Seedfield s2e4

S2E4: Leadership Is Worth Studying—And Reforming

The phenomenon of leadership is something that affects our lives every day, which is why scholars like Dr. Donna Ladkin believe that analyzing how our ideas of leadership are shaped is extremely important to building a better society. In this episode, we discuss the history of leadership ideology and Dr. Ladkin’s work in pushing the leadership studies field to recognize its roots in whiteness.

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Episode Notes

Visit Antioch University’s website to learn more about the Graduate School of Leadership and Change.

To learn more about Donna Ladkin click here. You can find out more information here about the Leading for Inclusion & Racial Justice Certificate that Donna convenes. 

Recorded September 16, 2021 via Released October 20, 2021. 

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University.

The Seed Field Podcast’s host is Jasper Nighthawk, and its editor is Lauren Instenes. Special thanks for this episode goes to Karen Hamilton and Melinda Garland for their contributions.

For information about this and past episodes, and to access a full transcript, visit To get updates and be notified about future episodes, follow Antioch University on Facebook.

Guest Bio

Dr. Donna Ladkin is an internationally recognized leadership and ethics scholar whose philosophically-informed publications explore aesthetic, ethical, and embodied aspects of organizing and leading. Her theoretical work is underpinned by a strong commitment to the realm of practice and is informed by extensive consulting experience in both public and private organizations. Her current research focuses on examining the racial assumptions which underpin traditional leadership perspectives. She holds a strong commitment to bringing underrepresented voices into theory building, as evidenced by recent work into how African American existentialism can inform ethical organizational practices.

S2E4 Transcript

[intro music]

[00:00:19] Jasper: This is The Seed Field Podcast, the show where Antiochians share their knowledge, tell their stories, and come together to win victories for humanity. Today we’re joined by the leadership and ethics scholar Donna Ladkin for a conversation about the expectations that we place on leaders, the way that theorists have tried to make theories to explain how to be a good leader, and the problems that Donna is helping address in this field of leadership studies, which has historically been often quite White and quite male. Donna has been a highly productive scholar over the last three decades from writing books to publishing many articles and we’re so lucky to welcome you to the Seed Field Podcast, Donna.

[00:00:59] Donna Ladkin: Thanks, Jasper. It’s a wonderful invitation to be invited to come talk with you, so thank you.

[00:01:05] Jasper: Well, we’re super happy to have you here. I have enjoyed reading some of your scholarship over the last week. One of the things that I found really engaging in how you presented some of these questions about the ways that racialized people can be left out of the scholarship literature is by disclosing your and your co-author’s positionality like what you’re bringing to this conversation.

I was hoping we could start by following that lead and disclosing to our listeners what backgrounds we are coming from. For my part, I’m a White cis-gendered man. I’m 30 years old. I was born and have lived almost my whole life here in the US. Donna, can I ask you what position you’re coming from as we embark on this conversation?

[00:01:55] Donna: Sure, Jasper. I’m actually a biracial cisgender woman. My dad is African American, and my mom is European, Northern European, French, and German. I was born in 1959, which makes me 62 but also, it’s a very interesting time from a perspective, from racial conversation, and that when I was born, my parents married in 1958, in many states in the United States had just legalized interracial marriage when they were married. I grew up in Washington, DC, where I went to segregated schools till I was 10, and then moved to Maine, the family moved to Maine.

It’s been interesting for me because I’m very pale-skinned. I’m very light-skinned as a biracial woman and people often assume that I’m actually either White or Italian, or they don’t often recognize my biracial roots so that’s been interesting coming back to the United States and facing that. I lived for 35 years in the UK where there is, of course, a racial conversation there, but it’s quite different, found it quite a different conversation going on. So that’s a little bit about my background.

[00:03:13] Jasper: Yes, it’s a little bit, but I like that you go into a little bit more detail of not just the boxes you might check on a census form, but also more of the details of where you’re coming from. I would love to get into that a little bit more to know more of your actual story and not just these positional details. You are a scholar of leadership and I’m very curious how you came to make this your life’s work. How did you come to study leadership as a topic?

[00:03:44] Donna: That’s a great question. Just to say I’m a very reluctant leadership scholar. [chuckles] I rather fell into the field. My own PhD is in the area of organizational psychology, and I studied learning and how people learn in organizations, but my first degree and my first love is really in philosophy.

After teaching in a business school for a number of years, and doing more straightforward, organizational behavior teaching, I decided I want to go back into philosophy so went and got a further master’s degree in, in fact, environmental philosophy and there really rekindled my love for philosophy as a discipline and as a way of thinking and approaching the world.

When I finished that degree, I was contacted by a man in the south of England who was trying to put together a small unit of people who were looking at leadership from a philosophical perspective and he’d actually gathered together a very interesting group of scholars looking at leadership from a philosophical perspective and really invited me to come and join that group.

He’d heard about some of my work and it just seemed like a good fit because it married my background in philosophy with my organizational professional areas of study. And that’s really when I became a leadership scholar. To be honest with you, my first forays into leadership literature left me rather quite unhappy really because it just seemed that most of the leadership theorizing that I was reading was quite problematic in terms of– there are a lot of people spouting ideas, which were not necessarily empirically tested to the extent that they might have been, and then even when you looked at the empirical studies, a lot of them were based on certain assumptions that I found problematic.

I clearly situated myself at that point within the field as a critical leadership studies person, looking at problematizing the way leadership has been theorized and trying to — I mean, for sure, it is a phenomena. This phenomena of leadership, certainly we spend a lot of time talking about it and it seems to carry huge cachet in our society at moment, in particular. But I wanted to understand more about why that was, and also why the field developed the way that it has and to unpick some of the aspects of the field that I found more problematic. My work over the last certainly 20 years has been looking at problematizing the field and trying to bring a different, more philosophically informed lens to exploring this phenomenon.

[00:06:37] Jasper: That makes so much sense, and it seems like for a philosophically-minded person, leadership studies would offer a venue for applied philosophy.

[00:06:47] Donna: Oh, yes.

[00:06:48] Jasper: I think some of our listeners may not have a deep background in what leadership studies even means, and I think a good place to start, again, taking this from one of your papers is by talking about the ideas that we have about leadership that may be subconscious, the expectations that we place on our leaders and what leadership looks like. Can you describe for our listeners maybe some of these leadership ideas that are given to us by our society?

[00:07:17] Donna: That’s a great question. I guess the first thing to say is that they’re not just given to us by our society, but they’re given to us by our experiences. Our experiences of how, as a child, we come into our family, and how leadership is exercised in families and then when we go to school, and how we see teachers exercising leadership and then going into our professional, so I think leadership is a lived phenomenon for us. From a very early age this idea you that people are showing us direction, and people are showing us how to get on in the world. Those ideas start to inform our implicit ideas of what leading is about.

Then if you look at the theoretical literature, in the United States and the Western world, the canon, well, although we’ve got Greek philosophers who in fact, never used the word leader. Plato was known for his work on this notion of the philosopher-king and we take some of his ideas in terms of leadership studies, but he actually never used the word leader. The word leader only came really into- well, certainly as a discipline to look at really at the end of the 1800s, but the contemporary understandings of leadership really are quite modern in their ideas.

[00:08:39] Jasper: This is the separation you could see in like Confucius or Machiavelli, these ideas of what it means to be like a feudal lord or king or something, but this is leadership as a quality that I could have helping out in my workshop, or that I could exert over my congregation.

[00:09:00] Donna: Yes, those early theorists, they really are talking about the rulers of people, political leaders whereas since the 1980s, in particular, we see this notion of, “Well, everybody can be a leader”, and also focusing very much on traits that leaders have, individuals who are leaders and all the great man theories, and they were great man theories, we’re looking at this constellation of traits which men needed to have in order to be leaders.

[00:09:34] Jasper: What are some of these traits that our society if we don’t unpack them that we might just assume that a leader has?

[00:09:42] Donna: It’s really interesting. I was just reading one of my student’s work today and she writes in this reflective essay that she’s writing about herself as a leader that she never imagined that she could be a leader because she wasn’t necessarily flamboyant and charismatic and that idea that, well, in order to be a leader, you have to be outspoken and be able to garner a lot of attention and that sort of thing. I think that’s a kind of assumption that many people have about being a leader and in the essay that she wrote, she wrote that actually as part of the program that she’s on come to appreciate that that actually isn’t necessarily what being a leader is about. That actually there are other ways of leading.

I think we can limit ourselves by thinking that a leader has to look a certain way or act a certain way when in fact, we can still exercise influence and help groups of people find direction in quieter ways and ways that are more collective and less bringing of attention to oneself.

[00:10:52] Jasper: That makes a lot of sense. I think the idea of spending your time reading a book or taking courses or creating scholarship around how to be an effective leader can sometimes get a bad rap like you’re just trying to get one up on other people or trying to accumulate power. I brought up Machiavelli earlier and we have in the English language this adjective Machiavellian, which really just means like a cunning and unprincipled politician. Why is it actually a good idea to study leadership and it not just a way to – what make friends and influence people like to get one up on everybody else?

[00:11:38] Donna: I think that’s really interesting notion of leadership is about getting one up on everyone else. I think the main reason why it’s important to study leadership in a scholarly fashion is to expand one’s view of a phenomenon. We all have implicit ideas about what being a leader is, but I do think one of the things that can be helpful about studying leadership is that it can expand the concept for people.

It can open up what’s possible in terms of thinking about what leadership is. To give you an example, I worked in the UK for quite a long time. I did a lot of work with military leaders in the UK, and we talked a lot about more distributed and collective forms of leadership and one of the young military officers I was working with recounted a tale of his superior officer coming to watch a group of his cadets working with him and the superior officer said, “What are you doing? I don’t see any leadership here.” The officer had been on this program said, “Well, no, actually there’s a lot of leadership here. It’s just what are you paying attention to? Are you paying attention to the collective dynamics that are going on here?” Whereas the superior officer was expecting leadership to look at one person yelling at other people.

I think a reason to study leadership is to actually because it can expand our view about what leadership can look like and that actually to also understand that leadership, I mean is a very contextually based phenomenon. You can do the same thing in different contexts and in one context be effective as a leader, and in another context not be effective at all. Leadership is much more, I think when you start to look at the leadership literature a bit more, you start to see that leaderSHIP is a much bigger phenomenon than just leaders, that it actually involves contextual historical societal elements as well.

[00:13:49] Jasper: Yes. Part of what I’m hearing from there is that by studying this you’re able to give names to different types of leadership. You start to be able to see different possibilities forward, and maybe you give this cadet the ability to say, “Oh, well, you’re looking for a great man or charismatic leadership and what we have is something that’s more collaborative.”

[00:14:10] Donna: Yes. I think as well, it’s not just about seeing what’s out there, but it’s seeing what is possible within one’s self as well. For instance, if you have in mind that the only way you can lead is from a position from being the leader, then that really limits what we can do in social spaces. Whereas if we can say that actually, leadership can happen in small interventions, that I don’t need to have positional power in order to perhaps make an intervention in a meeting that can be very helpful or to actually ask a colleague a question that can take what’s going on into a different direction. That can be a leadership act and you don’t have to have a position of the formal leader to be able to do that.

[00:15:04] Jasper: Yes. Now that we’ve established what leadership studies is to some small degree and also how it can be useful, I want to talk also about some problems in leadership studies, which you’ve been publishing about quite a bit recently. You have a forthcoming article that goes deeply into the works of this prominent and influential leadership theorist Bernard Bass and he has this transformational leadership theory that you say is really an expression of, or deeply enmeshed in Whiteness, this scholarly idea of Whiteness, which I am really excited to talk with you about. I don’t think we’ve talked about Whiteness enough on The Seed Field, but first, I think it would be great to start off by defining this term Whiteness. What does Whiteness mean and why is it useful to be able to name it as such?

[00:15:57] Donna: Yes, so before we even get into that, I’d just like to give credit to my co-author on that article who is Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick who worked with me on that. I just want to make sure that she gets a plug in this as well, but to get to your question, what is Whiteness? The first and most important thing to say about Whiteness is it’s not about skin color. Whiteness is if you will, a constellation of ideas and assumptions about how the world operates.

One of the things that seems to be at the heart of this orientation goes back to the enlightenment, which is this idealization of rationality. What we have in the enlightenment is this privileging of the rational above all else, which is encapsulated in the Cartesian view “I think, therefore I am”. That’s not actually what Descartes said by the way. [laughs]

He actually said, “I know myself to be a thinking being,” which is a little bit different from, “I think, therefore I am” but anyway, the effect that this has had in terms of Western philosophy is a privileging of the rational and the mind, as opposed to particularly in terms of the body and we see this orientation in Whiteness, a splitting of the mind from the body and where we actually discount the body.

This has profound implications. I think from an ethics perspective, there are people writing, Francisco Varela writes about the fact that in order to empathize with another human being, which is a basis of ethical relations, one needs to be an embodied being, that our basis for empathy is actually somatic. I know that I shouldn’t slap you across the face because I know that when I’m slapped across the face it hurts. If I’m not able to connect with that embodied way of being in the world, then my empathetic ability is greatly reduced. When we think about that, and if we think that Whiteness is – a foundational aspect of Whiteness is this disembodiment and this privileging of rational. It means that our very way of relating to one another is shortchanged if we don’t have this embodied, or if this embodied connection is not celebrated and Whiteness scholars develop this in terms of thinking about where hierarchy fits within Whiteness.

One of the things that they trace is this need for hierarchy and distance, so within a disembodied view of the world, the individual, because they’re not connected in that embodied way has to stand by him or herself and get separated out. The “other” to whom we have to relate gets more and more distanced, and we see this in operation in structures like racism where we take whole groups of people and discriminate them on the basis of their race where this can be traced back to this need to separate and to create hierarchy, which is fundamental Whiteness scholars are suggesting to this orientation around Whiteness.

[00:19:48] Jasper: Yes. That is so interesting to trace it back to the field of Cartesian thought and to see it almost as a direct to outgrowth and certainly, the world of science has been– I think we can just take a historical view and see that it’s over and over again, from measuring skulls to trying to find a scientific basis for race, which isn’t even there.

[00:20:12] Donna: Yes, exactly.

[00:20:13] Jasper: We find that over and over again. One of the points that I thought that you made that I want to draw out for our listeners is that you brought up the idea of the other and that where Whiteness really is operating, the people who are not seen as White are deserving of– you have to especially acknowledge them. We might say in a very White space, you might be introduced as a Black scholar of leadership where a White man might just be introduced as a scholar of leadership.

[00:20:48] Donna: Yes, what you’re talking about there is a normalization process. Levine-Rasky talks about his habits of Whiteness, and one of them is normalization, in which what’s considered normal is White. White is what’s normal, and then anything else has to be marked as something else. This is what we see a lot in leadership scholarship. For instance, Bernard Bass writes about transformational leadership, and he never writes about, “This is actually a theory about White people.” [laughs]

[00:21:24] Jasper: He never makes that explicit.

[00:21:26] Donna: No, he doesn’t have to.

[00:21:28] Jasper: There’s also that same idea of normalization can be applied to straight people or to men.

[00:21:35] Donna: Yes, able-bodied people.

[00:21:38] Jasper: Certainly-

[00:21:39] Donna: For sure.

[00:21:39] Jasper: -all these different axes. I would love to turn and talk about Bernard Bass, but I also think it would be useful before we get into the problems of this theory to just quickly run through this transformational leadership theory. What are the broad outlines of this idea of how leadership works?

[00:21:56] Donna: Right. I think what’s really important is, and for me, as a scholar, what I’m always into and what I’m always trying to get my students to do is, where did this come from and what problem was it trying to solve? I always start with these things. Bass’s theory of transformational leadership which, by the way, I just want to say is one of the most cited leadership theories in the canon of leadership studies. It is one of the most heavily researched theories, so it’s a theory which a lot of people turn to. Its roots are in, actually, James MacGregor Burns’ work. He wrote a book called Leadership.

Burns’ work, what he wanted to distinguish– He’s a military historian, Burns was, by background, and what he was interested in was the different ways in which leaders engage people, and in particular, he talked about transactional leadership, which is where “Okay, I’m doing this for you, you do this for me,” very transactional. He noticed, especially with the military leadership, a kind of leading which seemed to be where it wasn’t just a transaction but people, followers, in particular, were doing things because they really believed in what the leader was talking about.

He actually called this transforming leadership. Bass then took this idea and developed it further. It’s really important to note Burns is working from a military and a historical perspective. Bass is actually looking at these ideas from a business perspective. Bass was a businessman, and he was also trained in organizational psychology. He was quite interested in understanding what are the factors that go into creating this kind of transformational leadership in which people are doing things in a way that actually meant that people were giving more of their heart and soul to it.

He was interested in what that was, particularly within organization domains because he was interested in increasing productivity. If you look at Bass’s books, they’re all about how can we get people to exceed expectations? How can we get people to work in organizations and do more than what we’re paying them for, really? Which is the underlying message.

[00:24:38] Jasper: At its root, there’s a Fordist idea of how do we wring more productivity out of our workers? It might not just be sitting there with a stopwatch and timing how long it takes to screw in a bolt. It might also be trying to have some charismatic person leading their unit who says, “We’re going to exceed these expectations.” It gets people fired up.

[00:24:59] Donna: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly right.

[00:25:02] Jasper: I would love to move along to when you and your co-author, Cherie Bridges Patrick, when you took this close look at it, how did you find Whiteness at its root? That’s a quote, “Whiteness at its root”, from your paper.

[00:25:15] Donna: We revisited Bass’s work. Cherie is an expert in terms of critical discourse analysis which is about looking at discourse, looking at language. Rather than just reading things at the surface level, looking at what are the assumptions that underpin these assertions so that we take these things to be true. That’s critical discourse. Those questions that you’re asking when you’re using critical discourse analysis are about what are the underlying assumptions that are underpinning this? When we started to look at Bass’s work, in particular, what you see is this exaltation of the power of the leader and the diminishment of the follower in particular.

The transformational leader is able to, first of all, know the direction that people should be going in. They’re able to give meaning to followers, they’re able to make followers feel more confident, they’re able to enrich followers’ moral purpose. When you start really like, “Okay, in a way, that doesn’t sound so bad on the part of the leader,” but actually, when you start to dig a little bit more deeply about what’s going on here, you see that the follower is really being characterized as a less than human being really.

This is a person who doesn’t have agency on their own part, an individual who lacks confidence, lacks a sense of direction, and it’s really up to the leader to do these wonderful things for the follower. In terms of power, it’s so discrepant. Then when you start going back and looking at what Whiteness scholars are seeing in terms of how Whiteness operates, you see the same thing. You see that real emphasis on hierarchy and power relations which are so split. It’s like seeing, oh, my goodness. It’s starting to mirror what we’re seeing in Whiteness studies and what we’re seeing in these–

[00:27:38] Jasper: Yes, these unexamined power relationships where he’s not explicitly saying the followers are stupid and need the leader to be productive at all, but that’s his subtext and sometimes almost rises to the level of text.

[00:27:53] Donna: Exactly. That’s exactly right. It’s scary. [chuckles]

[00:27:56] Jasper: I think you effectively showed that there is the racial aspect to that as well which is that he, in this 1,200-page book, on page 800 devotes 30 pages to “leadership in other cultures” which includes African-American leadership but also in other nations. That makes it very clear that the norm here is White.

[00:28:21] Donna: Yes, exactly. No, it was quite breathtaking, really. [laughs]

[00:28:26] Jasper: Yes, for such a foundational text in your field to take another look at it here in 2021 and say, “Wow, this is not necessarily a good place for us to be starting from.”

[00:28:38] Donna: Exactly.

[00:28:39] Jasper: I want to ask a general question about your own experience as a teacher and scholar working in this field. You write that in this field, its theories are largely told from the perspective of straight White men. As a Black woman and someone applying critical race theory to these questions, have you found that the field is ready to hear this? Relatedly, are your students ready to hear this?

[00:29:04] Donna: [laughs] Jasper, that is a wonderful question. The editor of the journal Leadership where this article is going to be published, he did write to me and he said, “We’ll probably get some kickback on this.” I said, “Well, in the words of the late great John Lewis, hopefully, we’ll be making some good trouble, right?” [laughs] Is this field ready? Probably not. But there are people like the editor of the journal Leadership, Dennis Tourish, in the UK, who is very keen to have papers, which address these issues published and brought into the mainstream.

I think the whole thing about being a scholar, the whole thing about scholarship is about always being on the edge, so it’s actually not waiting until the field is ready. It’s about pushing the field. That’s how the field becomes ready is by pushing the field in that direction. That’s, I think, our work as scholars.

[00:30:05] Jasper: That makes so much sense.

[00:30:07] Donna: Actually, are our students ready? To be honest with you, Jasper, I think our students are more than ready. What I find is our students at Antioch, they are pushing us in the classroom. It’s not good enough now in the classroom just to be giving them readings written by straight White men. They’re saying this is not good enough. You know what? Our students are probably ready for it in ways that the academy isn’t. The structures that hold us all in place are not ready but I think our students are.

[00:30:45] Jasper: They’re lucky to be to be studying with you, a scholar who is doing that good trouble to push the field forward. We’re coming to the end of our conversation. We always like to close our show with some kind of advice or practice that our listeners can take into their days and lives, be they students of leadership or unwitting leaders in their own ways. I was curious if there was anything that you’ve learned either from reading all these theories, coming up with some of your own around leadership or from your own work in reforming this field and pushing against some of its worst tendencies? Is there anything that comes out of that that you think more people should be doing?

[00:31:29] Donna: Yes, that’s a good question, Jasper. A good friend of mine, a Finn called Perttu Salovaara wrote a chapter in a book that I recently published. He writes about why can’t leaders be more human? What he’s saying in that chapter is about how in the heroism around leadership that we actually make leaders less than human because we don’t accept their frailties, and we don’t accept their limitations, and how this is actually dehumanizing both for leaders and for followers as well, because we expect in a way too much sometimes of our leaders.

I guess, building on Perttu, I think that there’s something about how we can actually not expect so much either of ourselves or of our leaders to solve all our problems and to be perfect. We should not be expecting ourselves to be perfect and our leaders to be perfect. There’s something about bringing, I think, our humanity, which is flawed, which doesn’t always know which way to go, which is vulnerable. If we can bring that whole of our humanity to our practice as leaders and followers, I think that allows for more humanity all around.

[00:33:06] Jasper: Thank you. It reminds me of the Christian idea of grace, extending grace to other people and to yourself.

[00:33:13] Donna: I love that. That’s a great word, Jasper. Great.

[00:33:16] Jasper: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Donna.

[00:33:18] Donna: It’s been a real pleasure, Jasper. Thank you so much for inviting me.


[00:33:31] Jasper: The school that Donna teaches in is Antioch’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change. We’ll link to more information about that in our show notes. She also designed a certificate there called Leading for Inclusion and Racial Justice. Look at our show notes to find more information about that, too. We post these show notes on our website where you’ll also find full episode transcripts, prior episodes, and more.

The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. A special thanks to Karen Hamilton and Melinda Garland.


[00:34:15] Jasper: Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time. Don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field Podcast.