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Polymathic Leadership: Theoretical Foundation and Construct Development

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The objective of this work is to propose a novel theoretical approach to leadership called polymathic leadership. “Polymathic” originates from the noun “polymath”, which means “a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning” (OXFORD, 2015). Polymathic leadership is here presented as a pattern of leader behaviors that encourages and inspires followers to advance to higher levels of depth, breadth and connectedness of ideas, knowledge and competence. It is theorized this kind of leader behaviors and the kind of collective behavior it inspires are especially positive in dealing with problems and situations that are characterized by being difficult, complex, volatile, uncertain and ambiguous. Due to the obscurity of the term polymathy, the work first explores and reviews the meanings and definitions of the term, then articulates it with other, well-defined, constructs of the literature. After that, the definition and description of polymathic leadership is presented, along with its differentiation from other types of leadership. Moreover, the work introduces a model of polymathic leadership with examples of its relevance and usage in work groups. It concludes by highlighting the possibilities of further studies unfolded by this novel approach.
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Although figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Gottfried Leibniz are admired for their multiple expertise and their contributions for multiple domains of human endeavor, the phenomenon of polymathy, which traditionally means wide-ranging knowledge, is still surprisingly underexplored in the literature. Despite having received wider attention in the popular domain in the last few years, polymathy as a field of scientific study is still in the early stages of development, with researchers calling for more studies in the area (e.g., Shavinina, 2013; Sriraman, 2009). At present, researchers studying this topic come from backgrounds as diverse as psychology, physiology, mathematics, management and education. Although incipient, the extant studies can already demonstrate the importance of polymathy as a concept that can help enhance our understanding of human diversity and of the elements that underlie one of the most human of traits: creativity. This article presents an overview of the contributions of six contemporary scholarly authors to the understanding of the phenomenon of polymathy. The criterion to choose the authors included in this article was the existence of publications in academic outlets focusing on the concept of polymathy itself (and not, for instance, on the biographies of specific polymaths).
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This article aims to contribute to the study of polymathy by introducing novel perspectives on the phenomenon and by advancing a new model that systematizes the different variables involved in its development. The article is divided into four sections. The first section involves a reflection about the nature of polymathy; the term mathema is presented as the unit that underpins the development of polymathic knowledge, and the elements that constitute the fundamental qualities of polymathy are identified and discussed. In the second section, the novel conceptualization of polymathy as a life project is introduced; it builds upon previous psychoeconomic approaches to offer a new perspective on the phenomenon. In the third section, a developmental model of polymathy is suggested; it organizes the different constructs involved in the development of polymathy into a framework that can serve as basis for future studies. Finally, implications for research, practice and policy are discussed.
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