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Transformative Leadership for a More Equitable and Just Society

In the corporate world, about one-third of expenditures are focused on leadership development to improve an organization’s performance, productivity, and, ultimately, revenue (Bersin, 2014, cited in Avolio, 2016). In the philanthropic world, however, less than 1% was spent on leadership development between 1992 and 2011 (Hirshfield, 2014). However, powerful leaders are needed to lead not only foundations but also the organizations and communities that foundations fund and support. This article discusses the leadership necessary for a more equitable and just society, which relates individual leadership skills to a more intentional focus on followers, context, and systems.

Recently, transformative leadership has gained traction among scholars and practitioners of leadership development, particularly among foundations and nonprofit organizations. Transformative leaders work to understand the people they lead and develop the ability to shape what people need and want in order to have a healthy and economically secure life by transforming their environment and the conditions they live in. Leaders who lead in a transformative way assume there are disparities in communities; emphasize deep change in social, economic, and other conditions; listen actively; practice evaluative thinking and identify implicit assumptions, risks, and opportunities for change; work to dismantle structures that maintain the status quo or perpetuate power differences, unfairness, and inequality, unintentionally or intentionally; value inclusiveness, democracy, and emancipation; understand that multilevel change is necessary (individual, organizational, and community); and integrate theories beyond organizational change to include theories such as systems change and critical race (Brown, 2006; Rivera-McCuthen, 2014; Shields, 2010).

Transformative leadership is especially attractive in current times, when the wealth gap and disparities in health, education, and other well-being outcomes between the haves and the have-nots are on the rise. Transformative leadership, by definition, has the potential to move our nation and communities toward racial equity and social justice. Given the power of transformative leadership, what do we need to know to identify, prepare, and support individuals to be become such leaders? How do we know if programs to prepare leaders for transformative leadership are effective?

Pay equal attention to the leader, the followers, and the context. The challenge of the leadership development field so far is that the focus of leadership development programs has been on the individual and individual-level changes such as knowledge acquisition and skill development (Avolio et al., 2009; Collins & Holton, 2004). However, if leaders are going to be transformative and lead with a racial equity and social justice lens, equal attention must be paid to two other aspects of leadership often neglected in leadership development programs: constituency and context. The individual leader, the people led by the individual (followers), and the community context within which the transformative leadership occurs form what Avolio (2016) calls the “golden triangle of developmental readiness.” This means the following:

  • Leaders must understand and have the skills to disrupt structural racism and all the baggage that comes with it (e.g., myths, false promises, stereotypes, and the abuse of power and privilege). In fact, they must help create a new system that is equitable and just. Transformative leaders also must know when to act as gate openers (to enable resources and opportunities to flow to their communities or the people they lead) versus gatekeepers (to stop people from taking advantage of their communities or the people they lead, not to stop the flow of resources and opportunities). They need to be prepared to pull apart the policies, procedures, and practices that perpetuate structural racism by understanding where the levels of change are and how to trigger them—sometimes outwardly acting as disrupters and sometimes working behind the scenes to gently but firmly assert their influence.
  • The followers must have confidence and faith in their leaders to make progress on the task of dismantling structural racism; they can be a facilitating factor or a challenge to the leaders’ success, depending on their understanding of structural racism, where they are in their lives, how they are situated in the community and in the context within which the transformative leader is operating, and whether they view the leader as a gate opener or a gatekeeper (Etuk et al., 2013; Majee et al., 2017). They can also help drive change by pushing the same agenda that the leader is advocating for from outside the system if the leader’s role in a system does not allow him or her to advance the agenda any further.
  • The context must be ripe for change. Leaders have to work with their constituencies or communities to create a favorable environment for the change they want to see. In addition to the above conditions, which will help to create such an environment, this also means that leaders and their followers have to recognize what the barriers and opportunities are and how to deal with them. They also have to be prepared for any situation that could negatively affect their change agenda, and to do so they must continually build their relationships and strengthen their networks.

Don’t underestimate the psychology of power and acts of courage and perseverance. “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love,” said Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Power can come in many shapes and forms, sometimes unrecognized by the leader. Leadership programs should emphasize the importance of the relationship between the leader and his or her followers—one cannot be present without the other. Leaders have to understand their power; followers have to understand how their response and actions can impact leaders’ notion of power and how they act on that power. Transformative leadership requires courage and perseverance. Leaders who are working to change systems and promote equity and justice will most likely have to make difficult decisions—sometimes even unpopular decisions that might not work in the favor of an individual follower but will benefit the collective. These leaders are also likely to work tirelessly and often without reward to gradually bring about social change. These qualities, which do not produce tangible outcomes or lend themselves to being quantified, should not be diminished.

Evaluate transformative leadership interventions, and share what worked and didn’t work. The golden triangle concept is useful for evaluating the effectiveness of transformative leadership interventions. To date, evaluations have tended to emphasize outcomes at the individual leader level and at the leadership network level. Social network analysis for leadership development interventions have become increasingly popular. However, the evaluations may be missing the mark when it comes to studying transformative leadership interventions because there is inadequate focus on the experiences of the followers and on the context within which the leader is operating. The latter includes issues of inequity and how these issues affect the leader, those being led, and the outcomes at multiple levels (Black & Earnest, 2009; Riggio, 2008). Some of the indicators of transformative leadership include the following:

  • Leaders’ knowledge and skills to help people overcome their differences and arrive at a common understanding about their shared values, needs, and aspirations; to understand how to navigate systems by pushing the right levers of change; and to be continually cognizant of how their own worldviews affect their mind-set and behaviors.
  • Followers’ confidence in their leader to help them achieve their goals and aspirations, their observations of the leader taking risks for the collective good, and their willingness and commitment to carry out the leader’s vision through joint actions.
  • At the environmental level, policy, procedural, and practice changes that result from the leaders and their followers’ efforts.

The evaluation should also assess how aligned both the leader and the intervention are to address the readiness of the followers and the context. Evaluations of transformative leadership interventions need to pay attention to the leader’s own health and well-being. Leaders who take on issues of racism and other forms of discrimination that have led to decades of injustice and pain will benefit from skill building in racial healing and reconciliation for themselves and the people they lead. Most importantly, evaluations of leadership programs need to share lessons about both their successes and failures to help us further understand transformative leadership and how to assess its effectiveness. It is the type of leadership we want, but we still have a long way to go to know how to cultivate and support it.


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