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Leading and Following in Digital Work: Accomplishing Leadership in the Flow of Material-discursive Practices



The way we perform and organise work has undeniably changed and will continue to do so in the next decades. Work is becoming increasingly digital, independent, and performed outside of hierarchical organisations. These new forms of work, characterised by organisational independence, pose new challenges to management research and its theoretical conceptualisation of leadership. We report on an ongoing ethnographic study of independent digital workers. In particular, we focus on a range of senior workers that appear as leaders in their respective fields. In adopting an inherently processual vocabulary, our study shows how leaders continuously become followers and followers become leaders. We suggest that, in the digital work context, leaders are also always already positioned as followers. This work-in-progress leads to the development of a performative process theory that understands leaders and followers as continuously emerging from within material-discursive processes.
Leading and Following in Digital Work: Accomplishing Leadership in
the Flow of Material-discursive Practices
Julian Prester, UNSW Business School,
Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, UNSW Business School,
Daniel Schlagwein, University of Sydney Business School,
Michael Cahalane, UNSW Business School,
The way we perform and organise work has undeniably changed and will continue to do
so in the next decades (Barley, Bechky, & Milliken, 2017; Fayard, 2019; Forman, King, &
Lyytinen, 2014). Work is becoming increasingly digital, independent, and performed
outside of hierarchical organisations. These new forms of work, characterised by
organisational independence, pose new challenges to management research and its
theoretical conceptualisation of leadership (Winkler, 2011).
Many new forms of work are emerging as digital work practices that are conducted
outside of traditional organisational boundaries (Fayard, 2019). While there is no agreed
upon definition, digital work is typically conceived of as a type of work, which is
fundamentally reconfigured through the use of digital technologies (Ens, Stein, & Jensen,
2018). Economics and organisational theorists argue that three technological and socio-
economic shifts have led to this phenomenon: contingent work has become the fastest
growing segment of the global workforce, work is increasingly organised in temporary
forms of organisations, and the rapid digitalisation has brought about entirely new work
practices (Barley et al., 2017; Forman et al., 2014). Although it is clear that these
developments do not only affect the ways in which work activities are carried out but also
the management and organisation of work, scholars have paid little attention to what this
new world of work means for our traditional conceptions of leadership (Winkler, 2011).
Despite this focus on formal leadership, the traditional notion of leadership as a stable
and distinct characteristic of individual managers has been challenged and largely
superseded by a dynamic and relational understanding of leadership as co-constructed in
practice (Bolden, Hawkins, Gosling, & Taylor, 2011). Echoing the fluid and fast-changing
nature of today’s society, contemporary organisational theory has brought forth a notion of
leadership that denies leader-centrism and its associated glorification of individual leaders
(Simpson, 2016). However, scholars have recently started to question whether the idea of
leadership-as-practice goes far enough and called for processual inquiries that offer insight
into how particular conditions actually produce leadership in the flow of practice (Simpson,
2016; Simpson, Buchan, & Sillince, 2018).
We address this call for theoretical reframing and the empirical puzzle of leadership
accomplishment in new forms of work by proposing a performative process perspective of
leadership. In particular, we subscribe to Karen Barad’s notion of post-humanist
performativity (2007) and a process perspective grounded in an ontology of becoming
(Cecez-Kecmanovic, 2016). Our aim in combining these two perspectives is to move
beyond the tendency in contemporary organisational theory to focus on agential human
leaders, to better understand how leadership moments are continuously emerging in the
flow of human and non-human work practices.
To answer the research question of how leadership is continuously accomplished in new
forms of work, we report on an ongoing ethnographic study of independent digital workers.
In particular, we focus on a range of senior workers that appear as leaders in their respective
fields. In adopting an inherently processual vocabulary, our study shows how leaders
continuously become followers and followers become leaders. We suggest that, in the
digital work context, leaders are also always already positioned as followers. This work-in-
progress leads to the development of a performative process theory that understands leaders
and followers as continuously emerging from within material-discursive processes.
Theoretical Background
Digital Work as a New Form of Working and Organising
One important way the nature of jobs has changed is due to the rapid digitalisation of
work (Fayard, 2019). Digital work appears as the new normalin many industries that have
previously been, if at all, only slightly affected by digital technologies (Forman et al., 2014).
Because of the flexibility that digital technologies afford, most of these new forms of digital
work such as crowdwork, gig work, or remote work are situated outside of traditional
organisations and hierarchical labour relationships (Barley et al., 2017).
Although IS and organisational scholars have started to research these new forms of work
by looking into meaningfulness (Fayard, 2019), job insecurity (Fleming, 2017), and
independent workers’ identities (Barley et al., 2017) the relationship between workers and
their leaders has received little attention (Winkler, 2011). Arguably, this paucity of research
could be explained with the relative absence of formal leadership roles in independent work
contexts. However, scholars have found that leaders are nevertheless emerging within this
new world of work, even if just in the form of non-formal leadership (Winkler, 2011).
Independent digital work thus presents an opportunity to study a facet of leadership that
remains fairly obscure, namely the emergence of leader-follower relationships enacted
outside of hierarchical organisations.
Leadership in the Flow of Practice
After a recent surge of scholarly research, the leadership literature has developed into a
prominent topic in the management and IS fields. As deeply engrained in the professional
leadership industry including consultants, MBA programs, and management coaching,
leadership has been originally conceptualised as a personal characteristic of an individual
and often heroicised leader (Bolden et al., 2011). With the turn toward social constructivist
approaches scholars have, however, started to view leadership as something dynamically
co-constructed in practice; as relationally enacted in interactions between leaders and
followers (Bolden et al., 2011). Despite this focus on dynamics and interactions, this
literature has been criticised for paying little attention to the ways in which leadership is
(re-)produced in ongoing processes of leading and following (Simpson, 2016). In this
processual view, leadership is neither a characteristic of distinct human leaders nor co-
constructed in interactions but rather continuously emerging from within the flow of
practice (Simpson et al., 2018). In responding to these calls, we argue for a performative
process perspective of leadership and show how a grounding in post-humanist
performativity can help to take the material role of digital technologies seriously in the
ongoing accomplishment of leadership (Cecez-Kecmanovic, 2016).
Research Method
To attend to the emergence of leadership in digital work, we are conducting an
ethnographic study of independent digital workers. Doing field work in various co-working
spaces, we are able to observer and interview independent digital workers including
freelancers, contract workers, and entrepreneurs from a range of different occupations such
as software development, graphic design, digital marketing, consulting, and coaching.
Subscribing to a becoming ontology (Cecez-Kecmanovic, 2016) and performative
perspective (Barad, 2007), our aim is to inductively develop theory grounded in qualitative
field data. In particular, we focus on senior digital workers that appear as leaders in the
field. In interviewing them and observing the influencing acts between leaders and
followers through different channels (e.g., blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, and
conference talks), we focus on the ways performative processes produce particular
relational enactments. Using grounded theory techniques for data anlysis (Charmaz, 2006)
and sensitising our emerging theoretical model to the performative process perspective, we
provide an understanding of how leaders in independent digital work contexts continuously
become followers and followers become leaders.
Leading and Following in the Flow of Material-discursive Practices
We identified three practices in which (assumed) clear-cut leader-follower relationships
are breaking down and where it becomes unclear who is leading and following. In these
practices, digital technologies were not only the enabler of this new form of work, but often
a prime actant in the accomplishment of leadership.
As a first practice we observed how digital workers, because of their independent nature
of work, did not strictly identify with a single subject position, but rather continuously
performed different identities such as leader or follower’. For many this meant re-
defining what work means to them, as one mobile app developer, who quit his corporate
job and became a freelancer, stated:
I never cared about job titles and so, I constantly find myself in these environments where
I didnt feel valued and I didnt value that experience. Moving up some ladder to get like
another desk and another title edged on a placard just didnt mean anything to me. I
knew I needed to sort of break free from that. So, I had an opportunity to reconstruct
what it means to work and who I am in relation to my work.
Another important aspect of digital leaders, who appear as leaders in their respective
fields, was credibility. Additionally, this theme highlighted how digital technologies are
part of the leadership accomplishment in that they shape practice of giving and receiving
credibility. When we asked a digital marketeer at a social media workshop about his key
takeaways, he said:
I guess the highlight was Drew because he is a sort of a big person online now. He just
passed more than a million followers on Facebook. So many people were interested
about this video aspect. Basically, how to make it as, like you can call him a YouTuber
or a Facebooker.
A third practice that emerged was community building. This theme of collectively lifting
each other up goes hand in hand with the drive to give back to the community and teach
others as soon as one has learnt something new. One worker answered the question of who
some of the leaders are with:
Everyone. You can just join some group and meet people who do this. Everyone has a
story and struggle they overcame to achieve this kind of lifestyle [living and working
remotely]. You can learn from anyone.
Many other participants echoed this statement countering the traditional perception of
individual leaders and emphasising the processual nature of leadership in that “it is like a
movement; it is definitely building up. […] I just see that continuing to grow”. These
accounts of leadership as something fluid, open-ended, and collectively accomplished then
show how leadership is not situated within individual leaders, but continuously emerging
from practices of leading and following.
Towa rd a Performative Process Theory of Leadership
We began this work by proposing a performative process perspective of leadership in the
context of independent digital work as an alternative to agential human leader focused
approaches. The above findings help to shed light on our research question and provide
some (at this stage, preliminary) themes toward such a theoretical perspective. Table 1
summarises our analysis, showing how leadership is accomplished in the flow of three
material-discursive practices, descriptions of what leaders and followers are becoming in
these practices, and the role of digital technologies in the process.
The preliminary analysis reveals that, in the context of digitally enabled independent
work, leadership is less of a distinct human characteristic or not even accomplished in
interactions between humans, but rather continuously emerging along moment-to-moment
turns in the flow of practice. Leadership then is not a-priori negotiated that is initiated by
the leader and responded to by the follower. Instead it is far more reciprocal; enacted in a
dance-like interplay of continuous leading and following. In this performative process, the
leader is also following the follower. Digital technologies and leaders material presence
function here as a medium of open-ended exchange. Leaders and followers respond to each
other in a reciprocal reaching-toward.
Simultaneously becoming leader and
Role of digital technologies in
leadership accomplishment
No predetermined leader/follower
identity, but identity is continuously
emerging from practices of leading and
Existential dependence on digital
technology performs identity in
appearing not only as enabler but also
as actor shaping digital work practices.
Giving and
receiving credibility
The ability to lead rests on the
credibility that followers have always
already lent the leader.
Rating systems and algorithms are
configuring the credibility given and
Mobilising a collective to act in the
flow of practice that leaders and
followers collectively undergo.
Platforms and social media are
empowering some and at the same time
marginalising others.
Tabl e 1. Summary of Leading/Following Practices in Independent Digital Work
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... They take personal responsibility for their business outcomes, achievements, or failures. Leadership and status among digital nomads are fluid and based on the ability to construct a digital identity, "to give and receive" (digital nomads value sharing and reciprocity), and to build and engage a community (Prester, Cecez-Kecmanovic, & Schlagwein, 2019b Such emergent, dynamic organizing characterizes the overall decidedly social, informal, and semistructured approach taken by the Hypermobility paradigm of organizing work. The "meetup" is one of many similar events organized regularly by digital nomads in coworking spaces, travel destinations, and online communities. ...
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