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Identity in practice: a sociocultural exploration of leadership learning and development

Creaby, Fiona (2016) Identity in practice: a sociocultural exploration of leadership learning and development. Doctoral thesis (EdD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

This thesis presents a narrative study of leadership identity from a sociocultural perspective. Drawing on Bakhtinian, Vygotskian and Bourdieusian perspectives as a lens to conceptualise identity – Holland et al’s (1998) Agency and Identity in Cultural Worlds (figured worlds) – and argues that learning and development are intrinsically linked to identity construction as individuals, cultural forms, and social positions, come together in co-development, as identity in practice. A thematic analysis, presented as stories from practice, illuminates and explores the contexts of identity construction, as narrated through: early life, childhood and youth; formal study and training; ‘learning moments’ from organisational life reflecting tensions of power, discourse and policy; and the influence of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leaders – as heroes and villains – of leadership worlds. Overall, a struggle between rhetorical discourses of leadership and organisational realities presented many contradictions to practice as identity work involved putting on ‘a professional mask’ to ‘act the part’ of a ‘tough’ invulnerable leader. Living life in the ‘gap’ between discourse and organisational realities was then often narrated as ‘a bit of a mess’ as stories of tension, resistance and negotiation featured alongside reflections on the complexity of organisational life and the ‘collision’ of professional and personal expectations. However, at times, leadership identity work also reflected a chance to ‘play the game’ and improvise new possibilities for practice narrated through stories of: ‘free-wheeling’, ‘winning’ and ‘rebelling’ against ‘bureaucratic’ cultures; ‘fighting for the underdog’ against ‘aggressive, self-interested’ autocrats; challenging gender positioning in a ‘man’s world’; and navigating ‘the dark side of leadership’ as a ‘good’ ethical leader authentically and emotionally ‘hidden’ behind the veil of identity performance. In offering life history accounts that highlight the tensions, and the possibilities, of leadership identity work in practice, this research presents insights and contributions to growing debates across leadership studies, leadership and management development research, and the educational leadership field. Overall this thesis argues that identity work is an integral aspect of leadership practice, learning and development.

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