• Kevin Nourse, PhD, PCC

Transformational Volunteer Leadership Development

I just facilitated a graduation webinar for 30 participants in an association leadership development program (A-LDP) and was reminded why I love what I do so much. More than once, participants described feeling transformed by the program. Nearly half of the participants expressed their commitment to step into a leadership role with their organizations and the association. Reflecting on the experiences of these participants, I wondered what about the program and specific program components that triggered their transformation.

The program is a structured year-long leadership development program that includes a number of elements including a kickoff workshop, emotional intelligence self-assessment, eight webinars on various leadership competencies, a leadership project, learning teams, and association board involvement. The A-LDP is designed to help build skills, knowledge, and confidence among participants to step into leadership roles in their’ organizations or association. Just as important is helping participants strengthen their belief in their ability to lead others.

Researcher Jack Mezirow formulated transformative learning theory in the late 90s based on his work with women reentering college. Beyond merely learning new concepts or skills, this type of learning involves a profound shift in ones’ beliefs and self-identity as well as behavior. Training or education programs that are transformative draw upon seven core elements.

Individual Experience

Transformative learning programs provide learners powerful experiential learning as well as opportunities to tap life experiences. These experiences provide a basis for profoundly transformative learning.

In the A-LDP we invite participants to write a vision for their development as leaders one year into the future, harvest their wisdom in managing past projects, and articulate the envisioned outcome of their leadership project. Teams that participants are assigned to provide an additional opportunity for experiential learning. Each participant has the opportunity to facilitate a learning team meeting and receive feedback from the other participants.

Critical Reflection

Mezirow suggests that critical reflection “refers to a questioning the integrity of deeply held assumptions and beliefs based on prior experience.”

This reflection takes several forms in the A-LDP. In creating a development plan based on the results of an emotional intelligence self-assessment instrument, they are asked to reflect on their behavior as a precursor to determining development goals. Throughout the program including the kickoff workshop and supplemental webinars, participants are engaged with powerful questions to trigger reflection on their emerging leadership identity. We invite participants to maintain a learning journal as a critical enabler of their ability to develop emotional intelligence. Also, we conclude the A-LDP by asking each learning team to reflect on their progress and summarize their insights to present to the program cohort.


Dialogue is an essential way that individual experience and critical reflection overlap. The A-LDP offers participants many venues for discussion including the kickoff workshop and self-facilitated learning teams. Also, we invite experienced leaders from the association to join each webinar, share stories with the entire cohort about each topic, and engage the group in discussions about leadership skills and application to volunteer leadership roles.

Holistic Orientation

Learning experiences that allow participants to fully embrace and bring forth both cognitive functioning and their emotions contribute to transformational learning. The heart of the A-LDP is emotional intelligence. Participants complete the MHS 2.0 EQ instrument and use the findings to create a development plan. Subsequently, each of the webinars refers to aspects of emotional intelligence.

Awareness of Context

Mezirow's research suggests that incorporate awareness-building is an integral component of transformational learning opportunities. Throughout the program, we reference context in multiple ways: personal application of leadership skills, application to their volunteer roles, and application to their professional positions in their organizations.

Authentic Relationships

A hallmark of the A-LDP is the establishment of genuine, trusting relationships among participants, with the association staff that administers the program, and with us as faculty. In the seven years, we have delivered the program, we have witnessed many of the self-facilitated learning teams continuing to meet long after the year-long program is over.

Learner-Centered Instruction

As faculty, we have adopted a facilitative approach to presenting the A-LDP that focuses on building autonomy and independence among participants. While we deliver leadership content in each of the training modules, we also invite participants to share their experiences and wisdom. Participants are asked to identify their development goals, facilitate their own learning team experiences, and conduct a leadership project that will help them both build skill and gain organizational visibility.

What’s Next?

While we have achieved very positive results from the program, there are some potential changes we are considered to the primary curriculum to embrace more fully Mezirow’s transformational learning principles:

  • Enhancing the holistic orientation of the program through greater emphasis on the somatic experience of leadership through the body and voice.

  • Empowering participants to teach key leadership concepts to each other.

  • Inviting participants to reflect on their core values, life experience, and personality preferences to formulate a compelling leadership vision.

An increasing number of associations offer leadership development programs for their members to help them develop skills to advance in their professions as well as step into volunteer leadership roles. By incorporating elements of Mezirow's theory, associations can ensure that members have the skills, mindsets, and willingness to assume volunteer leader roles.

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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience developing resilient change leaders. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California and Washington, DC. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or kevin@nourseleadership.com

(c) 2018 Kevin Nourse

#leadershipdevelopment #transformationallearning #volunteerdevelopment

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