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The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership

Edited by George R. Goethals and Georgia L.J. Sorenson

In this compelling book, top scholars from diverse fields describe the progress they have made in developing a general theory of leadership. Led by James MacGregor Burns, Pulitzer Prize winning author of the classic Leadership (1978), they tell the story of this intellectual venture and the conclusions and questions that arose from it.
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Chapter 8: A Constructionist Lens on Leadership: Charting New Territory

Sonia Ospina and Georgia L.J. Sorenson


Sonia Ospina and Georgia L.J. Sorenson1 The April, 2003 meeting of the general theory scholars included invitations to scholars utilizing action-research methodologies as well as to practitioners on the frontline of leadership development in communities. Scholars like John L. Johnson, Professor Emeritus, University of the District of Columbia; Deborah Meehan, Executive Director of the Leadership Learning Community; and Sonia Ospina, faculty of NYU’s Wagner School, joined the group for a robust discussion. Ospina discussed the participant-centered research she and her colleagues are undertaking for the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World program and shared with the other scholars some findings emerging from this approach. 2 Using a constructionist lens, Ospina and her colleagues are working with social change leaders to understand how leadership emerges and develops in community-based organizations engaged in social change agendas. A constructionist lens suggests that leadership happens when a community develops and uses, over time, shared agreements to create results that have col­ lective value. Grounded in culture and embedded in social structures such as power and stratification, these agreements influence and give meaning to mem­ bers’ actions, interactions and relationships, and help people mobilize to make change happen. Among the agreements that help to illuminate the nature of so­ cial change leadership in the studied communities, Ospina and her colleagues have identified a worldview composed of implicit assumptions about the nature of knowledge, change, humans and the world; articulated formulations of the expected outcomes of change, mediated through levers of personal and organi­ zational...

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