What leadership approaches are making a big difference in people’s lives?

By Deborah Meehan, Leadership Learning Community

What would it take to answer this question with any certainty? At the Leadership Learning Community, we recently invited our members to participate in a survey that guided them through a process of creating a working hypothesis. A hypothesis will make more explicit the assumptions that a leadership programs holds about how they are planning to accomplish the goals of their leadership program: who is reached, with what supports, and for what purpose, e.g. if we do X (leadership strategies), then Y (program result) will occur. You could say that through this exploration we are testing our own hypothesis: If leadership programs develop, test, refine and share their hypothesis about how they achieve different results then leadership development practitioners will be able to make better decisions about which approaches will help them get the results they are hoping for. We were encouraged by the number of people who quickly responded to this request. What did we learn?

Over 50 people responded to the survey. We were most interested in large scale results so we began by sorting the hypotheses into several buckets: first, those that proposed achieving community, field, or system level results using a relational approach. (By relational approach we are talking about leadership strategies that are focused on working with groups, e.g. like connecting community members and health providers in a leadership effort in a specific city, or using a leadership network strategy to support learning and collaboration or it could be a leadership program that is bringing together people across specific boundaries.) The second bucket was grouped hypotheses from programs that had taken an individual leadership approach of providing skills development, resources or reflective time as a way of achieving large scale change. In the surveys, community, field, and systems level results were commonly expressed as: improved health in a particular population (community or state), improved conditions or quality of life in communities, a vibrant civil society, or increased equity. There is almost no mention of results that are specific, concrete and measurable for a group of people or a community. This is worthy of a conversation in itself but for the sake of this article we wanted to focus on the hypotheses themselves.

Relational Leadership Hypothesis

We identified 18 programs that created a relational leadership hypothesis. When combined, the hypotheses can be stated as follows: 
If diverse groups are brought together in a collective leadership process (one that fosters relationships, learning, collaboration, networking, boundary crossing or some combination of these) then they will be better able to achieve community, field, or systems level results.

There were several important themes that emerged from these hypotheses about what it takes to support large scale change through leadership work:

  • Achieving Large-Scale Results: When groups of people articulate the community, field, or systems level changes they want, they are more likely to pursue relational leadership strategies that lead to achieving those results.
  • Alignment: When diverse groups of people and organizations align their efforts around a common purpose (e.g., adopt a shared framing of an issue, connect their resources, create networks, engage in collaborative planning and action), the scale and scope of their collective impact increases.
  • Action Learning: When a group engages in real work together, the group members learn how to develop practical solutions and work through differences.

In teasing apart these themes we find three common elements:

  • Who: There seems to be general agreement that diversity and work across boundaries are essential to produce large-scale change. Some of the hypotheses were explicit, e.g., community members and medical providers; multiple stakeholders in early childhood development within a specific city, young adults, etc. To create a strong hypothesis we believe it is helpful to ask who needs to be engaged to achieve the desired results and to be explicit about why.
  • How: There were a number of sub-hypotheses offered by survey participants about how to support successful collaboration within groups or use networks. The focus on leadership as a relational process is relatively new and may benefit from creating more specific hypotheses about how to successfully support individuals and groups in coming together to align their actions on behalf of a shared purpose or concern. Programs can improve the decision making process it they create and test hypotheses that help them to learn more specifically about competencies, processes and vehicles that strengthen relational leadership:
    • What competencies does a group need to take successful action to achieve their goal? Are programs confirming that their curriculum is supporting these competencies and that these competencies are making a difference in the group’s ability to achieve its results?
    • What processes support a group of individuals and organizations to align their efforts towards a common goal, e.g. how are groups being supported in decision-making, group dynamics work, trust building; and what is essential to their success?
    • What forms/containers will best support the group’s work? What do we understand about what forms best connect and support a group to achieve different results and under what conditions, e.g. a network strategy, organizations, communities of learning and practice, coalitions, leadership program convenings?
  • What: Identifying a specific result or some agreement about measurable indicators of progress helps a group to not only act with purpose but learn from attempts and make adjustments that increase success and sustain commitment. Being able to measure progress often requires the collection and use of data. Most of the hypotheses in the survey are vague about what difference their strategies will make. Clarifying outcomes and defining indicators of success will help programs learn about what works to make difference.

In our next article we will share some of the survey responses about how leadership programs that support individuals are contributing to large scale change. This work is being supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation as part of an exploration of whether leadership programs can benefit from an Evidence Based Practice approach, which has been widely used in the field of health. Next month, evaluators, funders and researchers that are part of the Leadership Learning Community will meet to dive into this question. Stay tuned for more insights, controversies and possible next steps.