Adaptive Evaluation for Innovation and Scaling
Oct 10th 2023
The scaling of innovations often involves system change. Adaptive Evaluation offer...Read More
“As we analyze, criticize, propose, and strategize, let’s never forget that we are part of a vast mutual liberation society, that as we work to free others, they are also working to free us.”
Emancipatory leadership is freedom in action. We often think of leadership conventionally as being associated with a person who shows the way, the traits such persons seemingly innately possess, or sets of behaviors that can be learned and placed into practice. As an area of academic study, the definitions of leadership are legion. While efforts have been made by scholars for decades to identify a unified general theory of leadership, decades later alignment on the meaning of leadership remains elusive (Sorenson, 2011). Emancipatory leadership is offered with an appreciation for the state of study in the field. As the name implies, the primary aim of emancipatory leadership is to integrate human liberation into our scholarly thinking and practical application when it comes to activity that transforms the lived experience of humanity, especially those who are disproportionately subject to past and present patterns of oppression.
San Jose State University is offering a Masters Degree in Emancipatory Leadership (EL), according to their documents, they define EL as:
Emancipatory school leadership approaches create organizational cultures to reflect the diversity of experience and knowledge within school communities through collaborative approaches to deconstruct power systems, challenge inequitable practices and policies, and cultivate community cultural wealth (from their description).
J.M. Simmons (2015) wrote about her mentor, an educational leader, who encompassed Freire and led the school system where Simmons’ practiced and she deemed him an emancipatory leader. Simmons defined emancipatory leadership as:
“the intentional design of one’s leadership platform which includes his/her vision and agenda for liberation education. The agenda includes a means to inform, educate, and strategize for the purpose of challenging and eradicating oppression. Emancipatory leadership… promotes an inquiry into moral concepts, opposition of oppression; uncovers myths and injustices of the dominant culture; promotes transformation, injustice, and inequality; and empowers oppressed individuals” (p.399)
Simmons then names four tenets of Emancipatory Leadership (EL) : 1) Cognitive Skills, 2) Interpersonal Skills, 3) Intrapersonal Skills, and 4) Language (p.400) as described below. Our aim is to capture these shared definitions and expand upon the concept in our current chronosystem.
Cognitive Skills, emancipatory leaders must be fluent in historical cultural truths that serve as counter-narratives to the status quo. Emancipatory leaders understand the systemic inequalities that continue to be reproduced in traditional organizational structures rooted in institutionalized inequality (Larson and Ovando, 2001) and readily identify and acknowledge oppressive barriers by bringing these inequities to light by understanding the root cause of these inequities. When this knowledge is readily available to the emancipatory leader, and they are also able to communicate this to stakeholders, this enables such leaders to assist with the development of “conscientization” (Freire, 1970). The emancipatory leader must also be able to support, advocate, and promote liberation education as critical pedagogy (Simmons, 2015).
Interpersonal Skills, emancipatory leaders must possess the ability to positively influence and create a healthy organizational culture and climate. This will help create the conditions for emancipation. The leader must be able to mobilize and globalize issues and strategically interact with social and political organizations (Simmons, 2015).
Intrapersonal Skills, emancipatory leaders have high moral and ethical standards — Equity is a moral imperative and is directly tied to a higher purpose. This would require a great deal of reflection, the ability to self-assess and self-correct in the present space of leadership. The EL must also be able to be fully present and listen and understand the multiple perspectives that exist, while having the courage, conviction and compassion necessary to lead with a high moral compass (Simmons, 2015).
Language, or communication skill set– emancipatory leaders understand the need to provide information and to narrate a story of action and transparency for the greater good. An emancipatory leader must be able to use language to express passion, hope, aspirations, and motivation. These dialogues must include cross-race and cross-belief system dialogue (Simmons, 2015).
In “Understanding Patriarchy” by bell hooks (1994) we learn that white supremacy does not recognize how it intersects as well as is conflated with patriarchy. In a similar light, victimization mentality, rather than dismantling systemic oppression, perpetuates patriarchy and racism by an unconscious desire to achieve the dominance inherent in any reverse binary discourse. This complexity is the nexus of recognizing the location of the oppressor and the oppressed in the dismantling of a mutually enslaving dynamic.
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Emancipation involves dismantling the power that dominates. Once the power is dismantled there is no dominance from which to be liberated. The paradox leaves a vacancy and vacuum where there is no thing until some thing takes form; unfortunately, most commonly, there is a morphed expression of dominance or regressive and repressive retro-oppression.
In a poignant example of this process, when Ayanna Pressley was running for office as a US representative for the state of Massachusetts, she created a campaign ad where she rode a line on the city bus route that traversed through the different socio-economic areas of the city. She concluded that “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” J. Weisglass (1990) has also stated that “People are capable of solving their own problems given the right conditions.”
Applied conceptually, the notion of emancipatory leadership is birthed in those two complementary and competing beliefs — How do we create the right conditions for those closest to the pain to be closest to the power? What are the pathways of practicing emancipatory leadership and what are the tenets of this practice?
Supremacy, dominance, and power are intricately interrelated. The primary paradox may be that power is what is ultimately desired and that most social identity liberation movements are not about purported dismantling of the system but gaining access to power within those systems. Entry into the prevailing dominance discourse requires eschewing certain claims to that social identity; co-opted for a portion of power disproportionate to the actual available pool but greater than what is afforded within the bounds of the social identity status in the face of such dominance.
The paradox is reduced when the discourse is broadened to other contexts where power and dominance have a different face. When Freud wrote of the narcissism of small differences, he was attending primarily to the primitive forces that perennially brought those of marginal phenotypic difference to the brink of war. When this thinking is extended to a global scale, we see how nation after nation, culture after culture, community after community, and even family after family mark small differences as the source of conflict. There is always the “other” that is ascribed the role of the denigrated, diminished, and dismissed. They become a “they” rather than a thou, in the Buber sense, for whom rejection and discrimination are the mark that is seemingly inherited and advanced by the dominant class as rationale for perpetuating the power play.
In the Hegelian sense of the master-slave dialectic, there is an unfortunate tendency to reduce the tension to a dualism of fixed polarity. The recognition that master requires in exchange for allowing the slave to live while concurrently denying the enslaved the recognition that affords human consciousness remains central to any emancipatory formulation. What may be also at play is an intervening variable in the dialectic that is not well considered. The dominant party can also co-opt the slave that comes to consciousness by offering a share of power. What is offered is disproportionately apportioned in a manner that is sufficient to placate the formerly enslaved but insufficient to influence the overall system of dominance. (Look at global examples, inhabitants of favelas in Brazil, Dalit in India, Hmong minorities in Asia, Rohingya from Myanmar, Roma in most of Europe, Moroccans in the Netherlands, Pakistani in England, Hutu refugees from Rwanda, Haiti and Dominican Republic, early Irish/Italian whiteness in the United States, indigenous almost anywhere — Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia).
The trade-off offered is an abandonment of the call to dismantle the system for the share of power and the corresponding formative currency. The formerly enslaved is contained and restrained from acting in any manner that does not adhere to the implicit demands of the dominant class for compliance with a status quo that conserves the essence of a way of being. The formative expression through constructions such as race, religion, nationality, and language as symbolic markers of how these differences become differently bound to a broader inclusion that does little to change the underlying nature of dominance. What is liberated is illusory though meaningful in the lived experience of those for whom the boundary of demarcation of emancipation shifts. The vast majority of the marginalized remain, however, subjected to oppression in this constricted and co-opted pathway to collective liberation.
Take for example two differing Supreme Court rulings on marriage. In the Loving case those who were of different races could no longer be barred from matrimony. Similarly, marriage equality allowed people of the same gender to wed. The change of these legal boundaries to include interracial and LGBTQ couples did not change in any fundamental way the rights, privilege, and power of what otherwise remains a largely normative dominant construction of marriage being a male and female bond, most often from the same racial groups. Nothing was dismantled; the margin simply was allowed to be broader through a quiet co-opting of activism on other levels of liberation.
Once a significant number of formerly enslaved are co-opted by the dominant class and given illusory liberation, there is a tipping point that dramatically diminishes the potency of efforts that are more fully emancipatory. The co-opted, through their marginal share of power, freedom, and status, become agents of the system they once sought to dismantle and often become among the most staunch defenders of the precise system they sought to transform. Yet once inside, the dynamic shifts and dominance prevails.
Emancipatory Leadership Practice
Emancipatory leadership is expressed through individual practice, collective action and social praxis. It is related to adaptive leadership, as the focus is on seeking novel solutions to seemingly intractable circumstances. Emancipatory leadership differs in that the tenets of protection, order and direction are more firmly the province of agency of those closest to the pain. This orientation also distinguishes leadership that is emancipatory from the servant leadership perspective, in that there is no “least of these’’ who are to be saved or served. Such thinking in servant leadership, while generously acknowledging the lived experience of differences in access to power and privilege in the human condition, requires an implicit hegemonic construction where there is an “other” among us to be saved. In emancipatory leadership, there is no other. We are as one with those who seek liberation. We are not the guides to freedom nor the noble actors who meet the adaptive challenge. Emancipatory leadership is an interactive co-creation grounded in equity and practiced through humility. Liberation comes through a radical mutuality where the cornerstone is recognition and respect for our common humanity, irrespective of past or present life circumstances.
Challenges of Practice
One of deep challenges of emancipatory leadership is the foundational attention to how object and aim are understood. Central to leadership being deliberately emancipatory is the presence of current oppression, most often with historical roots and social conditions where lived consequences are beyond refute. The need for emancipatory leadership is a dispute with those who are agents of oppression, holders of power, and recipients of practical benefits from things being as they are. The conflict has many faces that morph upon being exposed to light. The opposition to emancipatory leadership is seen when individual actors and the systems in which they are embedded consciously and unconsciously actively assure dominance, discrimination and denigration persist. Such oppression concurrently denies such dominance is being exercised through construction of implicit and explicit narratives that insist on a natural normative order.
When emancipatory leadership merely stands in opposition or becomes limited to presenting a counter narrative, the result is often inertia — there is nothing truly transformative that emerges. Similarly when emancipatory leadership gains the potency of a revolutionary movement force, such liberation runs the risk of mirroring previous dominance structures, though often following a period of cathartic yet chaotic retro-oppression. In either instance, what is practiced is other than emancipatory leadership.
The nature of emancipatory leadership is a patient and persistent practice of mutual liberation. It is the release of the bondage that shackles the oppressor and the oppressed; relieving both of the power and pain cycle that imprisons each until there is no distinction one from the other, other than common humanity. Vengeance and dominance are reconciled through recognition of past torment and atrocity; trauma and suffering. At its highest level of practice, emancipatory leadership moves through grief and mourning, acknowledging pain and harm yet at the same time requiring a gradual release of attachment to responses that shame and blame. Emancipatory leadership is forgiveness without forgetting so that what was is remembered never more to be.
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In order for emancipatory leadership to be viewed as other than a traits-based theoretical approach, we expand this thinking to include the larger context in which leadership is embedded. As such, emancipatory leadership can be expressed through a person or group. Correspondingly, it must also be understood as a process in and of itself as well as one that challenges the prevailing status quo. As such, emancipatory leadership optimally entails a rich intellectual understanding of the historical nature of oppression. It also requires emotional intelligence and cultural intelligence grounded in self and social awareness as well as the capacity to communicate within and across human difference.
The presence or creation of these core conditions are essential for emancipatory leadership to truly liberate:
Freedom from all forms of physical bondage imposed by others
Emancipatory leadership begins with the end of enslavement of fellow human beings; including modern day slavery of any actual or economic form.
Freedom to speak in a manner that does not promote harm to others
A major tenet of emancipatory leadership is an embrace of what it means to have freedom to exchange and even debate ideas. Free speech is an ideal to be celebrated. Yet, such freedom comes with responsibility. The principle of “do no harm” applies to the freedom to speak in emancipatory leadership. Doing so consciousness, empathy, mutual respect as well as practice of integrity through practice of clear intrapersonal and interpersonal boundaries.
Freedom from all forms of mental enslavement that limit choices
Emancipatory leadership requires discernment, as we live in a time when such enslavement may be implicit and invisible. How we are manipulated, catalogued, and “algorithmed” can lead to control of thinking by social conditioning and external forces that aim at influenceIn an era of social media influencers, echo chambers of rigid self-confirming consensual reality, there is little arbitration of shared facts, making us all potentially subject to to propaganda and misinformation.
Freedom of determination to pursue passions and potentials that respect human dignity
As an ideal, emancipatory leadership aspires to inspire the capacity to pursue purpose and passions. It involves a maturing of such pursuits that extends beyond primal erotic reductionism to discover who we are and why we are here.
Embrace of right thought, speech, action, and effort in love and livelihood
A further ideal of emancipatory leadership asks the central question of what it truly means to love one another. It may begin with movement from the kinds of dualities that often become polarized proxies for declarations of zero sum dominance. Such action of “right” is both discipline and practice that shifts black/white, right/wrong paradigms to broaden the boundary of lived experience and the potential for more enriching livelihood options..
Release of attachment to participation in the suffering and oppression of others and ourselves.
Finally, emancipatory leadership holds as central that the suffering of any other is our own suffering. At the highest level, emancipatory leadership embraces the ideal that there is no “other.”
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The specific leadership behaviors that we have identified as necessary towards practicing emancipatory leadership are the following:
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This is a working paper on the development of this concept. We anticipate furthering our leadership theory towards emancipatory practices that empower communities to authorize themselves and live into their own leadership edge.
“…many of us are only motivated to move against domination solely when we feel our self-interest directly threatened. Often then, the longing is not collective transformation of society…but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us…Fundamentally, if we are only committed to improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation and oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination…”
Bell Hooks from “Love as Practice of Freedom” (pg 244)
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