors. It endeavours to do this through presentation, analysis and discussion of two empirical studies of leadership, informed by distributed and practice perspectives, which regard leadership as a shared and contextually situated social process. The thesis begins with an overview of leadership theory and research, proposing that the time is right for a reframing of the field of leadership studies in order to redress the balance accorded to individual and collective accounts of leadership; review how we recognise, reward and develop leadership; and revisit our methodologies and approaches to leadership enquiry. The first empirical study investigates perceptions and experiences of leadership in the UK higher education sector, proposing that whilst leadership may be considered as widely dispersed, the notion of ‘distributed leadership’ also carries a powerful rhetorical function that may mask an uneven distribution of power, resources and rewards. The second empirical study explores the notion of ‘leadership-as-practice’ in three large, complex organisations outside the HE sector, and reveals the significant impact of discourse and sensemaking in shaping perceptions, experiences and the accomplishment of leadership for middle-senior level operational managers. The discussion chapter draws together the various themes explored in the thesis, in particular demonstrating the significance of issues of discourse, identity and purpose in making sense of the elusive nature of leadership practice. It is argued that a holistic representation of leadership remains difficult to achieve because of the manner in which grand Discourses and micro-level discourses of leadership interact to attribute the social process of leadership to the actions of individual leaders. The thesis concludes with a series of recommendations that highlight the value of a somewhat eclectic approach to leadership theory, research, practice and development that facilitates the emergence and recognition of contextually-appropriate ‘hybrid configurations’ of leadership.
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