At the end of my study I would like to…

I’ve been thinking about writing a paragraph that completes the statement above; however I’d like to start by analyzing how my perception and knowledge of leadership have evolved.

According to Komives et al., the development of leadership identity starts with the awareness of the existance of leaders or figures of authority (the president, a school principal, dad). This perception is rooted in what professor Rost called industrial leadership paradigm. A set of theories and constructs that focus on the leader as the power-holder, as THE MAN. The industrial paradigm focuses mostly on the leader and his traits, behaviours and actions. So it’s not surprising that at a junior high school retreat I said that I wanted to have as much impact as Gandhi or Mother Teresa -even though I really didn’t know much about their causes or the reasons why their work was so important.

Komives et al. describe the next step of leadership identity development as exploration/engagement; the awareness of being part of a group and identifying the various roles that people play within a group. I had many opportunities to go through this phase in many groups, but it wasn’t until I joined the leadership campus group at the end of my first year of university that I started my own intentional construction of the term leadership.

Looking back at those times, with my current leadership paradigm, I have to say that what we offered as a group wasn’t leadership development but team-building. We were student facilitators organizing team-building games and activities for our peers. When training, we used to choose “the leader” of each team of students and we would usually choose the most vocal, extroverted and charismatic person -a choice based on the Traits Theory that is part of the industrial paradigm. As trainers we fostered competition among teams and exerted power over the participants. Once, my team had to stay up until 1 am or so trying to finish a low-ropes challenge; it is painful to remember the way the facilitators were yelling at us -participants- and making us go through the game over and over until we completed it without any mistakes.  This sounds more like torture than leadership and, believe me, it was.

These programs had no theoretical foundation; as student trainers we replicated what we had experienced in previous trainings and even though we had to go through an intensive 10-day training in order to become a facilitator, our awareness of leadership was low, except for Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People -which was part of the curriculum of a leadership course that all students had to take (this book is considered to be part of the industrial paradigm of leadership theories since it focuses on behaviours that a leader needs to be effective).

As a student and later as the Coordinator of Student and Leadership Development, I loved these programs. I believe that as a result of facilitating these leadership trainings -that are still in place- students enhance their presentation and facilitation skills, increase their self-awareness, and develop their program planning skills. However, students’ social responsibility and awareness of societal change are not impacted through these type of activities.

All the resources and energy put into these programs, nation-wide, did not address the Key Transition in the Leadership Identity Development Model. This transition appears after the third stage, Leadership Identified, where leadership is perceived as a position or as something that you either have or not; the transition comes with a shift in consciousness, an awareness that holding a position does not necessarily mean that you’re the leader (for this to happen people need to experience a group process, which was absent in the leadership trainings mentioned above -except for the team of student trainers).

The leadership programs that I experienced not only failed to address the key transition, but also the stages occurring after the key transition: Leadership Differentiated, Generativity and Integration/Synthesis. These last stages are based on relational leadership. According to Komives, Lucas and McMahon (1998) relational leadership is

“a relational process of people together attempting to accomplish change or make a difference to benefit the common good”

It’s important to say that the group process that occurred within the university leadership group that I mentioned above was not acknowledged as practicing or learning leadership, although I can say that at times the group would hit the key transition phase and it felt like true collaborative/relational leadership.

Having leadership programs that stress relational leadership is important, but not enough. There is another element missing: we need to understand the complexities of the systems in which we operate.

If educators -and thus students- continue to look at issues in isolation, we won’t be able to find the appropriate solutions; it’s important to understand an issue by looking at it in relation to other issues. We need to be aware of the impact of linear-thinking and be more intentional and realistic about educating for positive change. In order to accomplish change (and I’m not talking about drastic, all-of-a-sudden radical change, but reform, or well-thought-out change) we need to be aware of the invisible threads that connect all elements and actors of the systems we want to impact.

Here is my concern: Knowing that the leadership programs that we run are not necessarily reaching the outcomes that are needed in today’s society. I would like to see leadership programs and learning experiences that empower and prepare people to resolve effectively the problems the world is facing. I want to see more leadership programs focusing on understanding the complex issues of our time and developing the appropriate skills, attitudes and knowledge. I believe that many things have to change in order to resolve and overcome the current and upcoming crises, in order to bring more justice to the world. If we continue to do the same things -leadership programs included- we will continue to have similar results. So, leadership educators not only have to look at different ways of educating for new kinds of ethical, aware and committed citizens, but also have to develop new models that represent reality in a more accurate way.

So, at the end of my study I would like to:

Create a model of  leadership development that focuses on the interconnections of the elements of complex systems. Understanding these system dynamics will lead to the intentional teaching and learning of particular skills, knowledge, attitudes and values needed to effect change for the betterment of society; particularly changes towards a more just and sustainable society.

This model will have practical applications in student leadership programs, youth leadership programs in communities and the non-profit sector, government and corporate leadership development.

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Komives, S. R., Longerbeam, S., Owen, J. E., Mainella, F. C., & Osteen, L. (2006). A leadership identity development model: Applications from a grounded theory. Journal of College Student Development (47), 401-420.

Komives, S. R., Lucas, N., & McMahon, T.R. (1998). Exploring Leadership for College Students Who Want to Make a Difference. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass