Leader-academic partnerships in leadership research: Why do it?

By Dr Julie Wilson, Chair of BAM Leadership & Leadership Development SIG, British Academy of Management

On 9th January at the Work Foundation in London, influential business professionals joined with academics to discuss best practice in aligning and sharing leadership research between academic and managerial communities. The blog below is an account of the event and thoughts on where this topic might go next.

It’s long been a personal frustration that academia and leaders in the workplace largely operate in separate spheres. However, before I could argue for more partnership working, it seemed like a good idea to know the range issues being investigated in academic leadership research and how these might relate to non-academic environments. The results were sobering.

The research undertaken was a short survey of published leadership research from 2017. This search included 253 articles, across 46 journals and areas of interest such as leadership and management, health care, politics, education, technology, ethics and economics.

Where is academic leadership research going?
Common areas of interest are included Leader Behaviour and Styles (34 articles); Leadership Development (15); Leadership in Non-Western contexts (13) and a number of articles on current affairs and politics, including Donald Trump and leadership in the US. In addition to these, were 29 types of “adjective” leadership; ranging from ‘Transformational Leadership’ (the most popular with 17 articles), Network Leadership, and Passive leadership to ‘Leadership in Extremis’ (all with 1 article each).

One of the issues with this range of “adjective leadership” is the overlap between terms. For instance: Collective, Distributed and Inclusive forms of leadership all involve leading through sharing responsibility and authority. Alternatively, Psychopathic, Abusive and Hubristic leadership all contain notions of narcissm, psychopathy and behaving badly towards followers.

These findings create two issues. Firstly, it is clear that academics have no central set of definitions or consistent use of language and technical terms. Most of the “adjective” leadership titles had just one or two papers on their topic, meaning that their readership is very small and their interpretation of leadership almost idiosyncratic. If Leadership scholars are confused about definitions, how can practitioners who are busy getting on with the day job be expected to navigate their way around our subject? Secondly, with this lack of clarity around definitions, terminology and poor organisation across the field, how do non-academics know which bit of our work to engage with?

The answer is for academics to make engagement and partnership easier, because there are real advantages to both sides from doing so.

Benefits to leader-academic partnerships
There are a number of challenges involved in setting up leader-academic partnerships but with these come tangible benefits. For leaders, there is a direct tap into the latest relevant research, with partners who can translate academic technical jargon into English and use their deep knowledge of the field to offer novel solutions and theories in solving real-world problems. In addition, where organisations need to undertake research, they can draw upon the experience, rigour and resources of universities who are, by and large, set up to carry out such work. In addition, leaders can rely on the quality of output, academics are held to a high standard of material through the demands of publishing their work. This offers something of a guarantee that the results should be worth having.

For academics, partnership working offers opportunities to disseminate recent research and theories and to test these in the field, often in contexts that might otherwise be difficult to reach. Collaborations also offer a chance to solve ‘real’ problems and have a definitive and positive impact outside the world of academia.

So, with a plethora of positive outcomes, how can these partnerships get off the ground?

Top tips for partnership working
Professor Jean Hartley of the Open University offers four tips for getting these partnerships going:

  1. Get the structures and governance right – decide who’s in charge
  2. Be clear about the purpose and partner capabilities for the work
  3. Planning – work out in advance who’s doing what, when, and how
  4. Brand/Reputation – because doing this well builds both university and organisational brands.

So, this is worth undertaking. There is a current partnership developing between the British Academy of Management (BAM), CIPD, CMI, The Institute of Learning and Management and The Work Foundation. This partnership aims to explore how to support joint projects over 2018. More news should follow in the following weeks.

For more information, please contact Dr Julie Wilson

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