[We’re pleased to welcome author Dr. Joseph A Raelin of Northeastern University. Dr. Raelin recently published an article in Management Learning entitled “What are you afraid of: Collective leadership and its learning implications,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Raelin reveals the inspiration for conducting this research :]
What motivated you to pursue this research?
Why did I entitle my article: What Are You Afraid Of (in reference to the forthcoming article in Management Learning – now available online – called: “What Are You Afraid Of: Collective Leadership and its Learning Implications”)? I had a sense that the title would be controversial and baiting. The manifest reason to give is that the paper was written for the department of the journal called Provocations to Debate. But the substantive reason, which I would like to expound upon briefly in this blog, is that collective leadership, though a straightforward practice, simply has not found much traction in the annals of leadership, whether they be academic or professional.
On the academic front, although collective leadership may receive some lip service not only to itself but to its cousin perspectives, such as shared, distributed, leaderful, relational, as-practice, or plural forms, it finds few presenters or adherents in academic conferences, such as the Academy of Management or the International Leadership Association, or in the mainstream academic journals. One prospective and important ally, shared leadership, need not be collective since the leadership practice in question may be performed by individuals (such as non-managers) individually and sequentially rather than collectively.
A secondary reason for apprehension of collective leadership among academics might be the methodological burden of tracing the complex set of practices and “supplements” (e.g., interwoven discourses) to those practices that produce leadership. This kind of investigation would be sociological, whilst the easier path is to contend that leadership is psychological and can be measured using standard psychometrics.
When it comes to professional usage, the fear imagery among practitioners suggests that collective leadership is a remote, unstable, and inefficient practice that would leave institutions in chaos. More germane to the Management Learning journal, this form of leadership would expose leadership development practitioners to the unknown. Collective leadership finds a more compatible pedagogical home in collective learning, but the latter requires removing the learner from the classroom where it is thought that most learning occurs. Collective learning would occur far more frequently within the workplace itself as practitioners prospectively engage with one another on real problems, reflect together on their plans and improvisations, and reconstruct their practices according to their own interests. But this kind of learning can be messy and seemingly not as concentrated or efficient as conventional training. Indeed, it can be unpredictable requiring use of such collective activities as on-the-spot reframing, reevaluation of accepted practices, and spontaneous testing of available knowledge.
In a world seemingly obsessed with individual achievement and even bombast, cooler heads may one day prevail as we learn to welcome multiple and contradictory voices through critical dialogue, thus involving everyone in the leadership enterprise. We have little alternative.