Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice

Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice

by Stephen Preskill

ISBN: 9780787978075

Publisher Jossey-Bass

Published in Business & Investing/Reference

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Essence of Learning Leadership

Think of the word leader. (Don't spend more than five seconds letting images flit through your consciousness.) What pictures does this word conjure up? Do you see a man? Or do you see a woman? Is that man or woman adopting a posture that seems strong, confident, bold, assertive? What do those attributes look like in your mind? Is the person you're thinking of White? Is she or he wearing a suit or uniform? Stephen Preskill (Stephen P) grew up in the United States, and the leader who most quickly jumps to mind for him is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, declaring to the American public that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Stephen Brookfield (Stephen B) grew up in England, and a picture of a cigar-chomping Winston Churchill bedecked in military regalia jumps into his head. If you are a White person (as the two of us are), the chances are you have been so successfully socialized by patriarchy and White supremacy that these are the sorts of people you will think of. If you are a union member or socialist, you may also think of other people-Eugene Debs, or Aneurin Bevin, for example. If you are African American, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, Ella Baker, Marcus Garvey, Septima Clark, W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis, or Martin Luther King may be the names that pop up. Or perhaps women such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, or Margaret Thatcher suggest themselves. Interestingly, on the basis of a wholly unscientific polling one of us did of his women friends and colleagues (all of whom had graduate degrees, knew of the insidious nature of patriarchy, and considered themselves feminists), not a single woman was mentioned in the first three names of leaders each of these women gave. Churchill, John Kennedy, and Joseph Stalin were the most frequent.

Our contention in this book is that the images of leadership-indeed, the very words leader and leadership-have been culturally framed to equate effective leadership with authoritarian control imposed by those at the apex of a hierarchy. A smooth and seamless ideological manipulation has ensured that those we automatically think of as leaders are precisely the people who represent the interests of the status quo: males from upper-class families who function as protectors of wealth and privilege. One need only think of the Bush dynasty in the United States; in the last twenty years it has produced two presidents and the governor of a swing state that ensured the election of his brother to the presidency in the face of allegations of serious electoral fraud. The Kennedy dynasty had the project of combating Jim Crow practices forced on them by events, but they too were drawn from the same narrow spectrum.

Churchill, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush, Stalin: these figures represent a distressingly narrow view of how people in organizations and communities get things done. According to this view, leaders are highly directive people who relay commands to their subordinates, expecting them to be carried out with dispatch and efficiency. Typically, leaders are also the people who have titles-CEO, president, chairman of the board, and principal being some of the familiar designations. In this perspective, leaders are thought to be ahead of their followers and in some important way distant from them. It is no accident that the Kennedys were portrayed as living within a magical bubble (Camelot) in much the same way as monarchies have been portrayed throughout history. Leaders are presented as being somehow higher, smarter, and more advanced than their followers, with a breadth of experience and depth of wisdom they use to help followers see the light of the leader's more progressive vision. Yet, ironically, leaders are also very often associated with maintaining the status quo, with creating an environment where stability and harmony are the highest values.

The conventional concept of leadership comprises the four elements critiqued by Raelin (2003) in his analysis of a culture that prizes and practices directive, top-down leadership. In Raelin's view, people automatically assume effective leadership to be serial (exercised by one person at a time, passing the baton on to the next generational leader), individual (only ever exercised by a single individual), controlling (fiercely pursuing the leader's vision of how others should live and how a community or organization should function), and dispassionate (viewing as necessary "collateral damage," the wrecked lives of those individuals, cultures, or communities that are uprooted, excluded, or disenfranchised in the pursuit of a set of desired goals). Conventionally defined leadership is practiced by a single, distinct figure positioned at the top of a hierarchy, what Foucault (1980) called sovereign power. This person directs the organization or movement's operations, relying minimally on subordinates, and imposing his or her vision on others. He or she is determined to be perceived as unemotional, confident, unwaveringly commanding, and bordering on arrogant. Separate and mysterious, conventional leaders avoid getting too close to their constituents so as to keep them subordinate.

Our contention is not only that leadership doesn't have to be this way but that it can't be sustained this way if meaningful and lasting changes for the common good are going to occur. In an era in which people routinely expect to be lied to by those in power, we need leaders who strive to place learning at the center of their work. Such leaders know in their bones that they have much to learn and that the people likely to be their best teachers are the co-workers they see and collaborate with everyday. They also see encouraging the learning of others as the central responsibility of leadership.

Our assumptions about leadership are (as you will no doubt have gathered by now) radically different from the conventional model. Our chief claim is that leadership can be practiced by anyone in any kind of movement, community, organization, or institution. It is part anarchist, part collective, part democratic, and constantly rotating. Leadership is not necessarily a function of a hierarchy or bureaucracy; nor does a single person in a position of authority have to exercise it. It is, rather, a relational and collective process in which collaboration and shared understanding are deemed axiomatic to getting things done. Leadership has little to do with formal authority or where one is in the chain of command, and a great deal to do with forming and sustaining relationships that lead to results in the common interest. Furthermore, leaders are not necessarily the most prominent or vocal members of a group; they are often quite deferential, leaving space for others to voice their concerns and contribute their ideas.

Leadership as it is explored here encourages change, even pushes for it, especially when the status quo demeans people or fails to give them opportunities to employ fully their experience and talents. The leaders the two of us prize most (once we've done some ideological detoxification on the automatic images that come to our minds) are critically aware of our failures as a society to serve all people well. For Stephen P, a prime example would be Ella Baker because in her quest to make American society more just and equal she never drew attention to herself, acknowledged the thousands of others who contributed to this ongoing struggle, and demanded that power be centered in the group, not the individual. For Stephen B it would be Paul Robeson or Nelson Mandela because of the strength they displayed in their unwavering commitment to combating White supremacy and global capitalism (in Robeson's case) and White supremacy and the complete economic and political disenfranchisement of his country's majority population (in Mandela's case). Both men paid a heavy price for their commitment. For Robeson it was the loss of livelihood, public vilification for much of his adult life, and increasingly debilitating depression (which his son argues was the result of the CIA and FBI's administration of drugs and covert encouragement of "treatment" by electro-shock therapy). For Mandela the price was spending most of his adult life in prison, unable to see his children and then grandchildren growing up, and unable to grow old with his wife.

The leaders we are interested in know that a vision for more humane and just communities is desperately needed and that leadership entails people coming forward who are able and eager to work with others to create such communities. They also know that leadership is often facilitative rather than directive, and that good leaders learn to create an environment conducive to people's growth and inviting of everyone's participation in the fashioning of change to promote the public interest. But more than anything else, the leaders we are interested in are learners. They revere learning, they learn from their experience and from their co-workers, and they are constantly sharing with others the fruits of what they have learned. They also regard as paramount the responsibility to encourage the learning of others.

Because leaders who learn know how beneficial and broadening learning is for everyone, they work to create mechanisms, structures, strategies, and opportunities to support individual and communal learning. Although they express a variety of motives for wanting to lead, these learning leaders communicate clearly and often that learning isn't only a means to some end; sometimes it is an important end in itself. Co-workers who are leaders can be threatening to entrenched administrators because they often use cogent, well-prepared arguments to challenge things as they are. They have an excellent grasp of the relevant facts and they know how to use them to make the best possible case for how things might be different. Under the best of circumstances, such leaders are invaluable to organizations and institutions. Yet because they seek to question and even overthrow the status quo, those who resist change view them with suspicion, particularly the unrepresentative minority whose interests are threatened. On the other hand, those who lead by virtue of learning encourage and support such co-workers and find multiple ways for them to have an impact on the direction of their shared enterprise.

What are some of the ways learning leaders demonstrate their commitment? Well, they listen with close attention, observe with a discerning eye, and read texts of all kinds-including the texts of people's experiences-with critical acumen. They are constantly on the alert for new information, novel insights, deepened understanding. For these learning leaders, everything learned is potentially grist for the leadership mill. They try constantly to make connections between what they have learned, the issues that matter to them most, and the goals they are trying to achieve as leaders. Nothing is too trivial or insignificant, at least at first, to be taken into account and used in some way to lead more effectively or to bring about change more proactively. Such leaders do not hide their enthusiasm for what they are learning, either. They eagerly and overtly share their reflections on experience, what they are reading, what new ideas they are coming up with, what interesting connections they are making, and how they are revising earlier ideas and practice because of new learning. They do this in part because they are unabashed lovers of learning. But they also do so for strategic effect, to stir up their co-workers' excitement about their own learning and its potential for stimulating creativity and furthering change.

The raison d'etre for modeling a public commitment to learning is to induce co-workers to launch their own learning projects. Everything that learning leaders do should be linked in some way to supporting other people's learning. This includes supplying resources, bringing compatible collaborators together, connecting learning to purposeful and meaningful work (paid and unpaid), and offering ongoing incentives for this learning to continue. These actions are intended to induce some change deemed important by the community, movement, or organization. This kind of intrinsic reinforcement should never be underestimated by learning leaders, particularly when it is linked to proof that an act of learning is contributing to something that matters to the community as a whole. Most significant of all outcomes, perhaps, are the long-term relationships that occur as a result of working together on learning projects. Such relationships not only increase one's willingness to learn and lessen one's vulnerability about admitting ignorance but also fuel future projects and public work. As relationships deepen, the distinction between leader and follower blurs, with so-called positional leaders and followers freely exchanging roles as leader-follower, teacher-student, and speaker-listener. In this way shared, openly displayed learning is beneficial to the whole community.

Foundations of Learning Leadership

The idea that leaders should place learning at the center of their practice is not new or original. Learning as a defining component of leadership has been practiced and conceptualized in all kinds of social movements, revolutions, and organizations. In this section, we review five of the most frequently cited models of leadership that we feel contribute to this idea: transformational, symbiotic, developmental, servant, and organic leadership.

Transformational Leadership

The relational emphasis we have outlined is central to James MacGregor Burns's original formulation of transforming leadership (1978). In contrast to transactional leadership (which he characterized as an exchange that is temporary, instrumental, and nonbinding), transforming leadership signifies a long-term relationship between leaders and followers that produces significant change, raises leaders and followers to higher levels of motivation and morality, and encourages followers to assume leadership roles themselves. Transactional leadership leaves the power relations between leaders and followers unchanged. Transforming leadership produces a climate in which followers are constantly becoming leaders by virtue of the ideas they put forward, the actions they take, and the learning they engage in. Burns indicates that one of the markers of transformational leaders is their capacity to learn from their followers, to be willing students to their followers' teachings. Such leaders have developed the seemingly paradoxical ability "to lead by being led" (p. 117) as they unite with followers to pursue goals that transcend self-interest and that seek to further some notion of the common good.

Symbiotic Leadership

Building on this reciprocal conception of leadership, Matusak (1997) contends that "the relationship of leader and follower is symbiotic; that each role benefits greatly the interdependent nature of the relationship; that the leader today may be the follower tomorrow" (p. 27). For her, leadership is at its best when leader and led feel inspired and energized to do great things together, to scale new heights of collective accomplishment, and to share roles of responsibility that reflect much more positively on the group as a whole than on any one individual. Leaders who learn carefully cultivate a dynamic in which everyone enjoys the opportunity to be a leader at least some of the time. This dynamic is collective and requires a partial submerging of the self inside the group, a losing of oneself for the sake of the whole. It means that anyone can contribute at any time as leader, follower, innovator, protege, mentor, guide, witness, or scribe. All of these roles are necessary and valued, and who does what is irrelevant as the group becomes a collective unit. In a collective dynamic, individual interests are fused with a sense of the common good, and identity is derived from participation in a shared, mutually satisfying endeavor.


Excerpted from "Learning as a Way of Leading: Lessons from the Struggle for Social Justice" by Stephen Preskill. Copyright © 0 by Stephen Preskill. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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