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Leaderful Practice by Joe Raelin

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Joe Raelin, from Northeastern, shared his thinking about the need for shifting our thinking away from leadership as what a single person does to leaderful practice.  The roots of the word don’t help us, he reminds us: it comes from an anglo saxon word that means to step in front of.   Years ago he was struck by how popular the notion of leaderless groups, which seemed odd.  Because there was lots of leadership in these groups.  So he became interested in the notion of leaderful groups. What he notes is an interesting shift from conventional to leaderful leadership.  A shift away from leadership as serial, individual, controlling, and dispassionate to leadership as collective, collaborative, and compassionate.  Daniel: I suspect that these need to coexist, though Joe suggests that what we need is a whole-hearted shift to leaderful leadership. 

Examples were put forward such as WL Gore, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, SouthWest, etc.  Some interesting questions emerged from the group’s skeptism — are there still supervisory functions and roles that need to be in place rather than completely distributed?  Aren’t there situations in which conventional might be more appropriate than leaderful?  And what do these ideas suggest for what leaders do to support learning?  Daniel: For those interested in improvisation in orchestras, read more about Butch Morris work on this NPR article)

​Joe challenged us to consider that trait-based research about leadership is unfounded.  What is more userful is focusing on the social practice of leadership situated in a  specific cultural activity.   Leadership arises in the contestations in a community of inquiry. Dialogic practices are at the core of leaderful practices — that is how meaning and understanding emerges.  Taking stances that disrupt the order of things is key and that is an action of leadership.  In dialog may be different from learning.  Everyone can direct the flow of conversation, expertise and knowledge can come from various sources, dissent and argument is encouraged, deep listening is encouraged, etc.  Daniel: I suppose the point is that these might lead to learning but not necessarily. 

He suggested that reflection is a key practice, too — the practice of stepping back to ponder and express the meaning to self and to others in one’s immediate environment of what has, will, or is happening.  An interesting discussion ensued about challenges of supporting reflection, how difficult it is to support when people aren’t used to it or don’t feel permission to do it.

Harvard Graduate School of Education