The vicious and polemic language that has characterized our politics these past few months have been greatly weighing on my mind. I am frightened by the sheer hate and violence that have been targeted towards some of the most vulnerable groups in our society, especially immigrants and refugees, people of color, and people of different faiths. One of my classes at Loyola University Maryland this semester is entitled “Transformational Leadership” and I have been reflecting on the relevance and timeliness of this course, especially given some of our highly volatile presidential front runners.
The name of the course has brought me to reflect on what differentiates a transformational leader from other types of leaders. I don’t think I have pinned down a comprehensive definition of what makes a leader transformational, but it seems to me that this ambiguous expression goes beyond the leader’s capacity to affect change or impact our daily lives. No, impact is not enough. Transformational leadership seems to hint at something bigger, something transcendent.
In seeking to define “transformational leadership,” some of classmates argued for the labeling of Hitler and Lenin as transformational leaders because of the impact they on the social and political landscape of the 20th century. This elicited a visceral reaction from me that perhaps clouded my ability to listen fully as to why my classmates felt these leaders are transformational. Maybe this sensitive reaction resulted from an all too familiar recognition of Hitler’s speech in the highly violent and polemic political language of some of our current presidential candidates. Indeed, if impact alone were the sole defining factor of what makes leadership transformational, then certainly many of our current presidential candidates and political personalities would qualify. One particular candidate for instance has had a tremendous impact on the precarious roles many Muslims, Mexicans, and migrants in the United States are currently in. Certainly his call to “build a wall” has had major global, political, and religious ramifications.
However, while I am aware of the profound mark these individuals can have on our past and current histories and on our collective psyche, I emphatically reject their categorization as transformational leaders because I do not believe that they positively transform us in a way that has any enduring success. The destructive vision and exclusionary policies that Hitler, Lenin, and other despotic leaders espoused have been shown to be contrary to the hopes and aspirations that call forth humanity to flourishing. Because these policies oppose the natural impulse of the human experience (which I believe to run towards fulfillment and self-actualization), they are inherently self-limiting. To support the categorization of violent and demagogical politicians as transformational leaders, some of my classmates referred to the massive impact and political/economic/spiritual changes that these personalities have wreaked on our world as a result of their leadership. The changes that follow these pseudo-transformational leaders however, while certainly staggering, are most often opposing responses that seek to unravel the damages done by tyrants. In the long arc of history, I believe that humanity corrects itself and, because of the generous grace of the Divine, seeks to distance itself – albeit slowly and often times incompletely – from the base and depraved visions of these individuals. The life-limiting leadership styles of individuals such as Hitler and Lenin appeal to the lowest instincts of humanity – fear and anger – rather than to higher forms of affective expression. This proves to be not only limiting to those who are affected by it, but also limited in the scope of its vision and its ability to endure beyond its specific historical locale.
Unlike pseudo-transformational leaders, I believe that transformational leaders focus on the goals and actions that foster human life. In other words, the transformational leader is one who not only affects change, but is also one who inspires the masses to reach self-actualization through the continued relevance and development of positive, generative ideas and a transcendent, life-giving vision. This can be seen in James MacGregor Burns’ usage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “the embodiment of meanings and policies that have direct and extensive impact on people… based in fundamental human wants” (2003, p. 206). Unlike the destructive actions of the pseudo-transformational leader, which is localized and limited (no matter how vast or profoundly damaging), the actions of the transformational leader continue to resonate with individuals and communities far beyond the confines of their specific history, geography, and culture – even beyond the specificity of the message itself. “To read the Universal Declaration more than half a century later, at the start of a new millennium, is to be struck again by its power – its scope, inclusiveness, explicitness, and absoluteness” (Burns, 2003, p. 205). I believe this is because the transformational leader, in choosing the greatest good, looks beyond their own self-interest and taps into a need that is deep-seated within the human experience (Northouse, 2016, p. 175). This need is of fulfillment, of flourishing, of furthering that impels humanity – individually and collectively – into wholeness and union. This can only be achieved through peace and justice, and a loving concern for the other. This realization is often met with violent reaction and the transformational leader is silenced, oppressed, and even persecuted. And yet despite this, the current of change that the transformational leader unleashes pours forth unhindered. Thus from a Christian perspective, transformational leaders can share and enter into the enduring paradox of the Paschal Mystery.
As a Christian and a Franciscan friar, I believe that this slow but irrepressible movement towards human fulfillment and union is first due to the loving initiative of the Divine, who calls us to an ever-closer intimacy with Itself. The transformational leader, in seeking the betterment of people, is given a glimpse of a more beautiful possibility and thus becomes complicit in and a conduit of the Divine plan, which is always manifested in love. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “To love is to discover and complete one’s self in someone other than oneself… Throughout the world at this moment, without distinction of country, class, calling or creed, men are appearing who have begun to reason, to act and to pray in terms of the limitless and organic dimensions of Space-Time” (1959/2004, pp. 84-89). In other words, transformational leaders, inspired by the Spirit, engage in actions that express a loving concern for others, that transcend the finitude of our own humanity, and which serve as the springboard for the transformation of the leader into the image of the Divine that is already within them. Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Discalced Carmelite nun and contemporary of Thérèse of Lisieux, wrote that it was this realization of the Divine indwelling that impelled her to transformative action. “It seems to me that I have found my Heaven on earth, since Heaven is God and God is in my soul. The day I understood that, everything became clear to me. I wish to tell this secret to those whom I love so that they also, through everything, may also cling to God” (Elizabeth of the Trinity, Letter 122).
It is this consciousness of the Divine that inspires the transformational leader to affect transformational change. Teilhard continues, “The human mass will only become thoroughly unified under the influence of some form of affective energy which will place the human particles in the fortunate position of being unable to love and fulfill themselves individually except by contributing in some degree to the love and fulfillment of all” (1959/2004, p. 286). This has major ramifications for how we – if we want to be truly transformational – ought to relate to the other, including those in our society who are most vulnerable (women, migrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBTQ, the uneducated, the poor, and others). In praying for our presidential candidates, I ask that they may experience and encounter this affective energy so that they may be transformed beyond violence, anger, and fear into a state of loving acceptance, of hopefulness, and of honest and civil dialogue. In this way, the ideas, visions, and policies of the transformational leader become embodied in loving actions that carry a perfume that is redolent of the Divine plan for all of humanity.
*A version of this blog entry was submitted as an essay to Loyola University Maryland on March 8, 2016.
Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming Leadership. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Elizabeth of the Trinity. (1984). I Have Found God: The Complete Works (Vol. 1). Washington, DC: ICS Publications.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, Publications, Inc.
Teilhard de Chardin, P. (2004). The Future of Man. (N. Denny, Trans.). New York, NY: Doubleday. (Original work published 1959).