Ethnic Minority Leadership

Diversity Leadership*

Brief discussion of two major theories of leadership – the 'great man theory' and the 'leader learner.'

By Sandra L. Shullman, PhD

Traditional and Collective Theories of Leadership

One of the big debates about leadership has been about whether leaders are born or made — the nature/nurture controversy. Tom Peters, a management writer once said, "I never knew a leader who wasn't born." What is most significant is that much of the skill required to be a leader can be learned. This has been demonstrated by over 30 years of leadership research. Traditional notions of dominant western world leadership have historically emphasized the "great man theory," where the leader (usually male) was the leanest, meanest, strongest, most educated, brightest (and often "whitest"). The leader from this perspective always knew what to do and how to do it, and the role of followers was simply to "just do it." Other cultures have conceived leadership as more of a collective effort, centered more on the group itself than on the leader per se. In recent years, western white culture has moved its notions of leadership to a more reciprocally interactive set of concepts. We talk now of "transformational leaders" who engage and empower people to do their best for a collective vision that is bigger than any one person and where the group has a greater influence over how the mission and vision are accomplished.

We are currently dealing with an increasingly more ambiguous and uncertain context in which to lead. Globalization, technology, air travel, and increasingly more complex and diverse communities and workplaces have made leadership an even more challenging concept. Now it is not always clear either where to go or how to get there, so the leader might now be more of a "leader learner", helping others learn on the way, rather than being the source of all direction. Lots of different types of people with increasingly different backgrounds can learn and lead.

The Leader Learner

On a very basic level, while the leadership role has become more complex over the past thirty years, leadership research over that same time period has shown that leadership skills and competencies can be identified and broken down into learnable pieces. Those who are agile learners can learn the leadership "lessons of experience" and be continuously effective leaders across time and situations. For those who have been traditionally marginalized in a dominant leadership culture, the need to be an agile learner has been a constant companion. The view from the "outside of the circle" is strikingly different than the view "from the center" and usually requires multiple sets of skills to navigate the boundaries of multiple contexts. This can actually be an advantage in learning the skills of leadership. For example, the idea of addressing "multiple realities," which comes along by necessity for marginalized people, can be a key factor in leadership effectiveness. Really effective leaders know themselves well, understand the wants and needs of others and know how to manage and leverage their own behavior to achieve the desired impact with/for a variety of others in their environment.

So, APA offers you the opportunity to get involved and use our diversity as a foundational strength to create a better discipline and a better world. We can learn from each other by sharing, questioning and engaging in deep, respectful and sometimes difficult dialogue. We can all learn to be better leaders together.


*With permission of the author and editors, this paper is reprinted from Cathy McDaniels Wilson & Jennifer Kelly (Eds.), Implementing a diversity initiative in State, Provincial and Territorial Psychological Associations: A handbook for SPTAs: 2009 Edition. (Available from APA Division 31, State, Provincial & Territorial Psychological Affairs)