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Merging the science and practice of leadership involves detailed, embedded observation of the top tier at work—leadership anthropology.
Over the past few years, the learning and development industry has witnessed a number of innovations. One has been the evolution of blended learning, reflecting an increasing trend toward combining e-learning and traditional instructor-led delivery methods. Another interesting concept to emerge is a focused effort to bring together the science and practice of leadership through detailed and embedded observation of leadership as it is practiced. This has given way to what might be considered a new training discipline: leadership anthropology.
The Leadership Anthropologist
To understand how leadership anthropology comes into play, it might be helpful to reflect on the discipline of cultural anthropology. In the book “The Power of Strategy Innovation,” authors Robert Johnston and Douglas Bate explain how Moen used a cultural anthropologist to better understand how water is used in American homes. The anthropologist spent considerable time observing families at home and at play and discovered that Moen had a total misperception of how people use and think about water. Based on these observations, Moen was able to make significant innovations in product design and features.
Reflecting on the Moen story helps focus attention on the possible construct of leadership anthropology as a discipline: Someone would be embedded in the real world to observe and experience the practice of leadership. In truth, those involved in the development and delivery of leadership training have been engaged in leadership anthropology for some time. The science of leadership has grown significantly over the past several years as researchers have engaged in both qualitative and quantitative studies on topics such as choices and tradeoffs of high-achieving women, connected leadership and leading across differences such as ethnicity, religion, gender and culture. These research efforts have produced invaluable developmental tools, such as 360-degree assessments, experiential learning modules and countless books and articles.
However, an occasional criticism regarding leadership studies is that researchers seldom “live” in the worlds they study. While researchers may come in contact with leaders for an occasional survey or isolated intervention, typically the researcher retreats to seclusion of the inner sanctum to formulate conclusions and opinions. Seldom do leadership researchers actually live in the environments they study for extended periods. It would seem that the potential to marry the science and practice of leadership could be greatly enhanced by applying some of the basic constructs of participant observation found in anthropology.
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