Lewin and Leonardo Conversing on the Nexus of Theory and Practice

by Cynthia Cherrey

Cynthia Cherrey Photo

Cynthia Cherrey is President and CEO of the International Leadership Association. Previously, Cynthia served as Lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and Vice President of Campus Life. She publishes in the areas of leadership, organizational development, and higher education including co-authoring Systemic Leadership: Enriching the Meaning of Our Work. Her most recent publication is Women and Leadership Around the World (co-editor). She is a Fellow at the World Business Academy and a recipient of a J.W. Fulbright Scholarship. Cynthia’s interests and research explore new ways to live, work, and lead in a knowledge driven, interdependent, global society. She consults and speaks to for-profit and non-profit organizations around the world on leadership and organizational change. She can be reached at ccherrey@ila-net.org.

Have you ever played the dinner game where you choose historical figures to invite to the table and then imagine the ensuing conversation? Now, apply, if you will, that game to a plenary session at an ILA global conference. Who would you invite to co-keynote and why? I would issue an invitation to Kurt Lewin and Leonardo da Vinci to discuss the importance of theory and practice.

Kurt Lewin would be introduced as a groundbreaker in the fields of social, organizational, and applied psychology. His life reflects the demographics of ILA’s membership, 42% of whom have lived in two or more countries. Lewin was born in what is now Poland, lived and studied in Germany where he was linked to the early Frankfurt School of thought, and then arrived in the United States as an immigrant. He worked at universities, including Cornell and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and contributed globally to the creation of new knowledge in the field of psychology, particularly with regards to action research, human relations and group dynamics.

Leonardo da Vinci, the well-known Italian polymath, would need little introduction. The original Renaissance person, not only was he one of the greatest painters of all time, he was a pioneer in the field of paleontology (Switeck, 2010) and the natural sciences, a military architect, and an entrepreneur. His wide-ranging work crossed sectors and disciplines, reflecting the experience of many of ILA’s members.

As we begin the co-keynote after introducing Lewin and Leonardo, we would lay the framework for the conversation through the mission of the ILA, namely, to promote a deeper understanding of leadership knowledge and practice for the greater good of individuals and communities worldwide. One of the unique benefits of the ILA is that we value rigor and relevance at the nexus — the intersection — of theory and practice. As a member association we are committed to strengthening ties between those who study leadership, those who teach or develop leadership, and those who practice leadership in order to advance better informed and integrated knowledge and practice in the field. Using quotes attributed to each, we can imagine the ensuing conversation might go something like this:

Lewin would nod his head and begin his remarks by saying “Experience alone does not create new knowledge.” Leonardo would concur, responding, “Those who are enamored of practice without science are like a pilot who goes into a ship without rudder or compass” (McCurdy, 1906, p. 212).

How would each of them address the concept that theory and practice are two important strands of leadership working mutually and simultaneously together?

Lewin would say, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory” (Lewin, 1951, p. 169). And Leonardo would be nodding his head and reinforcing the importance of both by concluding with “practice should always be based upon a sound knowledge of theory” (McCurdy, 1906, p. 212).

This conversation should sound familiar to ILA members as there are many examples of this mutually shaping work of theory and practice in the association. We see it in concurrent session presentations, panels, and workshops that take place at the global and regional ILA conferences. We see it in the articles and books published by the ILA. We see it in programs like ILA’s Leadership Perspectives webinars.

We see it in how the ILA brings scholars and leaders together in dialogue around theory and practice. The forthcoming gathering of leadership scholars and CEO’s at the Møller Centre at Churchill College, University of Cambridge is one such example. This joint program between the ILA and the Møller Centre will bring together leadership scholars and CEO’s to explore the theory and practices around the compelling question of the Power of Purpose. Does purpose impact stakeholder and shareholder value? Every one of the participants will be engaged in the discussion, building on the applications of the theory to the work. In an upcoming Interface article, Gillian Secrett, Executive Director of the Møller Centre, will report on the process, format, and impact of this program.

We see it in the current call for submissions (due 1 May 2017) to ILA’s forthcoming book Leadership in International Development where editors Randal Joy Thompson and Julia Storberg-Walker are seeking narratives from experienced leaders in international development describing how they have experienced gender, context, culture, and sustainability as drivers. From these narratives, the team will then create a new leadership model focused on leading international development projects, continuing the cycle of practice to theory to practice.

We see it in the application of scholarship by ILA members who are making a difference in the practice of leadership. I offer as an example the work being done by ILA member Robynne Sherrill on providing a training template for law enforcement officials to use theory and best practices to improve community relationships. In a forthcoming Interface article Robynne will share more on her work with law enforcement at the nexus of theory and practice. To help advance our mission, one of our goals is to capture real-world applications of scholarship to societal problems and share this work with our community.

These are but three examples of the work that is being done. We look for more members to share their stories in Nexus, a new column in Interface. Let us hear about your leadership work at the nexus of research and practice. Contact Debra DeRuyver at dderuyver@ila-net.org if you would like to participate.

The ILA is THE place, THE member association, for the leadership scholar with an interest in influencing and learning from the practice of leadership and for the leadership specialist, the scholarly practitioner, with an interest in applying the latest leadership research to their practice and in bringing their practical experience back to inform the realm of research. Let us continue the conversation on rigor and relevance that Lewin and Leonardo epitomize so well and support that interplay of theory and practice that leads to effective leadership for the greater good of individuals and communities worldwide.


da Vinci, Leonardo. (1906) Leonardo Da Vinci's Note-Books. (Arranged and Rendered Into English With Introductions by Edward McCurdy, Trans.) New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Lewin, K. (1951). Problems of Research in Social Psychology. In D. Cartwright (Ed.), Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers (pp. 155-169). New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Siwteck, Jason. (2010). Leonardo da Vinci - Paleontology Pioneer. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/leonardo-da-vinci-paleontology-pioneer-1-73326275/