Exploring leadership through Cleopatra

Sally Riad often uses ancient Egypt as a way to examine management issues.

Dr Sally Riad

The Sphinx and Cleopatra are such instantly recognisable figures it’s easy to assume their cultural identity has remained the same throughout history.

Not so, says Dr Sally Riad, a Senior Lecturer in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Management. While there has been little new evidence about Cleopatra’s life in recent years, she is frequently reinterpreted according to changing ideas of leadership.

Dr Riad was visiting a library while on study leave in Cairo when she found a trove of modern research, mainly by women, reframing Cleopatra as strong and powerful. But in a branch of the library that held historical texts, she read works by early twentieth-century male writers who primarily viewed Cleopatra not as a figure of strength but as a lover.

The Sphinx’s identity has also changed significantly over time. Nations and leaders have appropriated the figure as a symbol of power and used it to legitimise their achievements.

Statues of the Sphinx were used in imperial competition: by the French to mark Napoleon’s victories in Egypt and by the British to mark their own victories.

“Views on Cleopatra and the Sphinx have changed so much over the years that you can’t pin down a fixed meaning for them,” says Dr Riad.

Dr Riad’s research focuses on critical approaches to management topics such as mergers and acquisitions, culture, identity and leadership. Her research areas are linked by her interest in difference and its role in shaping views on management issues.

Dr Riad often uses ancient Egyptian topics as ways to explore difference. One of her research papers contrasted Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s ostentatious displays of wealth with current media reports of the public outcry about conspicuous consumption by business and political leaders.

She has also produced a paper examining representations of the Sphinx in nineteenth-century art and texts, and their implications for organisational studies. Another paper explored how ideas of leadership have changed along with changing depictions of Cleopatra.

“Many of the people I come across in New Zealand are interested in ancient Egypt. There’s lots of interest in the ancient world. And as soon as you start looking at ancient Egypt, you find intriguing symbols everywhere—both human symbols and artefacts,” she says.

“Our interest in ancient Egypt says more about our culture than it does about the culture that produced these symbols.”

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In a nutshell

My research matters because … The ways in which we view and interpret differences (cultural, gender, racial, etc) shape how we value people, relationships and organisations. For example, in mergers and acquisitions, problems are often attributed to differences between the merging organisations. Perceptions of difference also shape who we consider to be a leader and what makes for good leadership.

One of the inspirations for my research has been … Reading widely and deeply. I get a buzz from immersing myself in good writing, whether in books (including non-fiction) or through current affairs, such as well-researched and lucidly argued articles from media.

The best thing about my job is … The room for creativity. I can explore, pursue and express diverse points of view. I can embrace originality: establish new connections that traverse big ideas, integrate knowledge between disciplines and build bridges across traditional boundaries.

My career highlight so far has been … The ongoing enthusiastic response from readers, students or graduates. When people take the time to tell me how my work has made a positive difference to their learning, their research or their lives, that makes my day. These moments have come to mean more to me than awards I’ve received.

My advice to aspiring researchers is … Learn to be a phoenix, to rise from the ashes. Develop tenacity and trust in renewals. Find your inner passion and do your best to stay in touch with it. And then read Dr Seuss’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go!