A place for leadership

Purpose, place and process should be the most important aspects of leadership, with personality consigned to the background, writes Victoria University's Brad Jackson

Mainstream and social media tend to reduce leadership down to the personality, competence or persona of an individual leader. They are always in a hurry to declare who is a good and who is a bad leader. Witness the media attention given to Jacinda Ardern and her election to Prime Minister. In doing this, they take the ‘ship’ out of leadership.

A growing group of leadership thinkers want to bring the ‘ship’ back by emphasising that leadership is a collective and interactive process that involves both leading and following. Both activities are critical to the creation of good leadership. My particular passion, which betrays my original training as a geographer, has been to highlight the importance of place in the leadership process. I’m partly inspired by British academic Keith Grint’s wry observation that “place literally brings the flighty realms of leadership theory down to earth”.

Our relationship with place is fundamental to who we are and how we live. Place provides us with a sense of identity, belonging, responsibility and pleasure. Moving to New Zealand in 1999 has had a major and very positive influence on who I am and how I see the world. Most especially, tikanga Māori has emphasised the importance to me of my connection with land and the critical leadership task of providing stewardship of it.

Place is also an important means for us to approach and tackle the larger questions of environmental prudence and social justice. Recognising this opportunity, academics, politicians and policy-makers in various parts of the world have actively promoted ‘place-based leadership’ as a means of galvanising disparate business, community and government organisations, as well as individual citizens, to collectively recognise and tackle local problems and issues. Worldwide schemes to promote ‘Resilient Cities’, ‘Creative Cities’, ‘Smart Cities’ and ‘Restorative Cities’ have sought to put place front and centre as the primary stimulus for proactive, responsible and sustainable leadership.

Place-based leadership is not just confined to cities; it can be fostered within a particular building, park, neighbourhood, region, nation or at the supra-national level. The biggest place-based leadership challenge, of course, needs to be anchored in our relationship with the whole planet. When we look at the relationship between place and leadership, we need to properly understand and balance its instrumental (does it work?), ethical (is it right?) and aesthetic (is it beautiful?) qualities.

Our relationship with place is fundamental to who we are and how we live. Place provides us with a sense of identity, belonging, responsibility and pleasure.

Place can act as both an enabler and a constraint for leadership. It provides a potent strategic resource as the basis for forging a common identity, purpose and direction. This was memorably displayed by the creative use made of place at the recent Social Enterprise World Forum, with over 1600 social entrepreneurs from 28 countries attending the first major conference in post-earthquake Christchurch, three and a half years before the completion date of the new convention centre. Considerably less desirably, place can be delineated to define what is one’s ‘own’ and who the ‘outsiders’ are. Alas, far too many populist leaders have of late tapped into this easy, cowardly and destructive leadership trope.    

By the same token, place is at least partially shaped by leadership. A key task of leadership is to redefine a shared understanding of place by persuading others that the current place they occupy is either undesirable, untenable or unsustainable and needs to be re-placed or on the other side of the coin needs to be preserved and defended. Upon recently revisiting Bristol in the United Kingdom, the city where I spent my undergraduate years, I was delighted to see a city that had grown economically, culturally and socially but had nonetheless managed to preserve the essence of what made it such a special place to live and work.      

​In thinking about the relationship between place and leadership, we can begin by considering the following: the influence place has on guiding individual leaders in how they create leadership (i.e. Leadership from Place); the use of place to unite and divide groups (Leadership for Place and Leadership against Place); the type of leadership processes that have to be created in order for groups to respond to particular geographic challenges (e.g. climatic, geological, geomorphic, geopolitical) posed by the place in which they are located (Leadership in Response to Place); and the type of leadership created when a group consciously decides to make the place they share the focus of their leadership purpose (Leadership with Place).

The challenge ahead in researching, teaching and developing leadership is to foreground place, purpose and process and to background personality, position and performance.    

Brad Jackson will be exploring the themes of this article further in ‘Putting Leadership in its Place’, his Victoria University of Wellington inaugural professorial lecture, 6pm, Tuesday 21 November, Lecture Theatre 2, Rutherford House, Pipitea Campus, Bunny Street, Wellington. Free entry. Register here.  

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