Leadership at Crossroads: To Dehumanize or Humanize Leadership Education?

Today we look at leadership development as explored in the paper “An Approach for Humanizing Leadership Education: Building Learning Community & Stakeholder Engagement” in the Journal of Management Education. Author Shaista E. Khilji, professor of human and organizational learning and international affairs at George Washington University, addresses why it is important to humanize leadership. She leverages her experiences designing GW’s Organizational Leadership & Learning program to present a Leadership Learning Framework that influences other programs to humanize leadership.


Road forks in the woods
(Photo: Carsten Tolkmit from Kiel, Germany/CC BY-SA 2.0 /Wikimedia Commons)

Leadership, as a field of study, has been at crossroads. Fueled by financial and political scandals that have highlighted apathy, ego, and greed among leaders, there is a general agreement among scholars that we are experiencing a ‘global leadership deficit.’ I believe that this deficit is not about having a shortage of leaders. Instead, it underscores inadequacies of self-perpetuating leader behavior and myopic interests of the multi-billion-dollar leadership development industry. Narrowly focused on leadership as a goal-focused activity, conventional approaches have led to the dehumanization of leadership.

Despite its failure, leadership development, with its ability to shape future leaders, is at the root of redirecting leadership theory and practice. However, there are several critical challenges before it. First, it must recognize that profound societal changes have necessitated a shift from a shareholder to a stakeholder perspective-thus broadening its scope from self (and a select few) to larger communities. In addition, the global pandemic has further elevated the need for developing equitable organizations. Second, efforts to redirect leadership must consider high public distrust with leaders and restore stakeholder confidence. Third, it must pay attention to the altered relationship between leaders and followers and overcome its folly of presenting leaders as demigods and miracle workers. In essence, it has become clear to many that we need to develop leaders who understand the complexity of leadership, address the shifting contextual realities, and act with a sense of responsibility. Scholars argue that we can humanize leadership by creating stronger ties among leaders, followers, communities, and institutions. This new approach entails treating leadership as a personal expression and social stewardship to prepare leaders whose actions and values reflect moral ideologies, concern for society, and sincerity towards building equitable organizations and societies.

As a leadership scholar and educator, I was undoubtedly dismayed by the conventional leadership development programs recycling decades-old approaches. I was also disappointed with the way leadership was taught in business schools, and like other scholars, I consider them complicit in dehumanizing leadership. Quite paradoxically, at the same time, I was also witnessing a renewed interest in developing effective leaders within large and complex organizations. I became convinced that we need to reconceptualize leadership education because the world around us had changed. I also realized a genuine shortage of leaders who served for the common good and addressed the world’s grand challenges with a sense of responsibility, coordinated efforts, and pragmatic collaborations with stakeholders. Equipped with this knowledge and the experiences of designing and delivering various components of leadership programs, in 2014, I began the process of redesigning GW’s Organizational Leadership and Learning Program (OLL). It was launched in 2016 to develop responsible and humanistic leaders with a strong ‘learning’ orientation and the capacity to continuously develop themselves and others in their organizations and environments. Working with the United States Naval Academy (USNA) and US Coast Guards and engaging in discussions with the US Military and the Dept. of Homeland Security (to name a few) was instrumental to developing the OLL program. My work represents not what I found in these organizations but what I found lacking and missing. Or what I can describe as the hollowing of leadership despite a search for better leaders.

This research provides the case example of GW’s OLL program to break the dehumanizing cycle and present an alternative approach that humanizes leadership education. In describing the OLL program’s underlying values and pedagogical approaches, the study highlights the importance of creating identity spaces and a leadership learning laboratory. Identity space refers to a safe physical, social, and psychological environment where individuals engage in active identity work with others. The study presents examples of opportunities the OLL program provides for learners to engage with each other deeply and the content (including projects and readings) to generate higher levels of self-awareness and other awareness. The study also describes how the program serves as a leadership learning laboratory- whereby learners learn to experiment with ideas through dialogue, question thinking, and reflection with others. Feedback indicates learners in the program increase their capacity to learn by challenging their own and peers’ assumptions and beliefs. Over time, they learn to revise and reshape their identities. They openly discuss their personal history, expectations, and aspirations and learn to accept others (among their peer group and in their organizations). This vulnerability allows them to shift the power away from themselves and transfer it to the relationships they build with others and their contexts. They realize that leadership is never fully acquired but co-constructed. Such a view makes these learners sensitive to investing in follower and community development with a sense of responsibility.

The study shows these two concepts are reinforced and embedded throughout the OLL program. As a result, leaders become comfortable experimenting in groups while fully accepting tensions, ambiguities, and dilemmas they face. Their self-concept evolves as they work with peers and coaches (faculty members). However, while helping them focus on viewing leadership as a ‘human experience,’ the OLL program humanizes leadership. Human flourishing and promoting human dignity and well-being remain central to their development. Collectively, the case study presents these two concepts (identity spaces and leadership learning laboratory) as the guiding principles for humanizing leadership education that helps them develop learning communities and stakeholder engagement. These aspects are captured in a framework for humanizing leadership education, which the study presents to influence future LD programs.

Leadership matters because its practice impacts billions of people on this planet. This study is timely and critical as we find ourselves at crossroads- propelled and perplexed by COVID-19 and its unfolding impact. It reminds us that it is an opportune time to consider a paradigm shift to regenerate new possibilities, revitalize the field, and expand the positive potential of leadership.

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Shaista E. Khilji

Shaista E. Khilji is the founding editor-in-chief of the South Asian Journal of Business Studies, and professor of human and organizational learning and international affairs at George Washington University, where she teaches graduate level courses on leadership, change, and diversity and inclusion. Her research focuses on issues related to macro talent development, diversity and inclusion, humanizing organizations/ leadership, and individual experiences with inequality.

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