Reconstructing Static Images of Leadership: An Application of Positionality Theory

By Kezar, Adrianna | Journal of Leadership Studies, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Static Images of Leadership: An Application of Positionality Theory


Kezar, Adrianna, Journal of Leadership Studies


Executive Summary

This paper contributes to the mounting evidence that leadership is interpreted uniquely by diverse groups of people. It draws on Positionality theory to moves beyond earlier research on women leaders that looked at gender exclusively instead exploring several different conditions that affect people's belief systems (gender, race/ethnicity, role within the institution, field of study, paradigm, level of administrator). The study entailed an ethnographic study of a community college, interviewing 36 faculty and administrators examining leadership beliefs and contextual conditions that impact diverse perspectives. Results suggest that various aspects of people's background appear to be related to their leadership beliefs. Findings illustrate the promise of Positionality theory for understanding multiple philosophies of leadership.

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Over the past three decades, evidence has amassed that traditional (hierarchical and authoritative) leadership models do not reflect the multiple ways that leadership is understood by diverse groups of people (Amey & Twombley; Astin & Leland, 1991; Bensimon, 1989; Cantor & Bernay, 1992; Morrison, 1991; Rosener, 1990; Shakeshaft, 1987). (1) Most studies have focused on gender (Amey & Twombley; Astin & Leland, 1991; Chemers & Ayman, 1993; Rosener, 1990; Shakeshaft, 1987) or individuals in positions of authority (Birnbaum, 1992). Because of the narrow focus on primarily gender, other possible differences in individual and group leadership definitions remains unknown. In addition, the existing research does not examine the overlap of several aspects of a person's identity (in other words how race, gender, social class, position within the organization all impact an individual's leadership beliefs), presenting instead one-dimensional explanations of organizational participants' leadership beliefs, or definitions of leadership (Calas & Smirich, 1992). This study builds on earlier literature through the use of Positionality theory. Researchers within this analytic tradition examine how various aspects of person's identity impact their beliefs and actions.

There are two primary reasons it is critical to understand the multiple leadership belief systems of organizational members. First, research on diversity in organizations illustrates that not acknowledging and valuing difference leads to many organizational problems Including miscommunication, devaluation of employees, decreased productivity and inefficiency (Cox, 1993). Second, many organizations have moved away from hierarchical models of leadership toward participatory models that rely on interdependence and collective efforts (Astin & Leland, 1991; Bensimon & Neumann, 1993). These models are best implemented when organizational participants feel included in the leadership process (Rosener, 1990; Tierney, 1989; Weick, 1995). Without an awareness of the great variety of leadership beliefs within organizations, it is difficult to be inclusive.

This article presents an in-depth case study exploring the leadership beliefs of a diverse group of individuals (based on gender, race, role within the organization, and field of study) expanding the set of characteristics studied in leadership research. I conducted an ethnographic study of a community college, interviewing 36 faculty and administrators examining how leadership beliefs are developed and enacted. It is hoped that an understanding of the influence that diversity exerts on leadership beliefs and actions will help organizations to assess the extent to which they need to realign their leadership culture and processes to encompass a broader set of views about leadership.

Literature Review & Theoretical Framework

The leadership literature examining diverse perspectives can be divided into two main categories: 1) research on gender and race (e.g., Astin & Leland, 1991; Cantor & Bernay, 1993; Ferguson, 1984; Helegesen, 1990; Rosener, 1990; Statham, 1987); and, 2) cross-cultural studies (e. …

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