The New Action Word on Leadership Theory

iStock-515675410-sweets-candyTracey Robinson examines the colourful concept of theorizing.

As part of a research project, I did a literature review of leadership theory and I really wish it could have included this chapter on theory by Julia Storberg-Walker and Kristina Natt och Dag in the newly published Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership.

First of all, this chapter deftly summarized the reservations I had about the leadership research I had been reviewing. I was pulling from the textbooks in my courses, which I believed to be the most credible. For anyone who wades into a field like this, it takes some time to understand the perspectives, the key theories, and how they are situated. In my own analysis, which I do with lots of sticky notes on a wall, I found myself critical of the research designs and what questions were being asked. In my notes, I started including the year published and if I could find it, the gender of the main authors. Of course, I’m generalizing about my unsystematic review, but it seemed that the female researchers were less likely to make positivist assumptions, and more likely to think about topics in appropriately complex ways.

This leads me to the new action word I learned when reading Storberg-Walker and Natt och Dag’s chapter; theorizing.

There is just something so brilliantly elegant about the word that I found myself rolling it around on my tongue like a hard candy. I wasn’t sure what was at the core of it yet but I already knew that releasing the word from the static confine of “theory” was exciting. Suddenly, a word that held so much authority and completeness became liberated and democratized. Theorizing is a practice, and according to the authors, it has the potential for both researchers and practitioners to engage in “impactful and relevant theory for women leaders.”

As I work my way to the chewy centre of this candy, I am discovering the best part of the concept of theorizing (being developed by many thoughtful men and women). It lives in the interactive space between thinking and doing. Compelling researchers and practitioners to engage in theorizing challenges each of us to grapple with the relationship between knowledge and power, and to develop reflexive practices.

The funny thing I know about the human brain is that it tends
to focus on what you are looking for

To help the reader engage in the idea of theorizing, the authors unpack the tradition of creating and testing theory with justification at the core. The funny thing I know about the human brain is that it tends to focus on what you are looking for and so the ideas that get promoted are the ones that researchers would notice are supporting their theory of choice. Instead, Storberg-Walker and Natt och Dag promote discovery as an alternative to justification. It’s about being a researcher or a practitioner who lives into the question.

You might think that changing a “y” to an “ing” as in theorizing, is not such a big idea but in addition to the authority that it promotes, it also challenges the collective understanding of how we do research in a scientific and rational way. Recommending Swedberg (2012) for further reading, the authors summarize how the practice of theorizing represents a paradigm shift and argue that social scientists cannot stay in the box of empirical data if they want to move the bar on leadership theory.

Storberg-Walker and Natt och Dag present a much neater way to look at a literature review than my sticky note efforts in the employment of Burrell and Morgan’s (1979) matrix for positioning leadership research on a continuum that exposes the underlying assumptions of the research. This is a terrific way to avoid the quagmire for students of leadership who dive into the literature like I did, only to find a huge range of competing views and contradictory data.

For me, reading this chapter was an epiphany and it gave me courage to pick up a project that I had shelved because someone told me that I was overstretching myself as a student to engage in theory-building.

Ps. Just another reason why you should read the Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership, edited by Susan R. Madsen.

This blog piece is reproduced with kind permission from Tracey Robinson and was originally published here.


The Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership, edited by Susan R. Madsen, Utah Valley University, US, is available now.

Read Chapter 1 free online:  The Current Status of Women Leaders Worldwide by Elizabeth Goryunova, Robbyn T. Scribner and Susan R. Madsen


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