Academic journal article Advancing Women in Leadership

Daring to Lead: The Logic Behind the Leadership Practices of a Successful Female Leader

Academic journal article Advancing Women in Leadership

Daring to Lead: The Logic Behind the Leadership Practices of a Successful Female Leader

Article excerpt


Felicia Mabuza-Suttle is the first black woman to host a television talk show in South Africa and her success has often been compared to that of Oprah Winfrey, the American 'queen' of talk show. Inspired by Nelson Mandela's call to all South Africans of the Diaspora to return home and contribute to the rebuilding of South Africa, she left behind her family including a secure job in the United States and returned to her native country. The very magnitude of her decision placed on her a huge burden of travelling to and from South Africa to attend to her private and public lives, and so she became a 'transatlantic' mother and wife. An examination of her 1999 autobiography, Felicia: Dare to Dream, reveals that her approach to leadership as a television talk show host and corporate leader was moral, assertive and daring. My argument in this article is that: unless we enter her socio-historical life, we cannot begin to understand how she develops her leadership approach.

It can be readily seen that the social context of leadership has often been ignored in dominant leadership theories. Lingard et al (2003) argue that in as much as leadership contingency theories bring the working context of the leader into prominence, these theories do not help us evaluate leadership in relation to the social context of the organisation. They also argue that though transformational theories have made a considerable impact on studies of leadership, they are limited in scope in that they rarely take into account fundamental changes in social organizational structures and practices. They also point to the lack of attention given to gender issues in major studies on transformational leadership with the exception of Blackmore's (1999) research on women educational leaders. Overall, they posit that Bourdieu's theory is well suited to examine leadership practices from a social and political perspective. Recently, Bourdieu's theory has been used by Wilkinson (2002) to understand the construction of identity among Australian female leaders, while other researchers have embraced his theory in analytic feminist discussions (Lovell, 2002; Reay, 2002; Fowler, 2002).

This article draws on Bourdieu's notion of habitus, a notion that he uses to account for everyday practices in their specific logics. Specifically, Bourdieu sees practices as the product of constructed knowledge acquired from structured and structuring dispositions, the habitus. He posits that these dispositions can be traced from the collective history of an agent. Accordingly, Bourdieu depicts an individual's actions as spontaneous because they have a historical life (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992; Bourdieu (1990a). The implication here is that practices are generated by the historically constituted dispositions of the habitus. Hence Bourdieu strives to establish the active presence of history in the actions of an individual.

In sexually characterizing the habitus, Bourdieu's suggests that he is aware about the impact of gendered socialization in the formation of the male and female habitus. As he puts it the sexually characterized habitus has "historical and highly differentiated structures, arising from a social space that is itself highly differentiated, which reproduce themselves through learning processes linked to the experience that agents have of the structures of these spaces" (Bourdieu, 2001: 104). Thus, he understands the practices of women and men as constitutive of historically constituted dispositions that are highly gendered.

If one agrees with Bourdieu that practices are socially conditioned, then the epistemological result is that his theory helps us pay attention to the often-neglected social context of leadership practices. Furthermore, if we accept that gendered social conditioning lies at the heart of women and men's practices, then it can be argued that women's social experiences can be incorporated into leadership research. Notice that dominant leadership theories have been criticised for either viewing leadership from a masculinist perspective or tending to be gender-blind (Lingard et al, 2003). …

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