Qualitative research approaches had been embraced by leadership scholars since the 1980s when Boyle and Parry introduced autoethnography to the field of leadership studies in 2007.1 Despite the reality that autoethnography is grounded in the qualitative research tradition and shares its methodological strengths with other qualitative methods, acceptance was initially ambivalent due to its self-focused orientation.2 To draw upon the researcher’s personal experience as primary data, autoethnography utilizes self-reflection, meaning “reliving and rerendering [about self]: who said and did what, how, when, where, and why,” and self-reflexivity, meaning “finding strategies to question our own attitudes, thought processes, values, assumptions, prejudices and habitual actions, to strive to understand our complex roles in relation to others.”3 This initially “underexplored, undertheorised and, above all, undervalued” self-focused method is gaining attention among leadership scholars.4 Growing numbers of published autoethnographies attest to this rising trend in leadership scholarship. In this article, we will discuss autoethnography as a self-originated, dialogical, and contextual process, followed by a brief review of published leadership autoethnography and recommendations for its future use.
Autoethnography as a Research Process
Autoethnography originated from the ethnographic research method of anthropology. Although original “auto-ethnography” was not intended for a researcher’s self-exploration,5 the contemporary use of autoethnography has spread as such in diverse social science disciplines. This self-focused autoethnography is characterized by its self-originated, dialogical, and contextual process leading to a qualitative research product. These characteristics are discussed separately here for conceptual clarity although they are often integrated in final products.
Autoethnography is “self-originated” because autoethnographers (i.e., autoethnography researchers) position themselves as initiators, subjects, and objects of their self-exploration.6 The blurred dichotomy between researchers and the researched is troublesome to some social scientists valuing “objectivity,” but it is a unique strength of autoethnography. Since the various backgrounds of researchers drive self-exploration and self-exposure, autoethnography achieves a new depth and breadth of sociocultural understanding based on the researchers’ personal experiences. Autoethnography can be conducted by individual researchers as a solo endeavor or by a group of autoethnographers as a collaborative project in which their collective autobiographic data are used for data analysis and interpretation.7 Whether individually or collaboratively engaged, however, the centrality of researchers as subjects and objects is critical in this self-originated process.
Additionally, autoethnography is dialogical because researchers’ personal experiences are created in social relationships and the meaning of such experiences is made through iterative interaction between the present self and the past self and between self and others. Assisted by self-reflection and self-reflexivity, autoethnography facilitates researchers’ internal dialogues with selves, their reconstruction of memories, and the analysis of meanings in relation to others who had influenced the researchers’ personal experiences. Autoethnographers also add voices of others through interviews or dialogical conversations with others to verify, correct, reconstruct, and revise, and thus expand the meaning of their past experiences.8 Such a dialogical process is not limited to co-constructed or collaborative autoethnographies in which other researchers are intentionally present9 and often results in intentional and purposeful inclusion or omission of data about selves and others. In the end, autoethnography, whether individual or collaborative, is shaped into an interpretive discourse vetted through this dialogical process.
Finally, autoethnography is contextual in that researchers’ personal experiences are interpreted within their sociocultural contexts. Autoethnographers’ attention to contextuality presumes that personal experiences are shared by their relationship with others and that contextual forces and sociocultural influences are embedded in personal experiences. Therefore, autoethnography connects the personal (experience) to the social (context).10 Autoethnographic attention to contextuality, combined with the central attention to researchers’ personal experiences and dialogical relationship to others, aligns well with leadership scholarship exploring leaders as individuals, leadership as relationship, and leadership in organizational contexts.
Autoethnography Products in Leadership Studies
Leadership autoethnographies can be grouped according to the research focus on leaders, leadership, and organizational contexts. These foci are not mutually exclusive as revealed in actual leadership autoethnographies. However, in this article we will discuss each research focus separately for conceptual clarity.
The first group of leadership autoethnographies focuses on researchers’ own leadership experiences and/or identity development. Leadership scholars argue that people become leaders by internalizing and expressing a leadership identity.11 Therefore, leaders are being called to pay attention to how their individual identities are constructed through multilayered interactions in socially bounded systems.12 Self-reflection and self-reflexivity help leadership researchers answer their identity construction question.13 Leaders who are open to exploring their own identities are potentially more open to authentic leadership facilitating a transformative process14 and to ethical and socially responsible leadership responsive to others’ needs.15 Autoethnography is perfectly suited for leadership identity exploration as understanding leaders as individuals is a vital topic in leadership studies.16 For example, Garza17 explored his leadership development as a first-time superintendent, whereas Kempster and Stewart18 presented the leader-making of the second author as a chief operating officer. Bilgen19 also studied her identity as a social justice leader as a woman of faith through examining her multi-faith and cross-cultural experiences.
The second category of leadership autoethnographies focuses on leadership happening in the relational space between leaders and others. Others refer to their followers, peers, and superiors. A shift of research focus from leaders as individuals to leadership as relationship is also occurring in leadership studies.20 The expansion of autoethnography research into this relational space thus reflects the disciplinary trend. Although this relational and dialogical exploration of leadership is not limited to collaborative autoethnography, we have more examples to offer among co-constructed autoethnographies. For example, Kempster and Gregory21 explored the second author’s leadership as relationship from the perspective of a middle manager; Kempster and Iszatt-White22 used collaborative autoethnography to examine how co-constructed executive coaching created opportunities for leadership development; and Malin and Hackman23 focused on the mentoring relationship between a doctoral student, who is an educational leader aspirant, and his professor. All three focused on the relational aspect of leadership.
The third category of leadership autoethnographies foregrounds organizational contexts when studying leader self-identity and/or leadership. Several autoethnographers made the case for “organizational autoethnography,” to bring autoethnography closer to ethnography in the context of organizations.24 Doloriert and Sambrook25 have incorporated autoethnography into their work on organizational development; Learmonth and Humphreys26 used autoethnography to critically and creatively explore their experiences with conflicting identity roles in a business school. A particular attention to organizational autoethnography was also noted in the special issue of the academic journal Organizational Ethnography.27 Organizational autoethnographers highlight the importance of organizational forces, culture, membership, structure, and systems when researchers engage in self-reflexivity, self-critique, other-assessment, and relational evaluation. Considering that autoethnography is inherently context-sensitive, this contextual attention to leadership autoethnography is encouraging.
What these examples of individual (or single-authored) autoethnographic and collaborative autoethnographic studies have in common is a rigorous application of critical self-reflexivity, narrative construction, and meaning-making with respect to leaders’ experiences across disciplines, organizations, cultural contexts, and identity categories. In each case, the leaders’ personal experiences add a nuanced insider account and response to leadership issues and dilemmas to which other leaders will certainly relate. Through this self-originated, dialogical, and contextual method of autoethnography, autoethnographic studies’ attention to leaders, leadership, and organizational contexts will continue to help teach, inspire, and transform leadership practice.
Further Possibilities of Autoethnography in Research and Praxis
As the previous examples of autoethnography demonstrate, autoethnography offers promising possibilities to leadership scholarship. In this concluding section, we recommend extended application to research process and production as well as to leadership development praxis.
We begin with our recommendations about autoethnography as a research tool. Autoethnography will continue to offer new possibilities of leadership understanding beyond the usual discourses that tend to replicate rather than produce new leadership theory and practice.28 Since autoethnographic research is designed to evoke a response, catalyze dialogue, build relationships, and change communities and institutions,29 autoethnography will contribute to generate relevant scholarship to leaders. In addition, it is expected to expand and liberate leadership scholarship by including multiple, alternative, and marginalized voices, an extension necessary to meet the challenges of our complex leadership contexts. The holistic, comprehensive, and critical processes of self-examination will help leaders bring their emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and bodily capabilities into their leadership practice through research.30 To enhance the understanding of contextualized leadership in this globalizing and complex world, therefore, we suggest that leadership autoethnography (1) pay a more rigorous and intentional attention to organizational contexts as leadership is extremely contextual; (2) include more diverse and marginalized voices either as interviewees or as partners in co-constructed autoethnographies; and (3) analyze more critically the injustice and leadership hegemony inherent in the power imbalance between leaders and followers.
In addition, we present autoethnography as a praxis tool, with which benefits from the autoethnographic process could be reaped, particularly for leadership development. Chang, Longman, and Franco31 discussed the tremendous benefits that leadership practitioners experienced in a collaborative autoethnographic process. They also identified the challenge with the autoethnography process when it was presented as a research tool assuming the production of a research report. As a praxis tool, we argue that the autoethnographic process does not need to lead to the production of a publishable research article. Instead, the self-initiated, dialogical, and contextual process may be utilized to help current and aspiring leaders analyze and interpret their leader identity and leadership development paths; their relationship with followers, peers, and superiors in the workplace; and the influence and impact of organizational contexts on their leadership effectiveness. This process may be implemented as a solo project by individuals or collaboratively by a group of participants. In the process, participants will sharpen their self-reflexivity and self-critique competence, their exploratory interview skills to draw out the stories of others in connection with their leadership, and their contextual analysis skills.
Whether used as a research or a praxis tool and whether implemented individually or collaboratively, autoethnography that engages leaders’ personal experience in self-reflective, self-reflexive, dialogical, and contextual analysis will offer fresh insights and possibilities to leadership scholarship and praxis. ■
Ken Parry, Michael D. Mumford, Ian Bower, and Logan L. Watts, “Qualitative and Historiometric Methods in Leadership Research: A Review of the First 25 Years of The Leadership Quarterly,” Leadership Quarterly 25 (2014): 132–51. doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2013.11.006
Kristin Knipfer, Brooke Shaughnessy, Tanja Hentschel, and Ellen Schmid, “Unlocking Women’s Leadership Potential: A Curricular Example for Developing Female Leaders in Academia,” Journal of Management Education 41 (2017): 272–302. doi:10.1177/1052562916673863
Gillie Bolton, Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010), p. 13.
Mairi Maclean, Charles Harvey, and Robert Chia, “Reflexive Practice and the Making of Elite Business Careers,” Management Learning 43 (2012): 388. doi:10.1177/1350507612449680
David Hayano, “Auto-Ethnography: Paradigms, Problems, and Prospects,” Human Organization 38 (1979): 99–104. doi:10.17730/humo.38.1.u761n5601t4g318v
Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis, eds., Autoethnography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Heewon Chang, Faith W. Ngunjiri, and Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez, Collaborative Autoethnography (New York: Routledge, 2013).
Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez, Faith Wambura Ngunjiri, and Heewon Chang, “Exploiting the Margins in Higher Education: A Collaborative Autoethnography of Three Foreignborn Female Faculty of Color,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 28 (2015): 533–51. doi:10.1080/09518398.2014.933910
Steve Kempster and Ken Parry, “Beyond One Voice: Co-constructed Analytic Autoethnography,” in Unconventional Methodology in Organization and Management Research, ed. Alan Bryman and David A. Buchanan (Oxford: Oxford University, 2018), 168–89.
Heewon Chang, Autoethnography as Method (New York: Routledge, 2008). Also see Stacy Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis, eds., Handbook of Autoethnography (New York: Routledge, 2016).
Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely, and Deborah Kolb, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” Harvard Business Review 91 (2013): 60–66. https://hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers. Also see Amanda Sinclair, “Being Leaders: Identities and Identity Work in Leadership,” in The Sage Handbook of Leadership, ed. Alan Bryman et al. (London: Sage, 2011), 508–17.
Alexander S. Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher, “Rethinking the Psychology of Leadership: From Personal Identity to Social Identity,” Daedalus 145 (2016): 21–34. doi:10.1162/DAED_a_00394
Brigid Carroll and Lester Levy, “Leadership Development as Identity Construction,” Management Communication Quarterly 24 (2010): 21–31. doi:10.1177/0893318909358725
Susan R. Jones, “Authenticity in Leadership: Intersectionality of Identities,” New Directions for Student Leadership (2016): 23–34. doi:10.1002/yd.20206. Also see Gavin Sanderson, “A Foundation for the Internationalization of the Academic Self,” Journal of Studies in International Education 12 (2008): 276–307. doi:10.1177/1028315307299420
Ann L. Cunliffe, “The Philosopher Leader: On Relationalism, Ethics and Reflexivity—A Critical Perspective to Teaching Leadership,” Management Learning 40 (2009): 87–101. doi:10.1177/1350507608099315
Nigel P. Short, Lydia Turner, and Alec Grant, eds., Contemporary British Autoethnography (Rotterdam: Springer Science & Business Media, 2013).
Encarnación Garza, Jr., “Autoethnography of a First-Time Superintendent: Challenges to Leadership for Social Justice,” Journal of Latinos and Education 7 (2008): 163–76. doi:10.1080/15348430701828749
Steve Kempster and James Stewart, “Becoming a Leader: A Co-produced Autoethnographic Exploration of Situated Learning of Leadership Practice,” Management Learning 41 (2010): 205–19. doi:10.1177/1350507609355496
Wendy A. Bilgen, “Constructing a Social Justice Leadership Identity: An Autoethnography of a Female Jewish Christian Social Worker Living in Turkey” (PhD diss., Eastern University, 2018).
Barbara Kellerman, Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2008).
Steve Kempster and Sarah H. Gregory, “‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ Exploring Leadership as Practice in the Middle Management Role,” Leadership 13 (2017): 496–515. doi:10.1177/1742715015611205
Steve Kempster and Marian Iszatt-White, “Towards Co-constructed Coaching: Exploring the Integration of Coaching and Co-constructed Autoethnography in Leadership Development,” Management Learning 44 (2013): 319–36. doi:10.1177/1350507612449959
Joel R. Malin and Donald G. Hackmann, “Mentoring as Socialization for the Educational Leadership Professoriate: A Collaborative Autoethnography,” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 24 (2016): 158–78. doi:10.1080/13611267.2016.1170561
Maree Boyle and Kenneth William Parry, “Telling the Whole Story: The Case for Organizational Autoethnography,” Culture and Organization 13 (2007): 186–90, doi:10.1080/14759550701486480. Also see Andrew F. Herrmann, Organizational Autoethnographies: Power and Identity in Our Working Lives (New York, NY: Routledge, 2015).
Clair Doloriert and Sally Sambrook, “Accommodating an Autoethnographic PhD: The Tale of the Thesis, the Viva Voce, and the Traditional Business School,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 40 (2011): 582–615. doi:10.1177/0891241610387135
Mark Learmonth and Michael Humphreys, “Autoethnography and Academic Identity: Glimpsing Business School Doppelgängers,” Organization 19 (2012): 99–117. doi:0.1177/1350508411398056
Sally Sambrook and Andrew F. Herrmann, “Organizational Autoethnography: Possibilities, Politics and Pitfalls,” Journal of Organizational Ethnography 7 (2018): 222–34. doi:10.1108/JOE-10-2018-075
Donna Ladkin and Chellie Spiller, eds., Authentic Leadership: Clashes, Convergences and Coalescences (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013). Also see Jan Shaw, “Papering the Cracks with Discourse: The Narrative Identity of the Authentic Leader,” Leadership 6 (2010): 89–108. doi:10.1177/1742715009359237
Carolyn Ellis, The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography (Walnut Creek, CA: Rowman Altamira, 2004).
Chrys S. Egan et al., “Capacious Model of Leadership Identities Construction,” in Theorizing Women and Leadership: New Insights and Contributions from Multiple Perspectives, eds. J. Storberg-Walker and P. Haber-Curran (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, 2017), 121–40.
Heewon Chang, Karen A. Longman, and Marla A. Franco, “Leadership Development through Mentoring in Higher Education: A Collaborative Autoethnography of Leaders of Color,” Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning 22 (2014): 373–89. doi:10.1080/13611267.2014.945734