Arja Ropo et al. (Leadership, 2013, 9(3): 378-395) ask the following question: “How do places and spaces construct and perform leadership?” While not denying that individuals identified as leaders can influence others to think and act in particular ways, they are much more concerned with the ways in which physical places and the sensory experiences that people have in those places can contribute to the construction of leadership and possibly even substitute for leadership.
One of the key aspects of the authors’ argument is that our physical environment is both place and space. The notion of place signifies a particular location, with all of the physical attributes it may possess (size, shape, orientation, furnishings, lighting, and so on). We live in a particular place, go to school in a particular place, work in a particular place, and carry out whatever other activities we engage in, in particular places. From a realist perspective, these places are objective givens – they are what they are. In contrast to this, the authors suggest that, on a subjective level, space refers to the way that our knowledge of a place is constructed through our sensory experience of it. The same room, for example, can be a sanctuary to some, a place to socialize for others, and a prison to someone else. Unlike places, spaces are not already there – they are constructed by us as we interact with the given physical reality we encounter, and as we learn to carry out various activities in that place, either alone or with others.
Both place and space, therefore, act upon us in a way that can be interpreted as leadership, if we consider the process of leadership to involve such elements as influence, motivation, guidance, and direction, among other things. Rather than primarily being a cognitive phenomenon, however, for Ropo and her collaborators, leadership is manifested most significantly through embodiment. Our response to leadership is a more holistic, all-encompassing sensory experience that cannot be reduced to a purely intellectual event. We are literally immersed in leadership; it is a material phenomenon that can complement, counteract, and even substitute for a leader.