Feature Article: A Tribute to Joseph C. Rost: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century

Feature Articles / July 2005

This short article is offered as a tribute to Joseph Rost. It then seeks to link the emerging notions of integral theory with Rost’s earlier and independent work (1991, 1993), work that has been some of the most influential in shaping higher education’s focus on leadership over the last decade.

The area of integral theory is new to me. After having read a couple of articles and then participating in a recent conference call about integral theory and leadership, I realized that there are many who are aware of and have adopted integral theory approaches but are not aware of the synchronous interests of those who work in leadership studies/development in higher education in the U.S.A. (Reference to higher education in the U.S.A. is not meant to ignore other areas of the world – I simply have not had the opportunity to explore the question beyond North America.) It is gratifying to note that the link between integral theory and new paradigms of leadership is emerging in the literature.

While there are numerous important implications of Rost’s writing, one critical insight is that there is danger in not recognizing that many “leadership” programs are not about leadership development at all. Instead, many target those individuals with positions of authority and power and then seek to enhance that influence. Rost articulated his concerns by characterizing two broad categories of leading/leadership – the industrial and post-industrial perspectives. These ideas are explained more substantively through Russ Volckmann’s interview of Joseph Rost elsewhere in this journal. While Rost’s critique of “leadership development” preceded the emergence of integral theory and is not explicitly tied to it, it is easy to see that a post-industrial paradigm is important to advancing integral theory and its notions of multiple and mutually-informing perspectives. Rost was more of an advocate for a change in perspective, although he clearly recognized that there were multiple views of leadership that compete for our attention. Validation that industrial-era leadership has limited utility in the 21st century can be seen in the profound influences emanating from science, technology, and media in the modern age.

Rost’s “Leadership development in the new millennium” (Rost, 1993) is one of the most often cited articles justifying what is increasingly becoming the norm for college and university leadership programs – programs that focus on leadership as a relational capacity that can be developed in anyone and that is dependent on mutual work. It is ironic that some campus leadership programs continue to rely on selection processes and prescriptive criteria to identify those students who will benefit from these experiences, all the while referencing Rost’s or others’ ideas of inclusive leadership. This is probably evidence that multiple paradigms of leadership still envelop us. There are some comprehensive programs that have emerged that seek to be inclusive and that attempt to reach as broad a cross-section of students as possible. The approach created by faculty, staff, and students a decade ago at Miami University of Ohio (Roberts, 2001) is one of the earliest examples of Rost’s influence in comprehensive and inclusive leadership program design. The operational definition of leadership espoused in this model is derived from Rost. There are now many other programs that have adopted Rost and other theorists’ recommendations to abandon previous privileged notions of leadership. Most of these programs still welcome students who define their leadership in the context of a position they hold. Miami and other campuses increasingly encourage all students to participate in leadership conferences, workshops, courses, living groups, organizations, and other catalytic experiences designed to enhance leadership capacity in every student.

Those who work from Rost’s post-industrial proposal need allies. Inviting all students to explore their leadership potential is challenging, especially when resources are limited, when many in the academy explicitly or implicitly still hold positional and authoritative notions of leadership, and when most colleges and universities still operate from a hierarchy/authority model. As integral theory is considered and adopted in broader settings, higher education’s role in advocating for leadership that is consonant with it is critical. Joseph Rost’s influence has been significant but even he said that the enterprise of broadening leadership was “fraught with immense difficulties” (Rost, 1993, p. 109). Post-industrial, relational, mutually beneficial, and deliberative leadership is desperately needed in our daily affairs. Those working for changes in leadership perspective in higher education will welcome and need the support of partners who embrace Rost’s ideas and who view the world through the lens of integral theory.

  • Roberts, D. C. (2001). “Miami’s Leadership Commitment,” in Outcalt, C.L., Faris, S.K., and McMahon, K.N., Developing Non-hierarchical Leadership on Campus: Case Studies and Best Practices in Higher Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • Rost, J. (1991). Leadership for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Praeger.
  • Rost, J. (1993). Leadership development in the new millennium. The Journal of Leadership Studies, 1 (1), 91-110.