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Category: Leadership During COVID-19

In this special blog series, guest writers consider how our academic framework, research agenda and the associated leadership studies literature contributes understanding and support the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

COVID-19 and the biopolitical moment for leadership

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies professor Brandon W. Kliewer considers an approach to teaching leadership that can further develop our capacity to exercise leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.


The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all of the fragility of human life. As the world assesses the damage and begins to consider appropriate paths forward, leadership scholars, developers, and practitioners are increasingly confronted with a series of biopolitical questions. The objective of this short essay is to introduce the biopolitical as a concept relevant to the interdisciplinary field of leadership studies and leadership in practice.

Biopolitics, as a clearly delineated idea, finds its origins in the writing of Michel Foucault[i]. Since its inception, the biopolitical turn has been taken up by a range of scholars in a variety of disciplinary contexts.[ii] Giorgio Agamben[iii], established biopolitical questions as a stable concept for study and consideration in practice. His argument suggested totalitarian regimes and the degree to which mass genocide was operationalized using principles of 20th century industrialization fundamentally re-shaped the relationship between life and political contestation.

The inherent value of sustaining one’s life was now subject to a type of politicization that had not previously been possible.  Matters of basic human existence became subject to political contestation due to modern technological advancement, bureaucratic processes associated with industrialization, and a recognition that evil was not the result of some extreme circumstance but instead a banal[iv] existence that fails to acknowledge the conditions that allows evil actions to exist. The ways in which power was experienced and the range and quality of choice available to people become contested as it related to matters of basic human existence.


Biopolitics = Life (Recognizing the Intrinsic Value of Life) + Politics (Power and Choice)

            Biopolitics has since become a lens to analyze claims to human rights, reproductive rights, transgender rights, issues of immigration/migration (particularly the US-border crisis) and the legitimacy of the use of force by the state (particularly state-sanctioned violence disproportionately focused on black and brown bodies) – among others. The COVID-19 global pandemic and considerations associated with re-opening society have exposed leadership studies and leadership in practice to questions of the biopolitical. The purpose of this introduction is to highlight ways biopolitical considerations intersect people exercising leadership from positions of formal authority, people exercising leadership from positions of informal authority, and how leadership scholars theorize leadership.


Leadership in practice

Approaches to the process and rate at which communities, businesses, and civic institutions return to “normal” activities unfortunately seems to track ideological divisions in the U.S. An account of biopolitical questions, provides a framework for people trying to exercise leadership, from both a position of formal and informal authority, to navigate this contestation.

Leadership from Formal Authority

Elon Musk provides an interesting case study for how biopolitical questions might be addressed when leadership activity extends from formal position. Musk made the national news when he defied government orders and re-started operations at his Alameda county Telsa factory. Considered by most a decision outside his formal role and the limits of legal authority, Musk’s decision to open his factory raises a series of biopolitical questions. I will highlight how analysis of biopolitical questions helps make sense of the relationship between Musk’s decision to re-open his factory and the employees that fill that factory.

Musk announced on Twitter that he would be on the line with workers when his factory re-opened outside the government’s public health safety order. If workers chose to return to work, knowing the risks to themselves and others, then it seems appropriate to say Musk exercised leadership at the edges of his authority. This assessment brackets any considerations of the ethics of such leadership activity. However, it is not clear the range or the quality of the choice available to the average line worker at the Tesla factory. If the choice was to return to work or be fired, lose unemployment benefits, the ability to eat, to pay rent, and meet basic material needs for survival, the “choice” seem less than free. In fact, if the choice was less than free Musk’s actions would not be considered leadership activity but instead a form of soft coercion. Individuals trying to exercise leadership from a position of formal authority might consider the following questions when trying to take account of the intersection of their leadership activity and biopolitical questions:

What are the circumstances of a choice to return to work? Is there a meaningful possibility to choose not to return to work without significant hardship that threatens essential survival? What were the circumstances of how the choice was made? Is one person, likely the owner of a firm, making the decision for others. Or, are workers organized in a way that helps determine their collective level of exposure, safety conditions in the work environment, and determining when a threat of exposure becomes too high? If power to decide was distributed more evenly between workers and the owner, we might decide that the collective agency or “popular will” of the workers was an appropriate act of civil disobedience. Again, this does not consider the potential health impact beyond the owners and workers of the firm in question.

Leadership from Informal Authority

If you are attempting to influence the way society re-opens from a place of informal authority, the biopolitical lens might provide a different perspective. Our baser instincts might want to coerce pro-social behaviors intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through public shaming. Efforts to public shame others does not align with an understanding of leadership activity that values choice or even evidence-based public health strategies.

A more practical approach might be to educate others on the risks to themselves and others when social distancing and appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) guidelines are not followed. The individual right of choice, to accept exposure and potentially to expose others to COVID-19, is tempered by our civic obligations to those more vulnerable in society – the elderly and those with a compromised immune system. Wearing a face covering, practicing physical distancing, and avoiding large crowds represents a burden on your range of choice, but when understood within a larger context of a global crisis, these temporary limits are reasonable civic obligations that we owe to each other. Consider the following: What obligations do we owe others when trying to exercise leadership? What level of burden should an individual accept when recognizing obligations to others during a global crisis?


Leadership studies

Leadership studies has increasingly created space for scholarship that has taken a critical, collective, and constructivist lens.[v] This stream of scholarship considers how dialogical, relational, and socio-material interactions produce leadership.[vi] From this paradigm and lens a gap in leadership theory has emerged. Existing Leadership-as-Practice (LaP) theory is not currently equipped to account for the intersections of leadership and the biopolitical. LaP is “…concerned with how leadership emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experience.”[vii] Opportunities to better account for the biopolitical in LaP theory is seen in two areas of the literature.

First, from the perspective of LaP, the biopolitical foregrounds the practice of everyday life. If leadership emerges from the interactions of groups and systems, there must be a way to account for biopolitical questions. Determining who, how, and under what circumstance people and systems are exposed to COVID-19 shapes the possibility of leadership activity. LaP theory must account for how biopolitical questions are accounted for in dialogical, relational, and socio-material interactions. The perceived presence or absence of a viral threat to life impacts the ways groups and systems interact to emerge leadership. Demographic information suggests a wide racial and class disparity in who has contracted and died from the virus in the US. Racial and class disparities highlight patterns in groups and systems that impact how and under what circumstances interactions are recognized as leadership activity.

Second, it is well-established that LaP has a socio-material dimension.[viii] However most spatial accounts of leadership limit the operationalization of space to what can be physically seen by the eye and experienced in relation to each other. The COVID-19 outbreak requires leadership scholars to reconsider how space and socio-materiality is theorized in leadership. Spatial dimensions of leadership need to move beyond accounting for the relation between bodies, language, and physical objects to a conceptual level that provides frameworks for how groups and systems make sense of associated interactions. COVID-19 and associated global crisis has shown the upper limits to how space and socio-materiality is currently theorized in Leadership.

One thing that is quickly becoming apparent is that the biopolitical questions of leadership and space are approached differently depending on whether they are situated within rural or urban environments. LaP theory development ought to make more of an effort to not only account for a wider range of conceptual space, but consider spatial dimensions of leadership through the lens of ideology, culture, and context. This theoretical concern quickly bumps up against questions of practice as fundamental assumptions of our global system and society are reconsidered following a pandemic.


[i] Foucault, M “Society must be defended,” Lecture at the Collège de France; Right of Death and Power over Life

[ii] Campbell, T & Sitze, A, Biopolitcs: A reader

[iii] Agamben G, Homor sacer: Sovereign power and bare life; The pollicization of life

[iv] Arendt H, The origins of totalitarianism; Arendt considers how evil is not the result of extreme circumstance, but the banal existence in bureaucratic process and administrative efficacy is what creates the conditions for evil to exist.

[v] Ospina SM, Foldy EG, Fairhurst GT, & Jackson B (2020) Collective dimensions of leadership: Connecting theory and method, Human Relations 73(4): 441-463; Raelin JA (2016a) Imagine there are no leaders: Reframing leadership as collaborative agency. Leadership 12(2): 131-158; Raelin JA (2016b) Introduction to Leadership-As-Practice. In: Joeseph A. Raelin (ed.), Leadership-As-Practice: Theory and Practice. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 1-17.

[vi] Isaacs W (1993) Dialogue: The power of collective thinking, Leadership 4(3):1-4; Crevani L (2015) Relational leadership: In: Carroll, B, Ford, J, Taylor, S (eds) Leadership: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, London, UK: SAGE, pp. 188-211; Simpson, B., Buchan, L., and Sillince, J. (2018) The performativity of leadership talk, Leadership, 14(6), 644-661.

[vii] Raelin, JA (2016) Leadership-as-Practice: Theory and Application. New York, NY: Routledge; 3.

[viii] Salovaara A, Sauer E, and Ropo P (2013) Embodiment of leadership through material place, Leadership. 9(3): 378-395.


Third Floor Research: Measuring the impact of leadership development

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies professor Tim Steffensmeier and leadership communication doctoral student, Tamas Kowalik, consider an approach to teaching leadership that can further develop our capacity to exercise leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The impact of leadership development programs oftentimes seems obvious as principles and skills acquired are put into practice in the daily operation of organizations. Anecdotal evidence and testimonies abound regarding the positive impact of leadership trainings. Moreover, it is common practice to evaluate leadership trainings to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Third Floor Research was developed to test and expand upon the ways we measure leadership development. We are curious about how leadership development affects individuals and organizations that are working to make progress on difficult challenges.

Third Floor Research, a partnership with the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and the Staley School of Leadership Studies, was launched in 2017 to foster innovation on how leadership is exercised and to advance the field of leadership development. The applied research center focuses primarily on the leadership that is needed to make progress on adaptive challenges. The work is to collect and analyze data that produces useful findings on how to exercise leadership.

Despite a multi-billion-dollar leadership industry, there is a paucity of research focused on the impact of leadership development, particularly outside of formal education settings. We lack enough evidence and understanding about the degree to which leadership development improves outcomes. Third Floor Research aims to narrow that gap with a large-scale, multi-partner research center housed at KLC that studies leadership development initiatives. Two primary strategies to attain that goal are research projects and a global database.

Global database
A key solution to understanding the impact of leadership development is the creation of a global database. The database will house participant data from leadership development programs operating in various places in the United States and abroad.

The collected data will include: participant demographics, dosage of leadership content, program support level and participant leadership progress. The database uses a uniform set of data points to offer funders, teachers and curriculum designers a way to measure the impact of their leadership program in relation to other initiatives. The hope is that it will offer programs a way to assess the long-term impacts of their trainings while offering a way to compare and contrast various programs.

Research projects
Third Floor Research is also conducting research projects on an annual basis. From 2019 to 2020, three research projects were completed:

  • Developing leadership capacities in high-tech industry
  • Leadership development and employee engagement in nonprofits
  • Impact of Community leadership programs on work and community engagement

These studies focus on different contexts that use the Kansas Leadership Center’s competency-based approach to leadership. The KLC framework is built on the idea that leadership is an activity available to anyone (O’Malley and Cebula, 2015). As Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) highlights: “We find it extremely useful to see leadership as a practice, an activity that some people do some of the time” (p. 24). Moreover, exercising leadership is about mobilizing people to address difficult, adaptive challenges. These studies found significant findings that correlate KLC’s leadership development training to individual and organizational change. The selected key findings from each study noted below demonstrate our research projects capturing the impact of leadership development.

Study 1: Developing leadership capacities in high-tech industry

Employees are thinking about and doing their work differently

After two years of leadership development trainings for employees at various levels at a site of a fortune 500 high tech company, employees were more confident and prepared to engage in leadership interventions. These include: employees use a shared language to overcome conflict and engage more collaboratively to break down silos across units in the company; employees are more prepared to experiment and try new things; and employees are paying attention to the adaptive challenges in their work.

Study 2: Leadership development and employee engagement in nonprofits

Leadership development = enhanced employee engagement

Employees who are likely to use leadership concepts in their daily work are more committed to their organization, more hopeful about the organization’s future and more satisfied with their job.

Study 3: Impact of Community leadership programs on work and community engagement

Twice as likely to serve in a civic role

After participating in a KLC skills-based leadership training, participants are twice as likely to serve in a civic role (e.g. board member, elected official, advisory group, committee member) compared to generalist leadership programs and the general population.

These findings, alongside the global database, represent attempts to measure the impact of leadership development. Ultimately, we are testing the hypothesis that developing the capacity of many people to exercise leadership on adaptive challenges leads to faster and more progress. While that prediction involves a complex set of interactions, Third Floor Research represents a growing group of scholars and practitioners that are working to understand the collective impact of leadership as activity.


O’Malley and Cebula (2015). Your Leadership Edge. Kanas Leadership Center Press, Wichita, Kansas.

Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Harvard Business Press, Boston

Working with others: Creating the capacity to exercise leadership

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies instructor Tamara Bauer considers an approach to teaching leadership that can further develop our capacity to exercise leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.


Mainstream media often highlights examples of leadership that feature individuals doing something for or to others. (Example: an individual comes to “save the people and save the day”). While there is a time and place to help someone by doing something for them (like in a crisis), there is even more power for long-term transformation when we shift our perspectives and actions to exercise leadership WITH others. This shift can better create the capacity for all of us to engage and for all of us to exercise leadership.

Previous blog posts in this series have framed the need for leadership activity to be more collective, relational and community-driven in order to make progress on the complex challenges we are experiencing with COVID-19. (See posts here). A common good approach to leadership requires intentional perspectives and practices where people share responsibility to “create the conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty” (Ganz, 2010, p. 527).  We need more people engaging in leadership activity, but how?  Working with others is a practice of leadership, and also develops others’ capacity to engage in the work of leadership.

As a leadership educator, I not only want to teach leadership, but also to practice the behaviors, approaches and theories I teach. I have found that exercising leadership with others, rather than to or for, is a series of small and conscious choices to create “a container” for a different kind of engagement and capacity building to emerge. The ways in which I exercise leadership with others further develops others’ capacity to engage in acts of leadership.

As we think about the many spaces of our leadership work, how do we intentionally create “a container” where we maximize and engage each person within the system? And, how does that container further develop others’ capacity to exercise leadership?

Below are a series of insights, questions and examples to guide the application of exercising leadership with others into practice.

Understand the container/system

How do we better understand the groups/systems we are in and consider ways to engage it more fully? Who is part of the system/group?  Whose voices are represented?  Whose voices are missing or who are we not hearing?  As you continually diagnose the system and the stakeholders within the system, you can consider how you might position yourself, your voice and the way you take up space to orient yourself differently to be with the others in the system.

  • I approach each system I am part of (committee meeting, conference room, or classroom) as representing 100%. How can I understand the people within the system in order to invite all people into the 100%? For instance, in the classroom if I take up 60% of the space by talking to students, that only leaves 40% of the space to engage. Seeing a system as fully engaging with one another at 100% allows me to work at continually diagnosing the ways and how people can contribute.

Reorient the space

How do we better share the space with the people in our system? How do we invite them into the work in a way that raises their own engagement, creativity, and purpose? While using your authority and power directed as to and for might be more efficient (such as in delegation), we lose the opportunity to co-create and drive change from within. We must be more conscious of the ways we take up space and work to shift to share space with others.

  • As an instructor it would be easy for me to make all of the decisions about the design and structure of a course. However, if I want to invite students more fully into the space, what decisions can they be part of making? Beginning with their voice – their aspirations, concerns, and ideas for how they best want to learn and engage in the system – creates a space that is shared by all.  Paying attention to room set-up, such as pulling chairs into a circle and sitting with students, will signal their voice is needed in a more intentional way.

Ask more questions

What questions can we ask that will invite people more fully into the space? To feel connected and part of the container? To engage more fully? The art of asking powerful questions is key to co-creating spaces with others.  Carefully framing and asking questions that move beyond the technical information, but rather, reaches people in a way that invites them into the process.

  • As I make observations about the system and container we are creating, I must ask questions that address how the system is functioning. What is working well about how we are engaging? What could we do more of (or less of) to make progress on our shared goals? When I have the urge to offer an answer or a solution, it serves as an indicator for me to pause and reframe my thought into a question to share back with the group.

Listen and be genuinely curious 

How can we momentarily slow down and coach our minds to be curious about what others share? Don’t just listen to respond, but to to truly understand. How can we ask questions and be genuinely interested in the response as to how it might influence the system moving forward? Working to pause our own thoughts to listen and to be comfortable with silence will create the space for other voices, ideas and opportunities.

  • If I observe someone in the system not engaging fully, I shift my perspective/stance to partner with that person. Often through one-on-one dialogue, I ask questions about their perspective in the system, with the intent of being curious to learn more. Through perspective taking, I better understand our system and can ask additional questions to invite their ideas and insights into the process.

Develop an asset-based approach

People are our greatest asset to making progress on the challenges of today. How can we approach people and systems with an asset-based lens? To trust that when we are engaged in meaningful ways, people will contribute, collaborate and create. By working with others, we create the opportunity to develop the capacity of the people within the system.

  • At the end of the semester, I often hear students comment, “We were so lucky.  Our class was unique and different in how we came together; it will not happen again like this.” However, I ask them to consider that it was not by chance of good company, but because we oriented ourselves differently with one another. Through intentional design and practices, we created a way to be with one another in ways that asked each person to bring their full selves. The conversations were more meaningful, more challenging and thus, more connected. The investment of each person created a container where we collectively developed our capacity to learn and lead.

Shifting our perspective and actions to work with people, rather than for or to people, allows for new ways of being and thinking by bringing the wholeness of people to the forefront. We create containers that engage more people fully. Those spaces then develop the capacity of people and systems to exercise leadership more collectively and collaboratively. Ultimately this shift will position us differently to address the challenges and opportunities we face.



Block, P. (2009). Community: the structure of belonging – the structure of belonging  Berrett-koehler.

Clayton, P. H., & Ash, S. L. (2004). Shifts in perspective: capitalizing on the counter-normative nature of service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 11(1), 59–70.

Ganz, M. (2010). Leading change: leadership, organization, and social movement. In N. Nohria & R. Khurana (Eds.), Handbook of leadership theory and practice (pp. 527-561). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Press.

O’Malley, E., Cebula, A., & Kansas Leadership Center. (2015). Your leadership edge: lead any time, anywhere. KLC Press, Kansas Leadership Center.

Briefing: Civic Capacity and the Coronavirus

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies partner David Chrislip considers how associated leadership studies and civic engagement literatures contributes understanding and supports the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.


“Sometimes change is so vast and dislocating that it is hard to tell disaster from opportunity.”

The Economist, April 11, 2020

“The larger project, however, is to increase the resilience of American society.”

The New York Times, April 9, 2020

The Crisis

As the coronavirus continues to devastate communities across the nation, planning for the aftermath is beginning to take center stage. As horrendous as the initial shock has been, it is but the first of many cascading impacts that must be addressed. Economic decline (collapse, in some places), increases in inequality in health and wealth, inadequate capacity of institutions to respond, failing health and education systems, and so on, will follow, rending the social fabric of families, communities, states, and the nation. Trillions of dollars will be allocated and spent by federal, state, and local government agencies and foundations to address these challenges. Some communities will be able to put these resources to good use. Others will become more dependent on outside entities (like governments and foundations) for their survival and less resilient in the face of future challenges. The longer-term response to the effects of this pandemic will be as important as the initial response to its manifesting symptoms.

Given the immensity of the damage and the colossal investment needed to repair it, ensuring that subsequent responses enhance the capacity – the resilience – of communities and regions to respond to future challenges and disruptions becomes imperative. An emerging definition of community resilience goes beyond merely coping with an external shock like the coronavirus and returning to the status quo ante. Radical theories see resilience as a dynamic process, not of bouncing back, but of reinvention and transformation. A systemic response is more powerful than a symptomatic one.

This is adaptive work that involves power, politics, radical inclusion, authentic engagement, and mutual learning. Civic capacity brings these elements together to make progress. Those who study how communities work know why some respond better than others to disruptions like the coronavirus: they are more resilient because they have greater civic capacity. This disaster offers an opportunity to enhance the civic capacity of this country’s communities and regions reclaiming the vital role of civic life in shaping this country’s future.

The Crucible of Change

Over the past two decades, there has been a distinct shift in thinking about where the impetus for adaptation and change should come from in neighborhoods, communities, and regions. Perhaps recognizing the limitations of top-down, externally driven approaches, foundations, government agencies, and other civic actors now aspire (at least rhetorically) to encourage and support community driven responses to adaptive challenges such as health, education, housing, policing, and other public crises that require the community to adapt or to be resilient.

Three premises inform this thinking about community-driven change:

  1. It is more effective in making lasting progress;
  2. It is more inclusive and egalitarian, therefore more democratic;
  3. Communities with the capacity for community driven change are observably more resilient and better equipped to respond collectively as complex challenges arise.

At its core, then, community-driven change can be defined in terms of shared power between decision makers and community members, multiple perspectives on issues, strong participation from diverse people, a focus on the common good, and decision-making processes that are equitable, authentic, and transparent.


Top Down/Externally Driven

(doing for)

Community Driven

(doing from within)

Who Does the Work Organizations and Agencies Neighborhoods, Communities, and Regions

(residents, organizations, governments, etc.)

Nature of the Process Decide and Announce Agenda Setting, Problem-Solving, and Consensus Building
Who Organizes and Energizes the Process People with Authority and Influence Many People Exercising Leadership
Who informs the work Content Experts Local knowledge and experience informed by Content and Context Experts
Key Leadership Tasks Marshal Expertise and Influence Convene, Catalyze, and Facilitate


For many actors interested in the civic arena, community-driven change has become the preferred approach to transforming systems such as health care, education, and economic development. Over the past year, a panel of experts from the U.S. and Canada, with conceptual and experiential expertise related to civic capacity, worked together to consolidate their knowledge and experience and create a broadly accepted definition of what community-driven change means and what it looks like in practice.

This work on community-driven change generated information about characteristics, qualities, and concerns of communities capable of fostering constructive responses to disruptions and challenges. For example, these communities intentionally confront historic inequities and injustice. They couple an inclusive and engaging civic culture with institutions committed to community engagement. They keep a steady eye on the common good. Many people exercise leadership, some with positions of authority, many without. The leadership focus is on purposeful collaboration and mutual learning to make progress on issues of shared concern.

This understanding of community-driven change led to the development of a Civic Capacity Index (CCI), a measure of a community’s ability to make progress on complex, adaptive civic challenges (an initial version will be available in May 2020 for use in pilot applications).

The CCI helps inform, shape, and evaluate intervention strategies from governments, foundations, and other civic actors. As a diagnostic tool, the CCI, can help policy makers understand the capacity of a community or region to absorb and manage resources directed towards recovery from the impacts of a disruption like the coronavirus. As a framework for community-driven change, the index can be used to design interventions that respond better to presenting challenges while enhancing the civic capacity – the resilience – of the community or region. Responses can be tailored to the civic capacity of a particular place. If, for instance, civic capacity is high, interventions may require less direction. If civic capacity is low, interventions may need to provide more guidance, technical assistance and expertise. Communities can use the CCI as a place to start to assess and build their capacity for community-driven change. The index can track changes in civic capacity over time tying them to current actions. With the help of the community-driven change framework, civic actors can take advantage of existing civic capacity, understand where it is lacking, and build resilience for the future.

The Opportunity

Just as flattening the curve of the coronavirus in its initial stages takes leadership and concerted action, so too does creating a more resilient society. The coronavirus offers an opportunity to both mitigate the symptoms of this pandemic and to generate the ideas and political will to build a more just and equitable society. Realizing these aspirations takes civic capacity. Fulfilling them restores confidence in our collective capacity to respond to disruptions and challenges yet to come.

About the author

David has spent more than 40 years engaging with the concept of civil society and in the work of civic leadership and collaboration. His career has taken him from the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound to the American Leadership Forum, the National Civic League and the Kansas Leadership Center. He’s worked with hundreds of communities and organizations across this country as well as internationally and has conducted leadership development programs for thousands of people seeking to exercise civic leadership more effectively. He is Principal of Skillful Means. He’s the co-author with Ed O’Malley of For the Common Good: Redefining Civic Leadership (KLC Press, 2013). He’s also the co-author, with Carl Larson, of Collaborative Leadership: How Citizens and Civic Leaders can Make a Difference (Jossey-Bass, 1994) and author of The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook (Jossey-Bass, 2002). David received his B.A. degree (1966) from Oklahoma State University in economics and history, an M.S. degree (1970) from Wichita State University in economics, and an M.P.A. degree (1982) from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Key References:

  • Briggs, Xavier de Souza (2008), Democracy as Problem Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities Across the Globe, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Pares, Marc, Sonia M. Ospina and Joan Subirats (2017), Social Innovation and Democratic Leadership: Communities and Social Change from Below, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.


Leading change with women and girls during COVID-19 in Uganda

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies partner Zaharah Namanda, with framing from Trisha Gott, considers how our academic framework, research agenda and the associated leadership studies literature contributes understanding and support the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Zaharah Namanda is a community worker and leader, with a focus on education with and for women and girls. She is a country co-director for the Africa Education and Leadership Initiative (Africa ELI), a non-governmental organization that provides educational opportunities for young female refugees from South Sudan. Namanda has been leading prior to the COVID-19 pandemic by providing strategic direction and working with a team to implement programs, coordinate logistics, and monitor and evaluate student performance.

Her commitment to empowering young women and girls through education drives her desire to shape and belong to a community where young girls and boys have equal access to education. Since completing the Mandela Washington Fellowship, in 2020 Zaharah has worked to strengthen her education advocacy work and empower young women and girls in Uganda. Recently, she provided reflections in organizational and community adaptations to leadership in the time of COVID-19 what follows are her words about local, organizational and global responses.

Local, Organizational, and Global Change

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, community activist, Zaharah Namanda set down to write some early reflections and responses to the crises. Her work described efforts locally, organizationally, and in leading change.  While she wrote in her context of serving women and girls in Uganda, her reflections can serve all those seeking to practice leadership today. She began by sharing how her team is adapting work in real time:

  • Locally: We are working online with people and organizations in the tailoring department to stitch locally made masks that we can distribute to people who need them. Already a prototype has been created and stitching is ongoing. Also, we keep sharing information regarding COVID-19 online to keep the community informed.
  • Organizationally: We created a WhatsApp group after we returned our students to the refugee camps when school closed. Our students reside [in] the refugee camps and not everyone has access to a smart phone. We inform our girls about what is required of them during this period. We keep them engaged virtually through wellness activities and challenging them to express how they feel through poems, helping us learn how to support their needs. The elders will provide feedback regarding how our students who are offline feel about the situation.
  • Leading change: I urge everyone to be proactive in this critical time, especially where we rely on one another. This is a call for us to serve in our own capacity. We can do small things that can change people’s lives. Who knew that today the greatest teaching shall be teaching people how to wash their hands or sanitize? 

Beyond the local and organizational context, Namanda also shares a message about communicating to a global audience about the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • What would you want to communicate to a global audience (using social media) about leadership in global pandemic? This pandemic is proof that leadership is people. Everyone is called to serve in different ways, small or big, and we should learn to value people’s contributions. In addition, this period is evidence that leadership is not power/authority because it has humbled everyone regardless of their positions, technology, health care systems or finances.

Considerations for reflection:

Namanda framed some reflections for consideration related to how we reclaim, rewrite, and redesign

our use of discourse, narrative and rhetoric for leadership in this time. “COVID-19 has got people out of their comfort zone. Most people have stood up to help advocate for the safety of others. Given that it is an emergency, I have seen people stop implementing their priority activities to take a lead in the common fight of COVID-19, seeing that it requires an emergency response measure. It’s evident in how people communicate on social media, innovate memes that are informative in this line and push beyond their limits to give sanitizers and hand washing liquids to the minority…”

With this in mind, we may pause to consider:

  • Is there a new narrative seeking to be told that might advance understanding in your circle? What discourses might help promote health, offer insights into wellbeing and advance our sense of community and purpose today?
  • What observations can you make about leadership activity in your organization and/or cultural context? How have the everyday circumstances of your leadership efforts changed as a result of COVID-19? What can your organization and/or community learn as a result of taking notice of the everyday circumstances that inform your approach to leadership activity during COVID-19?

Considerations for reflection:

In making sense of the embodiment and emotion that is key to our efforts, Namanda offers this reflection, “Staying home is one thing but also having collaborators who are mindful about emergencies is something else. Some collaborators only want to see progress and they may not be a force towards the progress in critical times like this. This means that contracts everyday are being lost. “

  • What is required to not just seek progress, but to be a force for progress in critical times like these?
  • How do we re-imagine what “progress” includes in a time of COVID-19? What role does our leadership activity have in advancing re-imagined notions of “progress?” efforts today?

A call to action

In reflecting on what is required of each of us today, she shared, “It is time to value digital productivity, value partnership beyond results in a state of emergency and time to have critical contingency plans to support employees.” Namanda’s charge to you is to consider your commitment (individually, organizationally, and globally). She reminded us that a commitment regarding work right now (situational awareness) may require we ask new questions about how we proceed (privileging day-to-day experience), what defines productivity (building a new narrative), and how to innovate in new and creative ways (embodiment of our work). Her final charge: “Those who find a common solution to this will progress and yield results or will find weaknesses that they will learn from.”


*The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. Kansas State University is a sub-grantee of IREX and has implemented U.S.-based Leadership Institutes as a part of the Fellowship. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit the Fellowship’s website at www.mandelawashingtonfellowship.org.

Adaptive leadership in public education during COVID-19

In this special blog series, Leadership Communication doctoral student Jurdene Coleman considers how academic frameworks, research agendas, and the associated leadership studies literature contributes understanding and support to the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak locally. Jurdene Coleman

COVID-19 is presenting our nation with countless adaptive challenges; public education is no exception. Adaptive challenges differ from technical problems in many ways. First a technical problem, while it may be complex, has an identifiable solution. An example in public education might be choosing which math curriculum to implement. Next, technical problems can be solved by an entity with the right expertise and using a known process for problem solving. If we keep with the curriculum adoption example, we typically have teachers volunteer to use one of several curricula and give feedback to administrators who then bring the final recommendation to the school board. Adaptive challenges on the other hand, can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties (Heifetz , Grashaw & Linskey, 2009). Adaptive challenges require an organization to go beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shed certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses and generating the new capacity to thrive anew (p. 19). The new adaptive challenge is what does education in USD 383 school district look like without our classrooms and school buildings?  

Adaptive challenge vs. technical problem 

Kind of Change  Problem definition  Solution  Locus of work 
Technical  Clear  Clear  Authority 
Adaptive  Requires learning  Requires learning  Stakeholders  

Adapted from FIGURE 2-1 Distinguishing technical problems and adaptive challenges, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

Leadership at the school board table encompasses primarily technical problems addressed from a 40,000-foot view above the district. However, with the arrival of COVID-19, we have had to adjust our lens and we now operate just a few thousand feet above the district. This new view means we are now laser focused on the details of what happens between teacher and student. With several board members also being parents, their dual relationship with the district as director and consumer, increases our collective concern over how education will be delivered. These roles change the lens through which we each see the challenge. That dynamic perspective is key to being able to address adaptive challenges.  

The Continuous Learning Plan, created by the USD 383 district administrative team, outlines how our students’ education will look for the remainder of the semester. It is a dynamic document, that has been reviewed at every board meeting since its creation and it continues to evolve, which is what we expect. As the school board continues with its normal operations, we are now spending increased deliberative time on the continuous learning plan. What does that look like in real life? It means increased frequency and length of board meetings. It means asking questions that we typically don’t ask – why this choice, what is getting in the way of executing the solution, what other options exist and how did you come to choose this one, how do we know this is working, what will we do if it isn’t, how can we maintain this long term? 

None of these questions have simple answers. They require a shift by not only the board members but also by the district administrative team and teachers. These questions and the many more that will be generated over the next six months will be addressed through adaptive leadership practices so that we can change the status quo practices of education, experiment with solutions, and most importantly expand our capacity to thrive as a district. Manhattan-Ogden schools will thrive through this pandemic. To do that, we must challenge ourselves to go beyond what education has been to what education can be. There is no book we can reference or expert we can web call into our meetings to outline the steps of navigating a pandemic and moving 14 buildings of students and staff to an online education plan that we are creating from the ground up. We are the experts in our own new normal.   

We are on day 36 of this journey to the end of the semester, our first benchmark. Our plans continue to evolve, our discussions continue to be richer and more engaging. We are practicing adaptive leadership. We do not know where we are headed but we do know that we will only get to the finish line together. 


Below readers can find additional resources helpful to making progress on adaptive leadership challenges. 

Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership. 

Uhl-Bien, M. and Arena, M. (2018). Leadership for organizational adaptability: A theoretical synthesis and intergrative framework. Leadership Quarterly, 

Chrislip, D and O’Malley E. (2013). For the common good: Re    civic leadership, KLC Press. 

Creating space to recognize leadership activity during COVID-19

In this special blog series, Leadership Communication doctoral student R.J. Youngblood considers how academic frameworks, research agendas, and the associated leadership studies literature contributes understanding and support to the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak locally.

Our connection to space is intimately contested, negotiated, and resisted.

Spring trees in bloom
R.J. Youngblood captured these snapshots during a walk through her neighborhood.

This connection serves to shape our understanding of self in relation to both material and conceptualized notions of space and allows us to build relationships as a result of a connection to shared purpose. We can understand exercises of leadership as deeply connected to both the physical spaces that we interact with and the conceptual spaces we create in conversation and interaction with others.

Social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders have made me appreciate the role space has in leadership activity in new ways. I want to recognize that I am in an advantaged position. I have relative physical and economic security, and I am able to create space by moving freely in my neighborhood. The nature of my continued employment at this moment gives me flexibility and access to technology that can maintain the virtual and conceptual spaces that I am part of. This is not a reality for many folks in our community. The time that I have been able to dedicate to observation and reflection is a distinct privilege. If we are to exercise leadership during COVID-19, we are required to do the work to think about our relationship to space differently.

This moment, and the different ways we are engaging with space, highlight inequity and injustice that have always been part of our systems. As we make sense of and engage with space during the COVID-19 pandemic, inequalities and injustices always present, but sometimes hidden and obscure, become more apparent and pronounced. During COVID-19 and beyond, our work is to understand and attend to space through a new lens. If we don’t, we will miss opportunities to exercise leadership.

Like most neighborhoods, mine is seen and experienced differently depending on who you are. My walks during COVID-19 have allowed me to hold competing perspectives in tension and appreciate the ways in which conceptual and physical design give meaning to space and potential leadership activity.

While there is opportunity to think in depth about what is created through relationship with space, the element that has been on my mind most is the tangible ways in which we see, show up, and engage in spaces that have changed. What happens as I walk through my neighborhood, the physicality of my feet hitting the uneven and often broken pavement (if there is pavement at all), brushing up against untrimmed bushes, picking up signs off the ground – am I creating a sense of space that is embedded in the potential of leadership activity?

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the leadership studies literature has been developing theoretical explorations to make sense of the ways space creates conditions for leadership. However, the theoretical literature has often not kept pace with practice. The neighborhood walks and virtual communities I have maintained during this pandemic have affirmed for me the role space has in creating the conditions for leadership activity. Our work as a community of practice, committed to exercising leadership in ways that connect theory to practice, is to be more attuned to the ways our activity is produced in relationship to the connection between conceptual and physical space.

Movements through space create openings to see systems in new ways and understand where leadership intervention might be required. We might engage with the following questions:

  • How is conceptual and physical space inviting full participation in leadership work?
  • Who might not be able to engage as a result of how our new virtual spaces are negotiated?

Or perhaps, there are different questions we must ask first as we understand, contest, negotiate, and resist our own spaces more intimately. What does it say about my space that I experience an increased police presence in my neighborhood? What is the significance of recognizing people that I know and didn’t realize were my neighbors? How is the neighborhood school space used to distribute lunches and library books, homework assignments to local kids, and not used as a space to play, gather, or grow?

As I walk around my neighborhood or create community through emergent technologies, the ebbing and flowing of daily life – more sharp and harsh during COVID-19 – serve as a reminder that we are to exercise leadership for a contested notion of the common good.

We must show up differently now – in this crisis – and we must show up differently after this crisis to realize a more just and equitable world. As you see the trees budding, the pollen index building, sidewalks narrowing, schools remaining dark, unnamed neighbors, and miss those who are absent or silent, how will these opportunities for leadership activity be realized and attended to in the space that currently exists and the spaces that are still yet to be created?



FN1: Conceptual distinctions between space and place are contested within various academic disciplines and within the leadership studies literature. If you are interested in a more in depth exploration of place and space as it relates to leadership studies, see citations below.

@BikeWalkMHK: a community organization that enables safe and equitable active transportation on Manhattan’s streets, sidewalks, and trails through education and advocacy programs.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press.

Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1984) Space, Knowledge, and Power, The Foucault Reader. Pantheon Books.

Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (1st MIT Press paperback ed.). MIT Press.

Hekman, S., & Alaimo, S. (2008). Material Feminisms. Indiana University Press.

Lefebvre, H., & Harvey, D. (1991). The production of space (Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). Blackwell Publishing.

Pullen, A., & Vachhani, S. (2013). The materiality of leadership. Leadership, 9(3), 315-319.

Ropo, A., & Salovaara, P. (2019). Spacing leadership as an embodied and performative process.

Leadership, 15(4), 461-479.

Simpson, B., Buchan, L., & Sillince, J. (2018). The performativity of leadership talk. Leadership, 14(6), 644-661.

The role of 21st century farmers in South Africa

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies graduate teaching assistant Mafule Moswane considers how our academic framework, research agenda, and the associated leadership studies literature contributes understanding and support the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak locally.  

The role of 21st century farmers in South Africa: a case of Kgabo Moja and Mothupi KgopaMafule Moswane

On March 5, 2020, I visited Mary Kay Siefers’ Global Food Systems Leadership class to share about the role of 21st century farmers in South Africa. My purpose was to share my perspective about the role of farmers in South Africa who are currently involved in farming in the post-apartheid South Africa, and are leveraging 21st century technology to advance their work and mobilize others. In the conversation which I characterized as an unfolding story, I gave a juxtaposition of my story and the stories of Kgabo Moja and Mothupi Kgopa.

Our unfolding story

Prior to the lecture, I connected on WhatsApp with Kgabo Moja and Mothupi Kgopa, 21st century farmers who are friends and colleagues. I met both at my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, during 2012-19. These leaders have been educationally trained in information systems and mathematical sciences respectively, yet they are involved in poultry farming. The fundamental purpose of connecting with Kgabo and Mothupi was to get nuggets of wisdom from people who are farming and mobilizing others through social media to achieve their purpose.

Kgabo and Mothupi are friends, entrepreneurs, educators and leaders in their own right. To be honest, they are complex and multifaceted individuals fitting in the diverse and changing world of the 21st century. I cannot box them into one thing really, but one thing is for sure: they are farmers, too. I have observed these leaders opting to own the ‘means of production.’

Engaging Stakeholders

The beautiful thing about Kgabo and Mothupi is they are inviting young professionals, academics, entrepreneurs, public and other farmers to come together. They are giving full expression to ideas of Pan African leader Kwame NKrumah who postulated that, “Africa must unite,” and they are doing that by connecting online to share advice about poultry farming. They also engage stakeholders and share knowledge through workshops across South Africa. They do this with the mindset that “we must give the people fish,” and as they enjoy the fish, teach them to fish so that they can sustain their lives without our intervention. To teach people to farm is to give them what was taken from them when their forefathers’ land was dispossessed. “We must give the people what they need and let them also have a say in what they need.” Thomas Sankara once said, “He who feeds you, controls you,” therefore the ultimate freedom, I mean total emancipation, is being able to feed ourselves, one crop at time and one chicken at time. This in a nutshell is the work of Moja and Kgopa.

I return to the ideas and practices of both Moja and Kgopa because I find their cases very empowering and encouraging. They both share the view that farming is a fundamental human survival strategy and that food, unlike any other product is like water, does not go out of fashion. To provide service and products that are from framing practices means you will be able to feed yourself and society and most likely, live happily ever after. Moja, Kgopa, and I understand leadership as an unfolding process of interactions between humans and technology (Sergi, 2016). Viviane Sergi’s contribution to the leadership studies literature refers to the dynamic between physical objects, human interactions, and technology as the socio-material elements of leadership activity. Understanding the socio-material elements of leadership are essential in an increasingly inter-connected world, but become particularly important when COVID-19 requires physical distance between people. In what follows, I unpack how the unfolding process and actions of the leaders is made possible by interaction with technology.

Leveraging technology for farming and related work

I have been observing how these leaders have been leveraging social media to share their ideas, tell their stories and build connections with other farmers and members of the public. Both Moja and Kgopa are using social media to market their products, predominantly chickens and eggs.

Kgopa and colleagues are even taking it to next level by using social media for crowdfunding (https://www.afrifarmcrowd.com/fund-afrifarmcrowd) to mobile resources which will eventually lead to, among other things, starting a fruits and vegetable store, enable people who do not own land to be farmers by being investors and inviting people for training and workshops.

Furthermore, Mothupi is also creating online content for farming workshops given the challenge of COVID-19. These leaders are the ultimate ground forces, literally working the ground to feed people while creating opportunities for others.

The joy is in the journey

In sum, John Schaar, once said, “the future is not some place we are going, it is the one we are creating today, the paths to it are not to be found, but they are to be made, the activities of creating them, changes both the maker and the destination.” These words make sense to me now more than ever before. They make sense because, we have not yet arrived. We are work in progress. We are beings in the process of becoming. A people in constant pursuit of greatness, excellence and total emancipation. Above and beyond, through and in, the joy was, still is, and will forever remain in the journey of our becoming.

Mafule Moswane

2018 Mandela Washington Fellow and a Ph.D. student at the Staley School of Leadership Studies, Kansas State University


Sergi, V. (2016). Who’s leading the way? Investigating the contributions of materiality to leadership-as-practice. In J. Raelin’s, Leadership-as-Practice (pp. 124-145). Routledge.


Kgabo Moja and Mothupi Kgopa

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