Women’s leadership as narrative practice: identifying ‘tent making’, ‘dancing’ and ‘orchestrating’ in UK Early Years Services

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Purpose – The paper discusses the “narrative practices” utilised by women leading in a small sample of Early Years services in the North East of England. These Early Years settings are presented as an alternative site for studying women's experiences of leadership. It examines the way in which these women use narrative strategies and approaches to work in collaborative, community based services for young children and their families. Design/methodology/approach – The study is drawn from a larger study into narratives of professional identity and their relation to interactional contexts. The study follows an interpretive paradigm, and used narrative and participative methodology and methods to work with a small number of participants purposively sampled from cohorts of the National Professional Qualification in Integrated Centre Leadership (NPQICL). Participants were involved in reflective conversations about their leadership supported by interactive, visual methods in five extended sessions over the course of twelve months. Data from the larger study which related to the theme of “narrative practices” was subsequently coded and interpreted to inform this study. Findings – Data coded as “narrative practices” led to the establishment of three high level categories of narrative practice found in the study. These are summarised in the metaphors of “tent making” (creating and using symbolic and narrative space with others), “skilled dancing” (improvising, and remembering with others) and “orchestration” (reflexive attuning). Data suggests that women involved in the study drew on their experience and values to develop sophisticated narrative practices that were particularly adaptive, ethically sensitive and sustainable – often in spite of “official” masculine leadership cultures. Research limitations/implications – This specific study only draws on narrative accounts of three women leaders in Early Years services and as such is not intended to generate generalizable theory. The intention of the study is to conceptualise women's leadership as narrative practice, and in so doing to direct further study into these practices as aspects of effective leadership. Practical implications – The study develops new ways of conceptualising and interpreting women's leadership practices and opens up opportunities for further study in this field. Access to this material also provides individuals (including women leading in UK Early Years services) and opportunity for reflection on their own leadership practice. Originality/value – This study is unique in using a form of highly participative, reflective methodology to consider women's use of narrative in leadership interactions in the UK Early Years sector. The study is the first in this sector to look at this specific topic using aspects of Ricoeur's (1984) narrative hermeneutics and in so doing generates new questions about women's narrative practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)338-358
JournalGender in Management: An International Journal
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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