The Physicality of Leadership: Gesture, Entanglement, Taboo, Possibilities: Volume 6

Table of contents

(20 chapters)
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Abstract

Although within the leadership literature there is a body of research concerning the physical attributes of leaders, close examination reveals that much of it offers a rather surface level of analysis. A number of studies, for example, attempt to correlate leaders’ height with their success, and attempts have been made to identify a relationship between leaders’ performance and their attractiveness. In this book, a range of scholars from differing perspectives delve below the apparent level of physicality to highlight its paradoxically ‘invisible’ aspects including: the impact of gesture, the way in which the physical is intrinsically interwoven with the social and the contradictory nature of bodily taboos. The book shows how each of these aspects plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of leadership relationships.

This chapter introduces three tussles we and our authors have faced in navigating this territory. Firstly, we have worked hard to find forms of writing which ‘point towards’ the experience of physicality. Realising that written language can never ‘be’ that experience (just as Magritte demonstrates with his painting, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ that the reproduction of the pipe is not the pipe itself) we have encouraged authors to contribute first-person accounts, in-depth case studies focused on individuals and even activities which involve the reader in order to evoke a sense of the physical. Secondly, we have endeavoured to distinguish the ‘inside-out’ phenomenon of ‘embodiment’ from the ‘outside-in’ occurrence of ‘physicality’. Finally, our authors have worked to reveal the mutual entanglement of social and material worlds, such that paradoxically, the physical reveals itself to be ‘in flow’ and continually in a process of ‘becoming’. After describing how we have sought to resolve these challenges, a taster from each chapter is offered. The chapter concludes by reasserting the importance of recognising the physical nature of the connection at the heart of human relationships experienced as leadership.

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In this chapter, I re-frame leading in organizing as teaching and identify physical movement as a core mechanism through which leaders are sensitive and responsive to the progress of their group’s learning. To demonstrate this, I analyze interview data with choral and orchestral conductors in terms of Sheets-Johnstone’s (1999/2011) four qualities of movement: tension, linearity, amplitude, and projection. These four qualities serve as a grammar or set of basic categories to better understand how and why leaders move in certain ways in relation to their followers, for the sake of the latter’s learning and the collective ability to accomplish organizational goals. The ability to categorize conductors’ physical movements and the movement of the ensemble’s learning can help practitioners and scholars to assess the congruence between the two. With this grammar in hand, leaders can better assess and articulate what kinds of movements can be performed when, in order to guide the progress of their group’s collective learning.

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Abstract

It is no surprise that artists rely closely on their senses to create, develop, and perform their art. Musicians rely on what they hear, dancers rely on their proprioceptive sense and sense of movement, and painters rely on their vision. They rely on these senses to make decisions during creation and performance. At the same time their art can be seen as an exploration of what humans can experience through the senses. Developing the capacity to sense is an integral part of art education that is valued as highly as learning technical skills, such as the musician’s mastery of the instrument, the dancer’s mastery of the body, and the painter’s mastery of color and brush techniques.

In management education, things are different. Relevant techniques are taught, but no special attention is given to developing the ability to sense. There is an implied assumption that managers already know how to do this. However, on a two-day MBA course, it became clear that not only is this assumption wrong, but moreover the traditional pedagogical formats used seem to actively limit the participants ability to sense. The result is leaders who know techniques for enacting leadership, but due to their underdeveloped ability to sense, are unable to apply these techniques appropriately in practical settings.

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This chapter is about physicality in virtual space, where one generally does not expect to find any physicality according to research and literature. Here, working in virtual space includes interactions and cooperation through the mail, internet, Skype and video-conferencing. The authors use their own experience of collaborating and leading in a virtual project team. Their own personal accounts, impressions and insights reveal a story of organizational cooperation where physicality matters for developing relations and leadership in virtual space. The piece reveals how an aesthetic consciousness of self and others intensifies in virtual communication, especially in relation to the senses of seeing and listening. For instance, the authors describe perception of the self is possible on SKYPE in a way that is not possible in face-to-face meetings (allowing one to realize if one is not dressed ‘properly’). They argue it is important to identify the physical ‘digital self’ and realize the challenges of being fit to operate across time zones, having personal and public boundaries blurred, as well as the heightened sensitivity to imagine what is left out in a virtual relationship. The examples illustrate what kind of sensuous cues become central in virtual communication. The chapter brings forth the need to sensitize to the physicality and to develop skills to perceive and act on it.

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Based on a critique of reductive understandings of physicality, this chapter explores the significance of embodied materiality, the artefactual physical, the role of the living body and embodiment in relation to ‘intra and inter’ practices of leadership from a phenomenological perspective. Using a phenomenological and cross-disciplinary approach, issues of an embodied physicality in leadership are systematically explored and implications discussed beyond physicalist empiricism and meta-physical idealism. Furthermore, the chosen phenomenological approach reveals problematising limitations of naturalist and constructionist approaches.

Following Merleau-Ponty an extended understanding of physicality as well as the significance of the co-constitutive role of embodiment, inter-corporeality and intra-action in and of leadership practices in organisational life-worlds are identified and discussed. Insights into the role of corporeal materio-socio phenomena and expressions of meaningful practices of leading and following are rendered. The chapter concludes by noting limitations and implications of embodied physicality and physical inter-becoming of ‘bodiment’ for a more integral and sustainable conception of leader-and followership in organisations. Through its specific post-dualistic approach the chapter provides an innovative perspective on the interrelations between living, material, bodily and embodied dimensions of physicality in leadership.

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Few organisations exhibit the importance of physicality in leadership as explicitly as the symphony orchestra. While usually attributed to the direction of the conductor my own experience suggests that leading in orchestral performance is grounded in physical relations between individuals and among instrumental groups across the orchestra as much as in the interaction between musicians and maestro. In order to further interrogate this experience while enhancing our understanding of onstage relations among orchestral musicians, I recently undertook research that employed an autoethnographic methodology underpinned by the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty (2002, 2004) and the sense-making ideas of Weick (1995, 2001a). Using this method while drawing on ideas such as kinaesthetic empathy (Pallaro, 1995; Parviainen, 2002), the picture presented in what follows is one of leadership embedded in physical interaction among colleagues.

This interaction is, I suggest, based on sense-making and sense-giving activity that occurs in a ‘kinaesthetic loop’ that draws on and is generated by auditory, visual and gestural information given and received by individual musicians. This activity in turn mediates the acoustic space between musicians and thus, ultimately, determines how leadership and coordination in the orchestra are constituted. Rather than being disembodied products of dictatorial direction dispensed through the orchestra’s hierarchy, orchestral performance and leadership emerge in this more nuanced account as co-creative processes in which all the musicians on stage share responsibility.

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NZTrio is more than a traditional piano trio that performs music from the classical repertoire: it is a professional chamber ensemble with a difference. The members of the Trio, totalling three musicians and two administrators have a community orientation. Their vision is to forge links into other artistic, educational and business fields and in doing so they create and participate in events that evoke visceral encounters. In this way they confirm Esposito’s view that communitas is disruptive of stasis and that to belong is to change. In community, identity is disrupted and new possibilities of the self can emerge. This becomes possible through provocative performances that implicate the body. For instance, shouting commands through a megaphone in Jack Body’s O Cambodia and the repeated pattern of chords in the third movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 are emotionally and physically encountered as audiences feel what it is like to be both perpetrators and victims of violence. NZTrio uses music like this as well as works from the standard repertoire to create aesthetic experiences rich in options for communion. Furthermore, through professional development events, business leaders and young people gain the opportunity to understand how the physicality of leadership works in a high performing team.

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The sexual and erotic dimensions inherent in leadership’s physicality impact on power dynamics within organizations but have been rendered largely invisible by current scholarship. In organizational practice, leadership is a masculine activity ideally carried out by male bodies, such that women’s leadership is still perceived as problematic. This suggests that the field is fearful of allowing sexual bodies to pollute what should be a functional, cognitive and instrumental activity. This chapter therefore draws on Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection to explain how and why the sexual body is positioned as the unspoken other of leadership. To do this, I explore the representation of two very contrasting leaders, Jean Luc Picard and the Borg Queen, in the popular film Star Trek: First Contact. The film illuminates how leadership ideally resides in a virile, mastered and distant male body. The sexual female body is represented as disgusting, dangerous, and a source of contamination and so must be cast out and destroyed. Finally, I ask whether the representation of the Borg Queen is useful as a transgressive means to undermine the abjection of the female leader’s body. However, I conclude that to counter abjection, scholars of leadership need instead to build discursive and material practices that revalue the feminine and respect the alterity of self and others.

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While physical reactions and experiences are pervasive in the experiences of leaders and followers, most writing and theorising about leadership fails to register physicality’s significance. Consequently, this chapter relies primarily on a creative narrative, ‘The Interview’, to make visible the physicality in leadership. ‘The Interview’ records the experiences of three leaders in ConstructCo as they prepare for and reflect on the interview for a new CEO. Though fictional, the narrative interweaves real experiences from the lives of leaders with whom I have worked. The narrative form and allowing characters to speak give licence to the physical to appear and take its proper place as a crucial dimension of the leadership experience. The second half of the chapter explores the implications of the physical in leadership, beginning by mapping some of the dimensions of physicality experienced by the three characters in the narrative. The following discussion argues that those of us who research, teach and work with leaders should be open to seeing the way conventional norms mask the physical. I explore what new means and approaches are needed in research and writing to bring physicality into development work with leaders. This chapter, including the narrative and subsequent discussion, argues that being aware of physical selves, with the humanness, vulnerability and connection with others that physicality brings, offers new possibilities to our ways of being in leadership.

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Bill Clinton is exemplary of a new conception of leadership appropriate for the 21st century. In spite of his sexual proclivities (for which he received harsh criticism and impeachment proceedings) Clinton’s physicality signals an end of a Gnostic view of leadership that separates the knowing head from the rest of the body. We propose that 20th century manifestations of leadership are no longer appropriate for this age, and we illustrate this idea with the ‘reality’ television series Undercover Boss. Further, by exploring artist Peter Robinson’s installation The End of the Twentieth Century we claim that Clinton’s call for inclusivity, a ‘both–and’ approach that characterizes his late- and post-Presidential rhetoric, opens possibilities for alternative constructs that place the body at the heart of leadership. Our exploration of Clinton’s physicality is through his speech to the APEC business leaders in 1999, his commentary on the movie documentary The Hunting of the President and his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In each of these he reaches out to his audiences through physical and verbal gestures. He pleads for tolerance and understanding so that people may find commonalities among their flaws and differences. Through enacting the physical ‘doing’ of leadership in these instances, Bill Clinton offers an exemplar of re-locating leadership within its physical context.

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This chapter starts from the assertion that leading is a physically demanding activity. The challenges associated with it arise from at least three sources: as a response to ambiguous ‘wicked’ problems taking the lead necessitates moving into unknown situations; followers’ projections and the leader’s conscious or unconscious desire to fulfil them create psychological and emotional pressure and leaders often work in isolation. These realities of leading create physical stress that can result in disrupted sleep, digestive ailments and over-reliance on food and alcohol for short-term relief. Conscious breathing is introduced as a way of mitigating these physical effects. Such breathing can halt the vicious cycle of feeling stressed because one is breathing shallowly and breathing shallowly because of feeling stressed. Additionally, it can reduce the sense of time pressure by introducing an experience of greater spaciousness and provide a means whereby the leader can access her or his ‘best self’ in meeting the demands of the role. The ideas are illustrated through a case study of a senior executive who successfully used conscious breathing practices to transform the way in which he led his team.

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Open Your Heart

Pages 239-252
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To open your heart to others is a physical act of leadership. It can include crying and inspire hugs. In this chapter, I explore what it means to open your heart, why doing so is an act of leadership, how to do it, and why it is difficult to do. Opening your heart to others is both the simplest, most natural thing in the world, and tremendously difficult at the same time. It means sharing a part of ourselves that others will recognize as real and true, and important in a way that feels incredibly vulnerable. Opening your heart is a way of creating and working with the connection between people. Actors have long recognized that the single biggest barrier to achieving the kind of connection that comes from opening your heart is playing status games with each other. The challenge for the leader is to transcend the status game and stop playing it in a way that doesn’t damage their status as a leader. I offer an example of how Frank showed real leadership by overcoming his fear and opening his heart to his employees.

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About the Authors

Pages 253-256
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DOI
10.1108/S1479-357120146
Publication date
2014-11-24
Book series
Monographs in Leadership and Management
Editors
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-78441-289-0
eISBN
978-1-78441-289-0
Book series ISSN
1479-3571