In the dark winter of 2016, I visited the Gothic fairy tale city of Edinburgh to present at the International Studying Leadership Conference (ISLC).
The conference was in many ways a humbling experience. I heard wonderful things about the conference from past attendees, but my path getting there was rough.
I was first accepted to it in 2011 in the final year of my PhD when it was held at Lund, but the travel funding provided by my university left me too much out of pocket to afford it. I tried again in 2015 when it was held in Lancaster, but my flight booking was lost by the travel agent and I had to withdraw.
Accepted for the third time at a third institution, I had never been more determined to attend a conference, or die trying, than ISLC.
I have a great relationship with its associated journal, Leadership. I have reviewed for the journal a couple of times and published three papers there with three different editors: my first critical race examination of leadership; my first conceptual piece on reimagining ethical leadership; and an analysis of the social construction of crisis combining media data from my PhD with interviews I conducted with Australian banking executives. This last paper was co-edited by the organiser of the ISLC in Edinburgh.
I was a wallflower for the first morning, time-travelling as the PhD student accepted to the conference in 2011. I had a stubborn ‘early career academic’ mindset and passively waited for more senior scholars to come and approach me. But as my doctorate was marked by the generosity and inclusivity of other academics who struck up conversations with me at international conferences and made every effort to make me feel welcome, I realised I could spend my time more valuably extending that hospitality to the other junior scholars there.
I presented a work-in-progress on a case of a self-identified Asian male senior manager in Australia. It applied intersectionality theory to explore the attempts of the senior manager to practise ‘servant leadership’. Servant leaders are defined as self-sacrificing individuals who invariably put the needs of others before their own and foster an empowering, developmental climate around their followers (Greenleaf, 1977). Although servant leadership has laudably attempted to challenge popular individualist notions of leadership by introducing values of humility and compassion, the construct largely remains blind to dynamics of power in leadership practice.
In my conference paper, I attempted to demonstrate that Australia’s history of racism has constructed Asian immigrants as natural servants so that their endeavours towards servant leadership are more readily seen as their appropriate deference to white employees, rather than heroic acts of leadership.
The presentation of this paper was also kindly supported by the University of Essex Business School who invited me to present it at their campus in Wivenhoe after the ISLC. (The final version of this paper, ‘Just the servant: An intersectional critique of servant leadership’, has as of July 2017 been accepted into the Journal of Business Ethics.)
ISLC itself left me with warm memories of reconnecting with old friends, meeting doctoral candidates who enlivened my hopes for the future of leadership studies and not least of all, Edinburgh. Many of the ideas there surprised me with their parochial Britishness. This is not in itself problematic, yet a lingering colonial approach to research stained many of the studies presented there. I was greatly saddened to hear a funded study of leadership in an Asian context that applied all Western theoretical frameworks designed by white British men. It concluded that the Asian managers were unable to deal with paradox while denying their agency and voice in the process. Colonialism is alive and well in the practices of “epistemic violence” (Spivak, 2012, p. 287) in leadership scholarship.
Greenleaf, R.K. (1977). Servant leader: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press.
Spivak, G.C. (2012), ‘Subaltern studies: Deconstructing histriography’. In: In other worlds: Essays in cultural politics, Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, pp. 270–304.