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Running head: EXPRESS PROJECT 1

Express Project: Embracing the Beautiful Mess of Leadership

Ariel Ropp

Loyola University Chicago


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Express Project: Embracing the Beautiful Mess of Leadership

This semester, my understanding of leadership has evolved from a bunch of unchecked

assumptions to a more cohesive philosophy grounded in theory and critical perspectives. John

Dugans Leadership class has not only exposed me to formal leadership theories, but also shown

me how to utilize critical tools of deconstruction and reconstruction to critique and rebuild

theories in more socially just ways. Over time, I have internalized some of these reconstructed

theories and integrated them with my own identities to form a new working definition of

leadership. For my Express project, I am conveying my growing conceptualization of leadership

in the medium that feels most true to who I am: a traditional academic paper. In the following

paper, I will explain my emerging philosophy of leadership, elaborate on its connection to

theories and social justice values, and conclude with thoughts for translation to practice.

Emerging Philosophy of Leadership

When I first entered John Dugans Leadership class, my ideas about leadership were

relatively basic and unexamined. For my video project I wrote a definition of leadership that

sounded correct without having a complex idea of what it actually meant: Leadership is a

relational process by which groups of people work collaboratively and creatively toward a

common goal. Leaders are people who use their vision for a better future to inspire others and

build teams to collectively enact positive change. When I wrote that definition I primarily

understood leadership within the context of positional, authority structures. Even though I

intellectually understood that leadership is a process involving groups of people, I focused more

on the individual leader at the expense of the group. In my mind I labeled some individuals as

leaders and others as followers based on authority relationships and possession of

prototypical leader traits (e.g., assertive, charismatic, inspirational). I also viewed leadership
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happening within systems as more legitimate than movements happening outside of systems, and

largely saw leadership and activism as separate phenomena. In all of these ways, my

understanding of leadership reflected normative assumptions about leaders in Western society,

and not surprisingly, I felt largely disconnected from these dominant ideas as a female and

introvert.

Fortunately, my understanding of leadership has seen a major shift over the past three

months. Through course readings, assigned videos, and class exercises, I have been challenged

to critique my stocks of knowledge about how leaders should act and begin to re-imagine

leadership in more inclusive ways. Today, I understand that leadership cannot be reduced to a

position or a set of personality traits and management strategies. In a society where social

inequality is embedded in our systems and personal lives, there can be no one size fits all

definition of leadership (Dugan, in press). When discussing ideas about leadership, we run the

risk of perpetuating inequalities if we ignore the role of stocks of knowledge and social location

(i.e., the position a person holds in society based on their social identities, knowledge, and

power). For these reasons, I reject leadership theories that offer simple, digestible descriptions

and prescriptions for leaders without addressing how social identities might influence the ways

in which leadership is enacted and perceived. I also reject false dichotomies between leaders

and followers and believe that theories must actively attend to followers sense of

empowerment, agency, and humanity or else risk treating them as commodities. To create

more equitable and just organizations and communities, leaders must attempt to better distribute

power, moving from a stance of power over or power through to power with others (Dugan, in

press, p. 13). In the following section I will explore how these emerging ideas around power,

agency, and identity connect to leadership theories and social justice values.
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Integrating Theory and Social Justice

To me, there is no value in studying or engaging in leadership if the goal is simply to

increase ones own power or boost organizational profits it needs to be connected to social

change. Having grown up in a faith tradition that emphasizes social justice, I am drawn to

leadership theories and models that focus on dismantling oppressive systems and improving

peoples lives, such as the social change model and Ospina et al.s framework of strategic social

change leadership. The social change model describes leadership as a collaborative, values-

based process and views a leader as one who is able to effect positive change for the betterment

of others, the community, and society (Cilente, 2009, p. 45). I love how this model does not

limit its definition of leader to those in formal positions, but empowers all people to see

themselves as potential leaders. This model also does a fabulous job of focusing on relationships

between social change agents rather than behaviors of individuals. As someone who identifies as

a female and an introvert and who has held relatively few formal leader positions I feel

emboldened by this models reassurance that I do not have to hold a position or possess certain

stereotypical traits to make a positive difference in this world. Instead, I can focus on doing

work that already feels natural to me: building one-on-one connections within institutions that

are committed to social change.

Taking these ideas a step further, Ospina et al.s theoretical framework of social change

leadership offers even more concrete ideas of how to make social change a reality. Using data

from over 60 organizations, Ospina et al. (2012) found that social change organizations view the

goal of leadership as less to create an effective organization and more to create collective

capacity to generate effective change (p. 282). I love how this theory highlights tangible,

practical strategies for building collective capacity: disrupting and rebuilding discourse; bridging
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difference and cultivating unity through diversity; and bringing out wisdom that already exists in

communities through storytelling and dialogue. In my own life, I have seen John Dugan apply

these strategies in the Leadership course to great effect. Johns pedagogy is centered on dialogue

and co-construction of knowledge, which ultimately empowers students to take ownership of

course content, connect it to their lived experiences, and increase efficacy in their leadership

abilities. Beyond collective capacity, another aspect of Ospina et al.s theory that resonates with

me is its attention to power specifically, the ways in which social change organizations build

and leverage power. Before taking this class, I associated power with individual greed and ego,

so I appreciate how this theory describes power not so much at the individual level but as more

of a collective activity in service of creating social change outside ones organization. Now, my

understanding of power is more in line with Ospina et al.s vision: converting potential energy

into kinetic energy to achieve long-term change in structures, policies, and thinking.

Translation to Practice

To apply my philosophy of leadership to my work in the field of higher education, I

believe the first and perhaps most crucial step is committing myself to ongoing self-reflection. I

need to consider how salient aspects of my social location particularly my gender and age

will be perceived in leadership spaces. At the same time, I must continually recognize my

multiple privileges as a White, able-bodied, cisgendered, highly educated person, and leverage

these privileges on behalf of marginalized groups. If I do not intentionally reflect on how my

privileged identities show up or how they buffer me from oppressive systems, I may

inadvertently perpetuate existing structures of inequality. One way to combat such blindness is

to intentionally build connections with individuals and organizations that work for social change.

By having regular dialogues with committed colleagues and attending events by such offices as
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Loyolas Student Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, I hope to maintain my awareness of

contemporary social justice issues and improve my advocacy skills for marginalized students. In

these ways I will build my capacity to take on future leadership challenges.

Of course, my commitment to social change leadership must go beyond self-efficacy and

capacity and ultimately convert into leadership enactment. For me, this will probably never

translate into the charismatic, outgoing type of leadership that I once believed a leader should

possess. As someone who is more comfortable in one-on-one or small group settings, I feel more

efficacious and motivated to engage in leadership activities when the work plays to my strengths,

such as writing proposals, sharing ideas in small groups, and encouraging others who are

engaged in social change efforts. This approach may be less visible but will hopefully still have

a meaningful impact within my spheres of influence. However, since my spheres of influence

are somewhat limited to my assistantship office and close circle of friends, I am also committed

to intentionally expanding my network. By developing relationships with key individuals in

related offices (e.g., Loyolas First and Second Year Advising office, Achieving College Success

office, Career Development Center) and encouraging my coworkers to do the same, we can

utilize these connections to share resources and knowledge for later leveraging on behalf of

marginalized students. This approach reflects the strategy of building collective capacity through

identifying and gathering resources, as described by Ospina et al. (2012). In all, these strategies

represent a more relational approach to leadership that resonates with my identities as a female

and introvert.

Finally, my philosophy of leadership recognizes that social change is not about quick

fixes, huge masses, and charismatic leaders (Boggs, 2012, p. 49). Rather, I believe that change

happens through small daily actions and critical connections with like-minded (and sometimes
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not-like-minded) people. As such, my approach to leadership challenges will mostly focus on

incremental change and require a lifetime commitment. To sustain such a commitment, I will

need to continually identify sources of critical hope in my life and work. For me, critical hope

can take several forms: having a great conversation with an ally/friend; listening to music or

viewing visual art that speaks truth to power; hearing stories of small social justice victories; and

staying engaged in supportive communities. These activities bring me joy and remind me that

social change is possible even though the journey is often quite painful. It will also be important

to remind myself that social change is not about the number of people I help or the type of social

change work I do it is about the quality and the substance of that work (Heifetz & Linsky,

2002). Regardless of what functional area I work in or which students I serve, I need to be open

to the leadership possibilities that confront me, because leadership is ultimately about finding

purpose through helping others, no matter the form.

Conclusion

When this semester began, I largely associated leadership with White dudes in

boardrooms. Today, I view leadership as something that happens when communities work

together to dismantle oppressive systems and create positive change. This growing conception

of leadership springs from my critical self-reflection on my identities, stocks of knowledge,

social justice values, and theoretical understandings. My definition of leadership feels a bit

unfinished to me, but I know this understanding will continue to evolve over time as I engage in

more leadership activities firsthand. Between taking this ELPS 419 course and witnessing the

aftermath of the 2016 national election, I feel more compelled than ever to embrace leadership

challenges in all of their beautiful messiness.


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References

Boggs, G. L. (2012). The next American revolution: Sustainable activism for the twenty-first

century. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Cilente, K. (2009). An overview of the social change model of leadership development. In S. R.

Komives, W. Wagner, & Associates (Eds.), Leadership for a better world: Understanding

the social change model of leadership development (pp. 43- 78). San Francisco, CA:

Jossey-Bass.

Dugan, J. P. (in press). Leadership theory: Cultivating critical perspectives. San Francisco, CA:

Jossey-Bass.

Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers

of leading. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Ospina, S. M., Foldy, E. G., El Hadidy, W., Dodge, J., Hofmann-Pinilla, A, & Su, C. (2012).

Social change leadership as relational leadership. In M. Uhl-Bien, & S. M. Ospina (Eds).,

Advancing relational leadership research: A dialogue among perspectives (pp. 255-302).

Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.