Leadership for Social Justice

By in Social Justice on 24th Feb, 2014

The question “What is leadership for?” has been on my mind for over a year now.

On the surface, it can sometimes appear that leadership exists for leadership’s sake. Charismatic CEOs unveiling their next products and politicians delivering awe-inspiring speeches often produce the kind of excitement that is only matched by the failures, scandals, and downfalls of disgraced leaders. Training and development appear readily available to equip managers with an assortment of styles and techniques, but rarely have I heard of leaders walking away from a developmental program having been asked to reflect on the purpose of their leadership. It can be easy to assume leaders and leadership exist only for our consumption.

The closest comparison is ‘vision’. The neo-charisma genre of leadership theories that emerged in the 1980’s shared an overwhelming focus on the importance for leaders to craft and communicate a vision. Unfortunately, most organisational visions, mission statements, shared goals, and action plans start and end with organisational interests. This limitation of leadership theorising and practice was exposed by Steve Kempster, Brad Jackson, and Mervyn Conroy (2011), who asserted that leadership is too often pursued solely towards an organisational purpose while bigger questions about societal purpose fall to the wayside.

One bigger purpose close to my heart is social justice. The phrase “social justice” first appeared in the 1840’s and is attributed to a Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli. It became popularly adopted during the European Revolutions of 1848 and since then, its meaning has continually been informed by progressive humanitarian, feminist, socialist, and anti-racist thinkers.

A textbook definition of social justice usually starts with John Rawls who described the concept of justice in A Theory of Justice as being about the equal distribution of primary social goods, primarily wealth and income. This is reflected in the definition offered by the United Nations’ 2006 report, Social Justice in an Open World, where social justice is “broadly understood as the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth” but adds that this growth must respect the integrity of the natural environment (p. 7). Feminist economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum (1995) carry the concept further still and argue that social justice is not just about equal access goods, but to capabilities — what people are able to do and be.

Social justice is a discourse that belongs to the public. For Cornel West, “to be human, at the most profound level, is to encounter honestly the inescapable circumstances that constrain us, yet muster the courage to struggle compassionately for our own unique individualities and for more democratic and free societies”. Adrienne Rich tells us that “if you are trying to transform a brutalised society into one where people can live in dignity and hope, you begin with the empowering of the most powerless. You build from the ground up”. Olivia Chow offers that “social justice is about creating spaces and avenues for people to not only speak for themselves and their communities but the power and resources to change their circumstances”.

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Unlike leadership, which is too often assumed to be located only in individuals, activists locate the work of social justice in relationships that seek to build the collective power of those excluded, marginalised, or oppressed in our society so that we can all gain access to human rights and challenge dominant ideologies and power relations (Bhattacharjya et al., 2013).

In my view, social justice is at the same time the most difficult and yet the most critical potential to realise for leadership. As Paolo Freire warns, “leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organise the people — they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress”. Therefore, it warrants our efforts as academics, activists, and artists to advocate and strive for social justice, lending our strength towards the creation of a world that is hospitable, sustainable, and beautiful.


Bhattacharjya M, Birchall J, Caro P, Kelleher D, and Sahasranaman V (2013) Why gender matters in activism: Feminism and social justice movements. Gender & Development, 21(2), 367–390.

Kempster S, Jackson B, and Conroy M (2011) Leadership as purpose: Exploring the role of purpose in leadership practice. Leadership, 7(3), 317–334.

Nussbaum M and Sen A (Eds.) (1995) The Quality of Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Photograph of February 2014 Moral March courtesy of Stephen D. Melkisethian.

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