Happiness and Wellbeing at Work

Putting research into practice

Four Stages of Prosocial Leadership

Employees’ expectations of wellbeing and happiness within their organizations, have rightly been placed upon leaders. Leaders today are increasingly expected to subvert their personal interests and guide their organizations to address the personal concerns of their employees and also social and environmental issues of local and global communities. For certain this is a daunting task. The reality of this expectation placed on leaders is seen in numerous present day leadership initiatives (e.g. Principles of Responsible Management Education), which suggests leaders and their organizations are to take a central role in the future of human flourishing.

However, while it is true that some leadership theories value and even champion others-directed behaviors, only a few leadership theories place these prosocial behaviors at the center. But, this is not new or surprising for most scholars. The fact is that leadership theories have struggled to find a direct connection to classical ethical theories. And, leadership theories have also largely ignored the antecedents that anticipate ethical leadership behavior and correspondingly, they have not given much attention to the leadership development process.  Ironically, we are inspired by selfless, prosocial leaders, who not only inspire us, but cause us to believe the world’s growing social and environmental issues may possibly be addressed. Most people can think of a many great leaders who have put others interests ahead of their own, who have acted prosocially, and created positive change, but how they became prosocial leaders that enabled local and in some cases global wellbeing (e.g. Ghandi), is still a lingering question.

My recent book, Prosocial Leadership: Understanding the Development of Prosocial Behavior within Leaders and their Organizational Settings, is based on eight years of qualitative and quantitative research on emerging leaders, and five years research on successful leaders of social ventures. From this research four distinct stages emerged depicting how emerging leaders developed into prosocial leaders. The four stages include:

  • Stage One: "Awareness and Empathetic Concern". Here the emerging leader looks back into their past and selects those events where they experienced empathy, and want to become a person who cares for others, as they were once cared for by someone in their past which results in personal developmental goals.
  • Stage Two: “Community and Group Commitment”. Here the emerging leader realizes their personal goals must be carried out within a group they know, or a group where they are regarded as an outsider, but in either case they have committed to act. The outcome is a broadening of personal goals developmental goals must incorporate group goals too.
  • Stage Three: “Courage and Action”. Before the emerging leader begins to act to serve the group, they feel vulnerable, yet must find the courage to act and help others. The emerging leader realizes that their thoughts demand action. Here they act, and in doing so understand the importance action to simultaneously grow themselves and others. 
  • Stage Four: The “Reflection and Growth”. Finally, the emerging leader is mindful of their own growth and realizes that their growth happened from a roughly defined process of awareness of empathy, community commitment, courageous action, and thus they commit to future service to others.

The four stages of the prosocial leadership development process do not supplant other established leadership theories, instead the prosocial leadership developmental process can act as a means to identify and potentially guide a leaders prosocial development process within any leadership theory that incorporates ethical or prosocial values. The prosocial leadership development process is unique in that it does give attention to formative antecedents, is connected to ethical theories and provides a leadership development model.

The book has as a primary audience other researchers and graduate students. But, educational and institutional practitioners who have as the primary responsibility of training leaders, will also find substantial resources for training development. However, the book also provides more than an outline of the prosocial leadership development process. The book also contains literature reviews which summarizes leadership theories and their connection to classical ethical theories, prosocial values and also provides a summative overview of the state of leadership development.

I conducted the research and wrote the book with the hope of both redirecting and enhancing the conversation concerning the development and motivation of ethical leaders. But, the ultimate goal of the research is to develop, identify, support and equip leaders who are rightly expected to lead the organizations to address social and global issues.

Timothy Ewest is Associate Professor of Business at Houston Baptist University, USA. He is also a Visiting Research Scholar at Princeton University's Faith & Work Initiative. He is a member of the Academy of Management and part of the AOM divisions on Organizational Behavior, Social Issues in Management and Management, Religion, and Spirituality. Timothy actively researches and publishes on the impact of human values as expressed in religion and leadership within the workplace.

Book_Ewest GLOBAL