Place Based Leadership

“The social world is accumulated history” (Bourdieu, 1986)

“The social space we occupy has been historically generated.” (Skeggs, 1997)

One of the best parts of research is when you stumble across one or two pieces of information that enable your current thinking to ‘fall into place’, even if this is only temporary. That was the feeling I got when yesterday when I came across these two quotes in quick succession. They’re from two of the theorists that I see as being central to my thesis. When this happens, it can be interesting to consider the process of crystallisation behind such moment of clarity. 

I’ve been thinking about the historicisation of my research for some time. I see this as the need to situate my research within its historical development. This is underpinned by an attempt to avoid what the political rhetoric is always driving us to do- to consider the ‘now’ as a watershed moment that requires different and extraordinary measures to resolve. What we tend to forget is that history repeats itself and the current structures are often a reproduction of what existing before.

What also needs to be avoided is ahistoricism, which is either a lack of concern or a misrepresentation of history. Often it suits the powers that be to cherry pick history in order to legitimate the present, but that does not help us change or learn from our mistakes. For example, within my research context it is recognising that today’s unemployment aren’t worse than the past, which is what we are told in order to justify more stringent controls. In fact, even those so called ‘more’ stringent controls have been tried in the 1930s (see Fletcher, 2015 for a discussion) and they weren’t ‘effective’ then either. 

This brings us to our present context, and also something which is being increasingly mentioned in academic circles; ‘place’. Most recently this was at the BAM Identity and Leadership SIG event, where Brad Jackson (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) discussed the importance of place to leadership. Initial questions at the event had raised concerns of how place fits with ‘purpose’ (considered by many to be one of the most central leadership concepts). What was drawn out by the ensuing discussion was that the two may be intimately linked, for what is purpose without considering place, and vice versa? Our place defines what we can and can’t do, what we can and can’t influence. 

The ‘space’ we move through is increasing via  globalisation and technology (virtual space). Focussing on this bigger picture leads the detail to be lost. Thereby we lose the detail of the impact of leaders’ decisions. Issues such as inequality become masked (for example, think about how distant world news would have seemed 100 years ago compared to today; Local news would have seemed much more relevant in comparison). 

Realities only becomes clear when leaders are grounded via place. Adding the additional dimension of historicisation can also overcome the inertia that place can imply. Given the current political climate I would like to see discussions of place based leadership continue to increase in both academic and professional fields. 


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. Available from:

Fletcher, D. (2015). Workfare – a blast from the past? Contemporary work conditionality for the unemployed in historical perspective, Social policy and society, 14(3), 329-339. 

Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of class and gender. London: Sage Publications. 

Also see Jonathan Murdoch, ‘Post Structural Geographies’, and Danny Dorling, ‘Injustice’, for relevant discussions. 


From National Library of Scotland exhibition of maps open until 2 April 2017 

My Own Reflection

I’m currently reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda with my middle daughter. I smile, not just at the funny parts, but when Matilda is curled up with her nose in a book while the rest of the family is watching TV. Certainly my parents were not like Matilda’s, but I do remember them making objections to me doing the same, particularly in social situations.

When I had my PhD interview, I was asked how I would be able to cope with the solitude. A PhD can be a lonely endeavour. Again, I had to smile. Because essentially, that is what I’m used to. And that is what I enjoy. Silence. In my new home office, I can shut my door and be with my books and my thoughts. My husband has been expressing his growing concern by making excuses for me to have to go outside.

With the PhD in full swing, every precious free moment needs to be dedicated to moving it along, hence the neglect of the blog alongside many other ‘non-essentials’. Remembering I’d signed up to attend a BAM Special Interest Group on Friday caused a moment of panic on re-reading the programme – that’s not related to my PhD!! Researching unemployment is probably about as far from researching leadership as you can get. Having to trudge through snow didn’t help encourage me across the threshold either.

But I’m glad I did. Not only did it provide fresh ideas, but was an important reminder how ‘taking a break’ can fuel progress. Not least is having to articulate (out loud! and not just to yourself or on scraps of paper) what it is you are actually researching.

The speaker who ‘struck’ me the most was Ann Cunliffe; Professor of Organisation Studies from the University of Bradford. Her simple emphasis on relationality and the intersubjective is going to help relieve the writer’s block I’m having over incorporating ‘the social’ into my discussion of modern social class.

My other thought was that I wished that leaders I’ve known throughout my career in industry could have listened to her powerful words; That leaders need to accept difference  and also understand it, because if they don’t listen, eventually all they will hear is silence. That everything is about relationships, and treating people like humans, not resources. That leaders need to know themselves before they can effectively lead others.



An important way in which we learn about ourselves is reflection. Critiquing is ingrained in academia, and for someone with a professional background it can be difficult to take. But what I’ve learned from experience is that it must be welcomed with open arms, because it really is the only way we improve. Unfortunately the business world just isn’t set up for people to have open, honest conversations about how things are going.

I can count the leaders I’ve know who were humble on one hand. A leader who reconsiders what they’ve done and says sorry doesn’t really fit with the typical expectation of a leader today – which is somebody to put on a pedestal. Instead, we need to encourage the Reflexive Leader with the simple message that despite the hierarchy, nobody is above anybody else – nobody’s position abdicates them from the responsibility of treating others as human.