Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Seeking Practical Wisdom

Written by: on March 13, 2015

Ramsey’s article, Management learning: A scholarship of practice centred on attention?, discusses the practice of learning and how this can help managers and leaders do their work better.[1] Reading Ramsey’s article, I reflected on my own journey to become a more effective manager and leader. Ramsey shares project experience from which she learned and gained insight into the underlying process of how managers acquire skills and knowledge. In doing so, she reflects on the way that experience stories help us to reflect and gain wisdom. She takes us on a journey of learning within the common dynamics found within organizations and teams. In a second article, Provocative theory and a scholarship of practice, Ramsey stresses scholarship happening within, and “being shaped by the context of day-to-day managerial practice and the output of that scholarship is seen in terms of emerging, evidence based development of that practice and in an increased ability to ‘discuss’ an emerging sense making with the academy.”[2] In order to be an effective leader, one must make sense of the situation and apply judgment within the appropriate context. And, the proof of our ability to lead can be measured as we partake in evidence based practice and demonstrate positive outcomes. As we seek to grow our leadership capabilities, Ramsey’s theories will help us to understand how to learn and develop practical wisdom.

Within an organization, the scope of knowledge necessary to lead is quite broad. To further complicate matters, the external environment in which organizations operate is fluid and internal change is continuous. The practice of management is indeed an art form, and therefore, the knowledge necessary to manage cannot be solely acquired from a textbook or reading a few case studies. Ramsey reminds us that, “The role of context is central in all the contributions to the discussion on practice.”[3] She focuses on the process of becoming practically intelligent, and uses the word phronesis to indicate the depth of wisdom and intelligence required. A management practitioner cannot be effective if they are solely book smart. A leader who has practical wisdom is more skilled in making judgments and decisions within their practice.

Ramsey suggests that attention, or the way in which we attend to our work within the climate and varying situations, provides us cognitive growth and practical intelligence. This attention means that one is mindful in the work that they are attending to, resulting in better outcomes and increased learning. I am intrigued by Ramsey’s lessons learned through her example research project: evaluation of organizational and managerial actions within the course of an engineering project to uncover actions that promote faster new product development.[4] In her own journey of learning, Ramsey wrote her experience narrative. “In making sense of this narrative of learning, I will articulate three domains of attention, and yet in telling that story, in creating a narrative plot, I inevitably give scope for alternative sense making. The story provides material for readers to reach their own judgments and therefore interrogate mine.” [5]

Ramsey’s account of her project experience paints a sharp image in my mind of the organization and team. Her story resonates strongly with my own experience working with teams. Ramsey starts her account by telling of a project leader that didn’t see the need for the type of research she was doing. So many times, people want to get projects completed quickly and fail to understand the impact that underlying team dynamics and organizational norms can have on a project’s success. Like this manager, people tend to focus on getting the work done fast and cheap. The manager that Ramsey encountered was resisting change. I admit that I laughed a little when Ramsey shared her frustration when she attempted to interview engineers. Working with technical people for most of my career, and working virtually, I could envision the conversations. The engineers likely had no thought that collaborating virtually presented obstacles beyond overcoming technical glitches. And, being a team of engineers, they are taught to solve problems. So, when presented with a problem or dilemma, they immediately looked to solutions. Exploring the root cause of organizational issues was likely far from their thought patterns. Throughout the project, Ramsey faced similar obstacles to those seen across many organizations: resources who lack the time necessary to devote to the project, pressure to provide fast output, and a resistant culture. I must credit Ramsey, as she was able to navigate the resistance and find ways to make the work visibly relevant to the team. Further, she gained buy-in from senior managers. Thus, ultimately, the project found success.

Through her consulting / research experience, Ramsey gleaned her own lessons learned, particularly in her observations surrounding the scholarship of practice. She says, “My sense making was emergent rather than analytical. It involved me in going to see people, looking for further information or new ideas. As I attended to ideas for action, they formed the premises upon which I approached my task, they contributed possible ways forward at particular moments, what I have called projective theory elsewhere.” [6] In the end, Ramsey found that her learning and ability to react within her work was shaped by relationships, politics, context, and situations.

As I read Ramsey’s story, my mind was immediately lost in similar memories from projects in which I’ve been involved. When I started my career, I was very green. I didn’t have enough context or experience to appropriately judge people and situations. While my academic background provided me with tools to quickly learn and to perform from a technical perspective, I lacked the soft skills to manage and lead. My ability to read people and develop relationships within a working context was naïve. I appreciate Ramsey’s recommended approach to learning within management programs. While students must understand and learn best practices, the art of applying and operationalizing those practices is critical to their personal success.

As we continue to embark on our own leadership journeys, I believe it is the art of leadership which we are seeking to attain. As we experience, engage, and perceive the context in which we work, our practical wisdom will grow with depth and breadth. Hence, we will be more effective in our efforts to engage within the world and to lead for positive change.

[1] Caroline Ramsey, “Management learning: a scholarship of practice centred on attention?” Management Learning”, 45(1), (2011),1.

[2]Caroline Ramsey, “Provocative Theory and a Scholarship of Practice,” Management Learning 42(5) (2011), 12.

[3] Caroline Ramsey, “Management learning: a scholarship of practice centred on attention?” Management Learning”, 45(1), (2011),9.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 12.

[6] Ibid., 15.

About the Author

Dawnel Volzke

Christ follower, wife, mom, teacher, student, professional...my passion is to serve Christ and my calling is to help organizations become great at fulfilling their mission.

7 responses to “Seeking Practical Wisdom”

  1. Brian Yost says:

    Great summary, Dawnel.
    I loved your statement, “In the end, Ramsey found that her learning and ability to react within her work was shaped by relationships, politics, context, and situations.” This sounds like great insight for pastors and christian leaders. Unless we understand and can adapt to the specific situation, we will find ourselves relying on something that worked somewhere else or looks good on paper but ultimately is ineffective for the current situation.

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Well said, Brian. One observation that I have is that often ministry organizations will promote people who are good at ministry and place them into management roles that they aren’t prepared to fulfill. While the article is geared toward management education and the learning process, I believe the concepts can also be applied within a ministry education context. We need to help ministry professionals gain the practical knowledge for management before expecting them to effectively manage within organizations (including churches). If they don’t experience leadership in a safe and learning environment, then we can’t necessarily expect them to be able to effectively lead a church. Alternatively, we can’t expect a good business leader to effectively minister without being exposed to ministry and ministry training, in a capacity that allows them to gain practical intelligence in this area.

  2. Dave Young says:

    Dawnel, I appreciate your passion to do things well and by that I mean having the skills necessary to manage effectively. As you said there is some art to management, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t allso theory and practice that will make us more effective. I appreciate your take on Ramsey, and again your passion for good, effective learning and practice.

  3. Phillip Struckmeyer says:


    I appreciate your emphasis on leadership and management as an art. I think the quote you captured, “My sense making was emergent rather than analytical. It involved me in going to see people, looking for further information or new ideas. As I attended to ideas for action, they formed the premises upon which I approached my task, they contributed possible ways forward at particular moments, what I have called projective theory elsewhere.” display the art that Ramsey herself learns and leads with. What I wonder about is, while she definitely contributed some transformation learning and leading and left that organizational culture different, how much are the managers that were already there and will continue to daily be the one’s on the job be and operated differently upon her departure??? Was the culture change not lead by her, and the managers now left to manage it? Will the managers themselves who operated transactionally in the past, now go on to lead more transformationally? What has been your experience? Do you think scholarship can change practice or does a scholarship of practice just need to be led by and produce a different type of leader and a different type of culture (Big C as in Western culture and little c as in org culture)???

  4. Dawnel Volzke says:


    Great questions! I wouldn’t say that the organization that Carolyn worked with was necessarily operating transactionally, or that transactional is always a bad thing. I didn’t glean from the story the bigger picture on their operational structure. There are different types of operations that are appropriate for different scenarios. What I did get from her article was that she was able to study the way that the team collaborated and worked, and found ways in which to make learning more effective. Everyone learns continuously “on the job”. In this particular type of project, the team must learn together to allow for new products to be developed at a much faster pace. The concepts gained from the research of this project can be applied within the realm of management education too. Anytime a team works together, their interaction and process can either slow down or speed up the output of their work efforts. So, research is helpful to understand how we can get managers to learn more quickly with depth and breadth, in order to be better at the work they do. Managers must get into a cadence with the team, and there must be a certain level of chemistry that drives innovation and speed. They must also have a certain level of intelligence to make and drive appropriate decisions throughout the work efforts. Carolyn’s research shows that they must not only have academic knowledge and skills, but for a person to be an effective manager they must be put into situations where they can gain practical wisdom too.

    My experience is that every large organization, such as the one in which Carolyn completed her research, has both good and bad leaders. It sounds like there are good leaders within that corporation that sponsored the research and they are leading in a transformational manner. However, it also sounds like she dealt with a few mangers, in the midst, that needed to gain buy-in before embracing the work she was doing. I’m not sure their individual styles or management traits. It does sound like Carolyn was able to learn some great lessons about processes and team operations, that will help the organization in their continuous improvement efforts.

    My experience has been that scholarship must be meaningful and applicable in order to be adopted within the context of practice. My sense from Carolyn’s project is the research identified information about the way that leaders learn and grow, and increase intelligence within their work. This is a difficult concept to explain (although she did a good job) and most experienced managers or leaders can quickly relate to her story. I don’t believe this is about producing different types of leaders – rather how we can more effectively develop people to be able to manage at higher levels. We can’t just teach theory and skills, as it involves intuition and soft skills that aren’t always easily articulated. There isn’t one type of leader or manager that fits all scenarios, rather people grow into their area of giftedness and intuitively manage people, processes, and tools in an effective way.

    I’m not sure what you are referring to by Big C vs. little c, so correct me if I’m not following and answering your question. Both the culture of the external environment in which one operates and the internal culture of an organization impact the way that people and operations must be managed. Good leaders can drive a company forward by leveraging opportunities, minimizing risks, utilizing strengths and mitigating weaknesses. So, this means that managers must be taught how to recognize these things. And, there isn’t an easy way to do this as organizations operate in a fluid environment.

  5. Travis Biglow says:

    Dawnel, wow. I find the art of Leadership a trying thing at times. At times we are on that high horse and at other times we are walking on the ground. Learning to be a leader is going to be an ever changing thing for me I think. New situations and new ideas are always meeting us as we lead. I trust that God will continue to give me the grace and as well as you to continue to learn theory and praxis on this leadership journey!!!!

  6. Mary Pandiani says:

    Your words – “As we experience, engage, and perceive the context in which we work, our practical wisdom will grow with depth and breadth” – are reflected in your own life. During our time in Cape Town, I saw such a passion in you to always be learning. I am blessed by your practical wisdom, especially as you continue to share your own ongoing learning experiences.

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