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Developmental Leadership Program (DLP)
We are an international research initiative that explores how leadership, power and political processes drive or block successful development
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Leadership in the shadow of the pandemic: researching spaces of resilience and transformation

23 November 2020

From the global pandemic to village-level conflict resolution, responding to complex development challenges ultimately relies on people: people with the power, motivation, legitimacy and capacity to act. But where do leaders come from? How can they work collectively towards shared goals? And can these complex processes be supported?

These questions seem more relevant than ever in the context of COVID-19 and its after-shock, but they have always been at the heart of how change happens. Over the next two years, DLP will be exploring how leadership works in some of the most dynamic, complex and often neglected spaces where leadership is making a difference.

We are working in partnership with 18 institutions to help enable a space for locally-led research and dialogue on the importance of leadership for development. Our local partners are active in eight countries across the Indo-Pacific region: Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Rotuma, Marshall Islands, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea. They are exploring leadership across a diversity of sectors, in formal and informal spheres, and from the regional stage to the remote village level.

Several cross-cutting themes, shared values and approaches are emerging in the early stages of our work:

Understanding perceptions of leadership from the ground-up

We know that leadership is always shaped by local cultural, social and political processes, so we are looking to more deeply understand (rather than assume) what it means to be a leader, through the eyes of leaders and local people. For example, one project explores how transnational leaders in the Pacific understand their leadership journey, legitimacy, and power to act. In our comparative study spanning Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, researchers are looking at how leadership is culturally understood in the education sector. In Cambodia, researchers are looking at whether an innovative leadership development program run by a local NGO is improving leadership from the perspective of participants and the community.

Challenging assumptions

DLP’s projects also look beyond dominant assumptions about how leadership works and its potential to generate change. For example, in a project in the Solomon Islands – a context often characterized more by failure than success – we are seeking to understand what enables ‘positive outlier’ cases where leadership has generated development outcomes that local people value.

Looking at neglected spaces of leadership

DLP’s research sites include forgotten spaces where leadership is understudied, because they are outside of formal governance structures. For example, a project in South Fly, Papua New Guinea, is exploring how leadership works at the margins of the state. In Sri Lanka and Indonesia, our partners are tracing the unconventional pathways of non-elite women into politics.

Focus on inclusion and diversity

Gender and identity are at the heart of leadership as a process of contestation. Our portfolio will gather diverse perspectives and voices, with some projects focusing specifically on inclusive leadership. A project working in collaboration with a local Disabled People’s Organisation in Indonesia is seeking to understand how people with disabilities can be supported to lead development. Another project will explore how personal and performance factors influence MP’s ability to initiate and support inclusive legislation and how they can be supported to do so.

Locally-led and appreciative enquiry

Importantly, the research teams are using methodologies that are suited to capture deeper perceptions and challenge assumptions in the ways described above, as well as eschewing a deficit approach. We’re looking for positive outliers as well as planning to, across many of our projects, talk to communities using locally appropriate approaches, such as tok stori.

Like many of us, our partners have spent several months overcoming personal and professional challenges in relation to Covid-19. A huge amount of hard work, careful planning and creativity has gone into adapting research plans. Our first workshop in June 2020 gave us a chance to reflect together on what the pandemic meant for leadership, and for researching in a constrained environment.

The crisis is already revealing ways in which locally-led research is also incredibly resilient. With people in places where outsiders cannot now visit, our partners are in a strong position to press ahead and explore the issues they identify as most salient for understanding leadership in their country.

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    DLP has been enormously influential in shaping my thinking and teaching about leadership and change. It combines conceptual clarity, with usable tools in areas such as political analysis, and case studies that are invaluable in bringing complex arguments to life.
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    Duncan Green
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