LEADERSHIP AS PRACTICE: THEORY AND APPLICATION


 

By Joseph A. Raelin (Ed.); New York, NY: Routledge (2016); Reviewed by HERMAN DAVIS

Joseph A. Raelin, editor of this book, holds the Asa S. Knowles Chair of Practice-Oriented Education at Northeastern University, where he is also the director of the Center for Work and Learning. An author of numerous books, he is interested in creating communities of practice in which members are deeply committed to democratic and inclusive practices, dedicated to each others’ development and devoid of impressionistic or inauthentic behavior and intentions.

Most recently he has sought to establish a new form of leadership, called “leaderful practice,” in which everyone can participate in leadership, not just sequentially but at the same time and all together—in other words, concurrently and collectively.

Leadership as Practice presents an emerging theory of leadership that challenges traditional thought about how leadership is defined and exercised. It is an attempt to create momentum in the direction of the emerging practice view of leadership.

Practice leadership as described in this book is very much akin to earlier
traditions, such as distributed, collective, relational and shared leadership. Thus it is set apart from the traits and behaviors of individual
leadership. The book posits the theory that leadership as practice allows
for organism versus static, agency versus structure, and leadership development based upon shared collaboration, dialogics, and contested interactions.

This book emphasizes the need for greater research that will go beyond the tradition of trait or influence theories to include agency, dialogue, and other social processes. The book brings together a collection of 18 theorists and experts who provide scholarly and empirical background, study of the nature of practice, social interactions and application, all of which address methodologies and development. The book suggests that much of what leadership is does not reside outside of leadership but is in fact embedded within it.

Historically, trait and influence leadership is individualistic and structured. It tends to reflect management style and thus is often static.
This book proposes a process of leadership that emerges from the idea that anyone within the community of the project or process can contribute and influence direction and outcomes. This theory proposes a “we-ness” or subjective inclusiveness that stands opposite the individualistic and hierarchal traditions of behavior leadership theory. This proposes through practice leadership a socialized process that can be discursive but also agency driven. Trait and behavior leadership can be considered prescriptive because they assume certain presets. Practice theory allows for forays into the unknown. The text describes it as ontological, epistemological and philosophical. It takes into account
the being, beliefs, and interpretations of participants. The idea of agency is the vehicle to this end. Plainly put, people and their interactive processes go a long way toward driving practice leadership.

Therefore, practice leadership, as described in this text, relies heavily
upon integrated communication, such as is reflected in shared, distributed, and relational leadership. Such interaction, dialogue, collaboration and shared learning reflect what the text refers to as holarchy, which is an ethically grounded relationship between unity and diversity. In such a context, the whole and the parts are equally valued.

Traditional leadership models or theories focus on pursuit of the most direct route possible to the desired outcomes using whatever methods
are necessary to incentivize the team. Practice leadership, however, desires what the text calls “intersubjectivism.” This is a “shared, unique and contested understanding of social realities created between people in and across moments of time and space.”

Traditional leadership has often practiced an imposition style that is
externally applied, compared with practice leadership, which relies
upon embedded relationships. The intersubjectivism proposed in this book presupposes connected responsiveness based upon ongoing engagement. Practice leadership is processual and transitory. In this
context, practice leadership is also democratic, allowing for gender inclusion and diversity. The examination of interpersonal dynamics gives strength to community and thus leadership practice.

Because leadership as practice is emergent, it does not stand as strong among various leadership theories. Even so, the book presents practice leadership as an option worthy of careful consideration, especially since so much about social context is emergent and the need to expand local involvement in leadership is rising.

The book concludes with a call to intentional leadership as practice
development. Traditional models of leadership theory are worthy of specific and deliberate challenge. Leaders, learners, and developers must recognize and facilitate the necessary tensions among themselves that will allow cross-boundary collaboration and better practice outcomes.

I strongly recommend Leadership as Practice. If you are interested in reassessing how you have considered and used various leadership theories, this text will provoke your thinking on how to do better what you have already done well.

HERMAN DAVIS is a current Doctor of Ministry student and active church pastor in South Florida.

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