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Leadership in the civic arena

David Chrislip, Jill Arensdorf, Timothy Steffensmeier and Mary Hale Tolar

Keywords: leadership; civic leadership; dominant cultural narrative; civic context; adaptive challenges; diagnosis; affective energy


This paper focuses on leadership in the civic arena. Over the past four decades the field of leadership studies has moved away from a narrow leader-centric focus to a more expansive view that includes other dimensions such as the leader's relationship with followers and the fulfillment of the needs of both leaders and followers. But this progress within the field has not been matched by a similar shift in popular cultural conceptions of leadership. Our hypothesis is that the dominant cultural narrative of leadership with its central focus on the authority of the leader is inadequate for making progress in the civic arena. We need a more capacious and flexible conception of leadership to help address complex civic challenges. In this paper we explore the dominant cultural narrative of leadership and its communicative practices. We analyse the civic context to which leadership must respond. We discuss corrective experiments that attempt to make leadership more responsive to this context. We define the gap between how the dominant cultural narrative describes leadership and what's needed in this particular context. Finally, we ask the field to help reshape this dominant cultural narrative to reflect contemporary understandings of leadership within the field and to help advance the study of leadership in the civic context through research, pedagogy, and practice.

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