Transformational Leaders or Paragon Leaders?


Sustaining our national quality of life in the face of expanding needs and dwindling resources will require significant improvements by our voluntary organizations in mission fulfillment, performance, productivity, and human services delivery.

America’s future quality of life will depend in large part on the ability of its more than one million charitable-philanthropic-nonprofit organizations to collectively provide a myriad of human services ranging from arts and education, to health, advocacy and social services. The so-called “Third Sector” should also be considered our Quality of Life Sector.

These voluntary organizations must deliver a myriad of human services in the face of ever changing operating environments, compounded by the ever-growing demands for social human services needed to sustain our nation’s overall quality of life, and further complicated by growing calls for improved effectiveness, efficiency, transparency and accountability.

Only by building and significantly expanding their organizational capacity to more broadly and quantitatively fulfill their missions and purposes by improving and sustaining overall organizational effectiveness, efficiency, and transformation are they likely to achieve such advances. Capacity building in this context clearly suggests far more fundamental changes than simply growth and expansion.

Quality of life enhancing capacity building by charitable-philanthropic-nonprofit organizations must take place in ways that are directly linked to improved outcomes and results that demonstrate improved mission and public purpose accomplishment. In short, voluntary sector organizations must embrace evolutionary change that keeps them “new” – aligned with their ever evolving operating environments, and that results in achieving and sustaining improved effectiveness, efficiency and transformation.

Continuing “virtue creep,” has added new layers of appealing behaviors to the personal leadership theory base as the search continues for a leadership model able to replicate organizational success and performance excellence. The functional “deification” of the ideal, even saintly, leader has created a daunting model that focuses more on the “person,” than on other important variables in the leadership equation such as “purpose,” “environment” and “situation.” Some have suggested that this deification of leadership may deter “mere mortals” who may not possess all of the cited saintly virtues and powers needed by paragon leaders. In light of these emerging realities, the “paragon leader” construct needs to be reevaluated as the dominant leadership model if the voluntary sector is to improve capacity and organizational performance to the levels it will take to sustain our nation’s quality of life as the future becomes the present.

Enhanced approaches to leadership are needed. However, our love affair with “leadership” continues to add both heroic attributes to the ever softening construct, and nearly 3000 books per year with “leadership” as a keyword. Like the Ancient Mariner surrounded by seawater and none to drink, we may be awash in “leadership,” but is there enough of it that is “potable” to meet the needs for growth and change?

A devil’s advocate perspective for leadership is offered, one that suggests we adjust our focus on this vital function from “person,” to also include more emphasis on “purpose,” “environment” and “situation,” i.e., the change, the result, the outcome.

Viewing leadership as depending upon and reflecting the changes needed by the organization to better fulfill its mission and purpose suggests a more functionally oriented approach to defining effective leadership. The functional definition – and requirements – of leadership in any given situation are found within the definition and extent of the changes required by the organization-and its circumstances and situation.

Seen as a construct based on purpose (i.e., the nature of the change(s) needed by the organization to fulfill its purpose), and environment/situation (the organizational ambient), effective leadership doesn’t necessarily require leaders as saints. What is required is that they – and the teams on which they serve collaboratively – have the needed constellations of competencies aligned with the purpose, situation, environment that are needed to effectively show the way for changes that improve the organization’s effectiveness, efficiency, and transformational culture (Connors, 2013).

When we focus capacity building on improving the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission and purpose, and we embrace a more inclusive change leadership model that incorporates purpose and environment, as well as person, it becomes clear that parallel efforts and initiatives must be directed at workforce professional development.
In light of the relatively few professional staff with formal educational backgrounds in management, it is important we emphasize the enriched, competency-focused professional development of the charitable-philanthropic-nonprofit workforce, including volunteers and board members.

To prepare for a challenging, demanding future, Voluntary Sector organizations must:
• Operate effectively, efficiently in an ever-changing environment.
• Increase their capacity in ways that are directed linked to outcomes and results demonstrating improved mission and public purpose accomplishment.
• Change in those management domains that contribute both to their “newness” and that enhance effectiveness, efficiency and transformation.
• Embrace change that keeps them aligned with their operating environments and fulfills their expanding public service missions (a key to achieving and sustaining effectiveness, efficiency and transformed organizations).
• Understand that to a large extent, leadership theories, approaches and behaviors cannot be adopted, they must be adapted to the organization’s purpose, environment and personal traits.
• Operationally define “change leadership” as change(s) that improve the ability of the organization to fulfill its mission.
• Operationally define “leadership,” including its attributes, characteristics, competencies and methods, as depending upon and reflecting the nature and extent of the differences needed, desired, or demanded (purpose of the change) – within or by the organization that has the mission, purpose and resources (environment), the proposed changes are intended to affect.
• Focus on workforce development that prepares them for changing capability and capacity needs based environmental assessments and strategic planning.
• Understand and explain effective methodologies and approaches that engage, motivate, and develop the organizational workforce in ways that motivate them to their best efforts and fullest potential to produce results and outcomes aligned with, and advancing, the organization’s overall mission, strategy, and action plans.
Next: New models, Capacity-building, Change Leadership with PEP, and Workforce Professional Development

Suggested citation:

Connors, T. D. (2019). Transformational leaders or paragon leaders? In Transformational organizations: NPO crossroads. Retrieved from BelleAire Press, LLC:

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