What is Leadership?

Here is a definition of leadership from a Forbes magazine online article entitled, What Is Leadership? (Kruse, 2013):

DEFINITION: Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

Notice key elements of this definition:

  • Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power
  • Leadership requires others, and that implies they don’t need to be “direct reports”
  • No mention of personality traits, attributes, or even a title; there are many styles, many paths, to effective leadership
  • It includes a goal, not influence with no intended outcome

Does that definition resonate with you? Do you have another definition that you like better?

Let’s face it, there are many leadership paradigms in use all around us that have been built on hierarchical systems that are quite oppressive. Most of us have either worked within or interacted with a hierarchical system like this. Because of our exposure to these kinds of systems, we may have even unconsciously internalized that kind of paradigm as the only option for a leadership structure. The good news is that simply isn’t the case.

Throughout this training we have talked in-depth about harmful systems. These harmful systems all have a common thread–an imbalance of power; a few people at the top hold power over everyone else in a way that causes harm when that power is wielded. This kind of “power over” approach can show up in a small team or business as much as it can in a large organization like a healthcare system, educational setting, or a governmental body.

Now let’s look at a couple of alternative leadership paradigms.

Decolonizing Leadership

As we have explored elsewhere in this training, colonization and the persisting mindset of colonization has been devastating for our First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people in Canada. Unless intentionally built otherwise, our systems and structures here in Canada were formed with a colonial infrastructure. Colonized systems put the “self” at the center, seeking to gain and keep power for the self, whereas an Indigenous-centric mindset or organization focuses on interconnection. Colonialism is harmful for everyone, and a change in our approach to leadership is necessary in order for meaningful change to be possible.

The article Toward an Indigenous, Decolonizing School Leadership: A Literature Review (Khalifa, Khalil, Marsh & Halloran, 2019) provides five examples of decolonizing leadership principles:

…underlying values of leadership praxis enacted by Indigenous and minoritized school leaders from around the world. This theme highlights five expressions, or strands, of IDSL [Indigenous, Decolonizing School Leadership]: (1) the prioritization of self-knowledge and self-reflection, (2) the empowerment of community through self-determination, (3) the centering of community voices and values, (4) service based in altruism and spirituality, and (5) approaching collectivism through inclusive communication practices.

The five expressions of Indigenous, Decolonizing School Leadership mentioned in the above quote align with the principles we have already outlined in this training.

For Reflection

Consider all of the principles and values of peer support that we have already covered in this training. How do you see these philosophies interconnecting with the five expressions mentioned above? Write a few thoughts about this intersection below and how it has shown up in other sections of this training.

  1. The prioritization of self-knowledge and self-reflection
  2. The empowerment of community through self-determination
  3. The centering of community voices and values
  4. Service based in altruism and spirituality
  5. Approaching collectivism through inclusive communication practices

Throughout the rest of this module we will continue exploring the five expressions of Indigenous, Decolonizing School Leadership, and how they relate to this work.

Servant Leadership

Robert Greenleaf explored the concept of leading by serving others in 1970 with his essay The Servant as Leader. He went on to write a book in 1977 called Servant Leader. With this style of leadership, the leader moves from taking center stage to prioritizing serving others on the team.

Author Angelo Letizia defines servant leadership in his 2017 book Using Servant Leadership: How to Reframe the Core Functions of Higher Education.

What does it mean to serve another human being? How does one human being help another human being grow and develop? What exactly is growth, and how do we measure it? These questions all point to the phenomenon of servant leadership, which has emerged over the last forty years due chiefly to the writings of Robert Greenleaf. Greenleaf argued leadership could be con-ceived of as service to followers. For Greenleaf (2002), the most important test of servant leadership is “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Greenleaf (2002) did not just view servant leadership as an individual phenomenon, however; he also called for the ideas of servant leadership to transform institutions.

The terms “servant” and “leader” are opposed in some sense; thus the idea of servant leadership is paradoxical (SanFacon and Spears 2011; Spears 2004). Yet as SanFacon and Spears (2011) note, when opposites join, paradoxes ensue and can open our eyes to new, previously unknown ideas. The new possibility is a leader who serves (Spears 2004). As Greenleaf noted, servant leaders want to serve before they want to lead. In contrast, leaders who lead first may simply have a desire for power (Greenleaf 2002). Greenleaf called these leaders “leader- first,” and for them, leading comes before serving. Of course, as Green-leaf (2002) notes, in real life leaders usually fall into a number of complex gradations between these two concepts of leadership. Greenleaf ’s voluminous work set in motion the ideas and research for servant leadership that spans until the present day.

This concept of leaders as servants is a big shift for most leadership paradigms. It also lines up with some of the philosophies and approaches of peer support.

In a few words, how would you articulate the similarities between servant leadership and the values of peer support?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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