Leadership and the paradoxes of political ignorance

in Leadership , Tagged Politics, Populism, Gender analysis, Ignorance, gender equality.
  • jim jose

    Jim Jose

    Professor of Politics, and Acting Assistant Dean Research Faculty of Business & Law at the University of Newcastle.


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Across the world, the number of populist leaders has more than doubled since the early 2000s. A common rhetoric among these leaders is to frame politics as a battle between the 'common people' and the 'elites', positioning themselves firmly in the former camp.

However, the idea of a leader as an outsider of the political system itself raises numerous questions. How can one find solutions to the problems if you don't understand the environment in which you operate?  Here, Professor Jim Jose from the University of Newcastle explores the paradoxes of ignorance, and explains their significance in the context of gender biases in leadership. 

One of the features of being a leader is that you are expected to have some understanding of the problems facing your followers and supporters and the electorate in general. That is, you are expected to know something of the issues and processes that might be needed for their party’s political success. In an age where populist rhetoric has come to dominate political discourse, an ever-present but oft buried phenomenon of populist politics – the paradox of political ignorance - has become prominent.

On the one hand, populist leaders and aspiring leaders present themselves as not knowing the answers. On the other hand, in order to mark themselves out as a preferable alternative they have to articulate answers to whatever social or political problem prompted them to enter the political arena.

Populist politicians generally paper over this paradox by claiming that whatever answers they put forward are the answers that the elites, whoever they may be, are intent on ignoring or deliberately hiding from view.

This was certainly how Pauline Hanson, for example, presented herself in her first go-round as a political phenomenon in 1996. On her second successful effort in 2016 this was no longer a plausible strategy despite her efforts to keep exploiting the paradox of ignorance.

Pauline Hanson 2017 01

Ignorance was no longer a plausible strategy for Pauline Hanson in her second go-round in 2017.

The same might also be said of her strategy of representing herself as powerless in the face of elitist disparagement. Within this strategy the pitch as a ‘not-knower’ was made as a counterpoint to the expertise presented by the ‘knowing elites’. These elites do need not to be identified in any precise ways by the not-knowers - simply referring to elites is sufficient. At the same time, however, representing herself as powerless contradicts a core element of being a leader since it undermines any claims to knowing how to tackle the problems of others. Again, another paradox.

For women leaders, no less than men leaders, when it comes to gender the production of ignorance is not accidental

We might dismiss Hanson’s political fortunes as simply being unique to her particular circumstances. However, that would be a mistake because her experiences are also a reminder that the paradoxes of political ignorance are also gendered. For women leaders, no less than men leaders, when it comes to gender the production of ignorance is not accidental. Challenging such ignorance and its production is part of the politics of feminist knowing.

Ignorance comes in many forms. Understood broadly, it describes what we do not know. We seek to overcome ignorance by producing knowledge about what we do not know. Let’s call this ‘enlightening ignorance’, that is an ignorance that leads us to some form of knowledge that erases that ignorance. A variation on this theme is what might be called a so-called ‘natural state’ of ignorance (the naturally occurring absence of knowledge that is the basis for progress in what we know).

Another form of ignorance, and one more at home in the domain of politics and leadership, is the deliberate maintenance (or promotion or creation) of ignorance. Those with power aim to ensure that those over whom they exercise power remain unaware of relevant information.

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Gender biases such as discrimination flourish through the propagation and production of paradoxes of political ignorance. These take multiple forms but a couple are worth noting here. One concerns tacit knowledge, an essential component of every leadership position. While it might be that men too experience this form of ignorance, they are more likely to be closer to the relevant knowing than most similarly placed women. Such knowledge is often shared in spaces and ways that are predominantly masculinist in practice, and hence less available to women.

Its gender aspects are treated as if the difficulties to be overcome are faced equally by women and men. They are masked because they are embedded in the organisational system itself

Moreover, being privy to tacit knowledge is treated as a problem to be overcome by the individual woman. This form of ignorance is cultivated and protected. It forms part of a leadership mindset that must be learnt by those aspiring to become leaders. Its gender aspects are treated as if the difficulties to be overcome are faced equally by women and men. They are masked because they are embedded in the organisational system itself.

However, systemic features remain unaffected by changing individual behaviours in and of themselves unless there is an overwhelming wave of individuals involved. It is usually only when changes are directed at systemic structures that it becomes effective (though whether such change are lasting is another matter).

From a gender perspective the paradoxes of political ignorance are not accidental. They are a form of anti-feminist politics and its sustaining of ongoing forms of backlash, and only by paying attention to the ways in which they are .

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