Saturday 1 April 2023

Leadership, Otherwise

We live in complex times. Shifting and accelerated capitalism (which never breaks; only bends; Braidotti, 2014) requires new analytical tools of resistance. Finding ways to act while working within organisations that fetishise obedience, surveil and micro-manage, or uphold outdated ideologies can create exhaustion or cynicism, however. Further to this, the way in which organisations are led, and leadership is enacted, all too often continues to be rooted in the Vitruvian 'man-of-reason'. Fearful of difference, mired in bureaucracy, shaped around the humanist ideal of ‘Man’ as universal representation of the human and measure of all things, and bought into neo-liberal values of individual success and  competition.

The affective mood across workplaces does not sit outside the very real and recent pain of pandemic; the grief and loss we feel (even if unexpressed) of climate change; or the impending fear of lack of food and heating. It is very real, and very out there, if not acknowledged in the way it should be.  As Brodkey (1996) suggests “The only way to fight a hegemonic discourse is to teach ourselves and others alternative ways of seeing the world." This blog post attempts to offer alternative visions of leadership, where 'leadership' is not meant in the heroic or even transformative sense, but in the sense of every person working ethically outside the leader-follower binary. It draws on Braidotti, Deleuze and Spinoza to summarise three key moves of posthuman leadership (Mycroft and Sidebottom, 2023).

Nomadic Detachment

Braidotti (2019) urges us to undergo processes of de-familiarisation and dis-identification in order to give us critical distance from the systems that constrain us.  Oppressive practices have become so normalised that we cannot imagine other ways of doing things. Yet when we examine structures, organisations and political systems from a critical distance we begin to see the cracks and even feel a sense of the ridiculous. It can actually take very little (as we have seen with Ofsted in the past two weeks) for scales to fall from our eyes. But it requires both the individual process of working ourselves from pain to knowledge, and collective thought and action.

Recognising the ways in which we are attached to organisations and ways of working is not always easy; it can be painful because it connects to hope, dreams, and makes us account for how we spend so much of our waking time. It is a kind of Stockholm syndrome which reveals the complexity of advanced capitalism; we can often also benefit from the very systems we want to resist. As an academic, you can critique research metrics one day, and then celebrate your REF results the next. You may detest the peer review process, but celebrate when your article gets published. And in schools, the false god of Ofsted is maligned in one breath but then you understandably want to celebrate the hard work that got you and everyone around you that Outstanding result.  To admit that we are part of this complexity is difficult and requires a deep analysis of our own relationship to power. And when people feel power-less, it is not suprising that power is sought wherever it can be found. Spinoza famously asked the question: "Why do people fight for their servitude as if it were their salvation?" One reason may be that even servitude can bring a sense of belonging, that may be missing for many in such a fractured and individualising world.

To practice nomadic detachment, then, is to firstly examine our own love of power. As Foucault said:
“The strategic adversary is fascism... the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us”  (1983, p.xiii).

What do we love; how does power feel; and what kinds of power do we want to associate with? It is important to remember too, that we all have power in some ways, regardless of our position, identity or status.

We may not be able to be physically nomadic, but in our minds it is possible to detach ourselves from the pull of loyalty and subservience to organisations who will never love us back. Be loyal to people, our friends and colleagues, yes; but not to structures. Think of ways to work beyond organisational silos and find the 'smooth spaces' in which we can move freely, follow flows of positive energy and be beholden to no-one except ourselves and each other.

In nomadic working, ‘teams’ are not forever, projects are time-limited and the work becomes the organisation, rather than the organisation being the work. People come together in ‘constellations of practice’, gathering around shared drive and energy for a limited period of time (and potentially working in several constellations at once) (Mycroft and Sidebottom, 2018). More energy may be required, of course; but this is generative energy '"...based on the shared capacity of humans to feel empathy for, develop affinity with, and hence enter into relation with other forces, entities, beings, waves of intensity" (Braidotti, 2011, p.317).

Potentia Energy

When thinking about power, we are constrained by language. In English, of course, there is only one word for it. French has two (pouvoir and puissance); other languages have many. Spinoza used the words potestas and potentia to form an important distinction between hierarchical, bureaucratic and political power (postestas) and natural, generative, relational power (potentia). Organisations are generally spaces of potestas; rigid, hard to change, and mired in complex processes ('politics-as-usual').  However, potentia power still emerges through the joyful connections and reimaginings made by like-minded souls, and breaks through in leaderless movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy.  You will feel potentia energy in your body, in the moments you connect with someone interesting on social media; when you start a project with people outside your own usual working environment; or when you meet a new person and jump on the flow of energy you feel between yourselves. It is an activist power; rhizomatic in its messy, serendipitousness, and often subversive. 

We cannot work purely in spaces of potentia all the time. Rosi Braidotti recommends a life which is 80% potestas and 20% potentia. Thinking about our own balance of energy, and where we can find the joyful, potentia-full encounters that Spinoza believes are necessary for a fulfilled life, should be an important and regular reflection.

Affirmative Ethics

Spinoza warns against the joining together of people in 'sad passions'; that is, the kind of endeavours that may feel productive, but are mired in negativity.  While joyful endeavours increase our capacity to act and create change, sad passions coalesce around polarity, binary thinking and 'them versus us.' They can feel comforting for a time, but are also the places in which cynicism and fascist inclinations thrive. 

Joyful encounters strike at the heart of what it is to be human; they often involve art or creativity, connection, relationships and care. They can be acts of resistance (think dancing on a picket line) or the very small moments in which you stop rationalising and arguing about the 'right' way to do things, and decide to act differently; by tuning into bodily affects and emotion.

Affirmative ethics is therefore not about morals or values, but a shared ethical commitment to forging equitable futures centred around mutuality, relationality and shared predicament. As Braidotti (2011) states: ‘In affirmative ethics, the harm you do to others is immediately reflected on the harm you do to yourself in terms of loss of potentia, positivity, capacity to relate and hence freedom.’ It maintains a focus on joy over negativity; where joy is not happiness, but used in the Spinozan sense of a commitment to growth and development as life as part of a wider interrelated community. It is about the transformation of pain into knowledge, rather than complaint or negativity, in processes which enhance one’s capacity to affect and be affected by others. This generative approach leads to an emphasis on philosophy as praxis and thus incorporates micro-political moments of activism and wider action for social justice.

The kind of re-imaginings I am talking about in these three moves are not beyond our grasp; we see them all the time, but perhaps don't account for them enough. To close with Braidotti:

"Against the general lethargy, the rhetoric of selfish genes and possessive individualism, on the one hand, and the dominant ideology of melancholic lament, on the other, hope rests with an affirmative ethics of sustainable futures. A deep and careless generosity, the ethics of nonprofit at an ontological level. Why should one pursue this project? For no reason at all. Reason has nothing to do with this. Let's just do it for the hell of it - to be worthy of our times while resisting the times and for the love of the world." (2011, p.298).


Braidotti, R. (2019) Posthuman Knowledge. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Braidotti, R. and Vermeulen, T. (2014) Borrowed Energy. Frieze. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 22 December 2020].
Braidotti, R.  (2011)  Nomadic Theory:  The Portable Rosi Braidotti. Columbia University Press.
Brodkey, L. (1996). Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault. (1983). Preface. Retrieved from
Mycroft, L. and Sidebottom, K. (2023). Posthuman Professionalism. 10 March, 2023. The Open University.
Mycroft, L. and Sidebottom, K. (2018) Constellations of Practice. In Bennett, P. and Smith, R. (eds.). Identity and Resistance in Further Education. London: Routledge.

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