Acceptance and transformation

The leadership journey includes two critical junctures

In the past, leadership has been thought of in terms of heroes.  That has led us to focus on leadership traits and characteristics.  Brave.  Bold.  Courageous.  Determined.  Never faltering.  Having all the answers.  Doing the impossible.  Single-handedly leading the way.  It suggests that leaders are born – they have these qualities.  But surprisingly, the development of leadership may actually be found in quite another place.  Two words:  Acceptance.  And transformation.  Something changes in the way we relate to this thing we call ‘leadership’.  Often the first step is an awareness of our responsibilities.  We may slowly become aware of our role or sudden events may thrusts opportunity in our direction.

We respond. In either case, we find ourselves responding.  In this first phase, recognition and acceptance, we chose to take on a leadership role or not.  The call to leadership may not be grand.  The task may not appear to have much responsibility.  Recently, I asked the Governor-General of Jamaica, His Excellency The Most Hon. Sir Patrick Allen, ON, GCMG, CD, how he first became interested in leadership.  He described the transformation and his acceptance of it this way.  “I think it just grew on me from when I was a youngster in school.  I was inquisitive, had a natural thirst for knowledge and invariably caught the attention of my teachers and classmates, who had expectations of me, and which propelled me into leadership roles . . . It never dawned on me then that I was intentionally leading, I saw myself as being a part of a process, collaborating with others, and coordinating activities.”

We transform from ‘I’ to “We’.  Even after acceptance, our relationship to the idea of leadership may undergo a number of changes.  This is the second phase.  It may come early in our career or late.  For some people it may not come at all, or if it does, it is not recognized.  Bill George and Andrew McLean call it the transformation from ‘I’ to ‘We’, from a primary focus on ourselves to that of serving others.  They report that although at an early stage of their development authentic leaders saw themselves in the “image of an all-conquering hero, able to change the world for the better,” at some point, the relationship changed from trying to get others to follow them, to empowering others.  In a study of 125 authentic leaders known for their success, effectiveness, and integrity, George and his colleagues asked this question, What propels leaders as they move from being individual contributors to effective, authentic leaders?   

We undergo a crucible experience.  The answer was clear.  “What nearly all of these leaders had in common was a transformative passage through which they recognized that leadership was not about their success at all.”  Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas also found this in their work and describe it as the “crucible experience.”  It is when a leader is up against the wall, faced with an impossible experience or confronted by a personal tragedy and they are tested to the limit.  The experiences were not the same for each leader but the results were similar.  George and McLean noted that the experience or combination of experiences caused them to recognize that point of leadership was not simply to get followers.  It was, rather, that leadership consisted of “aligning their teammates around a shared vision and values and empowering them to step up and lead.”  In other words, they moved from the focus on themselves and what they did to others and what they could help them do.  “Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders. They feel less competitive with talented peers and subordinates and are more open to other points of view, enabling them to make better decisions. As they overcome their need to control everything, they learn that people are more interested in working with them. A lightbulb goes on as they recognize the unlimited potential of empowered leaders working together toward a shared purpose.”1

We become authentic.  Awareness and acceptance of the responsibilities of leadership is the first step.  We choose to answer the call.  But that response may be couched in terms of my plans, my goals, my work, my career advancement.  Of course, we do it for the best of the organization but it is still about us. Challenges and crises can lead us to a moment of transformation.  We can become stubborn and choose to ignore it, continuing doing more of the same.  We can become bitter and disillusioned, eventually rejecting the role of leadership.  Or we can allow ourselves to be transformed by a deeper insight.  That is when we become authentic leaders.  Not the hero, not the person with all the answers, not single-handedly leading the way. It is only when we come to realize that leadership is not all about us that we have the opportunity to answer the second call, the call to authentic leadership.


David S Penner, PhD.  Loma Linda University
1Bill George and Andrew McLean in “The Transformation from ‘I’ to ‘We’”.  Leader To leader No.45, (Summer, 2007), 26-31.