Sub-theme 77: Translating Leadership: Tensions, Contradictions, and Ambiguities

Stefan Heusinkveld
Radboud University, The Netherlands
Dimitrios Spyridonidis
Warwick Business School, United Kingdom
Marlieke van Grinsven
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Call for Papers

The way management ideas such as in the form of concepts, practices, standards, institutionalized templates, and ideologies impact organizations, the work of organizational members but also society at large constitutes a long-standing concern in scholarly research (Sturdy et al., 2019). These ideas may contain guidelines for attaining specific valued aspects of work and life, such as diversity, democracy, inclusivity, equality, social responsibility and sustainability, and are considered influential in shaping organizational processes and structures, thereby potentially affecting the working lives and well-being of billions of people.
For more than two decades, theorists of translation have made great progress in understanding how these ideas are translated into management and organizational practice (Czarniawska & Sevòn, 1996; Spyridonidis et al., 2016). A primary focus in this growing stream of literature is on how ideas are dis-embedded from their original context (or de-contextualized), how they disseminate, and how they are re-embedded in a variety of different – new – contexts each with their own specific legacies (Sahlin & Wedlin, 2008). Particular attention has been given to the active roles that various actors play in transforming an idea – often characterized by a certain degree of ambiguity – in relation to a local context (Nielsen et al., 2022). Specifically those in managerial and leadership roles, who gain knowledge of these ideas for instance via business schools (Sturdy et al., 2019), have been foregrounded and attributed high levels of agency in shaping these ideas in line with their interests and imaginations (van Grinsven et al., 2020). These actors, arguably, aim to exercise influence through practicing leadership in their translating efforts (Ansari et al., 2014).
Yet, what do we know about the paradoxical tensions, contradictions and ambiguities related to the efforts of those practicing leadership in processes of translation? We know that dealing with tensions and contradictions is an increasingly important skill for leaders at various organizational levels (Zhang et al., 2015), particularly given the unavoidable struggles and tradeoffs that leading actors experience in influencing mobilizing and organizing people, including when making inherently ambiguous ideas practical. For instance, pursuing sustainability models in practice may be at odds with short term financial concerns (van den Byl & Slawinski, 2015); and putting CSR standards into organizational practice may lead to responsibility erosion and the emergence of a thoughtless mindset (De Colle et al., 2014). However, the way critical issues of leadership relate to processes of translating ideas into practice is still poorly understood.
Indeed, exploring how those practicing leadership in translation deal with persistent (paradoxical) tensions, contradictions and ambiguities inextricably connected to putting ideas into practice, may shed crucial light on how leadership can contribute – both as solution and as problem – to processes of translation, as well as how these ideas may impact individuals, organizations and society. In the context of leadership studies, translation is so essentially connected with leadership and influence, that it is almost habitually neglected and conjectured. The apparent and obvious nature of idea translation within leadership as a focus of examination better allows to flag it up for critical examination by (re)considering conceptualizations of leadership from theories of translation. Overall, connecting theories of translation and leadership has a great potential to provide building blocks to guide future theory-building and research to better understand the relation between translation and the practice of leadership.
As such, the present sub-theme is concerned with the relation between the translation of ideas and the practice of leadership. In particular, we are interested in the practice of leadership that is spread across the organization and within interdependent sets of actors (Battilana et al., 2010; Finn et al., 2010) rather than residing only within the traits, practices and behaviors of ‘leaders’ in formal positions (Bolden et al., 2009). This sub-theme seeks to bring together researchers with an interest in studying critical tensions, contradictions and ambiguities of practicing leadership concerning translating ideas into practice, as well as the possibilities and limitations of leadership in shaping processes of translation in relation to individuals, management and organizations and societies at large.
We invite papers that deal with the topics listed above as well as the following, non-exclusive list:

  • How do critical tensions of practicing leadership relate to processes of translating ideas?

  • What paradoxical tensions and ambiguities confront those leading the translation of ideas into practice?

  • How can leading the translation of valued aspects of work and life in every day practice lead to unintended and dysfunctional consequences?

  • How can practicing leadership in translation be considered as solution and problem?

  • How do prior translations influence practices of leadership?

  • How do leaders construct themselves within and through processes of translation?



  • Ansari, S., Reinecke, J., & Spaan, A. (2014): “How are practices made to vary? Managing practice adaptation in a multinational corporation.” Organization Studies, 35 (9), 1313–1341.
  • Battilana, J., Gilmartin, M., Sengul, M., Pache, A.C., & Alexander, J.A. (2010): “Leadership competencies for implementing planned organizational change.” The Leadership Quarterly, 21 (3), 422–438.
  • Bolden, R., Petrov, G., & Gosling, J. (2009): “Distributed leadership in higher education rhetoric and reality.” Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 37 (2), 257–277.
  • Czarniawska, B., & Sevón, G. (1996): Translating Organizational Change. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • de Colle, S., Henriques, A., & Sarasvathy, S. (2014): “The paradox of corporate cocial responsibility standards.” Journal of Business Ethics, 125 (2), 177–191.
  • Finn, R., Currie, G., & Martin, G. (2010): “Team work in context: Institutional mediation in the public-service professional bureaucracy.” Organization Studies, 31 (8), 1069–1097.
  • Nielsen, J.A., Mathiassen, L., & Newell, S. (2022): “Multidirectional Idea Travelling across an Organizational Field.” Organization Studies, 43 (6), 931–952.
  • Sahlin, K., & Wedlin, L. (2008): “Circulating ideas: Imitation, translation and editing.” In: R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, T.B. Lawrence, & R.E. Meyer (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing, 218–242.
  • Spyridonidis, D., Currie, G., Heusinkveld, S., Strauss, K., & Sturdy, A. (2016): “The translation of management knowledge: Challenges, contributions and new directions.” International Journal of Management Reviews, 18 (3), 231–235.
  • Sturdy, A., Heusinkveld, S., Reay, T., & Strang, D. (2019): The Oxford Handbook of Management Ideas. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • van der Byl, C.A. & Slawinski, N. (2015): “Embracing tensions in corporate sustainability: A review of research from win-wins and trade-offs to paradoxes and beyond.” Organization & Environment, 28 (1), 54–79.
  • van Grinsven, M., Sturdy, A., & Heusinkveld, S. (2020): “Identities in translation: management concepts as means and outcomes of identity work.” Organization Studies, 41 (6), 873–897.
  • Zhang, Y., Waldman, D.A., Han, Y.-L., & Li, X.-B. (2015): “Paradoxical leader behaviors in people management: Antecedents and consequences.” Academy of Management Journal, 58 (2), 538–566.
Stefan Heusinkveld is an Associate Professor at Radboud University, The Netherlands. His research relates directly to this sub-theme and has been published in journals such as ‘Human Relations’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, and ‘Organization Studies’. Stefan is co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Management Ideas” and has edited various journal special issues connected to these themes.
Dimitrios Spyridonidis is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Innovation Warwick Business School, UK, and studies healthcare systems and organizations. Dimitrios is also involved in leadership research focusing on other professional services, primarily financial services. His research has been published in leading academic journals, including ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Human Resource Management’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Public Administration’, and ‘Human Relations’.
Marlieke van Grinsven is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Organization at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Her research focuses on narrative constructions of organizational realities in processes of change. Marlieke is particularly interested in studying the uptake of management concepts and the identity work of (hybrid) professionals. She has published in organization and management journals, including ‘Organization Studies’ and ‘International Journal of Management Reviews’.