The “Practice View” of Leadership

The foundation of the leadership-as-practice approach is its underlying belief that leadership occurs as a practice rather than reside in the traits or behaviors of individuals. A practice is a coordinative effort among participants who choose through their own means to achieve an outcome. Accordingly, leadership-as-practice is less about what one person thinks or does and more about what people may accomplish together. It is thus concerned with how leadership emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experience. The social and material-discursive contingencies impacting the leadership constellation – the people who are effecting leadership at any given time – do not reside outside of leadership but are very much embedded within it. To find leadership, then, we must look to the practice within which it is occurring.

The practice view may consequently upend our traditional views of leadership because it does not rely on the attributes of individuals nor need it focus on the dyadic relationship between leaders and followers, which historically has been the starting point for any discussion of leadership. Rather, it depicts immanent collective action emerging from mutual, discursive, sometimes recurring and sometimes evolving patterns in the moment and over time among those engaged in the practice. This definition suggests an ecumenical approach to practice because at times it refers to routine activities; at others times, it suggests a more perpetually unfolding dynamic. Perhaps the simplest way to account for this difference is to compare the concepts of practices and practice.

Practices refer to specific sequences of activities that may repeatedly recur, whereas practice refers to emergent entanglements that tend to extend or transform meaning over time. In her chapter in this book, Simpson links practices to an inter-actional mode of activity in which pre-formed entities – be they people or discourses or institutions – vie for influence over other “inter-actors.” Practice, on the other hand, is associated with a more trans-actional mode characterized by a continual flow of processes where material-discursive engagements produce meaning that is emergent and mutual. Practices, therefore, as Crevani and Endrissat point out in their chapter rely on an entitative ontology of subject-object or subject-subject relations in which individuals may be viewed within fields of relationships. Practice, on the other hand, is processual and thus considered more situated and recursive. Another way to differentiate these two forms of activity is to use the philosophical language employed by Cunliffe and Hibbert in their chapter in which practices may be considered objectivist or subjectivist, depending upon whether the practices in question are studied as objects separate from the people engaged in them or whether they are subject to the intentions and interpretations of the actors who experience them. Practice, meanwhile, may be considered intersubjective in character because it is interwoven not between people but “within” the dynamic unfolding of their becoming” (see Shotter’s chapter).

When we associate leadership with practice, we think of it as not only material-discursive but shared or collective. The parties to the practice engage in semiotic, often dialogical, exchange, and in some cases for those genuinely committed to one another, they display an interest in listening to one another, in reflecting upon new perspectives, and in entertaining the prospect of changing direction based on what they learn. Peter Gronn refers to the engagement as a conjoint agency characterized by reciprocal dependence. In effect, the parties look to coordinate with one another to advance their individual or mutual projects. In the integrated professional services realm, for example, individual contributors may seek to work inter-professionally in aligning their thoughts and actions with others in order to interpret problems of practice and to respond to those interpretations.

The activity of leadership is at times orderly; at other times, it will be irregular and provisional. As people within an enterprise work together, they may develop a sense of mastery not only in accomplishing the daily mundane work of the organization but in surmounting unexpected challenges and disruptions. At times, the practices become so obvious that they are no longer questioned and begin to represent an objectified context for members of a community. At this point, actions become pre-determined until system perturbance pulls people out of their contextual patterns. Unfamiliar stakeholders may be invited to contribute their knowledge. New or forgotten resources may be solicited to add to the knowledge base. Eventually, familiar routines may be broken or familiar relations may even end in unresolved conflict as new structures, material, and relations become salient. Activity may resume, however, as participants decide whether or not to continue the effort. A casual observer to the action may see the activity as an organized effort leading to a planned conclusion, but if paying close attention, it may actually resemble a jazz improvisation in which, as Mary Jo Hatch once explained: “The directions [the tune] will take are only decided in the moment of playing and will be redetermined each time the tune is played.”

So, the practice of leadership is not dependent on any one person to mobilize action on behalf of everybody else. The effort is intrinsically collective. However, in the process of engagement, leadership may also emanate from the actions of particular individuals who, often because of historical reasons, may be able to suggest meaning with a high degree of insight, such as by extracting or providing critical cues, by suggesting behavioral patterns, or by transmitting cultural norms to minimize the range of choices available. These “meaning makers” may be serving in managerial roles, but anyone within the team can be responsible provided they have astute awareness of the perspectives, reasoning patterns, and narratives of others.

Joseph A. Raelin is Professor of Management and Organization Development at Northeastern University, USA, and author of Leadership-as-Practice: Theory and Application.

  • Leadership-as-Practice

    Theory and Application, 1st Edition

    Edited by Joseph A. Raelin

    This book develops a new paradigm in the field of leadership studies, referred to as the "leadership-as-practice" (L-A-P) movement. Its essence is its conception of leadership as occurring as a practice rather than residing in the traits or behaviours of particular individuals. A practice is a…

    Paperback – 2016-02-10
    Routledge Studies in Leadership Research

Author Q&A

Joe Raelin recently met with the International Leadership Association to discuss his latest book, Leadership-as-Practice: Theory and Application

Read highlights of the interview here.

About the Author

Joseph Raelin is Asa Knowles Chair of Practice-Oriented Education and Professor of Management and Organizational Development at Northeastern University. His work is currently focused in two areas: work-based learning and the development of a new paradigm for leadership he calls “leaderful practice.” In addition to his work as an organizational consultant, Raelin serves on several boards and as an editor of several journals and book series. The recipient of several prestigious research awards, he is the author of numerous papers, books, and conference presentations.