Leadership concepts in the West

Ever since the Enlightenment, Western thinking has been dominated by rationalism. That rationality, and conceptual knowledge, are superior is so deeply ingrained in western thinking, that it is hard to conceive of experiencing the world and ourselves in it in any other way. Rationalism and Cartesian dualism have had a profound impact on, and still continues to influence, our way of thinking in such fundamental ways that even in the social sciences, to which the study of leadership belong, the emphasis is on the conceptual and the rational. As Sheng (2016) writes on the LSE blog “It is a paradox that despite the many conceptual flaws of positivist social science, no new theories have been able to unseat its dominance.” Indeed when surveying the mainstream academic literature and the popular press on leadership it is evident that the majority of leadership studies are essentially positivistic in nature.

Existentialist writers have offered alternative perspectives on the rationalistic edifice without seriously being able to challenge it’s dominance. The discovery of the unconscious, in dynamic psychiatry, has added further insight into the issues created by rationalism. Increasingly, from the second half of the 20th century, many Westerners have sought an alternative in Eastern spiritual traditions and indigenous wisdom traditions. Still, well into the 21 century, the Enlightenment values dominate Western society.

However, in the post-colonial era there are many signs of the insufficiency of this view of the world and the place of The West in it. The current cultural and political predicaments of The West give plenty of reason to critically reflect on outdated ways of thinking and relating. This is the background to my presentation.

In this talk I suggest ways of exploring leadership, and ways of engaging with the world and expressing oneself, from a number of angles that are all primarily experiential rather than conceptual. These approaches are all relatively unexplored in the leadership literature and are almost absent from leadership education in Higher Education in the UK.

My experience of facilitating groups and coaching individuals has significantly influenced my view that what is lurking underneath the surface greatly influences what happens in organisational and individual life. To plumb these areas I will use a depth psychological approach – Jungian, as well as process-oriented – in order to explore what it means to be a human being, and the implication for leadership.

Paradoxically, from a positivistic perspective, research evidence suggest that conceptual training is quite ineffectual in creating behavioural change. For leadership development, this behavioural inflexibility is a significant challenge. To address this I will use the notion of embodied leadership. Here I draw on ideas from the field of dance movement therapy as well as on the literature deriving from the field of somatics. My background in dance and my training as a Dance of Awareness facilitator and in Leadership Embodiment (based on the principles of aikido) have shaped how I understand this challenge.

Thirdly, I will explore the essential human capacity for imagination and creation and the role this plays in creating value for ourselves, organisations and society. This is vital to expanding our notions of what it means to lead. The creative act by its very nature involves doing things differently and often in ways that appear illogical or even unthinkable. While creativity and innovation are high on the agenda of business schools and Higher Education in general, true creativity sits uncomfortably within the educational environment, where conformity to theory and conceptual clarity are more esteemed.

Finally, I will formulate findings and recommendations on both the philosophical and applied aspects of the topics explored, and directions for further work will be discussed.

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