Exploring leadership through Cleopatra

Victoria Business School’s 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.”

Dr Riad has won two international awards for her early work on merger integration, and in 2007 was awarded a $14,000 Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand. The grant, given to researchers demonstrating excellence early in their career, enabled her to explore the dynamics of difference in mergers and acquisitions.

She has served as Research Convener for the School of Management and previously led Master’s and PhD programmes in the School. In addition to being a researcher, she teaches strategic management, knowledge management and research methods.

Before becoming a researcher, Dr Riad worked in project management. She has a background in science and the arts, which she often taps into for her research.

She attributes her initial interest in mergers and acquisitions to serendipity. “When I was looking for a topic for my PhD thesis, someone knocked on my supervisor’s door and asked if they had a ‘chronicler’ whose work would enable organisations to learn more from these events. I took the project on and found it fascinating to follow it through the lens of a chronicler.”

Examining salient events in a merger can be a useful way of discovering elements of each organisation that shape the merger’s integration process, says Dr Riad.

“One of the organisations I looked at had a Dagg Day; a day when everyone in the company came to work dressed as Fred Dagg. The organisation it was merging with would never have had a Dagg Day.

“It’s a good example of how people can use their organisational culture to try to shape a merger’s process. If the merger process goes off track, they can blame it on culture differences.”

Dr Riad often analyses linguistic, cultural or social differences to develop her research areas.

“Clothing and food are good examples. An article about Kim Kardashian might get 10,000 clicks because even though we may deplore the ostentatious consumption we still want to see those shoes and earrings. At the heart of it is the blend of disdain and desire,” she says.

“The disdain comes across as moral judgement of flaunting wealth, but it is often also a matter of taste—or distaste.

“I often use culture as a way of looking at mergers and acquisitions. I’m now starting to look at how taste becomes a differentiator; a marker that people use when trying to show the difference between us and them.

“It’s interesting how often mergers can relate to food—for example, if a national food icon is taken over by a foreign company. That brings up all sorts of issues relating to culture and taste.”

Gender is another way Dr Riad examines her research topics. “The Statue of Liberty is womanly, which isn’t unusual for national symbols. Many figures of national personification were derived from goddesses and there’s also a long tradition of seeing the nation as a mother,” she says.

“There’s an interesting underlying paradox that some nation symbols tend to be both a warrior and a mother. It’s common to separate combat and power from nurture, and destruction from procreation, but some of these figures challenge that approach by combining the two.”

For her latest research project, Dr Riad is using political cartoons to look at leadership.