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Dances of leadership: Bridging theory and practice through an aesthetic approach

  • Arja Ropo (a1) and Erika Sauer (a2)

We wish to develop the argument in this paper that through aesthetic and artistic work, practices and their metaphorical use, we have a potential to better understand the relationship between academic leadership theory and practical action. By aesthetic approach we mean the experiential way of knowing that emphasizes human senses and the corporeal nature of social interaction in leadership. In this paper, we discuss how leadership could look, sound and feel like when seen via the artistic metaphor of dance. We use the traditional dance, waltz and the postmodern dance experience of raves to illustrate our argument. By doing so, we challenge traditional, intellectually oriented and positivistic leadership approaches that hardly recognize nor conceptualize aesthetic, bodily aspects of social interaction between people in the workplace.

The ballroom dance waltz is used as a metaphorical representation of a hierarchical, logical and rational understanding of leadership. The waltz metaphor describes the leader as a dominant individual who knows where to go and the dance partner as a follower or at least as someone with a lesser role in defining the dance. Raves, on the other hand representparadigmatically different kind of a dance and therefore a different understanding of leadership. There are neither dance steps to learn, nor fixed dance partners where one leads and the other follows. Even the purpose or aim of dancing may not be known at the beginning of the dance, but it is negotiated as the raves go on. We think that raves describe the organizational life as it is often seen and felt today: chaotic, full of unexpected changes, ambiguous and changing collaborators in networks. Here leadership becomes a collective, distributed activity where the work processes and the targeted outcome is continually negotiated.

Through the dance metaphors of waltz and raves, we suggest aspects such as gaze, rhythm and space to give an aesthetic description both to a more traditional and an emerging aesthetic paradigm of leadership where the corporeality of leadership is emphasized. We wish to make the point that leadership is aesthetically and corporeally co-constructed both between the leader and the followers as well as between the researcher and the subjects. The metaphor of dance illustrates the corporeal nature of leadership both to practitioners and theoreticians.

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Journal of Management & Organization
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