Transformative leaders awaken meaning and purpose in those they lead.

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We often hear certain people described as “natural leaders.” But, leaders are not just born. They are also nurtured and developed, and the idea of natural leaders can distort the reality that some of the world’s best leaders were not hatched. They learned a set of skills and perspectives, and had role models that helped shape them into transformative forces on individuals, institutions, communities and cultures.

The world is in desperate need of such transformational leaders for virtually every industry, from politics and business to social service and religion, and fulfilling this need is a core motivation for Seattle University’s M.A. in Transformational Leadership degree program. The degree is located in the university’s School of Theology and Ministry because so much of the power in a transformative leader is found in ancient wisdoms that have evolved over centuries. These wisdoms, rooted in various forms and practices of what we today call spirituality, became embedded in religious and philosophical heritages that formed the worldview of religious traditions and allowed for the passing of insights from one generation to another.

“Religious wisdom sometimes gets a bad rap,” says Mark Markuly, Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry. “While religious organizations can become toxic, their deepest insights, worldview and communitarian foundation have produced some of the world’s most transformative leaders, such as Jane Addams, Mohandas Gandhi, Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King Jr.  The most unique dimension of the Transformational Leadership degree is that it takes the best of the wisdom, foundational belief in human dignity, and long-game vision of religious traditions and mixes these with the best contemporary leadership theory and practice.”

Director of Contextual Education and Assistant Clinical Professor of Contextual Education and Ministry Mark Hearn says the degree highlights the “why” in human labor, while also addressing the “how” that is emphasized in most leadership education. Transformative leaders awaken meaning and purpose in those they lead, and this releases an enormous amount of psychic energy and creativity in the human heart and mind, Hearn notes. “When you release such human energy and creativity, you can create life-altering and even world-altering changes.”

“Good leadership,” Hearn says, “promotes a culture of asking questions about the ‘why?’ and encourages all employees to be curious about and reflective about their own vocation in the world within the context of the company’s purpose.” The overall result is an organization that is steeped in its missional identity, and employees that are driven by a much more defined sense of how their own purpose and meaning is lived out within the organization’s mission.

Teaching transformational leadership capacities is a carefully constructed Rubik’s Cube of knowledge, skills and perspectives, Markuly says. “Transformational leaders need reflective and critical thinking skills; they need an interdisciplinary knowledge of how the world works and how people tick; they need inspiring mentors, and highly refined skills in listening, communicating, and processing different kinds of data; and, they need educational and internship opportunities that allow them to experiment with new ways of interacting with others.” The cumulative experience is that they learn to see themselves playing different types of roles and having the freedom to grow into a different type of person in the world.

“The relationships aspects that are often given short shrift in the business world are really truly listening to another person, understanding what their challenges are, and approaching a conflict from a situation of how can we both win,” says Stephanie Peirolo, a graduate of the Transformational Leadership program who manages a nonprofit organization.

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“There are tactical dimensions of leadership that people can learn to make an organization run more smoothly, like strategic communication, thoughtful reporting structures, motivating performance reviews and so forth,” Markuly says. But, the most important characteristic for a transformational leader is the ability to tap into the depths of the best part of the personalities and life energies of those they are leading.

“Transformative leaders connect with the desire every human has to make a difference in the world, to make a substantive contribution to others, to draw out of our own nature the very best dimensions of our humanity.”

Leaders who can do this change the world and the M.A. in Transformational Leadership at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is designed to help students to learn how to lead in this fashion.

“There is this foundational bedrock that we all have, and we’ll have different beliefs, but we all believe something. How do we access that without using explicitly religious or even spiritually language? Everything I was learning was actually applicable to my job and it has made me better as a leader in my company in ways that I didn’t expect,” says Stephanie Peirolo, a graduate of the Transformational Leadership program.

The School of Theology and Ministry is a part of Seattle University, a Jesuit Catholic University built on spirituality and social justice, with dedication to interreligious relationships for the common good. It offers six graduate degrees, three professional certificates and professional development courses.