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“Leading Professionals”

Exploring the distinctive challenges of leadership in professional organisations

How do you recognise and define leadership in professional organisations, especially when the people in them prefer not to describe themselves as either leaders or followers?

How are leadership processes in professional organisations different from the organising and coordinating processes that comprise management?

What is the relationship between leadership and power in professional organisations? Can you have leadership without power?

These were among the thought-provoking questions debated by some of the world's leading scholars in the fields of leadership and professional organisations at a significant academic conference held at Cass Business School in April.

The conference, which was organised and chaired by Laura Empson, Professor in the Management of Professional Service Firms and Director of the Centre for Professional Service Firms, brought together a disparate group of distinguished scholars from a variety of theoretical perspectives. The aim was to identify theoretical approaches which may be applicable to the development of future leadership research in this context and identify key themes to on which to focus.

In a series of intellectually stimulating and often highly provocative presentations, Professors Ann Langley, Peter Gronn, Laura Empson, Mats Alvesson, Mary Uhl-Bien, Keith Grint, Dan Kärreman and Bob Hinings rejected the traditional image of leadership based on powerful individuals aligning their colleagues behind a strategic vision. They subjected leadership in professional organisations to a complexity lens and cultural theory; according to their analysis it was 'pooled', 'negotiated', 'configured', and at one point it completely disappeared. The academics in the audience challenged these arguments, made connections to other relevant bodies of research, and suggested areas of potentially fruitful further research.

It was clear that the emerging body of process-based leadership theory was the most promising area for future research in this context, particularly given its emphasis on plural models of leadership. In fact, all the presenters focused on leadership as a process: arguing that more conventional individually based models of leadership are of limited value in professional organisations as leadership is more typically the product of the collective rather than just a particular individual.

Finally, as Professor Bob Hinings suggested in his thoughtful summing up, there remains the question of power, particularly pertinent in professional organisations where formal authority is constrained but informal influence can be considerable.

The conference was preceded by a one-day masterclass for PhD scholars conducting research in the field. Because interest among academics was high and the conference was heavily over-subscribed plans are being made for a future conference.

The conference was jointly funded by the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass and the Economic and Social Research Council of Great Britain, who are funding Professor Laura Empson's research study "Understanding Leadership Dynamics in Professional Service Firms."

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