Tempered Radical Leadership within the Academy in the Age of COVID-19


Educational institutions are making decisions, particularly about reopening, COVID-19, instructional methods, and safety measures for students and faculty. Many of these decisions may seem to be enacted without input from mid-level leaders who will be leading their implementation. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disorienting impact on our everyday lives, global health, and economic activity. Moreover, it has overwhelmed people so emotionally that forming a response to even such an innocent question causes an overload that stymies articulation. According to Northhouse (2016)transformational leadership is “the mechanism which an individual communicates and establishes a relationship that increases the level of motivation and morality.” Meyerson (2001) argues that tempered radicals embody essential leadership facets that are lacking in more conventional transformational leadership roles. Such members are likely to have less visibility, less coordination, and less formal authority. Tempered radicals like progressive and transformational leaders can be dynamic and robust. Their vision for change can build a deep, optimistic personal connection and invokes a desire among followers to change. Tempered radicals are grassroots activists with the potential to unite proactive movements to create better workplace experiences. COVID-19 is a crucible in which robust transformational leadership can be refined. Here we discuss tempered radicalism and provide examples of how the theory’s tenets can be implemented.

Through our research on African American female administrators in predominantly white institutions, we have discovered that ‘tempered radicalism’ (Meyerson, 2001) is a leadership approach to support your organization’s decisions, but still be true to yourself and your values. African American academics tend to show a clear sense of purpose, devote themselves to caring for children, practice life skills, use more social cooperation, and create consensus. Such characteristics are the same values ​​that many of today’s Black female educational leaders hold to represent and guide their communities. Tempered radicals are boundary spanners, capable of translating their vision to attract the values ​​of various stakeholders. They can retain the scope of perception and experience transition from several viewpoints. They use the power, initially conceived as a tool for domination, to turn into an efficient platform for positive change (Lorde, 1984) [link removed no longer active].

The dilemma that most leaders face, then, is this: How do we move forward in the circumstances so fundamentally uncertain? Strong, constructive leadership allows us to resolve disasters, restore societies, and step forward in unpredictable moments. According to Meyerson (2001)tempered radicals are individuals who want to excel in their organizations while also trying to live by their ideals or ideologies, even though they are somewhat at odds with their organizations’ dominant cultures.

Meyerson (2001) defines a tempered radical as an individual that is “an informal leader who quietly challenges prevailing wisdom and provokes cultural transformation” (p.1). Tempered radicals are “individuals who identify with and are committed to their organizations, and are also committed to a cause, community, or ideology that is fundamentally different from, and possibly at odds with, the dominant culture of their organization.” (Meyerson and Scully 1995, p. 586). To strengthen the social capital of marginalized groups, African American female administrators are needed.

Faculty, staff, and administrators are understandably worried about how their institutions will be affected and what they will have to do next in the face of such threats and a still unknown collection of risks. Below are three elements in which Meyerson (2001) witnessed tempered radicals participate in a mixture of five distinct behaviors to create changed based on their ease and knowledge of the nature of power:

  1. Resisting discreetly to follow personal congruence (eg, taking time off work to observe significant religious holidays that are not officially recognized by the company or decorating one’s desk/office to demonstrate support for a specific social issue);
  2. Turning personal threats into opportunities by challenging comments, perceptions, and organizational processes that discriminate;
  3. Negotiating to identify solutions to interpersonal and organizational conflicts (Meyerson, 2001, p. 32).

Those strategies are organized from passive, personal radicalism to active, collective radicalism on a continuum. Tempered progressives speak up for social justice by campaigning for, “those who interpret structural prejudice towards their social identification groups; those who see their social affiliation as the basis of stylistic and cultural preferences; and others whose ideas, opinions and goals vary.”

With a sense of resilience, African American female administrators use resistance to push past adversity and create social change. African American women’s struggles have influenced their leadership attitudes by making them innovative risk-takers who concentrate on community well-being and development. Tempered radicals function incrementally for transformational outcomes. Leadership that conveys the need for reform communicates an ambitious dream and encourages supporters to bring about progress in conjunction with their devoted staff.

We hope that this work will encourage you to act where you are. This research is significant because it speaks to the importance and needs of more quiet actors in social justice advocacy and leadership development. It is often acts of individual, tempered radicals within organizations that advocate and create an environment for the social justice changes and the development of social justice advocates. By their very presence at predominately white institutions, African American student affairs administrators challenge the norms of higher education and promote a more socially just and inclusive institution. Social justice activism is the next step to an inclusive culture within academia. Tempered radicals are boundary spanners, capable of adapting their dream to cater to different stakeholder principles. They can maintain cognitive complexity and observe the change from a variety of angles. Collective sensory-making is a tool for connecting people through transition. Tempered radicals are astute insiders who are able to influence organizational decisions and culture (Goldfien & Badway, 2015).

By being present in predominantly white institutions, African American female administrators challenge higher education standards and promote a socially fairer and more inclusive approach. This climate influences the outlook and beliefs of the students entering the universities and impacting our community further. These seemingly passive acts are essential to affect more significant changes in social justice in society. The tempered radical approach to leadership reflects the style of transformative leadership. Tempered radicals operate with gradual means for positive changes, working for their goals while adhering to their beliefs, expressing their agendas, and initiating change without jeopardizing their careers.

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