Leadership and ‘relational intersectionality’: Developing a politically relevant and research-based approach to leadership diversity

By Celina McEwen, Helena Liu, Alison Pullen & Carl Rhodes – 

Despite calls for diverse leadership practices that facilitate greater inclusiveness of cultural and gender diversity, leadership research has, to date, offered few insights into how this may be achieved. In part, this is due to a dominant focus on the traits and behaviours of individual leaders in traditional leadership research. It is also due to ‘inclusivity’ being taken-for-granted as a ‘natural’ outcome of ‘good’ leaders, rather than understood as shaped by context and in relation with others. To address this problem, our ARC funded project puts forward a way of theorising leadership diversity that bridges the isolated fields of relational leadership theory and critical diversity studies. Our approach to leadership diversity is based on the premise that if organizational inequality and injustice along intersectional lines are to be remedied then this needs to involve much more than changes in how leaders behave. The issue also requires us to fundamentally shift our understanding of what we mean by leadership, who practices leadership, and how leaders and followers take responsibility for each other in real life interactions.

We have been working on a way to bridge intersectionality research and relational leadership research to better register the complex intersections of difference that shape how identities are developed and enacted in organizational settings, with a focus on how leadership practices can create and perpetuate regimes of inequality, discrimination and oppression. Developing the idea of ‘relational intersectionality’ enables an understanding of leadership relations as manifesting in people with different access to social, political, cultural and economic power encountering each other in the shared life of a community. Through this conceptualisation, we can register how there is much more to leadership than simply considering interpersonal interaction; with it comes all of the difficulties and possibilities that arise when people of, inter alia, different gender, culture, ethnicity, class, sexuality, physical ability come together in social relations.

‘Relational intersectionality’ is not about overstating the relational aspect of intersectionality, but rather about bringing knowledge of intersectionality and relational leadership together to understand how specific relationships and practices infused in the identities of different people perpetrate and generate inequality regimes. Furthermore, it is also about learning how that inequality can be overcome in organizations. With this idea, we also seek to align leadership practices with an equality-based organizational politics, which requires reconsidering how we understand the political character of leadership relations in organizational contexts where difference proliferates through relations with others.

To understand the ways in which difference emerges in and through relationships between leaders and followers and how this generates structural inequality in organizations, we explore the question of how relationships between people at work are political as well as functional, and how those relationships can change so as to mobilise different ways of working and doing leadership. Thus, by politicising leadership and examining it as a relational process, we seek to avoid reproducing the stories that maintain leadership, power and control as we currently know it, and enable a revitalised project of solidarity in the fight against inequality.

To address these questions, we are conducting research in three Australian organizations. Data collected will help us unpack how these leadership-follower relationships are enacted across multifaceted, interrelated ‘diversity’ boundaries. This research will also allow us to make explicit the political nature of leadership and the ways in which ‘leadership’ is a tinder box for the perpetuation and exacerbation of inequality regimes. Our research will be used to account for, and provide a means to confront, inequality regimes perpetuated by leadership practice, too often underpinned by dominant and reductionist masculine values.

Photo by Sandra Starke on Unsplash

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