December 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA1

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A Framework for 21st Century Leadership

Early in 1994, a task force, created under the aegis of Michigan State University Extension, was charged with articulating a conceptual framework to guide existing and future community-based leadership development efforts. This article summarizes the definition, driving forces, values, and principles of the framework. Leadership development for the 21st century requires a change in personal practice, conceptual thinking, and organizational application. From the point of view of this framework, leadership development shifts from individual-centered to collective centered; from packaged curriculum to an evolving, customized educational process focused on building relationships; and from discrete leadership development programs to leadership development embedded in concrete issues identified by the participants in the process.

Lorilee R. Sandmann, Ph.D.
Community Outreach
Office of the Vice Provost for University Outreach
Internet address:

Lela Vandenberg, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Resource Development
Internet address:

Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan

     It is not leadership from any one person that is required,
     it is an aspect of leadership each of us summons from
     within.  In this respect, the same qualities we have sought
     in one person can be found distributed among many people who
     learn, in community, to exercise their "leadership" at
     appropriate moments.  This occurs when people are vitally
     concerned about issues or when executing their
     responsibilities.  Leadership thus becomes a rather fluid
     concept focusing on those behaviors which propel the work of
     the group forward.
                                   John Nirenberg (1993, p. 198)


The philosophy of leadership implicit in leadership development programs of the past is no longer adequate for dealing with the complex problems inherent in communities and organizations today. This implicit philosophy assumes that leadership rests in individuals who must be capable of inspiring and influencing others to solve problems and achieve goals. However, this "heroic" view of leadership is often based on a deficiency view of people, as Peter Senge (1990) points out.

     Especially in the West, leaders are heroes--great men (and
     occasionally women) who rise to the fore' in times of
     crises...  At its heart, the traditional view of leadership
     is based on assumptions of people's powerlessness, their
     lack of personal vision and inability to master the forces
     of change, deficits which can be remedied only by a few
     great leaders. (p. 340)

A new philosophy of leadership is emerging. Dubbed "post-heroic" leadership (Huey, 1994), it is based on bottom-up transformation fueled by shared power and community building. John Nirenberg's (1993) The Living Organization, quoted earlier, eloquently expresses the fluid, distributed, community, and action-oriented nature of leadership from this perspective.

Although various scholars and authors differ in their scope and focus when describing changes required by the new leadership philosophy, there are at least three common themes: shared leadership, leadership as relationship, and leadership in community. The idea of shared leadership is variously termed dispersed, roving, distributive, collective, or group-centered leadership, and organizations are referred to as "leaderful." The assumption is that all of us have leadership qualities that can be pooled and drawn upon as needed, when working with others on vital common issues.

The related theme, leadership as relationship, revolves around the idea of a network of fluid relationships and is built on the concepts of empowerment, participation, partnership, and service. The third theme, leadership in community, envisions community as the conceptual setting in which the leadership relationship takes place. "Communities of commitment" (Kofman & Senge, 1993) represent a shift from competition and self-centeredness. They provide both a model for organizing and a haven for the expression of spirituality, the practice of new ways of relating, and the promotion of important values such as trust, commitment, sharing, and ownership.

Cooperative Extension's Position in the Shift

Do Extension programs and practices reflect this shift from hierarchical/mechanical models to "heterarchial"/organic leadership models? The Cooperative Extension System has a long history of commitment to community-based leadership development education. In fact, a 1990 national study on Extension leadership development reported that "on average, staff spent seven hours per week trying to develop leadership skills among clientele, i.e., 15% of their work time" (Michael, Paxson & Howell, 1990, p. 8). However, they also found that Extension staff tended to teach skills associated with stable social order and similarity in social values, working within groups, and knowing how to do things right (transactional leadership). There was an apparent emphasis on "doing over understanding." Further, the study found the Extension staff gave less emphasis to dealing with change, diversity and conflict, transformational or visionary leadership, and to those situations involving knowledge, perception, and attitude.

Two new documents provide evidence of continued, albeit redirected, interest in leadership development efforts within the Cooperative Extension System-USDA. For the Common Good: A Strategic Plan for Leadership and Volunteer Development (Michael, 1994) states that a goal is community-based, action-oriented programming; three out of five themes presented include leader and volunteer development for the public well-being, community ownership, and civic action. Framing the Future: Strategic Framework for a System of Partnerships (Extension Committee on Organization, & Policy and Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service Strategic Framework Team, 1995) also refers to educational processes that build and foster vital and caring communities and emphasize shared leadership. While these two documents provide policy direction in leadership development, they do not provide a unifying architecture from which Extension leadership development can take form.

Need for a Conceptual Framework

Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) found itself engaged in vigorous, yet highly dispersed efforts in leadership development. Some leadership development programs are targeted at inner city youth. Others build the capacity of governmental officials, family policy advocates, and citizen volunteers. Still another approach is used with participants in programs in which there is an integrated leadership development component. The need for a coherent framework was expressed in various ways. Some associated with MSUE felt that leadership development programs suffered from the lack of a clearly articulated unifying vision. Others cited a lack of evidence of lasting change resulting from leadership development programs and the need for long-term evaluations. Some criticized leadership development programs generally for often being too short-term, top-down, and generic, and for a focus on personal enrichment rather than the systematic development of groups wanting to bring about change (MSU Extension Leadership Academy Task Group, 1992).

Therefore in 1994, a task force was charged by Director Gail Imig with articulating a conceptual framework to guide existing and future community-based leadership development efforts. Further, it was projected that a unifying framework could contribute to (a) a common language that program planners and participants involved in community-based leadership development could use to share plans, experiences, and results with each other; (b) a design for assessing the impacts of the many variations of leadership development programs, and for identifying factors instrumental in creating lasting change; and (c) a stronger basis from which faculty and staff could develop inquiry, share experiences, and establish partnerships with others, both on and off-campus, engaging in community-based leadership development.

The members of this task force were university faculty and Extension field staff with expertise in community leadership development. They led an iterative cycle of discussions among university faculty, Extension experts, and community leaders. The ideas that emerged from these discussions and from the literature form the vision, values, and principles of the framework that follows. A more comprehensive description of the foundational literature and the conceptualization, including assumptions, concepts, success scenarios, university role, and examples, are presented in the task force final report and is available from the authors.

21st Century Leadership Defined

The task force concluded that leadership development for the 21st century is holistic: it is centered in groups or organizations, rather than individuals, and engages the group in heart, mind, spirit, and energy. The driving forces of this philosophy, then, are community, the heart of a group's leadership; vision, which engages the spirit; learning, which stimulates the mind; and action, which compels energy. From this point of view, leadership development shifts from individual-centered to collective-centered; from a packaged curriculum to an evolving, customized educational process focused on building relationships; and from discrete leadership development programs to leadership development embedded in concrete issues identified by the participants in the process.

The particular niche of a community-based, university-sponsored leadership development effort was labeled community action leadership development (CALD) and defined as the development of energized communities of co-leaders and co-learners committed to concerted action toward a collective vision (Vandenberg & Sandmann, 1995).

The framework can be thought of as the intersection among the related domains of community development, organizational development, and leadership development. Community development is the nurturing of a group's spirit and the growth of its commitment, identity, loyalty, and willingness to work for a common goal. Organizational development is the increase of a group's capacity to engage in concerted and effective action to achieve group goals. Leadership development is the growth of individuals' capacities to facilitate community development and organizational development. From this perspective, community action leadership development is leadership development for community organizations. It aims to develop individuals' abilities to build both a group's community spirit and its capacity to engage in effective action.

A Conceptual Framework for Community Action Leadership Development

The framework is composed of four parts. The first part, described earlier, is driven by a holistic philosophy of community, vision, learning, and action. These forces form the outline of the task force view of leadership. The second part of the framework relates these elements to seven action-based values. The third examines the roles of designated leaders in promoting community action leadership. The fourth part applies methodological principles to these values and processes in terms of both method and content.

Action Values

Embedded in the CALD definition are seven action values.

  1. Visioning Together. Developing a shared vision that is future-focused and built on a group's strengths is an essential starting point. Visioning engages the spirit, gives meaning and purpose to group efforts, and allows members to rise above self-interest and maintain motivation. A shared vision provides a boundary for action.

  2. Leading Together. In "leaderful" organizations, leadership roles are shared and everyone takes responsibility for group process and action. Trust, developed in part through honest and open communication, is the foremost requirement. Designated leaders promote the development of each person by modeling, inspiring, teaching, delegating, and serving.

  3. Learning Together. Effective CALD is based on knowledge, which provides substance to a vision and informs action. Group members bring knowledge but also build knowledge through learning cycles. Learning cycles involve planning, acting, and reflecting together.

  4. Building Community. At the heart of CALD is a caring community with strong, trusting intragroup relationships forged by visioning, leading, learning, and acting together. A sense of community is reflected in feelings of identity and commitment, in acceptance and appreciation of diversity, and in constructive processes for examining and mediating conflict.

  5. Developing Energy. Collective energy is a group's ability to develop or obtain the resources necessary to achieve its goals. To nurture it, a group must focus on organizational development or capacity building. Collective energy requires promoting collective ownership in visioning, learning, planning, decision making, and action.

  6. Acting Together. Acting together focuses collective energy and gives life to a vision. The action process requires teamwork, political analysis and strategizing, and the astute organizing of a community's assets and resources. Facilitators--designated leaders or consultants--must be committed to the process, dedicated to the welfare of the group, and detached from a need to hold power and control.

  7. Communicating. A group engaging in CALD must have strong interpersonal communication. Improving communication requires the practice of dialogue--listening to understand, reflecting on one another's opinions, keeping open-minded attitudes, and ultimately, discovering common ground amidst diversity. Collecting and exchanging valid and reliable information builds trust, contributes to effective co-learning, and helps ensure relevant and well-targeted actions. Networking is an effective means of forging wide-ranging linkages that can lead to collaboration and community building with others in partnerships and coalitions.

The Role of Leaders

Communities committed to being leaderful are not leaderless. Designated leaders under this conception, however, do not fit the common notion of leader as hero. Rather they are designers, teachers and stewards who practice the following six principles of community action leadership development. The first four are methodological, involving learners in processes that they will use, in turn, as leadership facilitators. The other two are content principles.

  1. Facilitation. Leadership development efforts should be based on informal or non-formal teaching, better described as facilitation. CALD involves facilitating the development of a cohesive learning group which values diversity and explores conflict constructively. This process is based on respect, encouragement, and community building.

  2. Learner Focus. To customize leadership development, learning facilitators need to understand the context in which their leadership is situated; the learners' needs, desires, and strengths; and the issues being addressed. The most effective method of ensuring relevant, tailor-made CALD is to give participants control of the learning process by engaging them in an on-going process of visioning, planning, decision making, and reflecting about their learning experiences.

  3. Leadership Focus. Learner-focused leadership development does not mean leader-focused. Leadership exists as a set of relationships among group or organization members; and everyone in the group has leadership potential and can play leadership roles at various times. This view implies a group-centered approach to leadership development, one centered on organizational development and capacity building.

  4. Issue/Action Focus. Out-of-context leadership development programs have limited impact because the transfer of learning to real-life situations rarely happens. Therefore, CALD efforts that aim for long-term impact must incorporate learning centered around real issues that groups are facing, learning in action, and on-going reflection or collective self-examination.

  5. Non-Prescriptive. The content of CALD efforts cannot be prescribed. It must be determined with and by participants. The first meeting could consist of an overview of community action leadership, an outline of possible content areas, and an organizational diagnosis exercise. The outline could be organized around the seven action values, subdivided into many more specific topics to choose from.

  6. Process as Content. In many ways, the process or methodology of CALD efforts is the content. By being part of a CALD learning group based on the methodological principles described above, participants can learn facilitation, community building, teamwork, group planning and decision making, organizational development, conflict management, and group reflection.

Toward 21st Century Leadership Development

Cooperative Extension is poised to make community action leadership development its hallmark of the 21st century and its unique and timely contribution to the burgeoning field of community leadership development. It is important to note that this conceptual framework is not a prescription. It is not a program or a curriculum. Leadership development in this conception is not a commodity to deliver. Also, it is not a how-to manual or an iteration of current practice. It is, rather, a perspective, a set of ideas, a way of thinking--the architecture underlying multiple variations of community action leadership development. Its purpose is to provide a contemporary, vision-driven, value-based guide for thinking about, working in, and organizing community action leadership development. Embracing this way of thinking, however, may require substantial changes in personal practice, conceptual thinking, and organizational application.

If a conceptual framework such as this is to move from concept to practice, the framework must be understood by Extension faculty, staff and administrators. It must be creatively and persistently applied, and time, commitment and resources must be devoted to assertively and energetically implementing it in professional development, program development, and organizational development. Particular attention needs to be given to the integration and sustainability of such an approach. For example, the framework's philosophy ought to be modeled in internal organizational operations. Other strategies include further developing the framework through dialogue, case studies, and research; using the framework to connect and integrate existing leadership development efforts; and establishing university-wide, state-wide and national CALD networks to promote dialogue, training, experimentation, and research.

Cooperative Extension has the opportunity to take advantage of its position within land grant universities and USDA to usher in a new era in leadership development, one characterized by community, learning, vision, and action. It also has a responsibility--given its history and current work with leadership development, and its mission of extending knowledge to citizens who need it-- to embrace, model, and share this "post-heroic," people-centered paradigm.


Extension Committee on Organization, & Policy and Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service Strategic Framework Team. (1995). Framing the future: Strategic framework for a system of partnerships. Washington, DC: Author.

Huey, J. (1994, February 21). The new post-heroic leadership. Fortune, pp. 42-50.

Kofman, F., & Senge, P. M. (1993). Communities of commitment: The heart of learning organizations. Organizational Dynamics, 22(2), 5-23.

Michael, J. A. (Ed.). (1994). For the common good: A strategic plan for leadership and volunteer development. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture.

Michael, J. A., Paxson, M. C., & Howell, R. E. (1990). Developing leadership among Extension clientele. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture.

MSU Extension Leadership Academy Task Group. (1992). Leadership development programs in Michigan. East Lansing: Michigan State University Extension.

Nirenberg, J. (1993). The living organization: Transforming teams into workplace communities. Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

Vandenberg, L., & Sandmann, L. (1995). Community action leadership development: A conceptual framework for Michigan State University Extension (MSU Extension Leadership Series No. 95-01). East Lansing: Michigan State University.