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In search of leadership: An ethnography of meaning-making in leaderless organisations

Sutherland, Neil



In this thesis I will examine how leadership is understood and performed within leaderless radically
democratic anarchist social movement organisations (SMOs). Although it may seem that ‘anarchism’ and ‘leadership’ are fundamentally incompatible and mutually exclusive, this may be due to the fact that the common conception of leadership is as an inherently top-down phenomenon performed by strong, charismatic, often authoritative and hierarchically positioned individuals. However, rather than assuming a stance more readily associated with ‘mainstream’ leadership theory and suggesting that leadership can only happen if there are individual, permanent and stable leaders to enact it, I instead seek to highlight and build on ideas put forward by Critical Leadership Studies (CLS) scholars: that ‘leadership’ may best be (re-)conceptualised as an inherently collective phenomenon; a socially constructed process constituted by meaning making and reality definition (Smircich and Morgan, 1982). Drawing on data from a year-long ethnographic investigation, focussing primarily on what went on in meetings and deliberative periods, I will go on to highlight how leadership and meaning making was performed by a range of ‘leadership actors’ in a more democratic and collective manner. Particular emphasis is placed on examining how actors go about doing ‘framing’ work, that is, how they discursively construct their proposals and actions in meaningful ways, as well as the democratic and participative practices and processes that are put in place to (a) encourage any member to come forward to do leadership work, and (b) prohibit any one individual from becoming a more permanent ‘leader’. However, although it is essential to understand how individuals articulate and frame their ideas and proposals on a small-scale, I will also step back and examine the reasons why certain actions emerge as meaningful in the first place, and how actors construct a sense of ‘who we are’. To do this, I turn to the literature on discourse (Foucault, 1979, 1980) to show that in order for leadership to happen at all, actors must understand, internalise and articulate in line with the various ‘rules’ of appropriate extrasubjective discourses.
In sum, the main contributions of this thesis are (a) highlighting that democratic meetings can encourage a more collective form of leadership and organisation (b) showing how leadership and meaning making (through framing) can be performed in the absence of leaders, and (c) linking this all back to notions of discourse. These three points are inextricably linked, and ultimately this thesis will demonstrate that if we reconceptualise leadership as a process constituted by meaning making, it is possible to see that it may not only be performed in a more democratic and collective fashion amongst a variety of actors, but also that it is not incompatible with the goals, aims, practices and processes of contemporary radically democratic SMOs.

Thesis Type Thesis
APA6 Citation Sutherland, N. (in press). In search of leadership: An ethnography of meaning-making in leaderless organisations. (Thesis). University of Essex
Keywords leadership, ethnography