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An Invitation to Dance: Conclusions and Implications
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An Invitation to Dance:
Conclusions and Implications

by Patricia Marlette Black BA, MEd.

from Women’s Leadership in Community-Profit Organisations,
Doctoral Thesis , Queensland University of Technology, 1999, pp. 213-225.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

9.1 Introduction

Leadership is an ongoing social reality at the heart of organisations, communities and societies. The paradigm shift from a mechanistic to a holistic world view and the discontinuous change which accompanies this shift provide the current cultural context and the contemporary context in which leadership is exercised. Indeed, the way in which leadership is understood and exercised in these contexts of discontinuous change and major cultural transformation may substantially determine how society evolves in such a turbulent environment. The exhaustion of the mechanistic world view and of the bureaucratic-managerial model of leadership which reflects its assumptions and values suggests the importance of finding elsewhere new understandings and practices of leadership for a postmodern world.

Because paradigm shifts are more likely to be felt and responded to ‘on the margins’ where there is not such a heavy investment in the values and practices of the dominant world view, the ‘elsewhere’ where new understandings and practices of leadership are likely to be found are contexts radically different from the malestream, bureaucratic and profit-dominated contexts in which the majority of leadership writing and research occurs. In the light of the researcher’s own experience and the issues raised by a review of the relevant literature, the research problem was articulated as ‘to what extent does women’s leadership in community-profit organisations exhibit new understandings and practices of leadership which are consonant with distinctive features of an emerging holistic world view and which have the potential to provide a creative response to discontinuous change?’

The research problem has been explored through the use of a research methodology and research methods which aim to provide insights into and a better understanding of the social reality of leadership in the hope that greater understanding will attract new expressions of that reality consonant with distinctive features of an emerging holistic world view. The key source of the insights and understandings about leadership is the voices of the participants themselves. The research has not attempted to either verify theory or to create new theory describing the social reality of leadership. Women’s experiences of exercising designated and non-positional leadership in community-profit organisations are explored with a view to gaining a greater understanding of the meanings women in such contexts attach to their experiences of leadership. The purpose of the research is to provide some understanding of women’s experience of leadership in community-profit organisations and to identify whether these understandings are ‘new’ in the sense that they reflect distinctive features of an emerging holistic world view and have the potential to provide new directions and new maps for understanding and practising leadership beyond those of the bureaucratic-managerial model which at present dominate leadership research and practice.

The research findings suggest that this research does contribute towards new understandings and practices of leadership. An image that the researcher finds useful for describing these new understandings and practices of leadership is that of dancing. As outlined in Chapter 3, the relevant literature left the researcher with images of masculine figures such as The Lone Ranger and Braveheart engaged in activities such as climbing, marching, striding and swaggering. These images do not capture the freedom, the flexibility, the spontaneity or the grace that infuses the leadership experiences described by the participants. Dance is a rhythmic series of movements characterised by freedom, spontaneity and grace. It is also a highly organised activity with intricate steps characterised by rhythm, pattern and interconnectedness. The bending, swaying, circling and spiralling of dancing seem to be more appropriate images of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations than the images of climbing, marching and striding portrayed in the relevant literature.

This chapter proposes conclusions about the research problem based on the research findings presented in the previous three chapters and discusses them using the imagery of dancing. The implications of the research for further theory, practice and research are explored and the distinct contribution of the research to the relevant body of knowledge is summarised.

9.2 New Understandings and Practices of Leadership: The Choreography

The research findings outlined in the previous three chapters present understandings and practices of leadership that are collaborative, relational in the sense of promoting mutuality and partnership, facilitative, generative and realistic. These understandings and practices emerge as the characteristics of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations, not as the characteristics of individual women in leadership positions. One of the distinct contributions of this research is that the understandings of the participants are focused on the leadership interaction and not on the individual designated leaders. Using the metaphor of the dance, the focus is on the dance and not on the dancers, especially not on the dancers who are leading.

The research indicates that the predominant characteristic of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations is that it is collaborative. The connection images chosen by the participants to describe leadership in their organisations focus on the connections between members of the organisation and between the organisation and their clients. According to the participants the main components of the leadership interaction are collaboration and a common commitment to a shared vision. The way in which power is understood by the participants reflects and supports collaborative interaction. Collaboration is a recurring theme in the research findings and it is identified as a key leadership strategy. Participative decision making and networking, key leadership strategies described by the participants, also emphasise collaboration. One third of the participants use the word collaborative to describe their personal leadership style. The greatest conflict participants experience is the struggle to remain committed to collaborative and participative structures, processes and practices.

The research findings indicate that women in community-profit organisations understand and practise a leadership that is relational. All leadership interactions are relational, whether the relationship is one of domination/submission, benevolent caretaking/dependence or other. The relational aspects of the leadership interactions that emerge in the research findings are mutuality and partnership. The images chosen by the participants to describe leadership in their organisations emphasise mutuality and sharing. The participants consider communication, honesty, integrity, openness and relationship building to be important components of the leadership interaction because these components promote mutuality in relationships and partnership. The participants describe the relationship between the designated leaders and the non-positional leaders in the organisations as a mutual relationship. The understanding of power as domination, control or ego is rejected by the participants because it undermines mutuality and partnership. Strategies such as networking and communicating adopted by the participants facilitate and strengthen relationships of mutuality and partnership in their organisations.

A third characteristic of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations that emerges in the research findings is that it is facilitative. The participants describe the leadership in their organisations as making it easy for everyone to participate in and to contribute to the work of the organisation. A recurring theme in the research findings is the importance of knowing, valuing, affirming and supporting each person in the organisation. The leadership interaction in the organisations facilitates a sense of personal fulfilment among the designated leaders and the non-positional leaders as well as the personal growth of members and clients.

A fourth characteristic of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations is that it is generative. Generativity is the capacity to bring into being, to create. It is the readiness to expand one’s interests and concerns to include nurturing the personal growth of others and the development of social structures that promote the common good. Generativity assumes an energy source. For the participants this energy source includes their own motivations for engaging in leadership, described in Chapter 8 as service to the organisation’s goals and values, the desire for social transformation and the search for personal fulfilment, as well as the leadership interaction that grows out of the common commitment to the shared vision of their organisations, described by the participants in Chapter 6 as community development, social transformation and personal growth and empowerment of members and clients. The congruence between the personal motivation of the participants for engaging in leadership and the purposes of the organisations as described by the participants appears to be a source of concentrated energy for the participants. The energy source for generativity is also found in the participants’ understanding of power as an energy, a capacity to influence that is generated in the interactions of the designated leaders and non-positional leaders and between the leaders and their clients in order to achieve the common purposes of the group.

The images chosen by the participants to describe the leadership of their organisations include images of movement, growth, vibrancy. In the research findings about women’s leadership in community-profit organisations there are indications of passion, dynamism and creative energy generated in the leadership interaction among members of the organisation. This creative energy finds expression within the research organisations in the participants’ description of the time and energy they commit to ongoing reflection and action to find creative and new processes and structures that incorporate the best of feminist organisational forms and the best of bureaucratic organisational forms. The creative energy has an outward orientation which finds expression in lobbying and advocacy for a more just and equitable society and in a commitment to the purposes of the organisations. The research findings which indicate that the participants enjoy the experience of leadership and perceive themselves as effective leaders suggest that they are ready to be generative in the service of their own wellbeing as well as in the service of the wellbeing of others and of society as a whole.

A final characteristic of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations is that it is realistic. The research findings indicate that the participants are constantly challenged but not overwhelmed by lack of resources, an aging and decreasing membership, and over-commitment in terms of their own time and energy. The struggle to remain committed to collaborative and participative structures, processes and practices is time and energy intensive. The lack of women as role models in leadership is another limitation expressed by some participants.

To what extent are these collaborative, relational (in the sense of promoting mutuality and partnership), facilitative, generative and realistic understandings and practices of leadership ‘new’? The understanding of leadership as facilitative is not necessarily ‘new’ and is a common theme in the leadership literature. Nor can the understanding of leadership as realistic be called ‘new’.

As the review of the relevant literature in Chapter 3 indicates, collaboration is not a prevalent concept in leadership theories or leadership research. A review of the Subject Indexes of most leadership books reveals the absence of ‘collaboration’ as a subject. Where collaboration is mentioned in the literature, the focus is on the designated leader fostering collaboration within teams and among followers (for example, Limerick & Cunnington 1993; Kouzes & Posner 1995) and not on a collaborative leadership process including both designated leaders and followers or non-positional leaders. Although it is often assumed that women have more collaborative leadership styles, the review of the Women in Management literature, especially the ‘gender as a variable’ component of the literature illustrated that the studies which assume women’s different leadership styles are inconclusive. Frequently in the leadership literature collaboration is associated with structures such as networks rather than with the concept of leadership. The research findings, especially those based on the responses of the non-positional leaders, do not support the contention that ‘too often, authoritarian expectations have been wrapped in a thin coating of collaboration’ (Lipman-Blumen 1996, p. 175). To highlight collaboration as the most distinguishing feature of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations does, therefore, indicate a new understanding and new practices of leadership. This research contributes to the knowledge about leadership by suggesting that leadership as a collaborative process involving designated leaders and active followers is possible and effective.

To understand and practise leadership as a partnership relationship based on mutuality is a relatively new theme in recent leadership literature (Rost 1993; Onyx 1994; Block 1996, 1998; Rosen 1996; Work 1996; Parston 1997; Wheatley 1998). As outlined in the review of relevant literature, this is an understanding of leadership which challenges the patriarchal system of governance which underpins the bureaucratic-managerial model of leadership characteristic of the mechanistic world view. These new understandings of leadership as a partnership between leaders and followers based on mutuality emerge in the literature at the same time (1995 to 1998) as the participants in their interviews were describing these same understandings of leadership and the way they were embodied in their organisations. In that sense the participants’ understanding of leadership as relational insofar as it reflects and promotes mutuality and partnership in the leadership interaction between designated leaders and non-positional leaders is a new understanding.

The generative understandings and practices of leadership exhibited in the research findings are also new. The participants’ commitment to ongoing reflection and to the generating of new structures that are a hybrid form of feminist and bureaucratic structures is a valuable contribution to leadership studies. The fact that the creative energy of the participants has an outward orientation in terms of social transformation and community development is also a new contribution to leadership studies in contrast to the upward orientation of getting to the top in the for profit leadership literature and breaking the glass ceiling in the Women in Management literature and in contrast to the at present inward orientation of the community-profit sector which is described as resource-driven rather than mission-oriented in section 1.1 of the thesis.

The understandings and practices of leadership which emerge from the research findings may not be ‘new’ at all to the participants themselves nor to the many women who exercise leadership in community-profit organisations, for, as Wheatley (1998, p. 344) observes:

It is a story that has never been forgotten by any of us and that has been held for us continually by many peoples and cultures. Yet for those of us emerging from our exhaustion with the old mechanistic tale, it feels new. And it certainly opens us to new discoveries about who we are as people, as organizations and as leaders.

The important contribution that this exploration of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations makes to leadership studies is in the particular configuration of the key characteristics of the leadership process that emerge in the research findings. Collaboration, mutuality, partnership and generativity are so valued by the participants that they form the primary framework in which all leadership interactions occur even in those cases where there is a need for more formal structures. This configuration suggests the metaphor of dancing. The participants have choreographed the steps and patterns of collaboration, mutuality, partnership, generativity, facilitation and realism so that leadership is understood as an energetic, graceful and intricate dance, an image that does not sit comfortably with the dominant images and agendas that are outlined in Chapter 3 of the thesis.

The research findings suggest that leadership is a generative interaction between designated leaders and non-positional leaders who engage in a process of collaborative partnership to achieve their common purposes of social transformation, community development and personal growth and empowerment. This understanding of leadership includes the elements of Rost’s (1993, p. 102) definition of leadership - an influence relationship between leaders and followers, intends real changes and mutual purposes - in a different configuration. The research findings on which this understanding of leadership are based support the emerging theory of leadership beyond a bureaucratic-managerial model sustained by a mechanistic world view (for example, Wheatley 1992, 1998; Rost 1993; Blank 1995; Block 1996, 1998; D.K. Smith 1996).

9.3 Distinctive Features of a Holistic World View: THe Rhythm and the Beat

The research problem also calls for an exploration of whether the new understandings and practices of leadership identified in the research findings are consonant with distinctive features of an emerging holistic world view. In terms of the dance metaphor, distinctive features of a holistic world view provide the rhythm or the beat for leadership as a dance. The choreography needs to be synchronised with these rhythms to create the dance. Table 9.1 shows the consonance between distinctive features of the emerging holistic world view as they were described in section 2.3 of the thesis and summarised in Table 2.1 and the characteristics of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations which emerge in the research findings in Chapters 6, 7, and 8 of the thesis.

Table 9.1 The consonance between the characteristics of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations which emerge from the research findings and distinctive features of the emerging holistic world view summarised in Table 2.1

Characteristics of women’s leadership in community-profit organisations which emerge from the research findings

Distinctive features of the emerging holistic world view as summarised in Table 2.1

Collaborative

Interdependence and collaboration

Interconnection

Communion

Corporate responsibility

Collaborative individuals in partnership

Collaborative network

Leadership influence based on interaction and connectedness

Relational in the sense of promoting mutuality and partnership

Radical egalitarianism

Mutually enhancing relationships

Participating

Inter-independence

Community of subjects

Collaborative individuals in partnership relationships

Power as a realisation of possibility

Subsidiarity

Partnership

Leadership as an interaction, a process, a field, an influence relationship among leaders and followers

Leadership focus on the interaction between leaders and active, willing followers who share the process of leadership

Generative

The whole

Service

Organisation of energies

The purpose of leadership is social transformation and the promotion of the social betterment of communities and organisations

Facilitative

Participation

Community of subjects

Interconnection

Communion

Relationships

Collaborative network

Partnership

Interaction

Realistic

Embodiedness

Change as source of growth

Corporate responsibility

The participants’ understanding of leadership as collaborative is consonant with the emphasis on interconnection and collaboration in the emerging holistic world view described in Chapter 2 of the thesis. The understanding of leadership as relational in terms of promoting mutuality and partnership is reflected in the distinctive features of a holistic world view which emphasise mutually enhancing relationships, participation, radical egalitarianism, partnership and subsidiarity. In particular, the participants’ understanding of the relationship between designated leaders and non-positional leaders is consonant with the understanding of leadership in the holistic world view as the interaction between leaders and active, willing followers who share the leadership process. The participants’ understanding of leadership as generative is consonant with distinctive features of a holistic world view such as the organisation of energies and service and with the emphasis on social transformation and the promotion of the social betterment of communities as the purpose of leadership in a holistic world view. The understanding of leadership as facilitative is essential to the promotion of distinctive features of a holistic world view such as participation, interconnection, communion, partnership and interaction. The realistic dimension of the participants’ understanding of leadership is consonant with distinctive features of a holistic world view such as embodiedness and corporate responsibility. It is evident that the new understandings of leadership as collaborative, relational in the sense of promoting mutuality and partnership and generative are consonant with distinctive features of the holistic world view discussed in Chapter 2 of the thesis and summarised in Table 2.1.

The research findings suggest that the participants focus a great deal of their time and creative energy on developing structures. The participants’ concern with organisational structures reflects the emphasis in the holistic world view on relationships and on flexibility. Structures can be understood as formalised relationships and the development of flexible structures is a proactive way of addressing the inherent contradictions andopposite tendencies of a holographic universe. The role of structure in dancing is to allow the dance to get into its rhythm. Once this has happened the inner movement of the music takes over and the structure of the steps and combinations fades into the background. The researcher had the sense of the participants trying to ‘get into the rhythm’ of these new understandings of leadership by paying attention to the structures. It is evident that they are listening to the music of an emerging holistic world view and are following its rhythms of collaboration, partnership and process. This research presents new understandings and practices of leadership through a particular configuration of distinctive features of the holistic world view. Research in other organisational contexts could reveal new understandings and practices of leadership showing distinctive features of the holistic world view in different configurations.

9.4 Responding to Discontinuous Change: A Flexible and Spontaneous Series of Movements

The research problem also raises the question of whether the new understandings and practices of leadership suggested in the research findings have the potential to provide a creative response to discontinuous change. In contrast to the emphasis on the challenge posed by discontinuous change in the relevant literature, it was surprising to note that coping with change or managing change did not emerge as an issue in the interviews with the participants. It was, however, evident in the research interviews that the participants considered themselves as change agents, even though they did not use that term to describe themselves or their activities. Their quiet confidence in their abilities to be responsive to what they perceived as an ongoing need for transformation in their own organisations and in the wider society reflects the holistic understanding of the universe as a continuous field of changing patterns filled with processes. Change is perceived by the participants as part of the postmodern condition, as the contemporary context in which to exercise leadership as a generative interaction between designated leaders and non-positional leaders who engage in a process of collaborative partnership to achieve their mutual purposes. It is not perceived by the participants as a threat to be overwhelmed or a difficulty to be managed through command and control tactics.

There is no suggestion in the research findings that the exercise of leadership in the context of discontinuous change is a ‘bungee-jumping’ or ‘white water rafting’ experience for the participants. Nor is there any indication that the participants feel jaded or overwhelmed by the challenges of change or survival. In fact, they enjoy the experience of leadership. The lack of ego involved in the participants’ understandings and practices of leadership and the focus on leadership as a mutual interaction and a collaborative partnership are possible explanations for the enjoyment and satisfaction that the participants have in their exercise of leadership. The bending, swaying, circling and spiralling movements in the dancing metaphor of leadership also provide a flexibility and spontaneity of movement that may be less resistant to change than the less flexible movements of climbing and marching which characterise the dominant leadership images described in Chapter 3.

9.5 Limitations

The contribution that this research makes to new understandings and practices of leadership is limited in its application by the fact that it is situated on the margins of leadership studies. Women’s voices are often not heard amidst the din of the dominant masculine discourses and the community-profit context is often perceived as the Cinderella of organisational contexts. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the communication of the findings and conclusions of this research to the research participants will support their development of the new understandings and practices of leadership as a generative interaction between designated leaders and non-positional leaders who engage in a process of collaborative partnership to achieve their common purposes of social transformation, community development and personal growth and empowerment. It is likely that new understandings and practices of leadership such as those emerging in the research organisations will evolve in other contexts according to the holistic principle of self organisation and through strategies such as collaborative networking.

9.6 Conclusion

This research makes a contribution to three related bodies of knowledge - leadership studies, Women in Management studies and third sector studies. In particular this research contributes to what is at present a small amount of research on women’s leadership in the community-profit sector as well as to the little research there is in the wider context of leadership in the community-profit sector. By exploring leadership in a context that is on the edge of the traditional terrain of leadership studies and which listens to the voices that have hitherto been submerged in the malestream literature this research makes a distinct contribution to leadership studies by exploring the understandings and practices of leadership from the perspective of women who exercise designated and non-positional leadership in community-profit organisations ‘on the margins’. To the researcher’s knowledge, no previous research has identified new understandings and practices of leadership consonant with distinctive features of an emerging holistic world view.

As the research findings indicate, women in community-profit organisations ‘on the margins’ are tentative about considering themselves as leaders and/or using the word leadership to describe their activities. They are, however, enthusiastic about their experiences of leadership. Both the tentativeness about being called leader and their enjoyment of the experience of leadership were discussed by the participants in an articulate and comprehensive way that suggests serious reflection on their experience of leadership. Indeed, the researcher was surprised and gratified at the depth of insight and perception revealed by the participants in view of the fact that many of them commented to the researcher that they had done little systematic reading or study on the topics of leadership in general or women’s leadership in particular. In the light of her knowledge of the time and energy commitments required for working in community-profit organisations with limited resources, the researcher was unprepared for the energy and passion of the participants when speaking about their experiences of leadership. They perceive that they are involved in new and evolving understandings and practices of leadership which not only demand commitment and energy but are also worth the commitment and energy that they demand.

It is possible to conclude from the research findings that women’s leadership in community-profit organisations exhibits new understandings and practices of leadership which are consonant with distinctive features of an emerging holistic world view and which have the potential to provide a creative response to discontinuous change. Therefore, women’s leadership in community-profit organisations has the potential to make an important contribution to the understanding and practice of leadership in the context of a paradigm shift from a mechanistic to a holistic world view and may well act as a ‘strange’ or ‘periodic’ attractor which unpredictably could become the nuclei for a buildup of these new understandings and practices.

The metaphor of the dance applies equally well to the new understandings of leadership and to our emerging understanding of the holistic world view. O’Murchu (1997, p. 48) believes that ‘we can conceive of a universe in which the spheres themselves are dancing, and from the musical vibrations we are beginning to glimpse a whole new sense of what the universal life is about’. This research which explores women’s leadership in community-profit organisations invites leaders and followers to consider leadership as a dance and thus begin to glimpse a whole new sense of what leadership is about.

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