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What is transformative leadership?

15 April 2016

Image: Event at Rwandan Parliament.

Guest post in University World News

Transformative leadership sounds marvellous. It is surely just what the world’s complex problems need; how else will we make headway against entrenched issues such as climate change, inequality, domestic violence or indigenous rights?

However, the discussion of leadership in this space tends towards an analysis of the traits, behaviour and charisma of the individual hero-leader; the Big Man or – more rarely – Big Woman of history.

As for ‘transformation’, a word that features frequently in the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals, the concept is rarely carefully defined. Instead it is usually taken to mean change that is ‘unprecedented’ or simply large in its scope and ambition.

To mean anything, transformation needs to be more precisely described as change that specifically addresses the structural distribution of power and resources.

It is no wonder then that the phrase ‘transformative leadership’ can become at best pretty meaningless and at worst perpetuate an understanding of social change that is based largely on notions of individualistic reform ‘champions’. It is not a term that recognises the ‘civic origins of progressive change’ – the transformative leadership that manifests itself as a collective effort.

Yet it’s clear that only collective action will be able to address the kinds of complex problems that beset our modern world. Our current national and global governance arrangements are simply not fit for purpose and only sustained pressure on governments produced by coalitions and social movements can effectively challenge the structural obstacles to progressive social change.

The role of universities

What role does this view of transformative – or developmental – leadership assign to universities? Increasingly academics from a range of disciplines work alongside practitioners and policy-makers, and in partnership with governments, aid agencies and NGOs.

They collect evidence that brings precision to terms such as ‘transformative leadership’; this, in turn, helps illuminate the processes of social change and, hopefully, translates into practical interventions that promote more change, more effectively.

Universities and their staff do this in a number of ways:

  • They build more robust theoretical foundations and evidence bases to describe how social change happens and what role different actors and collective action play in the process. There is a particular need to explore how multi-level processes are linked and interact in an inter-dependent world.
  • They take part in (and often coordinate) action research. This is a process that supports the learning and reflection of those engaged in social change processes; it helps to document, contextualise and explain how best to support transformative leadership and collective action.
  • The institutional framework of universities helps to create professional development opportunities for practitioners to share and develop their knowledge of how social change comes about and explore what their role and contribution might be. This helps create new generations of leadership beyond the student cohorts of academia.
  • Practitioners are now more often invited into the classroom to explain the practice and craft of social change in a complex and rapidly changing world, alongside the theory. Current thinking is that university syllabuses should also offer more cross-disciplinary understanding and focus on leadership and mobilisation skills. Inviting activists and practitioners to teach, sharing insights and ‘live’ case studies from the front line is one way of doing this.

At my own institution, a number of ‘practitioner teachers’ help deliver our Masters of International Development course. Students have said they enjoy the vitality of these teachers and their mix of idealism and pragmatism.

Transforming universities

There is a more fundamental quality to universities’ engagement with transformative leadership and social change – the need for universities to transform themselves.

Recent coverage of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign in South Africa and demands for the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ name from a computer room at Oxford University in the UK point to important issues such as institutional racism and privilege. In South Africa, this is part of a more profound questioning of the difference between a university that happens to be based in Africa and a truly African university.

This is about more than who gets the top jobs, although universities are indeed a crucible for the forging of future leaders and leadership networks. However, the role of higher education is increasingly recognised as being key to the development process at a systemic level because it creates a citizenry capable of holding governments to account.

The ultimate purpose of universities in a changing and uncertain world, especially given the fierce competition for students, rankings and funding, gives food for thought.

It is also worth pointing out the dangers of largely locating debates on transformative leadership and social change in a global political economy of knowledge production which is largely shaped by the power and wealth of the global North.

The University of Sydney’s Raewyn Connell has said, for instance, that to understand gender inequality, we need to call on a ‘richer history of gender struggle’ that draws on a much wider historical archive of feminist activism, research and thinking around the world.

By the same token, if we really want to understand how social change happens and where truly transformative leadership comes from, then we need to gather evidence from around the world about the diverse ways in which different communities and cultures conceive of leadership and social change.

The global network of universities is uniquely placed to do this job and their work gives us all a better chance of collectively thinking about and acting to remedy our common problems.

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