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Jeffrey McClellan, Theory & Philosophy of Advising Commission Past Chair

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.' - Margaret Mead.

Jeffrey McClellan.jpgRight now, astounding changes are occurring in academic advising because of the work of a few dedicated leaders. These leaders often hold no formal leadership role in their workplace or, if they do, do not depend upon it. Their institutions do not likely possess better executive leadership, cultures, or even resources. What they have that brings about changes is informal change leadership. This leadership is based not on formal authority, but rather upon five pillars of informal leadership which will surface throughout this edition of Academic Advising Today: passion, compassion, initiative, attention, and persistence.

Change leaders are passionate about the causes in which they are engaged. In fact, Smart (2005) identified drive and positive mental outlook as central to the work of informal leaders. Pielstick (2000) also found that their fun-loving approach contrasted sharply with the committed, business-like approach of formal leaders. The key difference being that informal leaders do not allow themselves to “become [so] obsessed with succeeding, or at least surviving in the world” that they “lose touch with [their] souls and disappear into their roles” (Palmer, 2004, p. 15).

Great informal leaders are not, however, merely focused on the cause they serve; they also focus on the people whom they serve and impact through their work. Indeed, it is often their concern for others that drives them to take up a cause. As Greenleaf (1977) wrote, “it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead” (p. 27). This caring, relational foundation and approach is a key aspect of informal leadership (Hoy & G., 2005; Pielstick, 2000; Smart, 2005).  Tutu perhaps said it best when he wrote,(1999) “The true leader must at some point or other convince her or his followers that she or he is in this whole business not for self-aggrandizement but for the sake of others”(p. 39).

Greenleaf (1977) suggested, 'everything begins with the initiative of an individual' (p. 28). The will to act is a central characteristic of all successful people. Born of passion and compassion, it gives rise to action. And, for informal change leaders, this call to action represents an irresistible internal force.

What leaders attend to matters immensely. The attention of a leader directs the attention of followers. Additionally, the engrossment that follows focused attention is a key contributor to peak performance (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 1997). Csikszentmihalyi (2003) wrote, 'By paying attention one can transform even the least promising task into a complex, satisfying activity' (p. 102). Consequently, informal change leaders focus on their goals and the process for achieving these and they do not allow themselves to become distracted easily.

The final characteristic of effective informal change leaders is persistence born of hardiness. Maddi and Khoshaba (2005) defined hardiness as encompassing three key beliefs or attitudes:

  • Commitment -- the belief that staying involved even amidst stress brings success;
  • Control -- the belief that one has the power to positively influence any situation;
  • Challenge -- the belief that no matter the outcome, one can learn from what occurs.

These three attitudes lie at the heart of the persistence needed to accomplish change. Consequently, I am convinced that the ability to accomplish great changes is far more a matter of will than skill.

Perhaps the most important element of these pillars is that they are accessible to virtually all of us. They are not traits only a few possess. In reading about the tremendous things taking places in multiple institutions, it is my hope that this issue of Academic Advising Today will inspire all of us to lead change through passion, compassion, initiative, attention, and persistence.

Jeffrey McClellan
Assistant Professor of Management/Academic Advisor
Frostburg State University


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (1st ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life (1st ed.). New York: BasicBooks.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good business: Leadership, flow, and the making of meaning. New York: Viking Penguin.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (25th Anniversary ed.). New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Hoy, W. K., & G., M. C. (2005). Educational research: Theory research and practice (7 ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Maddi, S. R., & Khoshaba, D. M. (2005). Resilience at work: How to succeed no matter what life throws at you. San Francisco: AMACOM.

Palmer, P. J. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey towards an undivided life: Welcoming the soul and weaving community in a wounded world. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pielstick, C. D. (2000). Formal vs. Informal leading: A comparative analysis. The Journal of Leadership Studies, 7(3).

Smart, M. (2005). The role of informal leaders in organizations: The hidden organizational asset. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Idaho.

Tutu, D. (1999). No future without forgiveness. New York: Doubleday.

Cite this article using APA style as: McClellan, J. (2010, December). Change leaders: A call to action. Academic Advising Today, 33(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.

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