Reflecting on various leadership theories and approaches as well as my own experiences with leadership, I see self-awareness, authenticity, and well-being, particularly on the leader's part, as significant factors that require serious consideration and must be integrated in leadership approaches. In this post, I will highlight some of the leadership theories and approaches that have shaped leadership studies, in particular, path-goal theory, servant leadership, situational approach, adaptive leadership, and transformative leadership. I will also briefly discuss transformative leadership and how it relates to facilitating the well-being of organizations and the people within them.
But before I go further, I will share with you my definition of leadership.
What Is Leadership?
Leadership is a participatory and collaborative process where all members of the group are actively engaged, participating in the group's discussions, sharing the decision-making, and contributing to the achievement of common goals. I am of course describing my ideal type of leadership, which is based on an assumption that all members, including the leader, contribute to promoting everyone’s well-being. That is, they are self-aware and operate from a place of authenticity, respect, and openness. In other words, all members are aware of their own as well as other members’ values, strengths, and limits—and everyone knows how these values, strengths, and limits influence their motivations and actions. At the same time, all members are also open to exploring how these areas can be utilized for the benefit of the group and its goals.
Path-goal theory, servant leadership, situational approach, and adaptive leadership share similar ideas with regard to the leaders' behaviour, that is, they act for the benefit of the group and the common goal. Following is a brief introduction to each one as outlined by Northhouse (2018):
• The path-goal theory places the onus on the leader to direct, guide, and coach followers toward success.
• Servant leadership places emphasis on leaders' natural desire to serve others first and their conscious decision to lead.
• The situational approach prescribes how leaders should behave depending on specific situations and the skills and motivations of the followers.
• Adaptive leadership focuses on leader behaviours that encourage followers to learn, be creative, and adapt to complex situations.
Path-goal theory, servant leadership, situational approach, and adaptive leadership assume that leaders are aware of their true motivations for being the leader and know how their strengths, and limits could contribute to the groups' success. These theories also assume that both leaders and followers value authenticity, respect, and openness and operate in a context that allow for their expression. However, that is not always the case for everyone. Our motivations and reasons for actions may be negatively influenced by our beliefs, values, worldviews, life experiences, and how we perceive ourselves in relation to others. Our motivations and reasons for actions may also be negatively influenced by our specific contexts. Think about your current work context and your personal experience. Do you know of leaders or individuals in your organization who foster hierarchy, insecurity, and competition? Have you witnessed or experienced working with leaders who knowingly or unknowingly exercise power by withholding information from you, including what they really think about you or someone in your team? Essentially, they contribute to unhealthy working environment and organizational culture instead of contributing to everyone’s well-being.
The leadership scholar, Carolyn M. Shields (2010) states that "Transformative leadership begins with questions of justice and democracy; it critiques inequitable practices and offers the promise not only of greater individual achievement but of a better life lived in common with others" (p. 559).
But, what do the notions of justice and democracy mean?
How do we determine and assert what is just and democratic?
In discussing transformative leadership Shields (2010) also introduces the role of power, authority, and "the dialectic between individual accountability and social responsibility" (p. 569). Building on her point, I would argue that before we could begin to question the notions of justice and democracy we must have an awareness of personal history, current context, beliefs, values, visions for the future, and our well-being. In other words, transformative leadership must begin with questions about our worldviews as well as our role and responsibilities as individuals and members of our society. As Shields (2014) notes on her article discussing social justice education, transformative leadership "calls the leader to a deep examination of his or her beliefs, values, and principles and to ground his or her practice in responses to some deep, difficult, and often controversial questions" (p. 325). Shields (2014) also notes the ability of the leader to inspire human intent, to reach people's souls in a way that raises their consciousness.
Transformative leadership implies a shift in the collective vision, direction, and actions toward a significant change.
Shields (2010) outlines many positive outcomes, for example, enhanced equity, social justice, quality of life, respect for difference and diversity, democracy, civic responsibility, creative expression, knowledge, and personal freedom (p. 569). Shields (2014) also outlines the following key elements of transformative leadership:
A combination of both critique and promise; attempts to effect both deep and equitable changes; deconstruction and reconstruction of the knowledge frameworks that generate inequity; acknowledgment of power and privilege; emphasis on both individual achievement and the public good; a focus on liberation, democracy, equity, and justice; and finally, evidence of moral courage and activism (p. 562).
But, how can organizations, communities, and societies construct and realize a collective vision before the individuals within them know what really matters to them? How can organizations, communities, and societies inspire or compel their members to take action and move toward the same direction, such as liberation, democracy, equity, justice, and public good if the individuals within them do not know exactly what they stand for, where and how they stand?
As I mentioned earlier, transformative leadership requires us to examine our worldviews as well our role as individuals and members of our society. To quote Eaton (2017):
Worldviews are an amalgam of the visions, ideas, ideals, and practices that interweave to produce cultural values, governance systems, and social identities. Worldviews are the way we imagine life and our lives together to produce the quality of our communities, the questions we raise, and the moral principles that we choose (p. 125).
Knowing our worldviews allows us to better understand our motivations and reasons for actions (Valk et al, 2011, pp. 55-56). This is where my research interest intersects with transformative leadership. I believe that transformative leadership requires self-awareness and perhaps even a personal transformation of the leader and everyone involved, which begin with one's readiness and willingness to self-discover and evolve, as well as one's openness to relate to and connect with others in an authentic way. Shields (2014) notes the leader's ability to inspire and reach other people's souls. However, to inspire and to be inspired suggest a certain openness of the person’s heart and imagination. For leaders to be able to reach the souls of others, they must know the nature and language of their own soul.
As individuals, we become human through our relationships
We become human through how we perceive, relate to, and connect with others, our community, society, environment, and the world in general.
While our perception and concept of our place in our community, society, and the world are influenced or shaped by our relationships, as individuals we also have the autonomy and agency to decide what to do with these relationships. We can choose how to act and participate in our community, society, and the world. Through our individual actions we can embrace transformative leadership and affect significant, positive, and sustainable change.
One example among countless others is the history of ServiceSpace, a not-for-profit service organization, which began with four individuals with the desire to give and help others (Mehta, 2017). The individuals went to a homeless shelter to volunteer their services and ended up building a website to promote the shelter's cause.
If we started out by having a goal to change the world, we might have been a little disappointed in our abilities; when we start with ourselves, we notice that the ripples around us continue to get bigger and bigger and as more people try to do small acts, we have every potential to change the world (https://www.servicespace.org).
Over the years, the organization's projects have expanded and delivered millions of dollars worth of free services to benefit those in need. The organization, which started with four individuals, currently has three hundred thousand members. The organization's founder Nipun Mehta, notes the importance of shifting paradigms, "stepping back", observing, and developing one's "capacity to tune-in, to be aware" (Mehta, 2017).
Transformative leadership demands self-awareness and authenticity from both leaders and followers. Specifically, leaders and followers must be aware of their strengths and limits and know how these could affect the group and its ability to achieve the common goals. Leaders and followers must examine their true motives for participating in the group, whether their motives are based on a genuine desire to contribute to achieving the shared goal or perhaps egocentric purposes such as gaining personal recognition or acquiring higher status and prestige.
Additionally, transformative leadership involves recognizing and exercising one's agency to decide and choose how they would like to act and participate in their lives. As Shields (2016) notes, approaches to transformative leadership require "thoughtful and critical self-examination, critique of existing mental models and conceptual frameworks, and an action orientation" (p. 25).
I am interested in exploring ways to facilitate self-reflection, the "deep examination of one's beliefs, values, and principles" (Shields, 2014, p. 325). I am also interested in exploring ways that women leaders can embody and express their authenticity and well-being in their leadership roles. In essence, I am looking for ways to support women leaders in connecting with their soul and sources of inspiration, and to discover and express their authentic self. I equate this exploration with promoting transformative leadership at the individual level.
After all, organizations, communities, and societies across the globe consist of individuals. At the same time, I am also interested in exploring the contexts within which women leaders operate and in learning how existing systems and structures may be supporting or constrain the choices they make and the actions they take.
Feel free to connect with me if you want to exchange ideas or collaborate!
Eaton, H. (2017). “The Challenges of Worldview Transformation” in Religion and Ecological Crisis: 'The Lynn White Thesis at Fifty', eds. Todd LeVasseur and Anna Peterson. Routledge Studies in Religion, 50, 121-136. New York: Routledge.
Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: Theory and practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Presencing Institute. (2017, April 24). Nipun Mehta (Part 1) - From Leadership to Laddership [Video File]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/214510045
Shields, C. M. (2010) “Transformative Leadership: Working for Equity in Diverse Contexts”, Educational Administration Quarterly, 46(4), 558-589.
Shields, C. M. (2014) “Leadership for Social Justice Education: A Critical Transformative Approach”, in International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Social (In)Justice, edited by Bogotch and C.M. Shields, Springer International Handbooks of Education 29. Dortech: Springer, 323-339.
Shields, C. M. (2016). Transformative Leadership. New York: Peter Lang.
Valk, J. et al. (2011). “Worldviews and Leadership: Thinking and Acting the Bigger Pictures”, Journal of Leadership Studies, 5(2), 54-63.