Taking Experience Seriously: a Critical Inquiry Into Consultant-Led Leadership Development Programmes in Global Corporations
Corporate Leadership Development (LD) is a multi-billion dollar industry. It is estimated that in the US alone corporations spend between US$14-20 billion annually on LD (Pfeffer, 2015: 10), yet academics and practitioners continue to wrestle with the question of whether their approach achieves its goals. These are typically framed in managerialist terms related to organizational and performance outcomes where leaders have a privileged role and are assumed to be able to design a set of outcomes for an organization, thought of in systemic terms (Alvesson et al., 2017; Beer et al., 2016; Hayward & Voller, 2010; Pfeffer, 2015; Rowland, 2016). This thesis presents a critical inquiry into my work over several decades, firstly as an internal Human Resources (HR) leader in a global, US-headquartered corporation, and more recently as an independent LD consultant. By sharing a series of reflexive narratives, I offer a complex, non-linear understanding of organizational life, considering leadership as a social practice which emerges in the interactions of interdependent individuals. I contrast this with the idealized picture of a visionary and transformational leader proposed by much mainstream literature and on which many LD programmes are based (e.g. Heifetz et al., 2009; Johansen, 2012; Kouzes & Posner, 1987). I draw on the pragmatists to argue that corporate LD programmes could more usefully focus on practical judgement, which would mean exploring lived experience and practice both critically and reflexively. I argue that the abstractions and universal, decontextualized models featured in many programmes are unhelpful in preparing leaders to handle their everyday challenges. In my research I draw extensively on the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating to support my arguments. This theory posits that organizations are not systems at all, but rather processes of human relating emerging in every day conversation, where people are joined in ever-expanding webs of interdependence. This has major implications for understanding power, communication and ritual in the workplace. I argue that it is important for the consultant to consider these in their leadership practice. In particular I point to the need for him/her to become more critical and reflexive, and to pay attention to micro-interactions between people.
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