Anthropology of Parliaments: Political Leaders Navigating Complexity

Emma CREWE (SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) at the University of London)

We are awash with literature, self-help books and new concepts on leadership but no nearer to improved practice partly because leading has become more challenging as the world appears more complex, conflictual and unpredictable. But the way we think about leadership is also part of the problem. Conventional pervasive views inside and outside academia tend to: (a) classify leadership into simplified individual traits or cultures, (b) demonise or romanticise leaders, and (c) promote over-optimistic recipes for change. It is timely to shift towards reflecting on the commonalities and differences in assumptions about, and practices of, leadership to enable different, and better-informed conversations about how leaders, including politicians, actually work together in practice.

In this talk on political leadership I will focus in particular on politicians, even if these insights relate to all leaders bearing in mind that parliamentarians in democracies lead in parallel ways to other leaders but with magnified emotion, sociality and impact. If their work is seen as an amplified version of any leadership, it helps us understand both politics and leadership more fully. In all leadership what is needed is a better grasp of: (1) how it is practice-based in a way that takes leaders’ skills and experience seriously, and not just their intentions, without idealising or denigrating them; (2) both the context and specificity of leadership work: its relationships, riffs and rhythms; and (3) formal and informal communication in leading, looking at how meaning emerges in the interaction between people, whether through meetings, social media, gossip or ritual, not in disembodied systems. In summary, to improve leadership both research and practical judgement are essential, requiring inquiry and action on the basis of plural perspectives and interests, deliberative imagination and phronesis.