Leading through agonistic conflict: Contested sense-making in national political arenas

Hartley, Jean and Stansfield, Annette (2021). Leading through agonistic conflict: Contested sense-making in national political arenas. Leadership, 17(2) pp. 131–153.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1742715020945167


This article examines the social processes of political leadership in situations of contest and conflict, taking place within a key and long-established democratic institution, the UK Parliament. The empirical focus is on leadership in House of Commons select committees, which are concerned with holding the government to account. Headlines and media scrutiny, combined with internal challenge from the cross-party mix of politicians on the committees and a range of external stakeholders, create leadership challenges for committee chairs. The study is of two committee inquiries led by the same committee chair, which occurred concurrently and in real time, thereby providing a rare comparative study of leadership through the same leader at the same time but with different leadership challenges. Rather than shying away from conflict, as does much of the leadership literature, this research highlights how leaders who actively engage in challenge and conflict can build a degree of shared purpose among diverse groups of stakeholders. It examines and combines, in theory elaboration, two theories relevant to understanding these leadership processes: agonistic pluralism with its role in creating respectful conflictual consensus, and the theory of sense-making and sense-giving. The two cases (the two inquiries) had different trajectories and reveal how the chair recognised and dealt with conflict to achieve sense-making outcomes across divergent interests and across political parties. There are implications not only for understanding political leadership but also more widely for leadership where there are diverse and sometimes conflicting interests.

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