Conjuring Witches and Wonder: Leadership from the Edges
I have witches on the brain.
With Halloween fast approaching, witches are lurking at the edges of my imagination, and they are demanding an audience. These are no ordinary witches. They are, in fact, manifesting as the wyrd sisters in Macbeth. As my beloved colleagues Dr. Dickson and Dr. Murray and I write in our upcoming book on Shakespeare and Critical Hope,
In Macbeth, the wyrd sisters occupy the margins and haunt the fens of Scotland. These
women are called “witches” in the stage directions and “weird sisters” in the text. The
“weird sisters” moniker originates from “wyrd,” the Anglo-Saxon word for fate, and in
Macbeth the wyrd sisters appear at unexpected moments with prophetic utterances that
can be interpreted in many different ways. Macbeth’s failure to engage in a close reading
of their words, which contain truths that are troublesome and complex, leads him down a
path of (self) destruction.
We align ourselves with the wyrd sisters when we write from a place of complexity, when we move into spaces that have been less frequented in the academy, and when we invoke language that is not traditionally deployed in scholarship. In doing so, we also carve out spaces for other “wyrd sisters” (of all genders) to find a sense of belonging in the inhospitable fens of the academic landscape.
Shakespeare’s wyrd sisters live on the edges of the play-world, removed from the centre of power, which, in Macbeth, is the masculine, militarized, patriarchal world of king and court. However, the wyrd sisters observe from a distance and encounter men when they wander onto the edges. Despite (or because of) their liminal position, the witches comment on the goings-on of these men hell-bent on self-destruction and civil war. The only power the wyrd sisters wield is words - and yet they are able to disrupt the very centre of power through their incantations and equivocal language. They are, in fact, the most powerful change agents in the world of this play.
What can these witches teach us about changing the conditions within which we work, live, and learn?
In a parallel project I have been brewing with Dr. Heather Smith (UNBC), we have been pushing up against traditional definitions of leadership and change in higher education. We have long pondered questions of leadership in unusual places arising out of dissatisfaction with traditional processes and models which do not resonate with our lived experience and which erase contestation and conflict. Our own critical approaches to pedagogy and our own disciplinary perspectives (for me, Shakespeare, and for Dr. Smith, International Studies) have led us to wonder.
We wonder, who is making decisions that will inform what a post-COVID world will look like? We wonder, what decisions do we need to be making and who needs to be making them?
We wonder, how do we imagine socially-just change within our institutions of higher learning and the connections to broader society? We wonder, how do we change our universities for the better by engaging in leadership from the edges?
Wonder itself is an act of de-centering and re-orientation.
Dr. Dickson, in her superb TEDx talk, finds wonder in the act of tandem sky-diving. She describes herself as “falling through wonder” and theorizes that “wonder is the space between who you are now and who you will become.” “Mapping the contours of wonder,” Dickson tells us, “suspends us, it decentres us, and asks us to reconfigure our understanding.” If “wonder suspends our habitual ways of seeing and describing the world,” for Dickson, education is a “wonder engine.”
Wonder, as Elizabeth Bell (2009) writes, disrupts traditional systems of power by claiming alternate avenues of agency and ethics:
French feminisms' “wonder” and jouissance are strategies for claiming the materiality, agency, and ethics of the performer. This economy of pleasure is inseparable from a pedagogy of pleasure that intervenes in the [traditional forms of knowledge].
So, I wonder, what does leadership from the edges look like? How do we claim the materiality, agency and ethics of the edges? And where can we find (and mobilize) the early adopters, pioneers, outliers, disrupters, and innovators who often occupy the edges of systems and institutions?
Dr. Smith and I have workshopped many iterations of a new theory of leadership over the past five years. We started with a concept of guerilla leadership but the violence embedded in this metaphor (cf. Che Guevara and conflict as warfare) left us feeling unsettled. While the emancipation from oppressive structures and the social justice trajectory resonated, the language of enemy combatants and battle tactics did not fit with our lens of grassroots engagement, which is built on the values of critical hope, generativity, and generosity that animates our own leadership approaches.
Revisiting our project in the early days of the global pandemic, and percolating on the failed metaphor of guerilla leadership, I proposed re-naming our nascent theory as “Leadership from the Edges.” “Leadership from the edges” makes visible the points of contestation and provides a framework for navigating and negotiating structures of power with the purpose of managing change within (institutional) cultures through responsive and active interventions. It takes as its starting point an acknowledgement that experiences of leadership in higher education are not always pleasant, uncontested, or free of conflict.
The remainder of this thought piece is an attempt to provide a definition of “leadership from the edges.” This concept is by its nature transdisciplinary, borrowing and adopting from many disciplinary and theoretical edges. To borrow the wyrd sister’s culinary metaphor as methodology, this theoretical framework has “Eye of newt and toe of frog, / Wool of bat and tongue of dog” (Macbeth, 4.1. 14-15).
A Witchy Recipe for Brewing Leadership from the Edges
(serves many, and is especially tasty for those occupying edges and fens, heaths and hallways)
*Best paired with a flagon of critical hope and a side dish of critical empathy
3 ½ cups of Che
In Che Guevera’s writings on guerilla leadership, he proposes the following fundamental premises:
(1) It is not necessary to wait until all conditions for making revolution exist
(2) A key characteristic is flexibility and ability to “adapt himself [sic] to all circumstances, and to convert to his service all of the accidents of the action.”
(3) Creativity is paramount: “Against the rigidity of classical methods of fighting, the guerrilla fighter invents his own tactics at every minute of the fight and constantly surprises the enemy.”
Che provides a list of tactics: “more fully the tactic of guerrilla warfare, we will see that the guerrilla fighter needs to have a good knowledge of the surrounding countryside, the paths of entry and escape, the possibilities of speedy maneuver, good hiding places; naturally also, he must count on the support of the people. All this indicates that the guerrilla fighter will carry out his action in wild places of small population.”
1 cup of Foucault:
In order to initiate change, we need to deconstruct the narrative of a “monolithic institution” and understand that power – through a Foucauldian lens – is dispersed, local, “embodied and enacted rather than possessed, discursive rather than purely coercive, and constitutes agents rather than being deployed by them” (Gaventa 2003, 1). In other words, in order to change the institution, we must change ourselves. This requires a shift in thinking away from the sphere of epistemology (i.e. knowledge) into the sphere of ontology (i.e. identity). It is breathtakingly simple, and yet incredibly challenging. According to Foucault, we are the system, which means we have to change in order to change the system.
Two heaping spoonfuls of Solnit, for taste
Essayist Rebecca Solnit, writing in the Guardian newspaper, echoes Che’s advice to find people in “wild places of small population” to mobilize: “And the rise of new forms of resistance, including resistance enabled by an elegant understanding of that ecology and new ways for people to communicate and organise, and new and exhilarating alliances across distance and difference.”
Solnit, in the same essay, also gives us a road map of hope by embracing uncertainty and making room for wonder: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. … It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
The earliest iterations of this recipe for brewing up change started as a conversation between myself and Heather Smith about the guerilla leadership of freedom fighters like Che Guevera; we then added educational philosophers like Paolo Freire and bell hooks; the conception of power and authority is influenced by Foucault; and the critical hope is shaped by public scholars like Rebecca Solnit. The next version of the recipe could easily add John D. Caputo, Parker Palmer, Ira Shor, Kevin Gannon, and a whole cornucopia of other philosophers to season this potent brew.
What lessons do we glean from these wonder-full, wyrd guides to engage in leadership from the edges?
Heather Smith and I have compiled a list of emerging design principles in a google doc that I have compressed below:
Design Principles for Leadership from the Edges:
● Understand that change happens in grassroots spaces: create intentionality around community-building and carve out spaces for grassroots leadership to enact change within institutional cultures.
● Look for change that is local and agile: connect interventions together so that micro changes start to take shape and converge as as part of a larger, multi-pronged strategy
● Appreciate that engagement can take place at any number of locations: conversations and communities are built in the classrooms, in boardrooms, in hallways
● Coordinate so that the emotional and cognitive labour is distributed: working together in coordinated ways helps to alleviate the pressure of one or few people and mitigates the risk of burnout
● Change is underpinned by the values of justice, inclusion, and equity: establishing a vision and set of values, and having a clear-eyed understanding of why you want to enact change and for whom, will provide purpose and resilience when things get tough
● Acknowledge that risk is always involved. If you confront change head on, there are real and material consequences (e.g. promotion, review, tenure, renewal, resource allocation, political and social capital, reputation, etc.). This means being attentive to who takes the lead and who is in the most insulated positions (e.g. full professorship) should be taken into consideration.
● Value the small strategic actions – with allies, advocates, and champions – because these small acts can lead to collective action, whether this is at the micro, meso, or macro levels.
● Find allies and build clusters across various divisions and departments: seek out unlikely or unanticipated allies who have common goal (which sometimes requires breaking down traditionally entrenched positions)
This is a preliminary set of design principles that will benefit from further additions, revisions, and adaptations. However, in my forays into leadership from the edges, the most valuable lesson (that I continue to learn) is developing a deeper understanding of how value circulates and how decision making process(es) operate. We need to make it easier for ourselves and others to navigate and negotiate the invisible (and yet very real) power structures systemic to postsecondary institutional cultures.
The biggest barrier to leadership from the edges is the problem of navigating the complex structures of governance: most academics are not trained on how to navigate bicameral systems, nor have they been taught on Robert’s Rules of Order, while many are not aware of the principles of collegial governance. Furthermore, the relationship between perceptions of power (both real and imagined) and agents of change is a fraught one: power (to make decisions, to assign value, to create change, to be responsive and effective) sometimes lies in formal administrative bodies or positions, but is also resides in more informal (non-administrative) positions or social movements.
Moreover, when decision processes and power structures are opaque, one of the common side effects is inertia or lack of sustained commitment to change. Another common challenge in academia is that some departments or groups are inward looking, with thinking and planning occurring in silos and driven by internal competition. And, finally, when individuals or groups want to change institutional cultures (e.g. implement new programs or policy recommendations or innovative initiatives), faculty often have little or no training or tools to navigate change/crisis management.
These barriers seem daunting to the point of being overwhelming. Yet there are several ways to engage in leadership from the edges. When Heather Smith and I conducted a series of workshops on guerilla leadership at national and international conferences, we crowd-sourced interventions about what we can do:
Do more research on models of educational leadership, resilience and risk taking, mental health and burnout, evaluation and promotion, etc – and then disseminate this information widely.
Support knowledge mobilization efforts.
Flip mentorship so that more senior faculty benefit from younger generations (undergraduate students, early career scholars, junior faculty) who have valuable perspectives (for example, on work-life balance).
Develop networks of mentors to help unlock power structures.
Create networks for emerging leaders (e.g. early career faculty, precarious and contingent instructors, students, etc.).
Facilitate conversations about power and privilege in our classrooms, meetings, boardrooms, workshops, think tanks, online, via blogs, etc.
Have more conversations about learning how to say no
Explore how to be sustainable champions by building communities of practice
Build stronger community connections via interdisciplinarity and networks of friendship
Think about how are we cross-pollinating interconnected networks across groups and factions
Engage students in all these conversations
Expose paradoxes and tensions in the professoriate (and engage in knowledge mobilization, above)
Make spaces for different kinds of leadership within institutional cultures
Conjuring a conclusion
To return to witches, one of my favourite things about the wyrd sisters is their ability to pivot: they are on the edges looking in, but they are also looking over the edges into the unknown (in their case they are peering over the edges into the realm of the supernatural, which might be a bit too spooky for our purposes). The wyrd sisters inspire me, as I look to the centre, to also turn around, to look over the edge into the unknown. This reorientation -- even a small shift in perspective -- can provide us with the experience of wonder. If we are to imagine change, we have to imagine new frameworks.
Buddhist philosopher Pema Chödrön gives us another way of thinking about looking over the edges into the unknown: she urges us to sit in the discomfort of the present moment so “we can step into uncharted territory and relax with the groundlessness of our situation.” She goes on to say, “When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness.” Looking over the edge into the unknown is uncomfortable. De-centering our perspective and unlearning in order to look with fresh eyes is conceptually scary. Wonder, as Dr. Dickson tells us in her TEDx talk, “knocks us sideways out of our habitual frame and the new flows into the space left by the old.”
After we peer over the edge into the unknown, we engage in the process of reconfiguration with an expanded understanding of our world anew. This can transform us, our institutions, and the very edges upon which we teeter.
Toni Morrison writes, “I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. l claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was” (quoted in Emezi, 2). Akwaeke Emezi, in a letter to Morrison, writes back to her across time, peering over her own edges to respond: “You should see my centers, Ms. Morrison. They're glorious. They pull with the force of a planet and I'm patient; it's only a matter of time. I'm just waiting on the world. With all my love, Akwaeke.”
Here is to finding witches and wyrd sisters on the edges and in the margins;
Here is to brewing up recipes for change and making good mischief;
Here is to peering over the edge with wonder and a willingness to transform.
-- Jessica Riddell
With special thanks to my wyrd sisters, Lisa Dickson and Shannon Murray, for helping me explore witches and edges from a Shakespearean lens. With deep gratitude to Heather Smith who first introduced the concept of Guerilla leadership in 2012 and who continues to be a cherished thought partner in fleshing out this model of leadership from the edges. With a joyful shout out to my UK guerillas, Claire Hamshire, Rachel Forsyth, and Paul Taylor, who are anything but vanilla.
Works & Witches Cited
Elizabeth Bell (1995) “Toward a pleasure‐centered economy: Wondering a feminist aesthetics of performance.” Text and Performance Quarterly, 15:2, 99-121, DOI: 10.1080/10462939509366109
Pema Chödrön, Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change. 2019.
Lisa Dickson. “Education: The Wonder Engine.” UNBC TEDx. Published on Youtube March 27, 2020. Retrieved: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCiGPiMnDo8
Lisa Dickson, Shannon Murray, Jessica Riddell. Shakespeare’s Guide to Critical Hope. University of Toronto Press, forthcoming.
AKWAEKE EMEZI, “This Letter Isn't For You: On The Toni Morrison Quote That Changed My Life: How the legendary author taught Akwaeke Emezi to claim the edges where they stand as the center of the world.” them. August 7, 2019. Retrieved: https://www.them.us/story/toni-morrison
Foucault, Michel (1998) The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, London, Penguin.
Gaventa, John (2003) Power after Lukes: a review of the literature, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.
Hayward, Clarissa Rile (1998) ‘De-Facing Power’, Polity 31(1).
Rabinow, Paul (editor) (1991) The Foucault Reader: An introduction to Foucault’s thought, London, Penguin.
Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Guerrilla Warfare by Guevara, 1961; Retrieved: at:https://mltheory.files.wordpress.com/2017/06/che_guevara_guerrilla_warfare.pdf)
Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Shakespeare. Macbeth. Oxford Edition. 2009.
Rebecca Solnit. “Hope is an embrace of the unknown.” Guardian newspaper. July 15, 2016. Retrieved: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/15/rebecca-solnit-hope-in-the-dark-new-essay-embrace-unknown