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Using Journaling to Develop Authentic Leaders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tricia S. Nolfi
March 20, 2019

At least one goal of all public administration programs is to develop effective, authentic leaders with a public service mindset. The recent ASPA Conference reiterated this aim as it focused on strategies to encourage individuals to respond to the call for service and take action. In preparing new professionals, focusing on their development as authentic leaders will facilitate the development of civic-minded individuals who lead with principle.

There are many ways in which academic programs and professional opportunities can enhance leadership capacity. The key is to be mindful of how adults prefer to learn and to use strategies that promote the development of authentic leadership characteristics. One approach that can facilitate the fostering of these attributes is journaling.

Authentic leaders are reflective, reflexive critical thinkers who lead from conviction. They are genuine. They understand who they were, who they are becoming, and who they might become. They continually evaluate their role and behaviors in various contexts as a way to align their values with their work. This allows them to be flexible in their leadership approach. Additionally, Seyyed Babak and Alavi C. Gill point out that authentic leaders not only embrace change but promote an environment where changing behaviors is encouraged.  Individuals with these types of characteristics are valued in the public sector as organizations continue to face complex challenges requiring new ways of thinking.

Developing Authentic Leaders Using Adult Learning Practices

To develop the characteristics requisite for authentic leaders, educators and trainers should draw upon adult learning theories. Sharan B. Merriam and Laura L. Bierma note that adults prefer learning experiences that are active in nature, draw upon their life experiences and have immediate application. For example, experiential learning practices will focus on four stages:

1) Concrete experience

2) Reflective observation

3) Abstract conceptualization

4) Active experimentation.

Additionally, learning opportunities that focus on metacognition—thinking about how one thinks—raises an individual’s self-awareness of how they respond to different situations.

Journaling is a learning activity that addresses adult learner needs and promotes the development of authentic leaders. Writing a journal connects thoughts, feelings and action. Used in an academic class or extended professional development experience, students can keep a journal to reflect on group activities, professional experiences, readings and class assignments. The process of writing reflections in a journal in conjunction with other adult learning approaches triggers deeper learning.

There are two forms of journaling that provide significant benefit to adults; context-specific and metacognitive.

Context-Specific Journal

This form of journaling requires the individual to consider a specific experience such as a team assignment, internship or professional practice. In doing so, she will focus on the following:

1) Writing down observations about her actions

2) Expressing her thinking about the actions

3) Describing the significance of the actions.  

This reflective process is driven by experiential learning, which is a style adult learners desire.

Metacognitive Journal

Through instructor prompts or self-initiation, in this type of journal the individual is writing about his thinking such as tendencies, changes in thinking over time, biases or blind spots. Using the, “Muddiest point reflection,” approach is also useful in this type of journal. Students who recognize where their understanding is “muddy” are also better positioned to direct their learning to expand their knowledge and understanding.

With both of these approaches, an instructor needs to respond to the individual’s entries, providing support for deep reflection and prompting further exploration of values, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. There should be a dialogue that will help the student progress in understanding and synthesizing ideas and concepts.  Here, the goal is to guide the individual to develop congruency between values and action—a characteristic of authentic leaders.

Benefits of the Experience

Journaling can be attached to any educational opportunity where critical thinking is an outcome. For example, students may be asked to maintain a context-specific journal as they engage in a semester-long project with classmates. They can observe group behaviors, analyze decision-making processes and consider their own behaviors in relation to the group’s work. Journals are also helpful when the outcome is the evaluation of one’s beliefs, values and ideas related to specific concepts. Students can record thoughts throughout a professional development experience, considering the connection of new ideas and approaches to their work.

The practice of journaling provides an array of benefits to the student. As a transformative learning exercise, individuals make meaning of their own experiences in order to develop as a leader. Through this practice, they develop into reflective practitioners, understanding more about why things are done rather than how. This helps them throughout their career as they address ill-structured problems— those that are complex and controversial in nature and include important social, political and economic problems. As educators and practitioners look for ways to foster future public leaders, using journals can be an effective tool for individual personal and professional development.

Tricia S. Nolfi
Program Director & Assistant Professor II, Organizational Leadership program
Rider University
[email protected]

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