My perspective of leadership has been influenced by many sources but the greatest lessons are from my parents who taught me that I should always treat people, all people, with dignity and respect.
What my parents taught me wasn’t what I learned in business school and the quest to expand my understanding on how to be an effective change leader in the 21st century continues to suggest that my parents were right.
In the book Leadership: Theory and Practice, Peter Northhouse’s definition of leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal… an interactive event” resonates with me. It makes sense to me that leadership capacity building be approached from the perspective that leadership is a “process” and “an interactive event” centered on the exchange between the leader and follower where both have an equal footing—a shift from the follower being subordinate.
In the article “Responsible Leadership in a Stakeholder Society: A Relational Perspective,” Thomas Maak. Nicola M. Pless define “responsible leadership as a social-relational and ethical phenomenon, which occurs in social processes of interaction” and establish the “purpose of leadership and the leader-follower relationship as a transforming one, through which one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.” In my view, Mark and Pless’s “stakeholder theory” and perspective on “responsible leadership” captures the essence of leadership: “to build and cultivate sustainable trustful relationships with different stakeholders inside and outside the organization and to co-ordinate their action to achieve common objectives… embedded in… sustainability and legitimacy to help realize a good (i.e. ethically sound) and shared… vision.”
In the 1990 article, “Ways Women Lead,” Judy B. Rosener wrote that “interactive leadership” counters “command and control” leadership elevating the principles of participation and inclusion where leaders “share power and information, enhance others’ self worth, and get others excited about their work.” Northhouse presents other leadership perspectives that I think attempt to accommodate the process of leader-follower interactions that include the “leader member exchange (LMX) theory,” “transformational or charismatic leadership,” “authentic leadership,” and “team leadership.”
I imagine that a leader that is driven by a value system based on consistently treating all people with dignity and respect, by Maak and Pless’s standards would be “steward… a guardian of values, a stronghold to protect personal and professional integrity… protecting and preserving what one is entrusted with.” This leader would be a “cultivator and facilitator of relationships that ensures that people are treated fairly as equal and vulnerable human beings; that they feel respected, recognized, their voices are heard, understood; that others feel integrated in a process of co-creation, empowered to share their experiences, expertise, resources, creativity, qualities, and mobilized to contribute to their highest potential for achieving objectives, and ultimately realizing the commonly shared and desired vision.”
In the 1995 book, Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Conflict and the Tyranny of Custom, James O’Toole associates “effective leadership” with a “leader of leaders” that can “set aside that culturally conditioned “natural” instinct to lead by push, particularly when times are tough… and… instead adapt the ‘unnatural’ behavior of always leading by the pull of inspiring values” while honoring “vision, trust, listening, authenticity, integrity, hope, and particularly addressing the true needs of followers in support of a “philosophy of leadership that is always and at all times focused on enlisting the hearts and minds of followers through inclusion and participation… rooted in the most moral principles: respect for people. In this realm there are no contingencies.”
For today’s change or transformation leader, O’Toole asserts that treating people “with respect is what moral leadership is about, and nothing could be harder. But when there is organizational or social necessity for change, nothing is more practical”. He also affirms, “The ultimate disrespect of individuals is to attempt to impose one’s own will on them without regard for what they want or need and without consulting them. To behave paternalistically towards followers—even for their own good—is to deny them the basic right of individual dignity.”
Maak and Pless caution leaders against standing “apart from, often metaphorically above the people and situations.” I agree and think that regardless of our cultural inclinations, it is critical that we stay open to learn and help others learn “what it means to be a leader with ‘others’ instead of a leader ‘of’ others or ‘over’ others” so as to enable a collective humanistic-focused shift in the way today and tomorrow’s leadership apprentices learn how to be effective and responsible leaders.