Post written for LDR6020 Practice of Leadership relating participative leadership to my experience as Student Body President during the 1996-97 school year. Sierra High School, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Participative leadership as an idea brings up negative impressions of too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the broth. Or the concept conjures images of nonplussed coworkers sitting silently in a meeting room with arms crossed. However, reading and reflecting causes me to reevaluate my initial impressions and realize how much I rely on participative leadership in my management styles. This essay lays out the situation where I practiced participative leadership. It explains how I applied the participative aspects and their outcomes. And the essay reflects more holistically on participative leadership.
An election and appointment in high school had me leading as Student Body President (SBP), overseeing each of the class councils and the overall student government association (SGA). Having witnessed my predecessor’s stress and work endlessly, I decided early on to delegate and lead as a director and coordinator, putting the work of student government onto the entire council. Sometimes, to our sponsor’s dismay, if no one stepped up to do the work, it did not get done. Usually, however, a small team worked diligently on each project and event, and we had a successful year running SGA.
Howell and Costley (2005) define participative leadership with six types of behavior: consulting with groups, consulting with individuals, obtaining information from followers, delegation, joint decision making with followers, and asking for opinions about alternatives. As SBP, I met regularly with the entire student government and each class council to coordinate our activities and daily business. I relied on the whole group and the smaller groups to provide feedback and make decisions democratically. I consulted more heavily with my student body council but worked on getting to know everyone individually. Because of those relationships, I learned to speak to people in a way that tapped into their motivations and could bring people together with common interests around the projects and tasks best suited for their roles and personalities. Our consistent communication back and forth allowed me to keep my finger on the pulse of the student body, relaying information to the school administration and helping frame the information I passed back to students. We made big decisions as a group, debating issues and voting on what to do about them. Because of the democratic nature of the student government, everyone had the opportunity for input, and I tried my best to ensure they could see their ideas brought to life.
Initially, I thought about relating my professional leadership experiences to participative leadership. SGA sticks out as the source and inspiration for my initial understanding and practice of participative leadership, though. Bringing in followers who do the work and who are impacted by the decisions made informs today’s choices and leadership tactics. That is an excellent outcome of participative leadership—its effectiveness is apparent and reproducible. Empowering followers to make choices and holding them accountable for follow-through and results is a successful strategy for organizational accomplishment. When people feel included and feel important, they give more of themselves and take ownership of the final product. The quality and pride produced impacts everybody.
“The increasing level of education and increased feelings of equality in the workforce … have produced widespread desire for upward mobility and interesting work” (Howell & Costley, 2005, p. 133). With students, a level of peer equality exists naturally. In my observation, that equality carries over into the workplace, especially with specialty teams. And tapping into the feelings of camaraderie and shared purpose with participative leadership empowers the group and makes for better outcomes.
Reflections and Insights
Looking back on experiences in student government and as a creative manager, I see participative leadership behaviors repeated with memorable successes. While I question my initial cynicism, Howell and Costley (2005) acknowledge widespread cynicism, “Workers saw the participation program as a gimmick to manipulate them and to divert their attention from real issues” (p. 137). Without authenticity and follow-through, participative leadership comes across as a waste of everybody’s time.
Success is possible when a leader earnestly seeks input and buy-in from followers. Delegating, directing, and strategizing can be difficult without that buy-in. I find I gain legitimate power in leadership when I consult others and incorporate their ideas into directives. “… some participative leadership may be politically necessary to get a leader’s decisions approved and implemented”(Howell & Costley, 2005, p. 135).
To conclude, serving as SBP in high school proved formative and informative. This essay explored participative leadership application and its outcomes. I reflected on how crucial participative leadership behaviors are in my leadership style. Setting aside adverse results from poorly executed participative leadership, positive experiences and lasting outcomes show benefit in participative leadership’s continued practice.
Howell, J., & Costley, D. (2005). Understanding behaviors for effective leadership (2nd ed.). Pearson.