As we approach 2016 with hope, resolutions, and anticipation, it might also be helpful to ruminate on some of the evolving concepts of leadership and the lenses they furnish for current and emerging leaders in our society. Often perspectives on leadership held by policy makers coalesce into societal policies, legislation and laws. Leadership philosophies and styles tend to encompass a variety of perspectives, values, and notions of good lives.
In November 2015, I was honored to give the keynote address at the graduation ceremony of The University of North Carolina Bridges leadership program for women. More than 20 years ago, the UNC Bridges intensive, four-week, leadership program was designed to inform, promote, and support women in leadership roles in higher education. I particularly enjoyed returning to the (William and Ida) Friday Center in Chapel Hill to interact with women seeking higher education leadership roles because, I had been nurtured, mentored, informed, and furnished leadership opportunities for 14 years in the UNC system.
Moreover, discussing leadership theories continues to fuel my hope that we will eventually develop leaders who will transform our society, so that the majority of Americans will experience a more perfect union. Further, the eroding public confidence in higher education, its value, and its leaders appears to be a microcosm of eroding confidence in political institutions, corporations, and many leaders in America. Probably since I was an English Literature and Language major (decades ago) the words of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel which depict dueling social ills prior to the French Revolution seem to resonate with me as I contemplate 2016:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, were all going direct to Heaven, we were going direct the other way. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
In short, what better time than 2016 to reflect on leadership and co-existing extremes?
The theme of the graduating Bridges class was transformational leadership. Thus, speakers were asked to share experiences, knowledge, and wisdom regarding the concept of transformational leadership. In a nutshell, the theory of transformational leadership affirms that leaders are more successful when they facilitate the development of leadership qualities in others, when they inspire team leadership to solve problems, and when leaders are introspective about the personal values, assumptions, and paradigms from whence they lead.
In the conversations following the keynote address, the Bridges graduates and I also discussed leadership roles through the lenses of other leadership theories. In addition to transformational leadership, we agreed that there are a host of leadership theories that attempt to inform, elucidate, and guide those seeking leadership positions in a range of societal institutions. Some leadership theories that were viewed as illuminating various aspects of leadership include:
Authentic leadership– leaders are usually positive people who lead from honest and ethical foundations and maintain honest relationships with employees or followers.
Servant leadership–leaders desire to serve, the servant’s heart is a fundamental component for this type of leadership. The servant leader puts the needs of others before his/hers and shares power–the pyramid is flipped.
Collaborative leadership–leaders employ teams to lead a hierarchy structure that is less of a pyramid. Current modes of communication support a more flat organizational structure in which team members learn from each other and work together to solve problems.
While reflecting on transformational leadership, and various other leadership styles, it occurred to me that the first place for an aspiring or current leader to engage in deeper rumination or for meaningful New Year’s resolutions is one’s personal values and definition of success. In other words, the journey towards a high level leadership position, through it, and after it, begins with a person defining–What does success mean to me?
In higher education, for example, success to a leader could mean 1) advancing knowledge in a discipline, 2) improving the teaching and learning environments, 3) employing big data to truly solve intractable problems, 4) forecasting future opportunities, and/or 5) simply helping others to discover the joy and benefits of a lifetime of learning. A personal definition of success is not only helpful, but it could lead towards a more fulfilling career, life/work balance, altruistic behavior, and healthy lifestyle.
Even a cursory view of higher education leadership, political leadership, and corporate leadership would reveal that long term success in a leadership role is more difficult in a world defined, measured, and sometimes quartered by social media that can topple leaders through informed/ill-informed public reactions. Thus, it is essential for leaders to reflect on a personal definition of success that will help ease some of the unavoidable bumps and turbulence in leadership roles. It is also important to note that the meaning of success will probably change and evolve over time in a leader’s tenure and lifetime.
So where does this leave us with our New Year’s resolutions? Hopefully, when making our lists, we will also be cognizant that every individual effort adds to the collective well-being. When we reflect on what success means to us and our families, we will also be aware that our concepts of good lives will be played out in microcosms that will be expanded in the macrocosms called America and the global village.