Complexity and Management Conference, 7-9th June 2013

Exploring the cult of leadership: alternative ideas from relational and complex responsive processes perspectives.

During the past 10-15 years there has been a proliferation of leadership programmes run by business schools, consultancy companies and training organisations. Leadership development is routinely offered to employees throughout organisations, private and public, irrespective of whether staff lead, or intend to lead others or not. It is a prerequisite to have had leadership training and to aspire to leadership positions for organisational advancement, or even to take up an ordinary career. Many of these programmes draw on a host of contradictory books and journal articles which continue to be produced in large numbers. In the UK and throughout North America and Europe, and even in the developing world, there is no avoiding the discussion of leadership in contemporary organisational life. Leadership, and aspiring to be a leader, have become a cult value.

And yet the more that is furnished in the way of leadership literature and development programmes, the less clear it is what we are actually talking about. Current discussion of leadership tends to veer between depicting failures of leadership, often attributed to weak individuals or failing ‘systems’, or idealising conceptions of the leader-as-hero.  The first approach covers over what people are actually doing with each other at work, while the latter calls out the possibility of a commensurate degree of disappointment when our leaders are revealed to have feet of clay. As the Harvard professor Rakesh Khurana (2007) put it when he reflected on the sorry state of leadership scholarship in his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands:

‘From a scholarly perspective, then, leadership as a body of knowledge, after decades of scholarly attention under the social sciences research lens that the Ford Foundation found so eminently promising, remains without either a widely accepted theoretical framework or a cumulative empirical understanding leading to a usable body of knowledge. Moreover, the probability that leadership studies will make significant strides in developing a fundamental knowledge base is fairly low.’ (2007: 357)

As an alternative the 2013 Complexity and Management Conference will provide opportunities for exploring the way that leadership is exercised in everyday social activity involving power relations and practical judgement, often in conditions of high uncertainty and politics. We are delighted to be joined for the weekend by Professor Ann Cunliffe who has written extensively about leadership from a critical perspective and we will be comparing and contrasting Ann’s interest in what she terms relational leadership with our own perspective which draws on the natural and social sciences to try to understand complex interaction.

Ann L. Cunliffe is now Professor of Organization Studies at Leeds University. She joined Leeds from the University of New Mexico, USA. She is also Visiting Professor at the Universities of Strathclyde and Hull, UK. Her recent publications include the books A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Management (2009) and the co-authored Key Concepts in Organization Theory with John Luhman (2012). She has published articles in Organizational Research Methods, Human Relations, Management Learning, Journal of Management Studies, and Organization Studies. In 2002 she was awarded the Breaking the Frame Award from the Journal of Management Inquiry for the article that best exemplifies a challenge to existing thought.

As usual there will be parallel sessions following the keynote addresses, where conference participants will be able to explore themes which have struck them as being important in conversation with others. Between now and June we will be uploading posts on this blog  to talk to the theme and to provoke discussion in advance of the conference. Anyone wishing to put forward ideas for parallel sessions, including discussion of ideas for pieces of writing that people are doing, is welcome to do so.

We will develop a more detailed programme early on in the New Year and we will let you know when a payment page appears on the University of Hertfordshire website. As usual there will be concessions for early bird bookings.

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