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buttonspaceReflective Human Action: An Uncommon Journey to Leadership

Reprinted with permission from:
Andrews, F. E., Mitstifer, D. I., Rehm, M., & Vaughn, G. G.  (1995). Leadership: Reflective human action. East Lansing, MI: Kappa Omicron Nu.

It was determined during planning for the 1995 Kappa Omicron Nu Conclave leadership workshops that it wasn't enough to explore the theory of reflective human action. Leadership must be applied to the human context that will drive individual and collective development. Gladys Gary Vaughn was asked to write Chapter Four and to adapt it for presentation at the Conclave Banquet, August 5, 1995.

Capra (1991) is convincing in his declaration that to favor "self-assertion over integration, analysis over synthesis, rational knowledge over intuitive wisdom, science over religion, competition over cooperation, expansion over conservation, . . ." (p. 8) leads to a crisis of social, ecological, moral, and spiritual dimensions. Reflective human action is an effort to integrate these dimensions into a holistic approach to leadership. Although not universal yet, a cultural transformation is underway--from a mechanistic worldview that described the universe as a mechanical system, the human as a machine, life as a competitive struggle, and the goal as unlimited material progress, to an "ecological worldview" (Capra, 1991) of fundamental interdependence of all life in its multiple manifestations and cycles of change and transformation. Researchers in various disciplines are developing this new vision of reality that ultimately transforms deep ecological awareness into spiritual awareness. Thus reflective human action is on the cutting edge, expressive of this new cultural transformation.

Zohar and Marshall (1994) describe how to create a "social reality that embraces every aspect of our daily lives--our sense of personal identity, our relationships to others and to nature, our political and moral decisions, the manner in which we design our cities and educate our children, the management practices with which we run our industries, and the fundamental values and goals that inspire our actions" (p. 33). This new social reality must have the following features (pp. 29-31).

1.      It must be holistic. Structures of dynamic integration must replace isolated, uncoordinated units.

2.      It must get beyond the individual/collective dichotomy. We need to see ourselves as creative individuals within a larger and meaningful whole, and our sense of what it means to be a community must be transformed.

3.      It must be plural. Many points of view and many different ways of experiencing reality will create a shared way of "doing business."

4.      It must be responsive. Ambiguity, rapid change, and greater complexity will characterize the new social reality that requires a flexible response.

5.      It must be "bottom up" or emergent. The source of authority and decision will need to move to the grassroots where people think, feel, and act.

6.      It must be "green." Social goals must be in harmony with the natural world.

7.       It must be spiritual. Satisfaction in one's social life depends upon the larger context of meaning and value, which transcends materialism and self-interest.

8.      It must be dialogic. The nature of the physical and living worlds extends and develops the moral and spiritual roots of society.

Individuals are important in their own right, but they participate creatively in harmony with others. Thus it is a combination of individual identities within a collective identity that forms the basic social reality--the forum for leadership action. It is clear that if we want to change leadership in society, we must change the way we think. Deep change will require an altered intellectual framework that includes authentic leadership integrated with the new social reality. Because we learn through experience and through reflection, reflective human action will constitute a continuing process of becoming.

Common Ground: Understanding Leadership

What's Going On?

Mother, mother,

There are far too many of you crying,

Brother, brother, brother,

There are far too many of you dying.

You know we have got to find a way,

To bring some love in here today.

. . .

Picket signs (sister),

Picket lines (sister), 

Talk to me (sister),

So you can see (sister),

What's going on? . . . (Gaye, Cleveland, & Benson, 1970)

What seems a lifetime ago--largely because the world was very different then--Marvin Gaye, a world renowned and award-winning recording star, sang those words. Extremely popular, Gaye's "What's Going On" was rated #2 in U. S. record sales in 1971. The context was the Vietnam War and its consequences on the "conduct of family" by U. S. citizens. With clever and catchy, but none-the-less piercing lyrics, it spoke directly about the mood of many of the world's people.

Curiously enough, the song was part of yet another (then) new genre of popular (pop) music that seemed to speak to a growing feeling of disconnectedness between people and their environments: institutions, leaders, families, and even their own basic values. "Reach Out and Touch" (Ashford & Simpson, 1970) is another example of this genre; so too is "Take This Job and Shove It" (Coe, 1977).

Once again, as in every era, leadership emerged from surprising places, as art and life converged through music. Among the most popular songs of the day were those that reflected the values of a society--indeed a world--increasingly in conflict with itself. Many such songs were literally calls to action, calls to leadership for the common good: reflective human action, authentic leadership.

The signs and seeds of change have continued and not only through art as music. For example, there has been a virtual explosion in scholarly and popular literature that addresses spirituality, self-correctedness, courageous leadership, organization reformation, love, personal relationships, caring, and soul. Paralleling this explosion is the increase in the number of inspirational speakers, the number of individuals seeking spiritual enlightenment, and the change to an ecological worldview. Are there connections between these events and what seems to be a pervasive eroding of systems and values?

What's going on? There is constant and sweeping change, not all of which seems to lead to societal progress. Many questions are being asked about the nation's direction and purpose, questions such as (a) What is happening to America? (b) Why is there such decay in the social fabric of our country? (c) Is cultural diversity a goal any longer if we can't even get along? (d) Do we not see that far too many of our children are dying? and  (e) Why does our social fragmentation seem to be worsening?

What's going on? is the question that Terry (1993) indicates we must ask ourselves as we seek to correctly identify and frame the pressing organizational and societal questions if solutions are to be found for the issues of our day.

As a society we appear to dance a kind of tango that at once propels us backward as it begs for forward direction. According to Terry (1993):

A pervading sense of personal and social sickness erodes our confidence in our basic social institutions. Categories of personal dysfunctions and social disorders fill the print and the electronic media (p. 116).

Even a cursory examination of today's news bears out Terry's comments. For example:

1.      Terrorist attacks within our own borders, and in such likely places as New York City, as well as such unlikely places such as Oklahoma City.

2.      Pedophile charges brought against priests and preachers.

3.      Phenomenal growth in the number of collaborative partnerships and new limited-purpose organizations, each established to address some emerging or long-standing problem or issue.

4.      So-called leaders distancing themselves from their representative communities and constituencies.

5.      Extremes in family well-being across all classes and cultures that are subject of national concern and debate. We are fast becoming a nation of extremes.

To wit:


We have on the one hand . . .



And on the other . . .


Who are on the brink of poverty, or of losing their financial base.

For whom income is stable or increasing.

For whom home ownership is not a possibility in the near or distant future, or it is not even a reality; for whom home is not a concept.

Who are buying their second or third homes; and for whom home is real.

We have on the one hand . . .


And on the other . . .



Who have no health insurance and for whom one catastrophic illness of even a short duration by a wage earner or any family member would be devastating.

For whom health insurance is not a concern.

Whose major earner(s) can't leave a hostile   working environment because of fear of losing health benefits and because there are few, if any, career options.

Whose major earners job surf amid a wide array of career options and employee benefits and are free to leave hostile workplaces.

Where the children are afraid they are not going to live to see their 21st birthday and those whose children plan their own funerals; those whose children cannot go outside to play; and those whose children cower in the corners of their sleep-places.

Where the children have an exciting childhood--and are physically and psychologically free to play in their own communities, in their own yards, in their own homes.

Obviously there are many problems that need to be addressed amid today's context. What's going on? What is really going on? What can possibly come of such chaos, such disorder, such discontinuity? Are our souls no longer witnesses to the chronic destruction, near and far, around us? Do we no longer care? Have we defined human environments so narrowly that if it is not our own, it doesn't matter? What are our actions portraying about the desire for dignity and a just community? How are our actions to reflect the principles of reflective human action--accept chaos, share information, develop relationships, and embrace vision --such that our journeys are simultaneously unique and meaningful to us, all the while serving the common good?

Edmund Burke's (1808) timeless admonition is an apt description of the comprehensive holistic approach called for by Wheatley (1994), Terry (1993) and others in addressing the problems of our day:

Perhaps the only moral trust with any certainty in our hands
is the care of our own time.

"The care of our own time." Although Burke's frame was 19th century English politics, his words express simply and beautifully the entire spectrum of life's meaning: community, compassion, connectedness, justice, love, spirit, soul, and authenticity.

Authenticity and Action

Authenticity is a concept that is used time and again in a variety of sectors and is deeply ingrained in our culture. It's ubiquitousness is only surpassed by its invisibility (the assumption of its presence): authentic tratoria, authentic Cantonese cuisine, authentic Native Alaskan art (complete with authenticating symbol). You're for real. There is a line of clothing marketed under the brand name, "Cactus--Authentic Clothing of Quality." "Body by Fisher" and similar hallmarks convey to the consuming public the concept of authenticity.

One of the key concepts in reflective human action is authenticity. And we've defined it as being true to one's own personality, spirit, and character, moving away from the consumerist meaning with which it is often associated. Briefly, let's explore this notion further, and in relation to the common good.

According to Terry (1993), on whose formulations and discourse we have drawn heavily, authenticity derives from the word authentic, and to be authentic is to act--to engage, to participate in life. Authenticity is genuineness, it is trustworthiness; it entails action that is both true and real, within ourselves and in the world. We are authentic when we discern, seek, and live into truth as persons in diverse communities and in the real world.

Leadership is distinguished from other forms of action when it calls forth authentic action for the common good. Leadership is authentic when it is action motivated by love for the deed; it is pure and unadulterated by self-interest; it is courageous and compassionate. There is much evidence that such a perspective on leadership is needed. As earlier indicated, there has been an explosion in a new genre of publications focused on leadership and coupled with soul, spirit, love, meaning. Brian Lanker's I Dream a World (1989) uses portraiture and personal essays to record herstory--how the actions of seventy-five women have changed the world. Canfield and Hansen's extremely popular collections of essays, Chicken Soup for the Soul (1993, 1995) report stories of change. In each instance, the common denominators are love, authenticity, sharing gifts, courage, making a way out of no way. Both mirror the authentic leadership concept.

Rethinking and continuing the leadership legacy that undergirds Kappa Omicron Nu is important, and so too is member involvement. A true story from African American history helps make the point.

The Real McCoy

I'm sure most of you have heard the phrase, The Real McCoy, and perhaps you have used it in conversation. The phrase has a very interesting origin.

Elijah McCoy was the brilliant son of escaped slaves who traveled from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Elijah, his siblings, and his parents--like many slaves and former slaves, had relocated to Canada: they had freedom and a home on their minds. Early on Elijah appeared to have an affinity for things mechanical. His parents were eventually able to send Elijah (at age 16) to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he pursued a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. By the time Elijah had concluded his studies, the Civil War in the U. S. had ended and the slaves were freed. Elijah returned to the U. S. upon completing his schooling and attempted to begin an engineering career, to seek his fortune, so to speak. And, although he had impeccable credentials--he was a master mechanic and engineer, and was a freedman, he was repeatedly denied any position in engineering. Eventually he settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan. To earn a living, he accepted the only job he could find, that of locomotive fireman/oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad.

During this phase of the development of the railroad industry, overheating of locomotive engines was a fact of life. So as a fireman, he had to shovel coal into the locomotive's firebox. Every hour he shoveled over two tons of coal--by hand and with a shovel--into a firebox. He had to work fast, because if the fires burned out, the steam that propelled the locomotive would cease, and thus the locomotive would stop running. Also, as a fireman, he had to monitor the boiler that produced the steam, making sure that the pressure did not build up and cause an explosion. As an oilman, he had to keep the locomotive's moving parts oiled. This was critical so that it would run smoothly on the track. The locomotive had to be stopped ever so often, and he and other oilmen would walk the length of the train--oiling the axles, bearings, and other moving parts of each car. So-o-o-o-, when Elijah finished his "oilman" duties, he had to rush back to his "fireman" duties to keep the train running.

Picture this: Elijah shoveling tons of coal into the train's firebox each hour, monitoring the boiler's water pressure level, then racing to deal with the axles, bearings, and other moving parts needing oil. The story goes that Elijah wanted to make his job more efficient. But between you and me, I think Elijah just got "sick and tired" of running back and forth from the engines to the axles, axles to the engines. ANYWAY--although several men had already made lubricating devices, Elijah decided to improve on those inventions. Figuring that there had to be a way for an engine to lubricate itself, he began experimenting with a mechanical self-lubricating device. He worked on an idea for two years and invented the first automatic lubricator, a lubricator cup, for which he was granted a U. S. patent in 1872. The lubricator cup, or "drip cup" as it was commonly called, was a tiny container filled with oil, designed so that a "stopcock" allowed small amounts of oil to drip continuously onto the moving parts of a machine while it was in operation. Prior to Elijah's lubricator cup, all motorized machinery had to be periodically brought to a complete stop so that lubricants could be applied by hand. The value of this invention to the advancement of socio-technological development was--of course--immediately evident. (No rocket scientist needed here--besides, they didn't exist.)

Rewind your mind's video momentarily. You can imagine that in 1872, many engineers and businessmen were skeptical of Elijah's oil cup--it would change an entire industry, and after all it was invented by a Black man! But the owners of the Michigan Central Railroad recognized it for the superior design it was, and soon his automatic lubricating oil cup was installed on all Michigan Central locomotives that were under his supervision.

Even in the 1870's, the information grapevine was short. Word of Elijah's success traveled fast. Soon, other railroads, shipping lines, and manufacturers wanted Elijah's invention. Other inventors tried to copy his invention, but the copies didn't stand up to the rigorous standards of quality that Elijah applied to all his work, and which had become his hallmark. In time, anyone who was in the market, and knew the difference, wanted not a copy, not a counterfeit model, but the genuine article, the real thing. At the time of purchase, the question asked was: "Is this The Real McCoy?" The Real McCoy had come to stand for the highest quality product available (James, 1989; Towle, 1995).

The expression, like the others mention earlier, is now deeply rooted in our language. And it used to signify the ultimate in genuine quality. In other words, when you have The Real McCoy, you have the genuine article, the real thing; what you have is authentic! Coke's "It's the real thing" slogan and ad campaign refers to the fact that if you buy a Coca Cola, you have bought the first cola drink, and (as everyone knows) the first anything is always the "real thing." And, by implication, all others--Pepsi, Royal Crown Cola, even 7-Up, the UnCola, are mere imitations.

Pepsi Cola downplays its "cola" identity in media advertising campaigns, calls itself Pepsi, and fights the non-authentic notion with its own version of the real thing: (all together now) "You've got the right one Baby, Uh Huh!"

Authenticity! What, pray tell, does this story about a 19th century African American inventor have to do with reflective human action? Some of you have already made the connection, but I shall continue to ask the rhetorical question. So what does it mean?  Well, lots.

First: We all can lead. Leadership is the courage to act and comes from within. It is independent of position, class, education, race, and place. (Elijah McCoy came from very humble beginnings and was employed at the lowest rung of the career ladder.)

Second: Your involvement in Kappa Omicron Nu signals your desire to lead: to lead by participation in scholarship, research, and service activities; it informs all witnesses that you are becoming the genuine article, the real thing, The Real McCoy, an authentic leader.

Third: It acknowledges your rightmindedness, your public spiritedness, your willingness to assist the common good, as evidenced by your chapter activities and your involvement in them. And, in the tradition of Elijah McCoy, it signals that as an authentic and empowered leader, you intend to act, to use your scholarship to search for answers to society's critical issues, particularly those in the commons impacting children and families.

Fourth: Life in the realm of authentic leadership ain't easy. There is a tremendous price to be paid for each of the victories waiting to be won. As with philosophy undergirding our profession, authentic leadership goes "against the current" (Green, 1981), against the grain.

Fifth: With the conferring of honor and the assumption of leadership, both positional and nonpositional, comes responsibility. Among these responsibilities is to "lead with soul" (Bolman & Deal, 1995), sharing the gifts of love, power, authorship, and significance.

Sixth: To have someone say about you, You're the Real McCoy, means they think you're genuine, you're authentic! But hey, you don't have to wait for others to validate you; ask yourself, "Am I the Real McCoy?" Am I genuine about leadership? Am I the genuine article? And, pay close attention to how you answer your own questions.

Authenticity also means that:

If indeed empowered leaders is our mission, then it logically follows that an appropriate leadership role for us is to ensure that socio-economic policy protects and preserves scholarship through teaching, research, and service.

If indeed empowered leaders is our mission, then it logically follows that an appropriate leadership role for us is to ensure that the results of our leadership, that is to say scholarship, (our teaching, our research, our programs) can be and will be translated into benefits for the common good.

If indeed empowered leaders is our mission, then we must speak out on all those issues about which we say we care. And we should position ourselves so that we use the results of our own scholarship, research, and teaching, as well as that of others outside our encampment, to help direct public opinion, policy debates, and policy formation. We must remember that leadership operates in both the micro and macro societies and only matters if we have the courage to act, and do indeed act.

Poverty--as symptomized by injustice, hunger, illiteracy, racism, disease, substance abuse, and overcrowding--for far too many of the nation's people, signals a need for both emergency and long-term responses, especially so that, in time, the root causes of these social ills can be eliminated. The family and consumer sciences perspective, which is an ecological perspective, recognizes the interdependence of people and communities, the interplay between man and environment (Vaughn, 1987). As individuals who have accepted the mantle and the responsibility of honor, it is our duty to lead, to engage in reflective human action, to demonstrate authentic leadership throughout our journeys.


Each of us can lead--authentically--if we want. No position is necessary. Following are several challenges deemed to be at the spiritual center of our professional preparation and practice and that can help us develop new frameworks that demonstrate the immediate and long-term relevance of our mission, empowered leaders.

Challenge #1 - Redefining and rebuilding community.

In our time, we have witnessed a steady erosion of a proud activist community, one built of the courage, vision, spirit, and soul of a group of truly authentic leaders. As with our forebearers, are we not required to attend to the care of our own time? Have we become afraid to stand up for what we really believe in because it is not politically correct or offers us no visible reward at the moment?

Challenge #2 - Reinventing collaboration.

We must recognize the central role of human interdependence in our lives and action. Our intellectual and social contributions, although individual, relate to other environments.

Challenge #3 - Recommiting to outreach.

As empowered leaders under the Kappa Omicron Nu banner of scholarship and research, each of us has the responsibility to help ensure that our gifts are shared with others. Can we not help ensure, for example, that our educational systems are available to and work for the young and the old, the healthy and the infirm, the rich and the non-rich?

So, why be authentic? Terry's answer is that (a) ". . . it is self-contradictory not to be authentic; . . . that authenticity enhances self and world; and (b) the presence of authenticity is confirmed by the experience of disconnection" (1993, p. 141).

Why be authentic? Why be a leader? We suggest the answer is that we empower ourselves

. . . such that our thoughts lead to actions which make a positive difference;

. . . such that our words grow out of truth and create environments where justice endures;

. . . such that our souls become big enough that we can embrace the pain of wrongs done to others;

. . . such that our spirits are so generous that we can rejoice in the good of others and the goodness that comes to others;

. . . such that our hearts are opened wide enough that we respond compassionately and effectively to the conditions of others;

. . . such that our hopes for a new generation are guided by a desire to share the earth justly with all peoples; and

. . . such that our minds are receptive to truth and love, and our souls to freedom.

 Why engage in reflective human action? Let's reflect on our reasons:

I watched them rape and degrade my Asian sisters, and I did not speak; I wasn't Asian.

I watched them take my Jewish sisters and brothers, and I did not speak--Hey! I'm not Jewish.

I watched them take my Muslim sisters and brothers, my Roman Catholic sisters, my Buddhist brothers! I did not speak! Listen, I do not live in Sarajevo and can hardly pronounce it, and I am not Catholic, and I don't know where Kampuchea is. Give me a break!

I watched them take my Communist friends; I didn't speak because I wasn't communist.

Then one day they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me. 

(Adaptation - author unknown)

One last word. In my mother's possessions I found a speech she had written and presented to some church leaders many years ago. She closed, as I do, with the admonition that if you were called up on charges of leadership, will your prosecutors have enough evidence to convict you?


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Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (1991). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Burke, E. (1808). Address: Doctrines of the old whigs, an appeal from the new to the old whigs. In the works of the right honorable Edmond Burke (London: F., C., & J. Rivington, Ltd., 6, 207) as reported in G. F. Will, Statecraft as soulcraft: What government does. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

Canfield, J., & Hansen, M. V. (1993). Chicken soup for the soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Canfield, J. & Hansen, M. V. (1995). A 2nd helping of chicken soup for the soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Capra, F. (1991). The Tao of physics: An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism. Boston: Shambhala.

Coe, D. A. (1977). Take this job and shove it, Warner-Tamerlane (BMI). From the compact disc, Johnny Paycheck, Take this job and shove it. Los Angeles: LaserLight Digital, Delta Music.

Gaye, M., Cleveland, A., & Benson, R. (1970). What's going on (ASCAP/BMI). From the album Marvin Gaye at the London Palladium. Tamala Records 1977. Hollywood: Motown Records.

Green, K. B. (1981). Home economics against the current. Journal of Home Economics 73(3), 14-16.

James, P. P. (1989). The real McCoy, African-American invention and innovation, 1619-1930. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Lanker, B. (1989). I dream a world. New York: Stewart, Tabori, & Chang.

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

Towle, W. (1993). The real McCoy: The life of an African-American inventor. New York: Scholastic.

Vaughn, G. G. (Ed.). (1987, November-December). Introduction. Illinois Teacher of Home Economics.

Wheatley, M. J. (1994). Leadership and the new science: Learning about organization from an orderly universe. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

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

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