Professional and Alumni

Kappa Omicron Nu Dialogue
Vol. 5, No. 3 - © 1995 by Kappa Omicron Nu

In This Issue: - Leadership: Reflective Human Action
Message from the President

Leadership: Reflective Human Action

Dorothy I. Mitstifer

Leadership: Reflective Human Action has been selected by Kappa Omicron Nu for programming to prepare for leadership in the twenty-first century. Leading in the development of this perspective are Frances E. Andrews and Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Co-authors include Marsha Rehm and Gladys Gary Vaughn. Several colleagues will join this team in the next three years to complete the professional development module. 

Why Leadership: Reflective Human Action?

The search for a leadership perspective for the twenty-first century grew out of a conviction that all professionals have a responsibility to lead--to use their competencies in each community of practice, whether it be family, neighborhood, organization, institution, or government. This effort is an attempt to shed new light on old problems as well as old light on contemporary problems. It is also an attempt to understand the ideas that have shaped leadership and to identify a more humane practice toward which many are groping. We live in times that change faster and faster with time. but we also live in a time of tremendous opportunity. Perhaps we are confused enough that we feel able to search for answers to questions such as: What is really going on? How can I know I have identified the issues and problems? Who are the leaders? should I lead? Why should I lead? 

The leadership literature was examined in depth, and several criteria framed the search for answers. It was determined that an appropriate perspective must meet the following criteria:

  Represent nonpositional leadership and imply a responsibility of all professionals for leadership, 

  Be intellectually and morally defensible,

  Link theory and action, and

  Link the how and why of action, the spiritual connection.

Much of the literature on leadership talks about following as well as leading. the question of following is a vexing one. Is followership opposite of leadership? does following imply nonreflective obedience? What is the implication of power in the relationship of leader and follower? In reflective human action all participants have the opportunity for creative engagement, for leading--even though some will choose not to. If it is our earnest belief that all persons can empower themselves, then it is also our belief that all persons can choose to lead in some way, at some time.

But there is a more significant reason to identify a leadership perspective that will guide us in the new millennium. the feeling is growing that positional leadership has not worked--that individuals and groups have lost the connections to and involvement in community, so necessary for sustained human well-being. Reflective human action provides the theory and practice for nonpositional leadership.

We are challenged to develop harmonious relationships among diverse cultures in the community, both local and worldwide. Paramount among the attitudes and awarenesses required for these environments is the concept of interdependency. More and more individuals and groups are discovering that the capacity to act together is inseparable from the ability to think and reflect together. the healthy community of practice is one that has good internal health-making forces. thus a new and different leadership culture is needed to provide them.

Reflective human action as a leadership perspective serves the needs for nonpositional leaders and for a culture to make healthy communities.

What is Leadership: Reflective Human Action?

Several theorists have contributed to this concept of leadership. Terry (1993) defines leadership as a subset of human action, authentic action. It is an engagement with life and lifelong commitment to human fulfillment. Thus, leadership is the action itself, the total engagement offered for the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants. It is taking "responsibility for ourselves in concert with other, . . . [creating] a global commonwealth worthy of the best that we human beings have to offer" (p. 275).

Drath and Palus (1994) describe leadership as a shared human process, meaning-making in a community of practice. "Leadership is intimately connected to processes of group ... and even [to] species-wide integration and togetherness and ultimately to communal survival, growth, and enhancement" (p. 13). 

Wheatley (1994), a pioneer in probing the leadership implications of the "new science" (new perspectives of the biological, physical, and chemical sciences), teaches us that we must move toward holism and the primacy of relationships, human and environmental. McCollum (1995) concludes that when we are far enough away from the industrial age to gain a good perspective, we will understand that we separated "head" from "heart," we severely damaged our planet, and we "created work environments that were crushing to the human spirit. We lost touch with our natural surroundings. The scientists of chaos and complexity seem to be returning us to that standard" (p. 251). 

Another aspect of Reflective Human Action is the meaning of reflection--the ability to think about what you are dong while you are doing it. This reflection-in-action implies competence and artistry as well as commitment to learning through reflection on practice. with thoughtful naming and framing, the dimensions of a situation become apparent. Inventing and testing, a kind of improvisation, then can determine the human action. reflection ensures a search for meaning, an appreciation of uncertainty, and a responsible inquiry. In other words, reflective engagement matters.


  Focuses on large ideas;

  Makes connections, reformulates ideas, and reaches unique conclusions;

  Recognizes complexity and multiple perspectives;

  Acknowledges that elusive and messy endeavors are not easily managed; and

  Respects the involvement of the actors.

Reflection ensures a search for meaning,  an appreciation of uncertainty, and  a responsible inquiry.

Brooks and Brooks (1993) summarize a body of literature that labels this process constructivism. This concept describes a way of coming to know one's world. It leads to analysis of actions and objects and to growth of knowledge as well as to generation of new knowledge through experience. These actions emanate from one's own idiosyncratic mental filtering system--making sense of information by using a priori constructions to infer new relationships among objects, events, or actions. This shift of paradigms is a change in lens. "Changing the lens is an internal process initiated by the individual when current rules and theories about the way one's world works no longer account for the information being perceived or provide for the job to be done" (p. 25). 

Now for a working definition: Reflective human action is an active, mind-engaging process of meaning-making in a community of practice. 

The core features of reflective human action include the concepts of authenticity, ethical sensibility, and spirituality as well as the features of action. The principles for practice within the community environment include: accept chaos, share information, develop relationships, and embrace vision.

Reflective human action is an active, mind-engaging process of meaning-making in a community of practice.

How does one practice Reflective Human Action?

The journey will not be easy. The pathway will be strewn with questions, fear, frustrations, and errors in judgment--but also with satisfactions, creativity, and renewed spirit. The lack of a traditional model of leadership and the old behaviors of leading from a position of power will be awkward at first, and comfort will come only with time, experience, and active participation. Reflective human action requires risk-taking--daring to fail, doing out-of-box thinking. Another way of looking at it is as an adventure, having confidence to create the future. 

The traditional leadership model is pyramidal in design and mechanical in nature, but this new model is highly personal and circular or web-like, i.e., all participants have the potential to extend influence. Helgesen in her newly published book, The Web of Inclusion (1995), discusses the process of practicing such a leadership model. The web process requires (a) open communication across levels, (b) blurred distinctions between conception and execution of ideas and work, (c) lasting networks that redistribute power, (d) constant reorganization, (e) expansion to the world outside, and (f) acceptance of trial and error. 

There are no exact blueprints in this emerging model, just core features and principles guiding practice. And this will be the source of discomfort. The out-comes will be wiser, freer, more autonomous individuals and healthy communities of practice. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of this perspective on leadership is that the quality of the thinking will be improved. The following discussion describes the features and principles of reflective human action

Core Features of Reflective Human Action 

Reflective human action is composed of four core features. 

Features of Action--There are seven features found in every human action. Mission answers the question, "What is the ultimate purpose of this action?" Meaning provides answers to "What is at stake?" and "Why am I doing this?" Existence is the setting from which human action arises. It is looking at the history of the action. Resources are the components with which action is accomplished, the critical assets needed to accomplish the mission. Structure refers to the plans and processes through which action is accomplished. Power is the decision, the passion, and the will to provide energy to the action. Fulfillment is the completed action. These seven features of action provide a framework within which human actions make sense. 

Authenticity--Authenticity is being true to one's own personality, spirit, and character. It is avoiding self-deception and hidden agendas. The important contribution of authenticity is its effect on action--to be authentic is to act, engage, be genuine and trustworthy, reflect, question, and correct how decisions are made; it helps to determine what is really going on and to expand possibilities. 

Ethical Sensibility--There is an ethical imperative for leadership to be intellectually and morally defensible. Ethical reflection makes sense of human experience, and ethical action integrates the elements of responsibility (accountability for action), love (attention and caring), participation (engagement), justice (fairness), freedom (potential and possibility), and dwelling (existence). 

Spirituality--Spirituality does not refer to any specific religion or faith but to depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance. "Although spirit and soul are sometimes used inter- changeably in reference to meaning of life, they have important differences, Soul is personal and unique whereas spirit is universal" (Andrews, Mitstifer, Rehm, & Vaughn). Spirituality is at the core of human life, that "human capacity that gives our lives passion and purpose" (Bolman & Deal, 1995, p, 6), 

Principles of Reflective Human Action 

Four core principles of reflective human action, derived from the new sciences, guide the practice of leadership. 

Accept chaos--Despite new and chaotic information, there is an unerring ability to find order, to retain an essential identity. 

Share information--Information is the creative energy of the universe--the substance, the invisible workings, of creation. 

Develop relationships--Nothing is known except in relation to persons, ideas, and events. "Reality is created as people and ideas meet and change in relationship to each other" (Andrews et al.). "We literally grow, or construct ourselves, through our relationships" (Zohar & Marshall, 1994, p. 326). 

Embrace vision--Clarity about purpose and direction is derived from values and vision. 

The web process and these features and principles "describe the inherent order of the universe. They offer a set of lenses for viewing the work of leaders and organizations, profound because they describe a participatory universe" (Andrews, et al.). 

Last Word 

A quote from Terry (1993) best describes the ultimate goal of reflective human action. 

Leadership is not a means to another end, It is not instrumental, Leadership is the action itself . . . . Leadership is a gift to be unwrapped and treasured; leadership is choice, to be claimed; leadership is part of a web of interdependent actions, to be made functionally whole; leadership is participation, to be energized; leadership is adventure, to be embraced; leadership is creativity and innovation, to be playful. Leadership is total engagement offered for the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants (p. 273). 

. . . leadership is choice, to be claimed . . . .


Andrews, F. E., Mitstifer, D. I., Rehm, M., & Vaughn, G. G. (in press). Leadership: Reflective Human Action. East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu Honor Society. 

Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (1995). Leading with soul: An uncommon journey of spirit. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1993). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

Drath, W. H., & Palus, C. J· (1994). Making common sense: Leadership as meaning-making in a community of practice. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership. 

Helgesen, S. (1995). The web of inclusion. New York: Currency/Doubleday. 

Mc:Collum, J. (1995). Chaos, complexity, and servant leadership. In L. C. Spears (Ed.), Reflections on Leadership· New York: John Wiley & Sons. 

Terry,R. (1993). Authentic leadership: Courage in action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Wheatley, M. J. (1994). Leadership and the new science. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. 

Zohar, D., & Marshall, I. (1994). The quantum society: Mind, physics, and a new social vision. New York: William Morrow. 


President's Message

Carol E. Avery

This edition of Dialogue highlights our award recipients. Congratulations, one and all! I trust you are as excited as I am that we are able to make so many awards this year to undergraduates for presenting research papers. The awards vary (because of airfare) from $500 to $750 each. What a wonderful honor and educational experience!

With the introduction of the new format of FORUM, Kappa Omicron Nu has instituted the major changes recommended by the 1993 Membership Survey. This edition of Dialogue introduces you to the new leadership program theme for the next few years. That, too, was the first priority for programming. The Survey also recommended that Conclave become a leadership development opportunity for all members. Therefore, Conclave 1995 now has tracks for both professionals and students.

The theory of reflective human action is on the cutting edge of leadership theory, and we are grateful to our committed writing team for their work. The challenges today require a different approach, and perhaps you will find some new ideas and energy for leadership in the summary printed herein and in the soon-to-be-published module.

One of the responsibilities of the board is to communicate with members, to listen, and to act upon their needs. But all this carries a price tag. The Board, knowing that a membership decline usually accompanies a dues increase, delivered increased benefits before the dues went into effect. Thus, the board took some risks based upon your input. We trust that we have demonstrated the value of membership and can count on your annual dues renewal. Your help in encouraging your colleagues to actively participate will be appreciated as well.