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Leader or Leadership? What is Your Theory?

by | Aug 9, 2016 | For Health Care Leaders

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A LEADER? HERE ARE SOME THOUGHTS AND REFLECTIONS ON PRACTICE.

The field of leadership is vast and varied. Even a superficial dive into the literature brings up countless books and articles. There are many theories that look at leadership from a perspective grounded in individualism. These theories are based upon the idea that there is a clear delineation between leaders and followers. This approach might look at characteristics of effective leaders or highlight specific frameworks that can be utilized to enhance employee development. Many of our workplaces reinforce this perspective, with clear hierarchies between management and employee roles. Therefore, we have been conditioned to think of leaders as being those who are given specific titles and responsibilities that place them in positions of power over others. For example, leaders are seen to be those with the power to make decisions about organizational structures or issues pertaining to the people who work for them.

However, there is a difference between having the title of leader and the practice of leadership. The practice of leadership happens throughout organizations and is not necessarily position dependent. Take a moment and reflect on your way of being in your workplace. Can you think of times when you initiated a necessary change? Has there ever been a cause or an issue that you have addressed? Have you asked important questions at meetings that may have prompted a different way of looking at things, or opened up a conversation that had not occurred previously? Do you feel strongly about something in your work and wish to do something about it?

I am currently doing a doctoral degree in leadership and change in the healthcare sector. In addition to learning about different theories of organizational change and leadership, I have had to take a step back and reflect on how I see myself as a leader within my current role at work as well as other areas of my practice, which extend into local, regional, provincial, and global communities. Prior to these reflections I had not considered myself to be a leader, even though I have been a program coordinator and member of leadership committees. However, I have been working in the healthcare field for over thirty-two years and I can easily find areas of practice that pull me forward into action. For example, my preferred way of framing what it means to be a clinician in relationship with those who come for assistance often conflicts with some of the structures and practices that are typical in the mental health field. At times this occurs at the individual level, where clients express feeling dismissed or judged by professionals. As well this has happened at larger systemic levels of care, which is predominantly informed by biomedical models, which tend to limit clinician-client/patient interactions because of the centralization of problems or diagnoses. This way of seeing can miss the many complexities of people’s real lived experience including their own unique way of making meaning of the many aspects of their lives. Witnessing and experiencing these “disorienting dilemmas” (Mezirow, 1981) have created a persistent state of disquiet within me and I am compelled to do something. What is the change that I wish to facilitate from my position? If I think about myself as a change agent, rather than thinking this is only the providence of those who hold managerial titles, my practice of leadership in response to these disorienting areas of practice comes into focus.

Asking the following questions might encourage reflection that can be useful in teasing out your own views about leadership:

  • What is the difference between being a leader and the practice of leadership?
  • Have you ever experienced a manager who was not a leader? A leader who was not a manager? One, who was both?
  • Whether or not you are in a management position, are their ways that you have engaged in the practice of leadership within your organization? How?
  • How do you describe leadership? What does leadership practice mean to you?
  • What barriers, if any, do you experience to practicing leadership? In your organization or workplace? Within yourself?

Through challenging times, change, and transition we seek strong leadership. Historically, we have viewed leaders as possessing certain qualities ant talents that command the respect of followers. Perhaps, this view remains for some. However, there are many other ways of looking at leadership. For example, the leadership-as-practice framework sees leadership as distributed, being embedded within and co-constructed through a web of relationships, practices, and structures within an organization rather than something that is inherent to a particular individual (Raelin, 2016).

Stay tuned for future blogs, where I will be exploring ideas about leadership and change from different perspectives.

Mezirow, J. (1981). A critical theory of adult learning and education. Adult Education, 32(1), 3-24.

Raelin, J. (Ed.). (2016). Leadership-as-practice: Theory and application. New York, NY: Routledge.

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