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Using Purpose as the Invisible Leader

Extension and leadership have been inextricably linked and studied since the inception of the Cooperative Extension Service. Leadership is typically thought of in ways that are primarily focused on the individual leader. Extension’s leadership in communities has followed this traditional notion of leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Northouse, 2012, p. 3).  However, in their recent book, The Power of Invisible Leadership, Gil Hickman and Georgia Sorensen (2014) offer a new approach to leadership, which can be utilized in Extension work to engage volunteers by placing the focus on a common purpose.

Invisible leadership is defined as “leadership in which the common purpose, rather than any particular individual, is the invisible leader that inspires leaders and followers to take action on its behalf” (Hickman & Sorensen, 2014, p. 1).  The authors further elaborate on this definition by describing invisible leadership as what exists in the space between people and their shared dreams; and although that space is completely invisible, the effect is immensely powerful. Thus, invisible leadership does not eliminate leaders, but rather can be used by practitioners as way to highlight the common purpose of their Extension programs in an effort to resonate with the values and motivations of current and potential volunteers.

The following practices, identified by Hickman and Sorensen (2014) and further elaborated for this context, can be used by Extension personnel to generate an understanding of common purpose and engage in invisible leadership:

Create the context for invisible leadership:  Extension agents can engage in invisible leadership by creating a context where the common purpose leads and people thrive.  This practice involves facilitating the work of the group or organization, not taking control of it.  In doing so, agents should make certain the common purpose remains prominent, which will in turn facilitate the development of collective capacity.

Cultivate purpose as a lived experience:  This practice involves focusing on and communicating why your work is important.  Engaging current and potential volunteers in on-going dialogue about the purpose of Extension is one method for engaging in invisible leadership.  This practice works to cultivate strong bonds that connect people in pursuit of common purpose.

Generate and sustain a culture of shared leadership: This practice involves engaging volunteers in meaningful work and providing inspiration for volunteers to use their strengths in pursuit of common purpose.  Generating a culture where leader and follower roles are fluid permits members to share equally in the group’s leadership.  Also, recruiting volunteers that embrace the purpose can go a long way to help sustain a culture of shared leadership.                                                                                                    

This approach to engaging volunteers in Extension has value because it calls on Extension personnel to relentlessly focus on “why” we do the work we do, “why” we are passionate about our work, and “why” our work makes a difference in the communities we serve.  This is evidenced by Hickman and Sorensen (2014) when they write, “the mission is a core driver as why I am passionate about the work I do, and why I feel I am leading a movement and contributing to meaningful work” (p. 65).

These practices are simple, but can help Extension personnel engage in invisible leadership, and strengthen the organization by developing a culture of collective capacity and shared leadership in an effort to accomplish the mission of the Cooperative Extension Service

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