Civil society leadership as learning

Malcolm, Margy-Jean
Waring, Marilyn
Mayo, Elaine
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This thesis argues that learning to work with complexity is central to civil society leadership. The thesis provides evidence of three inter-related conditions that foster the emergence of civil society leadership: being open to rethinking our understanding about leadership; facilitating collaborative inquiry relationships; and embracing complexity thinking as a way of thinking, learning and acting.

The thesis draws on findings from two action research studies of leadership in Aotearoa New Zealand. One research site was an academic leadership development programme for civil society organisation managers and leaders; the other was a national leadership team supporting leadership learning across diverse community-led development (CLD) initiatives.

The thesis identifies the need to disturb some taken-for-granted assumptions about leadership (for example, images of strong, decisive, visionary heroes), and be open to other understandings of leadership if we are to enable everyone to see their potential role as active citizens. Leadership is reframed as learning, a process of personal and collective work within complex adaptive systems (CAS). Complexity thinking and collaborative inquiry research supported movement away from essentialist ideas of leadership, towards an emergent understanding of leadership as a complex, interactive learning dynamic, moving between polarities of potentially contradictory responses, to enable adaptive action. The thesis identifies properties and practices of leadership within four inter-related layers of civil society leadership: personal, relational, cultural and structural. The findings illustrate how people can explore different discourses through their practical involvement in the world and free themselves to some extent from cultural conditioning which may limit their potential to exercise leadership.

The study shows how leadership as learning can be supported through collaborative inquiry as a means of co-constructing knowledge and action, as a whole group extends their capability to notice, reflect, inquire and make sense of their context, their practice and their collective wisdom as it is emerging. The praxis-related, practitioner action research design and implementation provide evidence of how leadership learning developed through different research cultures of collaborative inquiry. Leadership learning in both research contexts was emerging as much, if not more, from how researchers, teachers and civil society leaders practised collaborative leadership relationships, as from any content focus of what was being researched, taught or initiated.

The study identifies the power of complexity thinking constructs for fostering, analysing and understanding collaborative action research, leadership and learning. From a trans-disciplinary perspective, often incommensurable frames of reference have been able to collide, diverge and support the emergence of new knowing. The idea of nested CAS has been a useful heuristic device for understanding conditions that enhance leadership learning: such as quality neighbour interactions, diversity and redundancy, and coherence amidst uncertainty.

Some simple rules emerge from this inquiry about how civil society leaders, teachers, and researchers can promote leadership as learning, as propositions inviting further research. The research contributes towards the newly emerging field of complexity leadership theory, with a particular focus on the learning interactions that foster leadership at many levels of CAS. In terms of praxis outcomes, the study has supported the redesign of the academic leadership programme, and the publication of emergent learning from the CLD practitioners involved. The thesis challenges dominant discourse about civil society needing to become more ‘business-like’, by furthering understanding of leadership within the complexity of civil society. The study aims to support more active citizenship engagement, where people can identify their part in leading, learning and contributing to civil society from whatever their position.

Collaborative inquiry , Complexity thinking , Civil society , Leadership , Community development , Action research
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