I’ve discovered that I’m an abominable (or superlative – depending on how you look at it!) skim reader. Imagine a speedboat riding along the waves/pages so fast that you are barely touching the surface of the water/words. This is a good thing, at present, although perhaps a habit I will later regret? Anyway, I’ve read almost 3 novels (300 pages approx. each) in the last 4 days (and that’s with work and weekend commitments!). I would estimate that I can read a full novel of that size in probably less than four hours without disturbances. Textbooks are bit trickier – although my tactic with them is to highlight and post-it note until kingdom come! Meticulously going over them later and typing up notes.
The direction I’m taking with my thesis has changed somewhat over the last week. Although I was hesitant at first to focus solely on women’s leadership, especially since authentic leadership was/still is something I’m quite passionate about and interested in, in terms of creating excellent discussion material and contributing to feminist discourse within business and leadership studies, refining my focus seems like the best course of action. Furthermore, finding good literature with strong female characters which also contained examples of ‘authentic’ leadership moments was proving tricky!
This doesn’t mean that at least one of the stories I select can’t be concerned with authentic leadership and how women enact it and experience it (I’m thinking The Secret Life of Bees!), but rather, that I’ll have the freedom to utilise both a wider range of literary texts and make the whole study more provocative, topical and hopefully less ‘fluffy’/feel good – I don’t want to simply provide nicely packaged ‘right’ answers. Thus, the focus will be more on women’s leadership development rather than authentic leadership lessons.
With this in mind I’m in the process of re-defining my criteria for the selection of texts. For example: ‘Novels, short stories, and plays that raise contemporary leadership issues outside the bounds of traditional business case studies and are particularly concerned with the experiences of women, not only in relation to one another but also in relation to men. The narratives must create tension, raising pertinent questions and concerns about women’s leadership, and thus facilitating discussion on a diverse range of issues such as expectations & perceptions, female stereotypes, communal/relational leadership, feminism, working mothers, post-heroic leadership, authenticity, etc…’
Since the semester started four weeks ago I think now is as good a time as any to evaluate my progress. Obviously I’ve read a broader range of material (see end list) than I’m presenting here, but for time’s sake here are the possibilities so far (including an applicability rating, the relevant ‘women in leadership’ themes and a few thoughts on how each text could be used/discussion points):
1. The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver
Applicability Rating: 6.5/10
Relevant Themes: Power + status, crisis situations, followership
Key thoughts: Examples of leadership in crisis, personal reflection, patriarchal domination, women's struggles and position relative to men. Only concern is that the material is much weightier than would be suited to a management course, and subjecting it to corporate scrutiny would overpower its more subtle, yet equally powerful elements (such as racial tensions).
2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1967) by Muriel Spark
Applicability rating: 6/10
Relevant Themes: Female ambition, power relationships between women, unsettling role models
Key Thoughts: I initially didn’t enjoy this novel and, to be honest, I still don’t think I like it very much (Jean Brodie is just…ugh!!). But the story does say some very interesting things about power and independence, expectations and perceptions, and what happens to women who act outside the bounds of societal convention. So while Miss Brodie is rather unlikeable, her methods are unconventional (at least for the time period she is situated in), and thus worthy of discussion; i.e. what should young women be taught? How do female role models influence students? What power dynamics exist between women?
3. The Secret Life of Bees (2002) by Sue Monk Kidd
Applicability Rating: 8/10
Relevant Themes: Authentic leadership & engagement, racial issues & women
Key Thoughts: A clear work environment (the honey business) where there is leadership and followership between women. August Boatwright exemplifies authentic leadership in its fullest sense, i.e. heart leadership, solid values, passionate engagement, self-discipline. Since the story is told from perspective of Lily, I could investigate how women respond to authentic leadership and female support.
4. ‘Sur’ (1982) by Ursula K. Le Guin
Applicability Rating: 8/10
Relevant Themes: Communal leadership, post-heroic leadership, expectations
Key Thoughts: A party of nine women head to Antarctica in 1910 unbeknownst to almost any men, they explore the freezing territory for over three months and work as a team to accomplish their exploration, all of which goes completely unacknowledged as it wouldn't be acceptable (or even believable!) for women to have done this alone. It presents a range of examples of teamwork, leadership moving between group members, authentic engagement, the unique problems they encounter as women and the continual struggle to be accepted in a ‘man’s world’.
5. A Room of One’s Own (1926) by Virginia Woolf
Applicability Rating: 7/10
Relevant Themes: Conditions for female leadership & examples of the social constructionism of gender.
Key Thoughts: This is a pioneering feminist text. While it is a non-fiction piece, Woolf examines in detail the struggles faced by women in a world dominated by patriarchy, asking: ‘What does it require and mean for a woman to be successful? Can she ever be equal with the ‘dominant’ sex? How can she come into her own (as a writer or as a leader)?’ Woolf uses a range of novels as examples to illustrate her point so it could work as part of my study if I picked out certain portions (mostly located in the latter half of the book) for analysis. Virginia Woolf is not very well read these days so most women (apart from literature buffs) are unlikely to have encountered her work in any great depth, and if they have, more likely one of her novels, such as Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse.
6. The Lifeboat (2012) by Charlotte Rogan
Applicability Rating: 9/10
Relevant Themes: Power & status, crisis situations, styles of leadership, the role of followers
Key Thoughts: Set in 1914 just as war is breaking out in Europe, a group of 39 men & women find themselves on a lifeboat only meant for 30 fighting for their lives. Told from the perspective of Grace (age 22) the novel explores the struggle for survival and leadership between Mr Hardie and Hannah & Mrs Grant. Grace, the protagonist, cleverly observes the leadership crisis and subsequent struggle for power between the men and women stranded on a lifeboat. At times both a supporter of Hardie and Mrs Grant, Grace sheds light on the human need for control and the power held by 'followers' in saving or damning their leaders. What is truly valuable about this novel is that it highlights the struggles women face as leaders and how when they emulate masculine styles of leadership and authority (making difficult life and death decisions) they are punished. Regardless of the time-setting, The Lifeboat is equally as applicable to today's society as 1914 America. Definitely a winner!
7. The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant
Applicability Rating: 7.5/10
Relevant Themes: Maternal leadership, female support networks, decision-making
Key Thoughts: This book is a rich portrayal of womanhood and contains a huge array of well-developed female characters. While the focus is on motherhood and the bonds between women rather than leadership per say, The Red Tent's universal themes and linear narrative lends itself to discussion on the 'power of women' and the importance of female relationships and support. How do women interact with one another when there are clear power boundaries? How does age influence leadership dynamics between women? Dinah's grandmother, Rebekah, is an example of a strong, perhaps almost masculine leader (see pages 147 - 166) who makes hard decisions which are often criticised. Yet at the same time she is also deeply perceptive and caring of those around her. Rebekah’s section may raise some good discussion points.
Other books I’ve read but have given lower applicability ratings:
· Outline by Rachel Cusk
· The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
· Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
As far as textbooks go, I’ve read a couple of anthologies for women’s plays and modern literature, along with a complete psychology textbook by Mary Crawford called Transformations: Women, Gender & Psychology (2012) to give me a reference point and basic understanding of current women’s issues and the nature vs. nurture argument. I’m currently reading two other scholarly texts, including Women’s Leadership (2009) by Valerie Stead and Carole Elliott and Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders (2007) by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli. I hope to finish these by the end of this week, along with at least two more novels.
All in all, I feel this is quite a good effort for just four weeks of study! I’m going to give myself three more weeks of reading before I start writing seriously. This should give me time to read at least 7 more novels/plays and finish investigating women’s leadership from an academic standpoint. From there the road will take an upward slant and I will start on the path leading to the summit.