Grassroots Leadership

I am reading “Enhancing campus capacity for leadership: An examination of grassroots leaders in higher education” by Adrianna Kezar and Jaime Lester.   This book is based off their multi-year research into faculty and staff bottom up leadership. It expands on several of the research articles by them I have been using to frame my problem and definitions of bottom up leadership. One of the things that has stymied me in this dissertation work is push back on the term bottom up leadership. The question is what really consists of bottom up leadership. For awhile I had gotten to “faculty initiated innovation” to describe the phenomena that I wanted. And quite frankly the easiest thing to do to get this dissertation moving would be to focus on a grassroots leader or do an IPA study of grassroots leadership. However, I am a lot more interested in how system enable or hinder bottom up leadership.

Kezar and Lester (2011) make a clear distinction between several related ideas:  leadership, activism, and grassroots leadership. In earlier versions of my lit review, I wrestled with this same set of distinctions- Kezar and Lester hinted at these distinctions in one their articles, but didn’t fully flesh it out. Reading this book has been helpful. They distinguish between the three as:

Leadership- “Leadership  as the use of power by authority figures to create change” This idea of leadership focuses on formal authority, recognized authority structures within a system or organization, formal, recognized position within a system or organization, also constrained by the system. (Note: this is not a comprehensive definition of all the permutations and perspectives on leadership and the authors do not intend it to be.)

Activism- “Activism is typically differentiated  from leadership  in using non-institutionalized practices  and ‘outside channels’  to make change.” This idea focuses on outside, informal power structures and emphasizes a outside challenge to the status quo. (Note: the authors also discuss activism in relation to social movements.)

Grassroots Leadership- “Grassroots leadership are individuals who do not have formal positions of authority, and are operating from the bottom up, and are interested in, and pursue,  organizational changes that often challenge the status quo.” This type of leadership requires these leaders to develop their own support, networks and structure, so it mimics formal leadership, but is generated by informal, bottom up approaches. It uses some of the same tactics as activism, but still is within the system.

So the question remains, how do systems enable or inhibit grassroots leaders? What impact does inhibiting grassroots leadership have long term have on the institution? Can you fully restrict grassroots leadership in an organization of higher ed and be successful?

Based on complex adaptive systems theory, you can try to inhibit grassroots leadership through negative feedback loops and limitations on autonomy. However, since a complex adaptive system exists as a shadow network, it is unlikely that you can fully eradicate  that network. But you can certainly restrict it and prevent emergent changes from being institutionalized.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s