Academic journal article Journal of Management and Organization

Leadership Learning through Lived Experience: A Process of Apprenticeship?

Academic journal article Journal of Management and Organization

Leadership Learning through Lived Experience: A Process of Apprenticeship?

Article excerpt


This paper develops an understanding of underlying influences shaping leadership learning within a single organization. It is not an exploration of leadership but rather an explanation of how individuals learn how to lead. Through in-depth interviews with six directors of a UK multinational public limited company and, using critical realist grounded-theory, underlying causes have been identified that build upon existing research but then goes further to provide a systemic and integrated explanation of leadership learning. A model is suggested to illustrate how causal influences, operating in a particular context, influence how people develop their ability to lead. I argue that the metaphor of apprenticeship captures the essence of how underlying influences shape the long-term process of leadership learning: an apprenticeship perspective has significant implications to the efficacy and effectiveness of leadership development interventions.

Key words: leadership; learning; apprenticeship; experience; ability; grounded theory


The phenomenon of leadership is argued to have global presence, but appears to have a variety of attributes and thus is elusive in definitional clarity (House et al. 2004). This paper argues that the variability of leadership may lie in underlying influences which are not immediately recognized by individuals through their lived experience. At the start of the interviews with the six directors (and echoed in interviews with thirty five senior managers in complementary research) a clear view was emphasized, that 'people are born with the ability to lead'. At the conclusion of the interviews the directors were surprised to discover that their understanding of leadership had been shaped by causes that they had not previously been aware of.

Previous research has remained at the level of empirical accounts (notably McCall et al. 1988; Cox & Cooper 1989; Hill 2003) and has not sought to illuminate the 'deep' causes affecting leadership learning. Through a critical realist perspective arguments will be outlined to reveal underlying influences and the systemic relationship between such influences. In this paper the metaphor of 'lived experience' is utilized to emphasize a processual and cumulative perspective to leadership learning, where underlying influences occur as part of the milieu of everyday life.

This paper builds on the field of management learning which argues that leadership and management is primarily learnt through experience. For example, the work of Burgoyne and Stewart (1977) identified the notion of naturalistic learning as formative in shaping leadership and managerial learning. Phenomenological studies of managerial learning undertaken by Burgoyne and Hodgson (1983) illustrated the cumulative impact of experience that is not easily recalled, yet is continually present. Davies and Easterby-Smith (1984) explored the significant influence of contextual variety on the development of middle mangers (similar work by Cox & Cooper, 1989, illustrated the developmental contexts of parental influence and overseas experiences). The prominence of naturalistic experience shaping managerial development was further consolidated through the work of McCall et al. (1988) who succinctly summarized leadership learning into line assignments, notable people and hardships. Subsequent research sought to examine these themes in particular contexts (Morrison et al. 1992; Perry 1994; Valerio 1990), culminating in a handbook of leadership development (McCauley et al. 1998) and McCall's (1998) exposition of 'hardships' as a key feature within the career experiences of 'high flyers'.

Recently, both Conger (2004) and Burgoyne (2004) have re-emphasized the dominance of naturalistic experience, mainly within organizational contexts, to the processes of leadership learning and development. …

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