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There is not an organization in this world that doesn’t grapple with challenges and the need for positive change. To realize that change, leadership is required. Simultaneously, there are thousands of articles, books, and videos on leadership and leadership theories. Despite all the research, there is no universally accepted definition of leadership. Thus, leadership styles, frameworks, and theories that are examined and/or eventually acquired through traditional higher education courses often are a result of the professor or school’s leanings. In defense of higher education, it is virtually impossible to subject their students to all the theoretical frameworks of leadership available. The students of leadership theory thus become exposed to a cadre of “leaders” of leadership theory as prescribed by the university. Nevertheless, a thorough understanding of leadership theory can only be obtained by careful consideration of opposing points of view vetted through a variety of resources. Furthermore, considering gender and gender bias during that process is critical for full understanding. For purposes of this paper, that objective has not been met in its entirety. Rather, it simply scratches the surface of leadership models. The bottom line is that leadership is big business. A search on Amazon.com of books on leadership netted over 10,000 titles. Leaving business out of the equation and examining the field of education gives a small glimpse of how much money is changing hands in the name of leadership. In higher education, educational leadership master and doctoral programs draw thousands each year into universities. School districts routinely pay consultants to train their administrative leaders. Often those districts pay additional consultants to train their teachers to be teacher leaders. Undergraduate teacher education programs teach high school graduates how to lead in their own classroom. Conversely, it is entirely possible that leadership theories have become so mainstream that potential leaders disregard the information due to overload. Or worse, those leaders read one source/author and proclaim it as their mantra. Nevertheless, leadership theory definitely is an important part in the process. Sundheim (2014) contends that leadership theories pull data and ideas into models that provide a systemic viewpoint. Therefore, it is up to the student of leadership to sift through those foundational frameworks, models, and theories to choose the ones most applicable to their personal situation. In essence, creating a custom made style of 21st century leadership that will leverage change when and where needed in their organization.
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Leadership occurs on all levels of an organization from the lowest level to the top. According to research, effective leaders share some common attributes that enable them to motivate their people towards common goals. Visioning may be the most important starting point for those leaders. Sinek (2017) argues that a leadership vision must be a “wildly successful dream” that is seen in our mind’s eye. Furthermore, that vision must be measurable in specific terms. Theoharis (2008) goes a step further stating that successful leaders “lead with intense visionary passion and maintain a tenacious commitment to his or her vision” (p. 12). That passion and personal commitment are needed to endure the process of change through criticism and/or resistance from stakeholders. Often that vision works in sync with a leadership style that is cooperative and democratic in nature. Senge (2000) proposes that a leader’s vision is simply not adequate enough for sustainable change. He suggests that a shared vision process that involves communication and input from all stakeholders is more likely to endure through development and change towards an organization’s overarching goal. Similarly, Fullan (2001) contends that leaders that push for change using a big idea or vision for the future may find that when the initial excitement about the change declines, so does the vision. Without buy in from the entire organization, no amount of visualization will be sustainable. Visioning for women leaders may be more problematic. Due to the lack of females in leadership positions, gender bias proves to be an additional obstacle for leading toward change. In her study of women leaders as superintendents, Clarke (2011) asserts that successful women place the art of empowerment and collaboration as top themes in their leadership style. That position of leading democratically may be seen as a weakness in a male hierarchal organization and thus not supported. Hence, visioning may be more difficult for those women; however, the collaborative nature of their leadership may very well place them further along the continuum of change than their male counterparts.
Once a leader embraces a vision, or goal, Senge, Smith, Kruschwitz, Laur, and Schley (2010) assert that system thinking (looking for patterns) is critical for diagnosing a problem or implementing a change. They contend that most problems exist, and sometimes perpetuate, because they are addressed only on the level of the part as opposed to the whole. Using an iceberg as a model, they help leaders analyze events (What is happening right now?), patterns/trends (What is happening over time?), systemic structures (What’s driving those patterns?), and mental models (What core beliefs are dictating our response?) to understand the systems in play and what needs to happen to leverage change. Furthermore, Senge, Smith, Kruschwitz, Laur, and Schley (2000) cite Argyris’s ladder of inference to explain a “common mental pathway of increasing abstraction often leading to misguided beliefs” as a stumbling block for leaders and stakeholders alike. Additionally, causal loop diagrams, connection circles, stock-flow maps, and behavior over time charts help to visually represent inter-relationships within a system. Herasymowych and Senko (2004) offer classic systems archetypes to aid in defining a problem within a system, acknowledging the mental model that drives it, and strategies for dealing with that problem. Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009) appear to agree with Senge despite their use of different terms such as “getting on the balcony to look at the dance floor” to describe the deep dive to understand individual motivation, perception, and interpretation and its role in system thinking and change. Ackoff and Greenberg (2008) go further arguing that a system can’t be simply analyzed; it needs to be synthesized to understand why it works the way it does. In some cases, they argue, the system needs to be fully disassembled and rebuilt from scratch. Fullan (2008) takes Senge and others to task contending that “years of system thinking has failed to produce leaders that can see full patterns clearly and effectively change them” (p.110). He does acknowledge that our ever more complex world contributes to that failure. Nevertheless, he believes the solution may very well come in the form of system doing; that is, in the environment prescribed by him creating a “critical mass of organizational colleagues who are indeed learners” (p. 110).
Scandals of ethics from almost every type of organization seem to appear in the news all too frequently. Those scandals have prompted much research and responses from academia. Consequently, many would argue that ethics is the foundation for an effective leader. Brown and Trevino (2006) broadly define ethical leaders as those who have a concern for others, demonstrate ethical decision-making, have integrity, and role model for others. Interestingly, they also claim that the most ethical of leaders had a mentor that role modeled ethical behavior. Demirtas and Akdogan (2015) state that today’s companies often have systems in place regarding codes of ethics; yet, they contend that actions speak louder than words in that leaders shape climate with behavior. Piccolo, Greenbaum, Den Hartog, and Folger (2010) maintain, “that ethical behavior is critical to a leader’s credibility and his or her potential to have meaningful influence” (p. 260). Ethical leadership during change can be negotiated through three simple steps according to Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009). First, determine the damage to others. Second, think about the damage to your self-image and/or values. Lastly, keep questioning the action. They argue “by keeping your heart and mind open to questions, you increase the odds of thoughtful risks and few regrettable decisions” (p. 235). Finally, Lawton and Páez (2015) argue that ethical leaders require the “exercise of judgment and not just the application of rules” since their decisions “may be far-reaching and wide-ranging, non-routine, complex, with high stakes” (p. 643).
An ethical leader with a vision that understands fully the system in which the problem lies then attempts to inspire and motivate the organization toward change. That action, or plan, may be the most difficult of all leadership responsibilities. Sinek (2009) maintains that charisma is not only necessary to lead, but critical. He does admit that charisma is “hard to define, impossible to measure, and too elusive to copy” (p. 134). He goes further to argue that leaders with charisma are successful because they know the “why: an undying belief in a purpose or cause bigger than themselves” (p. 134) Since those charismatic leaders are so firmly rooted in their conviction, inspiring others to follow becomes a natural process. Ackoff and Greenberg (2008) take that concept a bit further saying that a change leader must be courageous and be willing to make a mistake of “commission”; that is, one that all can see. Fullan (2011) expands those theories to say that empathy, ethics, charisma, and visioning are just not enough to get people to change their minds and do the hard work for change. He argues that stakeholders need to experience the success of change in order to get excited and inspired to work for more. A good leader, he believes, will let his/her people try a change under safe conditions and then listens to their thoughts, reactions, and suggestions before moving forward. Doing so allows “collective ownership” in the process and spurs energy to continue. Fullan (2011) sums it up by saying, “Because core ideas are pursued collectively, day after day, they generate deeper, consistent practices across the organization. Shared depth of understanding and corresponding skills are the result” (p. 94). Senge, Smith, Kruschwitz, Laur, and Schley (2000) rely on capacity building and collaboration as the key to change. They put a huge emphasis on “convening, listening, and shared commitment” (p. 235). Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009) simplify the process of engaging stakeholders by listing five key characteristics of highly adaptive (change that survives over time as opposed to technical “fixes” that are short-term solutions) organizations: “1. Elephants in the room are named, 2. Responsibility for the organization’s future is shared, 3. Independent judgment is expected, 4. Leadership capacity is developed, and 5. Reflection and continuous learning are institutionalized” (p. 165). Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky (2009) also argue that conflict is key to making any adaptive change. It is natural that stakeholders bring different perspectives and opinions to the table and it is the duty of the leader to “cook the conflict” as opposed to resolving the conflict. In other words, acknowledge the stresses that are a reality and the gap between those and the vision of the organization. Allowing stakeholders to hash it out in a mutually productive manner will help to bring authentic adaptive change.
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In direct contrast, one author, Jeffrey Pfeffer (2015) Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, argues that the authors of the thousands of leadership theories have failed organizations worldwide. He claims that their frameworks are missing any relevant data, self-serving, and useless. He goes further to say that, “workplaces in the United States and around the world…are filled with dissatisfied, disengaged employees who do not trust their leaders” (p. 6). Pfeffer (2015) also claims that data on bullying in the workplace reveals “widespread verbal abuse, shouting, berating others, and general climate intimidation” (p. 11). Overall, employees are very dissatisfied with their leaders providing evidence of that failure of leadership. Of particular interest, Pfeffer (2015) contends that the leadership industry encourages empathy, integrity, and accountability in leaders towards their employees; yet, few leaders fulfill those traits. Furthermore, he directly contradicts Simon Sinek’s (2017) claim that leaders eat first using psychological research showing that people are most likely to take care of those like themselves as opposed to others. Therefore, Pfeffer (2015) opposes that mindset directly because he believes that leaders “share little or nothing in common with those they lead” (p. 163). Only those leaders that have worked their way up the career ladder executing most, if not all, of the jobs in an organization are most likely to empathize with those they lead.
In conclusion, this writer acting as a supervisor of four different subject areas in a K-12 district finds the exploration of leadership theories and frameworks a valuable process in that it allows for multiple perspectives and real-world examples that may be applied to leading toward change in that role. In this writer’s humble opinion, ethical leadership may be the single most important instrument in an arsenal of tools that assist in leading toward change in that it will allow for leadership with a strong moral compass. Those ethics are most important in a female dominated industry where there is an overabundance of males in leadership positions. Furthermore, many of those males have their Ed.D. in leadership and exhibit little or none of the attributes of great leaders discussed throughout the readings. Most have come up through the ranks; yet, seem to have forgotten their humble beginnings. Moreover, one of those males leads through intimidation, bullying, and verbal mistreatment. Women are often stymied from ascent in the organization simply because of gender, race, and candor. Systems thinking and an awareness of mental models aids in navigation of realizing the writer’s vision in a chaotic, sometimes hostile workplace. Leading in the present with an acute awareness of what needs to change, empathy, resolution, tenacity, humility, authenticity, empowerment, and ethics in democratic collaboration with stakeholders will be the goal going forward. If successful, others will be inspired to do more, learn more, grow more, and strive more to be change leaders.
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