The Rhetoric and Reality of Systems Leadership

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A talk by Professor Richard Bolden at The Future of Leadership conference hosted by Kings College, London.

Professor Richard Bolden was invited by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence) to speak at a video conference on ‘The Future of Leadership’, hosted by Kings College London on 22nd May. His presentation, titled ‘The Rhetoric and Reality of Systems Leadership’ summarised insights from his recent research in the NHS and public health to highlight key insights for public service leadership over the coming decades.

What is Systems Leadership?

“Systems Leadership is about how you lead across boundaries departmental, organisational or sector. It’s how you lead when you’re not in charge, and you need to influence others rather than pull a management lever. It describes the way you need to work when you face large, complex, difficult and seemingly intractable problems; where you need to juggle multiple uncertainties; where no one person or organisation can find or organise the solution on their own…”
Sorkin, 2016

Watch the recorded conference HERE including Richard’s talk.

The Fall of Edward Colston and the Rise of Inclusive Place-Based Leadership

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by Professor Richard Bolden

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, USA on 25th May 2020 triggered a wave of protests about racial inequality that have spread around the world. In my home city of Bristol, UK the Black Lives Matter march on 7th June led to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader whose sculpture had stood in pride of place in the city centre for 125 years.  The ironic fact that the bronze cast was then dragged to the quayside and unceremoniously dumped into the water at almost precisely the same place as his ships had docked over three hundred years ago did not go unnoticed[1].

Colston, who was born in Bristol in 1636 and lived there for much of his life, made his fortune as a merchant – initially trading wine, fruits and cloth before becoming involved in the slave trade. From 1680-1692 he worked for the Royal Africa Company, which held a monopoly for trading along Africa’s west coast, serving as deputy governor from 1689 to 1690. During his time at the company around 84,000 Africans were transported into slavery, with an estimated 19,000 perishing in the process[2]. Despite his involvement in this abhorrent trade, Colston was widely celebrated for endowing significant sums of money to local schools, hospitals, alms-houses and churches. His statue was erected by the Victorians in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy and his name still features on many city landmarks.

The actions of the protesters that day drew a range of reactions. Whilst the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described it as ‘utterly disgraceful’ and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, called it a ‘criminal act’ others took a more nuanced approach.  Marvin Rees, the elected Mayor of Bristol, whilst not condoning the wilful damage of public property said the statue had been a ‘personal affront’ to him and many other people for years and that he ‘did not feel any sense of loss’[3].  As televised interviews for Channel 4 and BBC later that day pushed Rees to give a binary response to questions about the repercussions of the incident, he took the opportunity to lay-out the complexities of the context in which it had occurred. Rees outlined the sensitivities and challenges and the need for an open and honest debate about the history of race and inequality in the city. As the first elected Mayor of Afro-Caribbean descent in Europe, who took up his post in 2016 amidst the effects of the Brexit vote and sustained cuts to local government funding, he needed to mobilise the support of a diverse (and divided) population and a wide range of stakeholders. Whilst he actively supported campaigns to review Colston’s legacy, including a decision to rename the city’s Colston Hall music venue, attempts to remove Colston’s statue (or, at the very least, install a new plaque describing the atrocities that he had committed) had thus far been undermined[4]. With a finite amount of time, resource and political capital, Rees had many other priorities to attend to in order to address the challenges and divisions within the city[5].

Whilst some expressed outrage that the statue was pulled down David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at University of Manchester and a resident of Bristol, pointed out that the real question was why “21st-century Bristol still had a statue of a slave trader on public display” in the first place[6]. To those who suggested that removing Colston’s statue was an attempt to erase the city’s past, he responded “the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history – it is history”. The legacy of Colston is writ large across the city and will not be forgotten simply because his image no longer gazes down upon those who walk the city’s streets. In an interview for the BBC on the day of the protests Olusoga argued “statues aren’t about history they are about adoration. This man was not great, he was a slave trader and a murderer”[7].

The speed with which other cities across the country have responded by reviewing and removing statues that fail to reflect the multi-cultural nature of contemporary Britain shows that these thoughts are finally being heard[8]. The history of colonisation and slavery that fuelled Britain’s economic, cultural and political influence for many centuries has become woven into the fabric of our institutions and society leaving many of us blind to the day-to-day racism and inequality it perpetuates.

Speaking at the funeral of George Floyd on 9th June Rev. Bill Lawson, who had campaigned alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960’s, said “back in the days when I used to be part of marches, all the marchers were black, but now there are white people who know the story and there are Hispanics who know the story and there are Asians who know the story”[9].  He went on to say “Out of his [George Floyd’s] death has come a movement, a worldwide movement. But that movement is not going to stop after two weeks, three weeks, a month. That movement is going to change the world.”

The events of the past few weeks have a great deal to tell us about the nature and purpose of good leadership in contemporary society. Firstly, they demonstrate that in the second decade of the 21st Century we are still far from the ‘post-racial’ society that some may claim. The roots of racism go back many years and will no doubt take many more to rectify. The diversity of our workforce and communities is widely acknowledged as a significant source of creativity, innovation and competitive advantage yet the relatively superficial attempts to tackle unconscious bias within organisations barely scratches the surface of the discrimination experienced by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals on a daily basis. The role of leaders in a progressive, multi-cultural society is to actively foster and promote diversity in all its forms and to dismantle systems, structures and processes that “inhibit the full and equal engagement of all individuals”[10]. This is difficult and demanding work that requires significant time and emotional investment. It requires listening to and learning from the lived experience of others, and to actively champion and support marginalised individuals and groups. To quote Ruth Hunt, former CEO of the LGBT rights organisation Stonewall, “if you have any power whatsoever, think about how you can share it”[11].

Secondly it shows the need for a deep appreciation of context, informed by genuine respect for the plurality of perspectives on any particular issue. The Police Superintendent for Bristol, Andy Bennett, noted that whilst his officers were present when the statue of Colston was removed and pushed into the harbour, a decision was taken not to intervene as doing so was likely to lead to further disorder. In explaining this decision, he said “whilst I’m disappointed people would damage one of our statues, I do understand why it has happened, it is very symbolic” [12].  Bennett, like Rees, demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the issues and the potential for unintended consequences from his actions. Whilst, of course, attention would have been given to the immediate context of the situation it is highly likely that he also considered the wider context of policing and criminal justice within the city.  Bennett and his colleagues had invested considerable time and effort over many years building and strengthening relationships, trust and collaboration between diverse groups and communities and would, no doubt, be well aware of the long-term knock-on effect of heavy-handed policing in a situation such as this. For those protesting that day the statue of Colston was a vivid symbol of oppression and a reminder of the lack of progress that had been made in tackling systemic inequality[13].

And thirdly it demonstrates the importance of genuine, open discussion in mobilising and sustaining social change. Both Rees and Bennett’s response to the incidents in Bristol on 7th June show a real awareness of the importance of shifting the narrative from blame to reconciliation. The day after the protest Bristol City Council announced its intent to create a new exhibition at the city’s MShed Museum featuring placards and banners from the march, most likely alongside the despoiled statue of Edward Colston once retrieved from the harbour. A day later, Rees announced the launch of a new commission to document and share the ‘true history’ of Bristol[14].

Recognition of the disproportionate impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on BAME communities – both in health and economic terms – alongside a growing sense that not enough is being done at national level to address this is, of course, another key part of the backdrop to recent events[15]. At the time of the Black Lives Matter protests, the UK was still experiencing high numbers of infections and deaths from Covid-19 and laws were in place to enforce social distancing and prohibit gatherings of more than six people. The fact that so many people still took to the streets demonstrated the strength of emotion and level of concern about racial inequality.

Following the suffering and disruption caused by Covid-19 and the trauma of George Floyd’s death there is perhaps a glimmer of hope. Back in April Rees argued that the post-Covid recovery in Bristol should focus on building a “more sustainable, more inclusive, more fair and more just” economy and had begun rallying support for this across the city[16]. Indeed, the groundwork for such an approach had already been laid over the past few years through the development of the One City Approach[17] and the launch of the One City Plan in January 2019. This bold vision and action plan was inspired by a similar initiative in New York that set out a long-term strategy, co-produced with diverse communities and stakeholders, to build a thriving and inclusive city aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals[18]. The three aspects of inclusive place-based leadership outlined above – allyship, understanding and dialogue – will undoubtedly form the bedrock of Bristol’s recovery plan as it emerges from lockdown into a post-Covid world, hopefully building a stronger sense of shared purpose and commitment to learning from our past and moving forward in a caring and considered way.

Note

Whilst the opinions expressed in this article are my own, they are informed by my work with number of colleagues, including Anita Gulati, Dr. Addy Adelaine, Professor Carol Jarvis and Stella Warren, whose own ideas have greatly influenced my awareness and understanding of leadership and inclusion. My reflections on the leadership of Marvin Rees and Andy Bennett are informed not only by media reports but also through engaging directly with each of them on citywide initiatives, including the Bristol One City Approach, Bristol Leadership Challenge and Bristol Golden Key.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Colston

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/bristol-mayor-edward-colston-statue-black-lives-matter-protest-marvin-rees-a9554646.html

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-47670756

[5] https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/news/bristol-tale-two-cities/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest

[7] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/edward-colston-bristol-controversial-statues-uk-cecil-rhodes-a9554421.html

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2020/jun/09/uk-protests-black-lives-matter-colston-statue-rhodes-live

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpOO7OzntN8

[10] https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/852067

[11] https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/5999310  

[12] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/right-wing-people-came-down-4205570

[13] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/how-city-failed-remove-edward-4211771

[14] https://news.bristol.gov.uk/news/bristols-real-story-must-be-told

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/06/labour-accuses-government-of-cover-up-over-bame-covid-19-report

[16] https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/news/rees-lets-rebuild-a-fairer-inclusive-and-more-sustainable-economy/

[17] https://www.bristolonecity.com

[18] http://onenyc.cityofnewyork.us

What will the Leadership of Innovation look like in the post COVID world?

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Rob Sheffield, Visiting fellow at UWE, and Stuart Morris, Facilitator of Design-led Innovation & Creativity at Thales, discuss the emerging implications for the leadership of innovation. Here are extracted excerpts from a wider conversational piece, which was recently shared on medium. Click here for the full read. 

About the context

Stuart: Rob, you have written about leaders in organisations learning to develop the creative capabilities of their team members and themselves in leading innovation. I think it is fair to say that these leaders have come under increasing pressure over the last 20 years to enable more creativity and innovation within their scope of responsibility, whether it be at a global or local team level. The likelihood is that the post-COVID world will only accelerate and intensify this pressure. What are your thoughts on this?

Rob: I think you’re right about the spread of need for creativity and innovation. Of course we’ve seen an extraordinary rush of need-led organising since the crisis hit. The collaboration in households, streets, communities, cities, across organisations, countries… Wow. (And we can all list moments where more collaboration would have helped.)

But, the shift happened long before COVID-19. In our work, we’ve noticed a gradual rise in the demand for and supply of creativity and innovation skills, over the last 15–20 years, and a much more sudden one since around 2015…

…And employees want these skills. Partly because they want to bring imagination into work; also because some people identify very personally with creativity and want it in their work lives. And there is the perceived threat of AI, in its broadest sense, raising questions of which work will remain for people. Well, it’s not easy to automate the generation and implementation of novel ideas. The skills of developing ideas and realising value from them are likely to be done by humans for some time.

Implications for leadership of innovation

Stuart: The era of “scientific management” over the last 100 years, post Industrial Revolution, has created many embedded support systems (and even big businesses who supply these systems), such as reward & recognition, financial management, other business management processes and strong delivery focus. It is these strong embedded cultures I would suggest make it very difficult for leaders to enable the necessary innovation and creativity to happen.

Rob: There is certainly a gap between the need for innovation, and the satisfaction with its delivery. Pre-Covid, Accenture’s research has concluded that many organisations have been talking about breakthrough changes, but sticking with the safer, incremental sort.

I imagine this is for many reasons. As you suggest, if we (maybe unconsciously) hold the metaphor of organisations as machines, that brings with it the assumptions of control, predictability, power invested in top-down planning, and that unforeseen events are mistakes. Whereas, for example, if we imagine organisations to be places where a multitude of conversations are happening simultaneously — some wither, some repeat, some transform into new avenues — this is a metaphor closer to a marketplace, or a network of organisms. There is very little top-down control, and ‘life’ emerges from interactions at local level, where the nature of interactions is key to whether conversations become interesting and manifest into novelty.

Stuart: It is this leadership paradigm which I believe will be severely challenged by the new contexts presented post-Covid, all of which we cannot predict, which is a real problem for those whose assumptions are based on a deterministic view of the world.

So far, we’ve talked mainly about organisations, but we can also widen the implications.

Rob: We’re being given a sharp reminder of what society is. We see examples of our interdependence all around: food chains; how we help and care for each other; supporting key workers to continue their work, and the criticality of being able to connect with each other digitally.

The many examples of street, community, city and wider levels of collaboration, reflect initiatives where no-one has asked for permission, are based on shared purpose, are experimental — trial/learn/improve — and often supported by huge goodwill, kindness and forgiveness from people affected.

Most of us have not seen such mass collaboration. And I hope it will have at least two effects. First, we are remembering what makes a society: that we fundamentally need each other in order to live the way we want. And this realisation will encourage more positive collaboration. Second, that to have such a way of living requires a more nuanced way of framing leadership: one that is much more sensitive to how leadership can spring from anywhere, and connects and empowers people to act.

Stuart: This reminds me of a great Ted Talk by Joi Ito (MIT Media Lab) in 2014 about the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. His wife and family were living in Japan, about 200km from Fukushima, when the Tsunami hit. The news channels, television, government, etc were not telling him anything he wanted to hear in terms of radiation levels — how much danger were his family in? He went on the internet and found others who were also trying to figure out what was going on. Due to their diversity of skillsets they loosely organised themselves to create the ability to measure and share the largest (at that time) open data-set on radiation anywhere in the world — a great citizen science project. In his summary Joi shared his new view of the world of innovation as “deploy or die” (get it into the real world immediately) as opposed to the previous “demo or die” (a step back from deploy) and the even older “publish or perish”…

Dr Jenna Pandeli shortlisted for SAGE Prize for Innovation & Excellence 2020

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We are delighted to announce that Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies, Dr Jenna Pandeli, along with co-authors Michael Marinetto and Jean Jenkins, has been nominated for the SAGE Prize for Innovation and Excellence 2020 for their paper ‘Captives in Cycles of Invisibility? Prisoners’ Work for the Private Sector’.

The SAGE Prize for Innovation and Excellence is awarded annually to one paper in each of the BSA’s prestigious journals: Cultural Sociology, Sociological Research Online, Sociology and Work, Employment and Society. The prize will be awarded to the paper published in the previous year’s volume judged to represent innovation or excellence in the field.

Dr Pandeli’s article critiques a case of modern prison-labour by exploring prisoners’ attitudes towards the prison-work they undertake while incarcerated. The study is based at a privatised male prison in the UK, assigned the pseudonym ‘Bridgeville’. Bridgeville contracts with private-sector firms in providing market-focused prison-work – so-called real work – for inmates in some of its workshops. In exploring prisoners’ perceptions of this privatised prison-work, it is found that it mainly comprises mundane, low-skilled activities typical of informalised, poor-quality jobs that are socially, legally and economically devalued and categorised as forms of ‘invisible work’. At Bridgeville, such privatised prison-work largely fails in engaging or upskilling inmates, leaving them pessimistic about its value as preparation for employment post-release. Its rehabilitative credentials are therefore questioned. The article contributes to the debate around invisible work more generally by problematising this example of excluded work and the cycle of disadvantage that underpins it.

Read the full paper here

The completion of ‘Captives in Cycles of Invisibility? Prisoners’ Work for the Private Sector’ followed a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association. The blog piece is a condensed article of Dr Pandeli’s paper published in Work Employment and Society. The research discussed in this blog post is based on a study conducted in the UK and is particularly pertinent in helping to understand the reasoning behind one of the largest prison strikes in US history last summer, where prisoners undertook nineteen days of peaceful protest. At the heart of this protest was a demonstration against imposed prison labour and the disturbingly low wages that accompany such work.

This approach to prison work, an approach where profit is becoming more prevalent and private organisations are becoming more and more involved in the prison system, is not isolated to the US. It is no surprise then, that as part of the UK Government’s ‘rehabilitative revolution’, a focus on work inside prison has been embraced. However, the rehabilitative potential of prison labour is dependent on its design. Given that it is situated within an institution that is in a constant state of conflict between punishment, rehabilitation and increasingly profit, its status is contested. The research explores how prisoners experience their prison labour, specifically, that done for private firms inside the prison system.

Read full blog post here

Continuing on this topic, you can also listen to Dr Pandeli in part of a panel discussion on the BBC World Service podcast ‘In The Balance’.

Alongside Nila Bala and Chandra Bozelko, both prison reform advocates from the US, they discuss global prison labour and its exploitative potential as well as offering potential solutions to develop prison labour into something that is rehabilitative and better for society. 

You can listen again to the podcast here

Leadership, Complexity and Change: Learning from the Covid-19 pandemic

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Guest blog: Richard Bolden, Professor of Leadership and Management and Director of the Bristol Leadership and Change Centre

What a difference a few days make… Perhaps it’s the sunny Spring days after a long, wet winter; the dog walks spent chatting with teenagers who would normally be off at school; the unexpected free space in my diary with no expectation that I should be in the office; or because so much of what we take for granted has changed so suddenly.

At the time of writing we are in the fourth day of the lockdown called by the UK government to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus. It’s been a tense few weeks as the wave of infections grew ever closer – no longer focussed within a far and distant sounding part of China but causing havoc across Italy, France, Spain, the UK and now it seems, pretty much every part of the world. A quarter of the global population – a staggering 2 billion people – are currently in some form of lockdown, confined to their homes in order to slow the spread of the virus and, in so doing, allow time for governments and health services to prepare for the spike in patient numbers and the inevitable rising death toll.

Almost overnight UWE, Bristol – like universities, schools and colleges around the world – closed its doors and shifted from face-to-face to online delivery. Staff and students have responded with huge adaptability – revising delivery and assessment processes that would have taken months, if not years, through traditional channels. The speed and the scale of changes for organisations in every sector and location are unprecedented. Manufacturers have switched their operations to enable the production of essential items such as ventilators, face masks, hand sanitiser and paracetamol that are now in such high and urgent demand. Governments have drawn up detailed plans to support individuals and organisations at risk of redundancy/bankruptcy – casting aside the usual economic concerns to focus on social priorities such as protecting the vulnerable, supporting those in financial difficulty and strengthening core public services (particularly health and social care). And communities have rallied together in ways not seen since WWII – providing support and reassurance for the elderly and isolated, sacrificing personal liberties for collective benefit and finding new ways to connect, communicate and collaborate.

In the words of the Chinese curse we are indeed living in interesting times (1) – both fraught with risk and opportunity. The turbulence of the last few years has revealed deep divisions within society, as illustrated particularly clearly in the Brexit vote within the UK and Trump presidency in the US. The rise of populism has been associated with scepticism and distrust of experts and evidence, with social media providing the perfect echo chamber for amplifying the polarity of perspectives and questioning the nature of ‘truth’. Differing ideologies and beliefs have been positioned in opposition to one another – them and us, winners and losers, do or die – rather than as an inevitable and desirable characteristic of a diverse and inclusive society, which enables creativity, adaptability and resilience in times of complexity, uncertainty and change.

One of the remarkable consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic has been how quickly it has reset the dial on many of these issues – fostering calls for compassion, solidarity and collective action. At times like this it is our similarities rather than our differences that define us. This is as true for those in positions of power and privilege as those who are marginalised and/or find themselves living in precarity.  We are all susceptible to the virus, all have people we care about who are likely to become very ill or perhaps even die should they catch it, and will all be affected by the economic and social impacts of the outbreak – not just for the months that it lasts but for years to come. The capacity of individuals, families, organisations, communities and nations to weather the storm is not equal, however, with those with least access to financial, emotional and other resources most likely to bear the brunt of the suffering.

An unexpected outcome of Covid-19 is the impact on the environment. The reduction in pollution levels around the world during just the relatively short time in which travel, manufacturing and other environmentally damaging activities have been reduced demonstrates both how directly human activity impacts on the environment and the remarkable ability of the environment, and the animals and plants within it, to recover if given the opportunity. For those who have been calling for a step-change for policy, practice and behaviour towards a more sustainable way of life there is no more compelling evidence of the extent to which this is possible and the environmental benefits it would produce.

For those of us interested in leadership research, education and practice there are many important lessons to take from the current situation. I’m sure everyone will have their own take on events but as a starter for ten here are a few of my own takeaways so far.

  • Shared purpose – after winning a significant majority in the general election of December 2019 Boris Johnson and his government focussed on building a sense of urgency and commitment to ‘getting Brexit done’ that largely entrenched rather than unified opinions around this issue. With Covid-19 the focus has completely shifted to a shared purpose that unites rather than divides individuals and communities. It took a little while to get to this point but, for now at least, the nation is far more unified around a common purpose than it has been for many years.
  • Collective leadership – whilst there is a tendency to equate ‘leadership’ with the traits and behaviours of individual ‘leaders’ the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for individuals and groups to work concurrently and collaboratively in order to achieve leadership outcomes. In daily news briefings, Prime Minister Johnson and members of the cabinet have stood alongside the Chief Medical Officer and other experts to provide clarity and direction to an uncertain population. Whilst this is perhaps the most visible ‘leadership’ at national level it is abundantly clear that it is dependent on significant acts of leadership elsewhere as well as the active ‘followership’ of those responding to calls for care and consideration.
  • Systems change – the Coronavirus pandemic is an inherently complex problem that requires expertise and effort from multiple domains to make sense of the issues and to mobilise timely and effective responses. The concept of ‘systems leadership’, increasingly advocated within public services, highlights the need to influence and leverage engagement across organisational, professional and other boundaries. Frequently this means needing to lead without formal authority – to work with principles of complexity and systems thinking to initiate new patterns of behaviour that spread from one context to another. It also involves dismantling and rebuilding systems, structures and processes – both physical and psychological – that constrain rather than enable transformation and change.
  • Sensemaking – in times of ambiguity and uncertainty leadership has a key role to play in helping people to make sense of the situation(s) in which they find themselves. The people who will be recognised as ‘leaders’ are those who are able to frame the context in a way that acknowledges the nature and severity of the issue(s), addresses the concerns of their constituents and which provides a degree of clarity about the actions/responses that are required. Within the US Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, has emerged as key national figure in mobilising the response to Coronavirus – providing far greater clarity and direction than Trump and now being mooted as the democratic candidate for the next US election despite not even standing as a nominee.
  • Place based leadership – whilst many national figures have struggled to grapple with the scale and implications of the issues posed by Covid-19 local leaders have often responded far quicker and been more effective at mobilising public, private, voluntary and community groups and organisations to collaborate and respond. Place-based leadership is responsive to the context that surrounds it – drawing together multiple perspectives and expertise to address issues of concern to citizens within a particular locale – and will be essential not only in dealing with the immediate effects of Covid-19 but in the long period of rebuilding and recovery that will follow the pandemic.

These are just a few initial reflections and there is far more that could be said. Looking forward I have no doubt that the Spring of 2020 will be seen as a defining moment in our understanding of and engagement with leadership, complexity and change. I only hope that we learn the lessons and make use of them to create a stronger, healthier, kinder, safer world rather than defaulting back to the divisive and destructive policies, practices and behaviours that preceded the current crisis (2).

Richard Bolden

Bristol Leadership and Change Centre

27 March 2020

Notes

(1) Whilst often presented as the English translation of a traditional Chinese curse the phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’ has rather more recent origins – see https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/may-you-live-in-interesting-times.html

(2) Please do share your own reflections and insights by means of the comments box at the end of the post in order to continue the discussion. Further reading and resources linked to the themes raised in this article are given below.

Further reading

Bolden, R. and O’Regan, N. (2016) Digital Disruption and the Future of Leadership: An Interview With Rick Haythornthwaite, Chairman of Centrica and MasterCard, Journal of Management Inquiry, 25(4), 438-446.

Bolden, R. and O’Regan, N. (2018) Leadership and Creativity in Public Services: An Interview With Lord Michael Bichard, Chair of the National Audit Office, Journal of Management Inquiry, 27(1), 45-51.

Bolden, R. and Witzel, M. (2017) Dis-united Kingdom? Leadership at a crossroads. In S. Western and E.J. Garcia (Eds) Global Leadership Perspectives: Insights and Analysis. London: Sage.

Bolden, R. et al. (2011) Exploring Leadership: Individual, organisational and societal perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bolden, R. et al. (2017) Leadership Paradoxes: Rethinking leadership for an uncertain world. London: Routledge.

Bolden, R. et al. (2019) Developing systems leadership in public health: A scoping report. UWE, Bristol on behalf of Public Health England.

Bolden, R. et al. (2020) Mobilizing Change in Public Services: Insights from a Systems Leadership Development Intervention, International Journal of Public Administration, 43(1), 26-36.

Bolden. R. et al., (2019) Inclusion: The DNA of leadership and change. UWE, Bristol on behalf of the NHS Leadership Academy.

Distinguished Professorial Address – Jackie Ford

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Date: Tuesday 24th March 2020

Time: 17:30 – 19:30

Location: Bristol Business School

Bristol Business School will be hosting Jackie Ford from Durham University Business School on 24th March for a Distinguished Professorial Address.  This will be proceeded by a symposium on Collective Leadership.

Many accounts of leadership studies appear to take too lightly, if they treat of it at all, the insecurity, anxiety and ambiguity in the lives of leaders and led (Ford and Harding, 2004; Ford, 2006). Through ignoring these feelings, they actively create such feelings. Leaders are told they should be confident, secure and very clear about what they are doing, and why they are doing it, in all circumstances. This is an impossible feat in practice – who could live up to such a paragon? By failing to achieve an over-ambitious norm, leaders can feel themselves to be failures. But in equal measure, there is a risk that control of work processes and conversations may still be regulated by power elites qua leaders who manipulate organisational discourses through structural and cultural norms that remain embedded in historical traditions. This can in turn have disastrous consequences on followers in organisations – as Jackie will illuminate during her presentation.

Jackie Ford is Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies at Durham University Business School. She has long-standing frustrations with much research on leadership, especially the absent recognition of power and identities, and through her research she seeks to unsettle dominant understandings. Current interests include critical feminist, psychosocial and interdisciplinary approaches that recognise specific gender, wider diversity and ethical dimensions, and ways in which leadership research and practice impact on working lives.

You can register for the address here.

This Address will be proceeded by and afternoon Symposium:

Searching for the Abominable Snowman: Exploring the Elusive Nature of Collective Leadership

Date: Tuesday 24th March 2020
Time: 14:00 – 16:30
Location:  Frenchay Campus

UWE Bristol: Events Diary – BBS Seminar: Searching for the Abominable Snowman: Exploring the Elusive Nature of Collective Leadership

“Leadership is like the Abominable Snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but who is nowhere to be seen.” (Bennis and Nanus, 1985)

It is 35 years since and Meindl et al. (1985) coined the notion of the “Romance of Leadership” to explain the tendency to over-emphasise the importance of ‘leaders’ in shaping organisational life and accomplishing ‘leadership’ outcomes. Despite a huge expansion of leadership theory, research, practice and development in the intervening years, leadership remains “elusive and enigmatic” – heralded as both the cause of and solution to almost all challenges facing groups, organisations and society.

Since the turn of the millennium, despite growing interest in ‘collective’ forms of leadership, which have helped shift the focus from the traits, characteristics and behaviours of ‘leaders’ to the social processes of ‘leadership’ “we have been unable to generate an understanding of leadership that is both intellectually compelling and emotionally satisfying” (Meindl et al., 1985, p. 78) and the myth of the ‘heroic leader’ continues to dominate mainstream perspectives on leadership.

This symposium includes contributions from a number of scholars who have been actively engaged in scholarship on collective leadership over many years, who will reflect on their insights and experiences to speculate on the potential causes of and responses to the “slippery, shape-shifting” (Ospina et al., 2017: 1) nature of collective leadership.

Following the two presentations participants will be invited to share and reflect on their own experiences of researching, teaching and practicing collective leadership and the implications for future scholarship in this field.
There is no fee for attending this event and participants are warmly invited to stay on for the Distinguished Professorial Address by Professor Jackie Ford later in the day.

Social Constructions of Collective Leadership: The performative nature of empty signifiers

Gareth Edwards – Associate Professor in Leadership Development, UWE, Bristol
Richard Bolden – Professor of Leadership and Management, UWE, Bristo
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This paper uses reflexive conversations to explore how concepts of ‘collective leadership’ have been socially constructed in leadership research and practice over the past twenty years. Particular attention is given to the processes of social constructive-ness through which ‘collective leadership’ is framed and reframed, and the role of both researchers and practitioners in this process.

The paper contributes to theory, research and practice in three inter-connected ways – firstly by highlighting the performative nature of ‘collective leadership’ through a social constructivist lens; secondly by developing the notion of negative ontology by applying it to empirical evidence in order to uncover and problematize theories of collective leadership; and thirdly, by making the link between negative ontology and critical performativity in order to demonstrate how researchers and theorists can disclose stages of performativity in the development of new theories.

The Transformational Object of Leadership: A critique in two agonies and eight fits

Jackie Ford, Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies, Durham University Business School
Nancy Harding, Professor of HRM, University of Bath School of Management
Sarah Gilmore, Reader in Organization Studies, Cardiff University Business School

A special journal issue that explored the tricky question of how to research collective leadership was recently announced which described the very term of collective leadership as ‘a slippery, shape-shifting phenomenon’ (Ospina, et al., 2017: 1) that has generated much theory, but is difficult to research empirically.

The same could also be said about much of the work on researching, conceptualising and practising leadership. This paper questions the rationale for searching for appropriate research methods. We argue the necessity for a more sophisticated account of the human subject of leadership approaches before researching leadership in practice. Without such careful preparation there is a risk, firstly, that researchers see what they expect to see. Secondly, we warn that without better understanding of the human subject, leadership could be for ill rather than good, and could contribute to the contemporary forces undermining democracy, liberalism, tolerance and individual freedoms.

These arguments are inspired by Lewis Carroll’s epic nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark: an Agony in Eight Fits, and the insights of psychoanalytical object relations theory. Turning our arguments back on ourselves, we conclude that the times dictate that we, the collective of leadership theorists, turn our efforts to understanding and intervening in trends that threaten to undermine justice, democracy, citizenship, equity, and equality. In Carroll’s terms, we are caught in the fruminous jaws of the Bandersnatch, may be summoning up the dangerous Boojum, and have lost sight of the Snark.

References
Bennis, W. and Nanus, B. (1985) Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper and Row.
Meindl, J.R., Ehrlich, S.B., & Dukerich, J.M. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30, 78-102.
Ospina SM, Foldy EG, Fairhurst GT and Jackson B (2017) Collective dimensions of leadership: The challenges of connecting theory and method. Human Relations, http://www.tavinstitute.org/humanrelations/special_issues/LeadershipCollectiveDimensions.html

You can register for this here.

Paradox of success and failure

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Moon Executive Search recently spoke to the Director of Doctoral Research in Business and Law at UWE Bristol, Svetlana Cicmil, about the paradox of success and failure in the context of modern businesses. Read the original post here.

Most [IT] projects fail; it is just a question of how much failure can still be deemed a success’”[Cadle and Yeates (2001)]

The binary notions of success and failure govern much of the way that both individuals and organisations approach, experience and evaluate work. But how adequate is the traditional narrative of success and failure? Does it enable or hinder the pursuit of constructive, fulfilling work?

The consequences of constantly evaluating our actions and achievements as binary outcomes can not only be long-lasting, and include anxiety and insecurity, professional penalties, and loss of direction; they can also make us lose our ability to sensitively, holistically and constructively reflect on our activities and organisational purpose in a wider social context.

Take the IT industry, for example, it is famous for its failures at the project level and for its success at the industry level:

“Massive failure rates have never threatened the advance of IT; quite the contrary, high-risk and prone-to-fail projects nearly always characterize leading-edge industries. Failure in this sense is the price of success.” (Sauer, 1999, quoted in Fincham, 2002, p.2)

This not only demonstrates how ‘failure’ is required for innovation, but also that the attributions of failure and success are dependent on who judges them, at which point in time, and at which level of activity.

Therefore, it is fair to say that failure and success are interrelated in an elusive way. Drawing on insights from studies of project-based work we can examine the elusive nature of the fixed categories of success and failure, illuminate the multiple judgments of success and failure that are simultaneously at play, and encourage a more critical and complex approach to coping with this dilemma in everyday working life.

Increasingly employees are finding that their roles have become project-intensive and that as a result they are working and making decisions within the organising principles of matrix structures. In theory, matrix structures support effective and efficient utilisation of an organisations’ resources, creating the capacity to simultaneously run multiple projects.

However, a well-researched syndrome of project overload includes the pressures and anxieties caused by the simultaneous existence of multiple, mutually-exclusive, but complexly interrelated criteria for evaluating the performance of each of the projects that an employee may be simultaneously involved in.

Where multiple parties participate in project initiation and delivery, they will make sense of, and engage with, the project in different ways and with different ambitions and expectations, this can create irreconcilable criteria. 

The challenge is to find a way for the project’s participants to negotiate and agree on the key criteria against which inevitable changes to the project plan, resulting trade-offs, and any redefinitions of the original goal and specification will be tested and evaluated.

In order to do this, we need to consider how the notions of success and failure are framed. Instead of working with belief that success and failure are polarised, discrete, fixed states, organisations should be asking how they can provide their employees with a fulfilling and meaningful working life which is not impacted by the requirement to undertake multiple projects. But how can this be achieved?

Firstly, review the ambitions driving each project in a more reflexive, caring and satisfying manner. This requires awareness of the need to navigate the unknown in a responsible way which will avoid the negligence and reckless risk-taking that may detrimentally impact those involved in the project.

Secondly, failure is often tied up with a feeling of having let down and disappointed the project team and wider company. But does this stem from original unrealistic expectations? When undertaking a new project ask for an objective opinion on the ambition, expectations, and goals, do not discard previous experiences as irrelevant with the conviction that things will go better this time, and make sure that there is time to consult and check.

Deviation from a plan should not be considered a failure if everyone involved has been open-minded, critically reflexive, and collaborative about what new opportunities this might bring.

Finally, the leadership team should introduce systemic changes that acknowledge the complexity of project-based work. These could include incorporating regular reviews of established processes and approaches to collaboration, agreeing and renegotiating project performance indicators, and introducing a high level of accountability, responsibility, and transparency in decision-making to reduce vulnerability from project overload.

By considering the experience of success and failure in the context of project-based work, we find that the success-failure binary is not only too simplistic but is actively harmful to the pursuit of what matters. Rather than considering success as something desirable and failure as a pathology to be eradicated, should they not be considered in a complex relational way? If so, the key questions, therefore, move from ‘Why did this fail?’ to ‘What was achieved?’ and ‘What can be learned from this?’

18th International Studying Leadership Conference

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From 13-15 December 2019 Bristol Leadership and Change Centre hosted the 18th International Studying Leadership Conference, which was attended by around 140 delegates from 13 different countries.

The conference featured three keynote addresses (Prof Peter Case from UWE, Prof Sonia Ospina from the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and Prof Elena Antonacopoulou from the University of Liverpool), a panel discussion at City Hall (chaired by Prof Robin Hambleton with contributions from Mayor Marvin Rees, Kalpna Woolf and Andy Street), five parallel streams (including almost 90 separate papers) and a gala dinner at the Marriott Royal Hotel on College Green.

Participants have been invited to submit their papers for a special issue of the journal Leadership on the conference theme of ‘Putting leadership in its place’, which will be edited by Neil Sutherland, Gareth Edwards, Doris Schedlitzki and Richard Bolden.

Fighting Malaria in Namibia: A New Cohort of Students Enroll in FBL’s Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership

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Professor Peter Case’s research on malaria healthcare service provision expanded to Namibia this year. Peter’s research teams – including three recent Zimbabwean graduates from the FBL Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership – are currently working with Namibia’s Vector-borne Diseases Control Programme to combat malaria by improving frontline prevention and treatment of the disease in Kavango Province.

In order to help make the overall Organization Development for Malaria Elimination work sustainable in the region, FBL is supporting a fresh cohort of twelve students (pictured) to complete a postgraduate certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership. The module was launched this week with a two-day course delivered in Rundu by Dr Greyling Viljoen. By all accounts, the taught programme was very well received and students gave extremely positive feedback on their experience. The efforts of FBL’s Professor Carol Jarvis and Felicity Cargill should also be acknowledged as they have assisted greatly with setting up the course and enrolling the new cohort.

Most of the students enrolled on the module are also members of project task force which is developing and implementing detailed action plans for malaria healthcare improvements in Kavango. Following the PPCL course, they will be working with Dr Viljoen and one of the Zimbabwean graduates from last year, Munashe Madinga of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, to review and further refine service improvement plans.

The overall project in Namibia is a collaboration between UWE and the Malaria Elimination Initiative, University of California San Francisco. The work is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

[Image: Back row: 1. Ms A Augustu, 2. Ms Loise Ambata, 3. Dr K Mapanga, 4. Ms A Ashivudhi, 5. Ms Julie Neidel, 6. Dr H David 7. Mr M Madinga

Front row: 1. Mr S Shashipapa, 2. Ms I Mendai,  3. Dr G Viljoen, 4. Ms E Eises 5. Ms S Haingura,  6. Mr S Nairenge ]

Unlocking Performance through Employee Engagement Conference

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On Tuesday 25 June Bristol Business School hosted the ‘Unlocking Performance through Employee Engagement Conference’ in collaboration with Engage for Success, CITB and ILM. This was the first Engage for Success conference hosted outside of London, and it was fantastic to hold it here at UWE Bristol welcoming over 170 external delegates to the Business School.

The main theme of the event was around harnessing the skills of people and resources to reach new levels of engagement to boost productivity and save costs. There was also a focus on creating and sustaining employee engagement during challenging times, and with limited budgets, as often experienced by SMEs.

The event was chaired by Dr. Gareth Edwards, Associate Professor of Leadership Development at UWE Bristol, whilst Noordin Shehabuddeen, Director of Bristol Business Engagement Centre at UWE Bristol, welcomed the delegates, who came from a variety of professions from within the South West including the construction industry, accounting and finance, and local government.

The conference was treated to some excellent keynote speakers focusing on the necessity for employee engagement now more than ever, to case studies from baby food manufacturer Ella’s Kitchen to Wilmott Dixon, a local construction company, who were recently ranked the 4th Best Company to work for by the Sunday Times.

There then followed a series of interactive workshops led by invited guests who are also ambassadors for Engage for Success, and a rather intriguing energiser event led by the Creator of Joy at Inspire me, who was able to create a credible rock choral version of ‘Aint No Mountain High Enough’ in just 20 mins – definitely an occasion which you had to be part of to actually believe.

The event concluded with a keynote address from Andrew Sandiford, Managing Partner of local accountancy firm Bishop Fleming, followed by a panel discussion to answer questions submitted by the delegates throughout the day. It was evident that employee engagement is everyone’s responsibility, and many of the questions centered on how to do this if given little or no budget, as well as strategies as to how to gain support from the cynics and buy-in from senior management. Support was certainly gained by everyone present, and we were delighted to have hosted such a fantastic event.