The aim of the study was to examine Graduate Students’ perceptions of their most positive leadership experiences, unearth what gives life to their leadership, and to identify the ways in which they conceptualize leadership development. The objective was to arrive at concepts of exemplary leadership that may be used to inform change strategies and create a framework for a student leadership development program. Responding to this issue required a methodological approach which was participatory, co-constructive, and dialogical. As a result, in order to adequately investigate the phenomena of leadership and leadership development from the participants’ point of view, and to arrive at their perceptions of positive leadership, I used a qualitative case study which was conducted through an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) process. The main data collection methods were individual and focus group appreciative interviews.
A sample of five Graduate Student Leaders from a university in a Western Canadian province was used in this study. As the participants shared their perceptions of their most positive leadership experiences six key findings emerged. First, positive leadership experiences for the participants resided in the confluence of “being,” “learning,” and “doing.” Leadership was a co-active process in which expressing emotions, receiving affirmations, acquiring new knowledge, and producing life affirming results acted as a force for elevated performance. Second, positive leadership experiences of the participants were framed around collective and interactive efforts to build interpersonal relationships in the community in which the leadership process was taking place. Third, the participants perceived leadership as an emotional process whereby leaders gain knowledge of followers’ emotions through listening, appraising, and expressing authentic care. Fourth, the expression of emotions in leadership for the participants enhanced the leadership relationship and acted as an energizing and actualizing force in personal development. Fifth, the participants viewed empathy as a fundamental leadership strength that yielded multiple interrelated benefits such as the facilitation of individual growth and social connections. Significantly, another interpretation that was gleaned from the data was that the industrial notion of leadership of the “man at the top” lingers and functions as a predictor of leadership success.
The participants’ conceptualizations of leadership development revealed two major findings. Primarily, leadership development is an interplay between self-development and institutional initiatives. Additionally, leadership development and self-development were inextricably embedded; understanding oneself as a leader involved the reflective process of understanding oneself as a person.
Consistent with the objective of this study, a framework for a leadership development program was proposed based on an incorporation of the perceptions of the Graduate Student Leaders’ most positive leadership experiences and their understanding of leadership development. The framework presented is accompanied by explanations of the choice of each concept within the framework and justification based on previous research findings, as well as excerpts from the participants’ responses.
Having taken an appreciative and positive approach to understanding Graduate Students’ leadership experiences I conclude that the concepts that emerged are powerful arguments for nurturing the student voice, and that there is much more to be discovered for the expression and framing of leadership in organizational life, academia, and the community. Furthermore, I submit that we need to deliberately engage appreciative processes so as to enhance our capacity to create leaders who articulate optimistic organizational relations and a deep appreciation of self and others.||en_US