CSB/SJU Professors Explore Environmental Leadership

By Glenda Isaacs Burgeson

Leadership is a balancing act, according to two CSB/SJU psychology professors. Richard Wielkiewicz and Steve Stelzner have developed a new leadership model that teeters between two oppositions. In other words, the idea is to have the right kind of leadership at the right time in the organization's history.

For almost two decades the two research partners have been developing a new theory of leadership, one that combines components from an established - but, they argue, outdated - industrial model and a more recent ecological model.

The results of their collaboration have been published as the opening chapter in Leadership for Environmental Sustainability, a new book edited by Benjamin W. Redekop and published in June as part of the Routledge Studies in Business Ethics.

The book explores the strategies and types of leadership required to achieve environmental sustainability. In their chapter, "An Ecological Perspective on Leadership Theory, Research, and Practice," Wielkiewicz and Stelzner describe a theory of leadership first developed in the 1990s with the Kellogg Leadership Initiative, and present it in the context of today's urgent environmental crises.

In the industrial model, a single leader presides over a hierarchical organization, Stelzner explained. It operates as a closed system that relies on quick decisions, optimal profits and cost-effectiveness, stability and keeping everyone "on the same page."

In contrast, Wielkiewicz and Stelzner developed a new leadership model, based on principles of ecology and systems theory. In this model, decision-making occurs in an open system that focuses more on process than speed, and relies on input from everyone at all levels of an organization, rather than the executive level exclusively. Diversity of opinion is valued. Adaptability trumps stability, and ethical issues and sustainability are factored into the cost of doing business.  

Eventually, the two concluded that the choice of leadership models is not either/or, Stelzner said. It is both. "An organization needs to find the balance between the industrial and ecological models. Sometimes they need to be on the industrial side of the tension, emphasizing speed and efficient execution of decisions. At other times, the organization needs to understand the nature of a challenge. This requires leaning more toward the ecological side of the balance," Wielkiewicz added.

Upon meeting with Wielkiewicz and Stelzner, one senses right away they have been working together for a while. They finish each other's sentences - when they aren't arguing a point - and their concept of tension becomes apparent as they banter their ideas.

 "We need that constant tension between the two models," Stelzner said.

Wielkiewicz chimed in: "The ecological model is not sustainable all the time, but leaders must consider the entire system," while Stelzner added, "One person can't make all the decisions."

In their teamwork, Stelzner brings expertise in organizational psychology. Wielkiewicz is the academic wonk, keeping them on task to churn out articles for publication. In addition to the recent publication, the two research partners have published three articles on the topic since 1998. Wielkiewicz has been the sole author of two more articles and co-authored a third. A book on leadership is in progress.

By chance, their recent publication coincides with the Year of Sustainability at CSB/SJU. Wielkiewicz and Stelzner agreed that their ideas can have application institutionally, as the schools seek ways to reduce their carbon footprint, as well as with students, in preparing them for leadership roles.

Wielkiewicz has given presentations on leadership to students in the CSB/SJU Inspiring Leaders Certificate Program, and he also presented last summer at the Association for Student Affairs at Catholic Colleges and Universities conference at CSB and SJU.

Moreover, he and Stelzner point out their leadership theories are compatible with Benedictine traditions of listening, respect, stewardship, sense of place, social justice and community decision-making.

"We're arguing everybody can play a role in leadership at some point," Stelzner said. "Sometimes, in certain situations, that someone is the least expected person. You never know who knows what, because people have expertise outside of their jobs."

Leadership is about much more than just decision-making and implementation, he said. For example, leadership involves motivating, setting common goals and communicating.

Diversity is another necessary component, Wielkiewicz said. "You must have diversity in your organization." Otherwise, mono-cultures have the same vulnerabilities as crops that share the same genetic information. They lack adaptability, he explained.

Then there is the matter of feigning. That's when an executive asks for input but does not really want it, Stelzner said. Or, the executive asks for input and really wants it; but, because of past experience, the subordinate suspects the executive's request is not sincere.

In severe cases of feigned requests for input, leadership can seem like a house of mirrors.

That is where trust, credibility and communication come into play, Wielkiewicz said.