Name: Akta Gupta
GDGWI ID: 100100
Course: BBA Business Studies
Module: Rethinking Leadership
Module Code: MNGT320
Module Leader: Dr. Arindam Chatterjee
Word Count: 2039 Words
According to Stogdill (1974), there are as many definitions of leadership, as
the number of people who have tried to define it, but for theoretical purpose,
leadership can be defined as a process or action of influencing the actions of a
structured group in its efforts towards setting a goal and achieving it (Stogdill, 1950,
Rauch & Behling, 1984). As Eugene Habecker (1987) stated in his book The Other
Side of Leadership that a true leader is the one who serves others for their best interest
because they are motivated by loving others, rather than putting self-glory before
others and in doing so may not always become popular. It should be noted that every
leader was once a follower of someone. One such leader was Helen Adams Keller
who was an American author, an activist and a lecturer. Imagine being blind and deaf,
and still having the ability of communicate, travel around the world, meet people,
make friends, and most importantly make a difference in the lives of others. This was
the life of Helen Keller.
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something;
and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can
– Helen Keller
A lady, who was perceived to be incompetent for any challenge in this world
but changed the lives of many, stated the above words. Helen Keller was the first
child to Captain Arthur Henry Keller and Kate Adams Keller born on the 27th June
1880 at the Keller Plantation in Tuscumbia Alabama. Her early childhood days were
filled with colors, sounds and laughter, which dramatically changed to a lifetime of
absenteeism of sounds, sight and vocalization. This change was due to an acute
blockage of the stomach and brain at the age of nineteen months, which though could
not be diagnosed but was believed to be brain fever. Today’s doctors perceive it to be
either a case of meningitis or Streptococcus. Whatever the disease maybe, it left the
happy child blind, deaf and stole her ability to functionally communicate.
Her medium of communication was now restricted to touching people to
recognize them. Helen being a sensitive and an extremely intelligent child was able to
build about sixty signs to communicate with her family by the age of seven
suggesting her level of intelligence even when she was partially disabled thus
showing traits of an above average individual, but this was not sufficient. Her
frustration built due to lack of communication, which resulted in her being a problem
child. To help the Keller family, on the advice of Alexander Graham Bell, 20 years
old Anne Mansfield Sullivan was hired as Helen’s teacher who herself was partially
blind. Thus, she could well understand Helen’s condition. Ultimately, with Anne’s
help, Helen was able to learn the alphabets, the method of learning to read lips
through touch, the Braille and also learnt how to partially speak. Helen in her early
years through the medium of feeling and support from Anne Sullivan learnt more than
any other blind and deaf individual did during her time. She is seen as an effective
follower of Anne Sullivan who leaded Helen into the world of knowledge through her
Helen in 1888 successfully attended the Perkins Institute for Blind just like
Anne Sullivan, and later in 1894 went on to study at the Wright-Humason School for
the Deaf, New York. She was the first deaf-blind student to attend the Radcliffe
College and successfully completed her graduation in B.A. cum laude (in German and
English) in 1904. She also received doctorates from Universities of Berlin, Delhi,
Glasgow and Johannesburg, Temple University and Harvard. Helen due to the interest
in learning was able to understand German, English, Greek, Latin and French, which
for a deaf and blind person, is almost impossible.
Keller’s writing career started during her graduation at Radcliffe college where
she wrote her autobiography “The story of my Life”, which was later translated in
fifty languages. She further went on to author many books, essays, newspaper articles,
magazines, etc whose subjects were generally related to blindness, socialism,
deafness, women’s rights and social issues. These were the days when Keller started
becoming a poster child for many individuals. She became the topic of discussions
and her ability to learn was considered a “miracle”.
These accomplishments did not stop satisfy her hunger to learn about people
and work for the disabled. She along with Anne Sullivan’s support visited about 39
countries to learn about their cultures and got the opportunity to meet many influential
people such as Winston Churchill, Jawaharlal Nehru, John Kennedy, etc. During her
visits, she gave lecturers on many social, political, academic topics and to educate
them about disabilities (Reeves, 2010). She also received many honors and awards
such as the Gold Medal of Merit (Lebanon), Order of the Sacred Treasure in Japan,
National Humanitarian award from Variety Clubs International, etc. She died in 1968
in her sleep, peacefully.
Considering today’s leadership concepts, Helen Keller is believed to be a true
effective leader, born out of effective followership. As David Dunning stated,
effective leadership is “leading from within” and working towards what an
individual believes in. This is what Helen Keller did. Helen Keller who herself was
deaf and blind knew how the lives of others who suffered the same was. With her
high levels of emotional intelligence, she involved herself in social activities in her
early 20s, which marked the start of Keller’s leadership. Keller’s passion to work for
the deaf, blind and disabled paid off and she herself being an example, through the
medium of her writings and lectures educated people about how the disabled
individuals could be productive and contribute positively to the society if given an
opportunity. She is perceived to be a transformational leader who was born with
some traits of a leader that was displayed by her ability to learn signs without
support but was limited due to her disability, but with support from Anne Sullivan,
she learnt how to be a leader thus justifying the behavioral theories according to
which leaders can be made through teaching. According to Bass & Hater (1988), “The
dynamics of transformational leadership involve strong personal identification with
the leader, joining in a shared vision of the future, or going beyond the self-interest
exchange of rewards for compliance”. Such leaders have a realistic goal for the future
(Yammarino & Bass, 1990). They are visionaries who wish to bring a change in the
society to achieve higher results for the common good, which will ultimately
transform the organization or society (Tichy & Devanna, 1990). Though Keller did
not have sight, she did posses what most did not, a vision. Helen Keller spent a major
portion of her life trying to transform the lives of the disabled, who in her time were
considered an embarrassment to the family. With her appetite to work for the blind,
she participated in a six-month fund raising event by the American Foundation for the
Blind (AFB) and was able to raise $2 million. Through her support at the AFB, it
received great recognition and even today continues to assist the blind people in fields
such as education, independent living, technology, employment and education.
Her aim to make the lives of the blind easier led her to the campaign of
making Braille as the standard system to educate the blind since there were about five
methods to teach them. Having multiple mediums to communicate made the lives of
the blind difficult and equally confusing. Through her efforts and literacy works,
Braille was declared as the standard system to educate the blind, worldwide. Her
persistent push to the US government for supporting the blind resulted in a lifetime
boon for them. President Roosevelt (1935) included blind people in the category of
“disabled” according to which they could now receive financial support for the
government such as unemployment insurance, retirement funds, etc. Her continuous
support and worldwide campaign resulted in improving the lives of many blind
people as they could now receive better education and jobs. Her magnetic interest
towards making changes in the lives of the disabled have resulted in researchers to
believe of her as a charismatic leader. Charismatic leaders are people who through
experience in life have built strong emotions towards something and are able to build
a vision on the same, alongside are able to build strong emotions in their followers as
well (Riggio, 2012).
Helen during her lifetime has portrayed servant leadership in most of her
actions. Theoretically, servant leadership is considered a branch of transformational
leadership (Patterson, 2003) where the leader is the servant to the people in the
organization (Greenleaf, 1996). In the case of Helen Keller, her organization is the
entire world and her followers are group of the people who are disabled due to
blindness. A servant leader is a one whose primary concern are the people of the
organization and not the organization (Patterson, 2003). He believes himself to be
responsible for the followers who are affected by his thoughts, actions and words
(Greenleaf, 1996). Helen Keller was considered the international spokesperson to the
disabled and blind and her words did affect the society that resulted in the above
changes. She believed that her actions would affect her followers and tried to do her
best for their welfare during her visits.
She has in some portions of her life also depicted affiliative style and
coaching style of leadership as well. According to Goleman (2000), affiliative style
of leadership aims at creating harmony and building emotions while coaching
leadership aims at developing people for the future. She tried not to define a goal but
provide a vision to the blind that considered themselves worthless. She believed in
building trust and respect from the followers and provides the followers the freedom
to choose they own path (Haller, 2011). Her primary medium of bringing about a
change in the lives of the disabled was through communication and self-awareness.
She does not impose her ideas on her followers but motivates them and gives them an
opportunity to develop themselves through the stressful times that would support
them in the long run. She was touched by the horrible working conditions of the
people in the industries and wished to change their lives for which she joined the
Union State Socialist Party and became a staunch supporter of socialism over
communism. Her party never won but she campaigned the beliefs of the party
irrespective of it and met influential people and spoke about the injustice done to the
workers. She took every opportunity to help the blind and spreading her word in ways
such as joining associations like Royal National Institute for the Blind, International
Relations Counselor at the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind (now known
as the Helen Keller International), National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP), etc.
Helen Keller is also seen to be an example of the Women Leadership Style
according to which, women leaders are more inclined towards coaching and
mentoring of the followers rather than controlling and commanding. Though both are
equally efficient but women leaders aim to involve the followers by encouraging
participation (Eagly & Johnson, 1990). This was what exactly Helen Keller did. She
worked towards transforming using leadership styles that provided flexibility and
emotional contact rather than being autocratic.
In the above examples, an achievement oriented leadership style of Keller
can be seen where she tries to make the most of the opportunity and fulfill goals.
Achieve what she desires and build the life of others through it. Her disabilities did
not stop her but motivated her to make the lives of others better and make a difference
Through the life and actions of Helen Keller it can be seen that leaders are not
afraid of boundaries and will succeed irrespective of the circumstances and in their
strive to succeed, it is the people who believe in them who reap the benefits.
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and
become more, you are a leader.”
-John Quincy Adams
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