Deborah Welch, PhD, has been a core faculty member at Capella University since 1999, and currently teaches online psychology degree courses in leadership development and industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology.
Along with nine of her current and former Capella students, she recently celebrated the publication of “Strengths-based Leadership Development: Insights From Expert Coaches” in the American Psychological Association’s journal Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research.
Q. You graduated with a degree in humanities, then psychology. What were your early experiences in the field and how did they shape you?
A. My bachelor’s degree was in the humanities, and I would say that that has helped me to explore the art of leadership as much as the science. I believe in a multidisciplinary approach to learning.
My first career was in counseling psychology, and in the 1980s I worked in private practice as a psychotherapist. It was only later when I left private practice and I found myself in a leadership role at a behavioral health agency that I got interested in the topic of leadership. I was directing programs that ranged from outpatient counseling services to prevention programs to residential treatment. I had the opportunity to work with highly mature team members to build several self-managing teams—that was a real joy.
Q. Were there any experiences you had that led you to be interested in leadership specifically?
A. The thing that really led me to gain the most interest in leadership is not the successes, but the painful experiences I had. After building the teams mentioned before, our agency had an organizational takeover. Even though the only change was at the very top in the agency, the culture changed almost overnight from one that was collaborative and creative to one where fear became pervasive. I was deeply disheartened, and that led me to go back for my doctorate to gain more formal learning about leadership.
Q. Tell us about your recent publication. How did this come about?
A. The idea for the research began when I was searching for literature for the psychology of leadership course that I teach. Within the course, we explore processes for leadership development.
I have students take the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, which gives them an opportunity to analyze whether an understanding of their personal strengths as an approach to leadership development is useful for them or not. I was finding that the assessment was great because it was helping students slow down from their busy 24/7 lives, reflect, and become more aware of their strengths. They would say things like, “I am managing my energy differently now and no longer working longer and longer hours to achieve my objectives, I am finding different ways to work based on my strengths.” Or, “I didn’t think I could make any impact at all in my organization, but I am surprised to find that I can.” Or, “I am bringing leadership development practices into my team’s monthly meetings—and we are having exciting discussions about how to approach problems from different perspectives.”
I was encouraged by what was happening in our course, but I also know that strengths assessments can be short-lived. You get a lot of insight and energy in the beginning and then the tool is put aside. So I was looking for research about long-term sustainable practices in strengths work and how it can lead to sustainable development—and I couldn’t find much in peer-reviewed journals.
Q. Who was instrumental in getting your project off the ground once the idea was sparked?
A. The research project never would have happened without the creativity and inspiration of Rebecca Loehrer, our department chair . She was getting input from our team for improving our I/O Psychology program. As we were brainstorming, I decided to ask a handful of my mentees who had graduated.
They all mentioned that, in hindsight, participating with faculty members in research earlier in their programs would have enhanced their programs. It would have helped them with the dissertation process, and helped those who are now teaching compete for jobs. Rebecca heard the input and really paved the way to take on these projects through her great leadership.
We put out a message to I/O Psychology students and interviewed those who had an interest in the project.
Q. Were there any fun surprises along the way?
A. I was surprised most by some of the things that never would have happened without their input. I never would have thought of interviewing some of the expert coaches we interviewed. Another thing that surprised me was the depth of thinking and research the co-researchers contributed. It really was a team project and I am grateful to each of them.
Q. Can you give us a synopsis of the discoveries?
A. There are four main points:
- It’s hard to make time for leadership development when our work is complex and time consuming and most people feel like they have to give 110 percent of their time to performing—which doesn’t leave time for capacity building. Working with strengths creates energy and so it is much more likely that leaders will put the time into their self-development because it is an intrinsically motivating process.
- There is a myth that strengths work means ignoring one’s weaknesses. Actually, strengths-based coaches deal very directly with areas of weakness or what we call the shadow side of our strengths. The more we know our strengths, the more successful we will be at addressing weaknesses, and the less defensive we will be.
- To have significant growth development as a leader, coaches suggest making changes through relationships. It could be finding a peer to partner with to help coach each other over the long term. It could be working with teams in ways that keeps building a momentum with strengths work.
- Strengths work involves self-awareness, and all the coaches we interviewed shared strengths stories.
Q. Are any of these discoveries leading you down new research paths?
A. This last finding about self-awareness and strengths stories is one that has been so important; I now have taken this on as a second research project and we have a new team of co-researchers who are in the process of designing a study on this topic of leadership development and self-awareness.
Q. What qualities do most good leaders possess? Are some people innate leaders?
A. We can all learn to use our innate gifts and strengths to lead in some way in our lives and work. The best leaders are values based, work in integrity, and the leaders I follow what Robert Greenleaf called the “best test of servant leadership,” which is to ask yourself if those who follow become stronger, freer, wiser, and more likely to serve others themselves? That is what I aspire to in my leadership.
Q. What advice could you give people who are looking to improve their leadership today?
A. Start with your own self-leadership. Having a lasting impact on others usually begins with our own self-awareness, growth, and learning. It is vital to know your values and strengths and how to bring them into your leadership. Leadership is both art and science. The art of leadership is an ongoing process of learning and growth.
Q. What happens next?
A. There are some exciting possibilities developing at Capella. We have a great new internship course, and have introduced elective courses in positive psychology at the bachelor’s and master’s level. These provide opportunities to gain insight into your strengths and learn from the scientific findings in this quickly growing field.