“Unknowingness” as a Route to Distributed Leadership

Rigg, Clare; Bloomfield, Sarah and Vince, Russ (2022). “Unknowingness” as a Route to Distributed Leadership. In: Academy of Management Proceedings, Academy of Management, 2022(1).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5465/AMBPP.2022.12453abstract


Centring on distributed leadership, the purpose of this paper is to illuminate what happens in the absence of knowing what to do, where this is a known unknown and impossible to resolve. Traditionally leadership has been assumed to be comprised of persons in positions of authority who know (or think they know) what to do and how to act (Luscher and Lewis, 2008; Simpson et al., 2002). Whilst a flourishing literature now helps us understand leadership as a collective and relational endeavour, and ideas of distributed leadership in particular provide insight to shared knowledge and mutual action, our paper contributes further to elucidating what happens when there is no knowledge of how to act. Our first contribution is a new theory of knowledge in leadership, a theory of unknowingness - which we define as a state of awareness of both absence of knowing and one’s inability to know. This offers an alternative explanation for not knowing to those that see absence of knowledge as deficiency (Saggurthi and Thakur, 2016), a temporary state of not knowing something (Bernstein, 2009), or ignorance of how to do something that can be learned (Allen, 2017). Our second contribution is to show how unknowingness is a component of collective leadership, which, through its four features of legitimacy, discomfort, utility and dissemination, can generate mutual action and enable work to be done in a context of organisational ambiguity. Our third contribution is to show the integral and generative relationship between unknowingness and distributed leadership.

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