In my very first blog that I wrote here six years ago, I talked about my views on using popular culture in the classroom. Now, many classes later, things have come full circle and I will launch the “Exploring Effective Leadership Practices Through Popular Culture” book series through Emerald Publishing this month. I am excited to serve as the series editor and also author of the first two books in this series (the first will be about leadership in the “Star Wars” franchise and the second in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories). My approach to using popular culture in writing is much the same as it is in the classroom. It follows this general model:
Introduce theory → Illustrate theory through a popular culture example → Apply theory
I can imagine some critics might scoff at this approach as being silly. With so much going on in the “real world” to write about, why focus on something as seemingly trivial as popular culture? I would argue that we can learn about the “real world” – and, in turn, improve our own leadership approach – through fictional popular culture.
But, before we get to popular culture, we must understand theory. I am a big proponent of learning theories. Leadership theories help us to make sense of phenomena related to how people influence each other. We can see these theories in application within our own workplaces, schools, religious organizations, teams and other groups to which we belong. The idea behind theories is that they are generalizable so that they can relate to multiple circumstances that we might encounter. While some theories are quite complex and others are simpler to apply, it is true that understanding theory can help us recognize how and why individuals lead (or follow) others.
To make theories clearer, examples can be useful. However, there is a caution here. Analyzing a case without linking it to theory is not only unproductive, it is also dangerous to someone interested in learning about leadership because it will provide them with an incomplete impression of what makes a leader effective. Instead, we must first understand the theory to make sense of the leadership that we see around us. By linking an example back to theory, students of leadership can reflect on why an example of leadership was effective (or not) and then consider how that theory could then relate to their own context. I prefer to link examples from popular culture because they are fun and accessible. Let’s face it, even though it is useful to understand, leadership theory can be dry. Linking theory to popular culture makes it more exciting and relatable to more people. Not everyone is interested in working in a particular role or industry (the focus of many traditional case study approaches), but more people may be excited about or familiar with a fictional movie, book, show, video game or comic.
But, making linkages to theory should not stop there. It’s not enough to just provide an example of a theory through popular culture. With a broader theoretical understanding enhanced via a popular culture example, those seeking to learn about leadership should apply their newly found knowledge to their own situation. It is this application of theory that is crucial to all forms of learning – including classroom learning as well as learning from reading research. In this way, it is not a stretch to apply what we glean from fiction to our own lives.
I have been working on research leveraging popular culture in the way described above over the past few years. I’ve written chapters, articles and blog posts linking academically supported theories to “Hunger Games,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Avengers” and “Wonder Woman” for a few examples. Anecdotal feedback that I have received suggests that this approach has helped individuals make sense of leadership theories and then apply them to their own unique contexts. For me, this type of research is fun — it allows me to explore theories that I love in the context of pieces of popular culture that I thoroughly enjoy. But, it’s also fulfilling because I believe that this type of research can help others to learn and grow. I hope that readers will find this new book series to be fun, interesting and helpful as they continue to develop into leaders.
What do you think? Do you find this approach useful? What pieces of popular culture have been or might be helpful to you as you refine your leadership approach? Let me know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or connecting with me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or Twitter.
Dr. Mike Urick