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  • Writer's pictureMegan Penhoet

Challenging Heroic Leadership Conceptions: A deep dive into Leader Metacognition

“Whenever society is stuck or has an opportunity to seize a new opportunity, it needs an entrepreneur to see the opportunity and then to turn that vision into a realistic idea and then a reality and then, indeed, the new pattern all across society. We need such entrepreneurial leadership at least as much in education and human rights as we do in communications and hotels. This is the work of social entrepreneurs.”

Bill Drayton, Founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public

This article seeks to offer a better understanding of the leadership development journey of social entrepreneurs for sustainability through a critical analysis of traditional leadership discourses whose origins derive primarily from 19th and early 20th century economic theory and trait-based leadership conceptualizations. In place of the heroic trait-based conceptions of leadership, an exploration of metacognitive practices offers an alternative approach to understanding the social entrepreneur’s leadership development.

Exploring the role of metacognition among social entrepreneurial leaders can deepen our understanding of leaders for sustainability. Social sustainability is an important, if sometimes overlooked set of goals outlined in the UN SDGs aimed at satisfying alienated human needs through the transformation of social relations (McCallum, 2009). As addressing social sustainability challenges requires competency in leading through complexity, it can be argued that examining the leader’s internal processes for how they understand their own leadership competence offers insight into leadership for sustainability. As the field of leadership for sustainability moves towards a more holistic view of leaders in a complex world, more emphasis is being given to leader self-concept, sense making and self-awareness.

Metacognition was defined by John Flavell in 1979 as one’s knowledge about one’s own thinking- and for the purposes of understanding leaders for sustainability, this research explores the choices leaders for social sustainability (LFSS) face in their leadership development journeys and their self-concepts as leaders. Data from two social entrepreneur interviews reveal the effects of metacognition on leader strategy development derived from their self-reflection processes. Leader self-evaluation and self-awareness and subsequent strategic decisions made based upon these metacognitive practices play an important role in leadership development, and ultimately in leadership success. This article contrasts these findings and assertions against the backdrop of normative psychological leadership discourse rooted less in the importance of non-gendered reflective metacognitive practices but rather more in action-oriented, heroic and traditionally masculine conceptions of the trait-based leadership theory. This discourse supports and originates from a gendered and relatively fixed conceptualization of the social entrepreneurial leader.

Social entrepreneurs in the area of leadership for social sustainability (LFSS) strive to create innovative solutions for the most pressing problems of our time. Existing discourse on social entrepreneurs draws largely on a mix of preexisting fields including but not limited to psychology, management studies, economics, and sociology. Social entrepreneurs capture the attention of the public with successes like those of Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and are the focus of educational organizations at universities like Stanford who publish the Stanford Social Innovation Review, informing and inspiring leaders of social change. They are also the central focus of organizations such as Ashoka and the Schwab and Skoll Foundations whose main activities concentrate on educating and supporting innovative social entrepreneurs for positive permanent social change (Martin, 2007).

The data supporting this article is derived from two semi-structured interviews conducted with two social entrepreneurs who are referred to as LFSS #1 and LFSS #2 to maintain their anonymity. Both interviewees shared their leadership development experiences as early, mid and seasoned directors of nonprofit organizations seeking to address social sustainability goals (UN SDGs). Both leaders were seen as relevant as they could comment on the more trait-based, action-focused terminology ascribed to social entrepreneurs and as evidenced in literature. Additionally, each had encountered moments of challenge along their leadership journey, requiring self- reflection or organizational reflection to proceed with strategy in order to succeed. An informal literature review and a thorough examination of the organizations’ public historical documents, website and publications were conducted. A number of themes emerged from this research relating to social entrepreneur leadership discourses, notions of LFSS success and the history of leadership trait theories.

The Trait Theory Lens

The construction of “the social entrepreneur” in research literature draws upon various discourses on the different ways of thinking about leadership for social change including from the earliest behavioral and trait-based perspectives and from early 20th century economic theory. Without conducting an extensive and definitive literature review into the many leadership discourses spanning multiple academic disciplines, this article seeks more directly to address common themes and approaches to social entrepreneurial leadership for sustainability. Examining in particular two books and an article on social entrepreneurship written for both general and academic audiences (Bornstein, 2010; Praszkier & Nowak, 2012; Martin, 2007), this study presents a critical assessment of the underlying beliefs about the social entrepreneur’s leadership learning journey and how leaders make sense of it. The literature examined offers a comparison between the earliest scientific studies of leadership, the trait approach, which focused on distinguishing leaders from non-leaders based upon individual traits (Jian & Fairhurst, 2017), with the psychological approach, in particular “mindset” or “metacognitive” approaches to leadership (Kelly, 2017).

Frequently, social entrepreneurial behavior is distilled to the “the big five personality factors” emerging from psychology and sociology research dating from the 1930’s and is rooted in traditionally masculine notions of bold, successful, innovative and action-based personality traits (Yukl, 1999; Northouse, 2016). Economic theorists from the early 20th century also focused on in-born traits, favoring bold action and a willingness to take risks within the economic structure to promote innovation (Schumpeter, 2003). Social entrepreneurs are portrayed as having innate characteristics that set them on their paths to create permanent positive social change. Literature on LFSS frequently focuses on the entrepreneur’s blueprint for success as social change agent, with heavy attention to qualities that support acting “boldly” without being intimidated by lack of resources or support, being “relentless”, “determined and dedicated” and quite often “fearless” (Sivathanu, 2013).

Praszkier & Nowak (2012) devote an entire chapter of their book on Social Entrepreneurship to “Personality Traits That Facilitate the Building of Social Capital”, where building social capital is considered a key aspect of leading a social change focused enterprise. Here, the authors open with almost hyperbolic characterizations of LFSS as “unreasonable people”, “crazy” and “positive deviants” (p 107), borrowing terms from noted authors in the social entrepreneurship realm. These characterizations imply a kind of “specialness” or “superhero” nature that is in-born rather than developed. Furthermore, the manner in which social entrepreneurial leadership is conducted, according to these authors, relies heavily on charisma and energy (p 142). Emphasizing innate character traits rather than any reflective cognitive process or even an emphasis on the ability to learn, much less the need to learn as social entrepreneurs go along their leadership journey, Praszkier & Nowak (2012) perpetuate the nearly century-old emphasis on heroic trait-based notions of entrepreneurial leaders. Even as the authors describe LFSS through the Transformational and Enabling leadership models, these models nevertheless rely equally on value-based, inspirational leader abilities to influence others and have been criticized for their conceptual weakness; mainly their bias toward heroic notions of leadership and their companion omission of relevant leader behaviors (Yukl, 1999).

Traditional notions of social entrepreneurs follow from early economic theory in which entrepreneurs are characterized by their heroics and through trait-based theories of leadership which rely on the presumption that leaders are “born” and not “developed”. Praszkier & Nowak (2012) discuss at length the personality traits that are “essential for growing and fostering social short, how do we best describe the people we define as social entrepreneurs?” (p 107). Characterizations of specialness, giftedness, charisma and risk taking are evident throughout Praszkier & Nowak (2012) and Borenstein and Davis’ (2010) books, reinforcing the rather fixed notion that leaders are born and not developed.

The evidence of the trait-based approach to understanding leadership is revealed in LFSS #1’s interview comments which support the enduring strength of the trait-based leadership discourse. They state that they were exposed to a different, non-trait-based conceptualization of leadership and that it countered the more masculine, action-oriented notions they held of what it is “to lead” as a social entrepreneur: “(my mentor) shared an article on servant leadership that I remember resonated with me and that ... opened me up that there are other types and ways and styles of leadership. It's not just the domineering, like “here's the plan. Here's what we got”... style of leadership. I don't really like to be in that kind of a position of telling people (what to do), that super loud, outspoken way...just harder, more masculine energy. (it’s) never felt like me. I have a softer style. ... and he saw me as a leader... I had never seen myself in that way.” (Interview, 12.21). Similarly, LFSS #2 whose organization supports emerging leaders, shared that in their capacity as a grant maker looking for existing social entrepreneurs to support and develop, they look for those who already identify as leaders; those who “have that mindset of being able to do more and do (sic) better.” (Interview, 10.21). LFSS #2’s own view of “who is a social entrepreneur” is focused on the characteristics of dedication to a cause and a kind of action-oriented energy (mindset) that already exists in the LFSSs themselves: “I would say that we’re really looking for ....that real dedication to creating change for and with (the target audience), those are the ...crucial pieces for us.” (Interview, 10.21).

Entrepreneurship for Social Innovation and Leadership for Social Sustainability as fields are comparatively in their infancy with the most literature on the subject published between 2009 and 2013 (Hadad, 2017). Therefore, it is unsurprising to find less written about the role of entrepreneurial LFSS metacognitive personal, task and strategy knowledge. However, research into leadership aspects of social entrepreneurship reveals a heavy focus on character traits and a frequent focus on masculine traits (Zhang, 2014). Much has been written about leadership and its critical role in the Social Enterprise. Some authors go so far as to purport that an organization is an extension of the leader him or herself, reflecting some or all aspects of the leader’s social capital, behavior, belief system and strategy choices (Geletkanycz and Hambrick 1997; Eisenhardt, 1999). Moreover, the definition of “internal factors” according to Zhang (2014) is aligned to Penrose’s resource-based perspective in which the leader is viewed as an asset. As such, it is less concerned with a leader’s individual cognition and more focused on what the leader brings “personally” to the organization to advance the competitive advantages of the organization.

It can be argued that today’s understanding of the social entrepreneur is steeped in early 20th century economic writings like those of Joseph Schumpeter’s that describe the entrepreneurial function as one of “creative destruction” and central to innovation (Martin, 2007). While this may seem neutral at first, as it focuses on behavior within the economic realm, Schumpeter goes on to describe the unique and specific character traits of “the entrepreneur” that are heroic, highly masculine in nature and can be summarized as daring, maverick-like, impervious to social criticism and highly persuasive to those who would invest in his ideas (Schumpeter, 1934 p 78-80). Despite writing more about the entrepreneur’s behavior and role in the economy, later interpretations of Schumpeter’s assertions distil entrepreneurial actions which are laden with masculine pioneering spirit into character traits that define “who an entrepreneur is”. Authors Hubert and Link (1989), for example, outline requisite leadership characteristics such as: imagination, capacity for sustained resolute action, courage, the ability to exercise critical judgment with intellect, which, all together, create “a class of exceptional people” (p 8). These and other academic literature set the discourse to flow in a gendered, trait-based fashion with a clear fascination with “who” the entrepreneur is and secondarily “what superior action” he may take as a result.

Understanding Entrepreneurial LFSS Behavior: Metacognitive Practices

Less emphasis has been given to the social entrepreneur’s self-awareness and self-reflective practices. The key components of metacognition were defined by psychologist John Flavell in 1979 as “knowledge about one’s own cognitive strengths and limitations” and classified into personal, task and strategy knowledge (Flavell, 1979). Metacognition facilitates cognitive adaptability, opportunity recognition and evaluation which in turn, contribute to social entrepreneurial strategy development. As entrepreneurial success, specifically strategy development for success, is a widely researched topic, this article asserts that LFSS strategy can be understood more accurately through the lens of metacognitive regulation rather than through the somewhat mystical and fixed trait view of the entrepreneur as natively gifted with uncommonly strong action-based personality characteristics or skill sets- which are problematic with their gendered origins. Re-envisioning and analyzing social entrepreneurial behavior through one of the metacognitive reflective practices such as self-assessment, self-awareness, and self-regulation, allows for a less gendered, less biased and more human approach to studying and valuing LFSS entrepreneurial work. Moreover, research reveals entrepreneurial LFSS metacognitive activities can be translated into strategy and subsequent action resulting in innovation and social enterprise performance.

Research into the unique requirements of entrepreneurial leadership for social sustainability includes much emphasis on entrepreneurial competences that in turn are linked back to traits. Holding fast to the definitions of entrepreneurship established by Schumpeter in the early 20th century and by Jean-Baptiste Say in the early 19th century, authors Martin & Osberg (2007) outline social entrepreneurial traits that enable them to pursue their social change objectives. Martin & Osberg (2007) write to define social entrepreneurship both to differentiate it from other kinds of entrepreneurship and to claim entrepreneurial LFSS’s rightful spot as “absolutely indispensable to market economies” (p 16) among traditional enterprises. By making the case that social entrepreneurs must function within the market economy but also perform at the “superhero” level through exhibiting traits like “fortitude”, “courage” and “inspired” (p 6), and by differentiating leadership for social sustainability via entrepreneurship as distinguishable from social activism, the authors offer many examples of successful LFSS entrepreneurial leaders.

Competency based perspectives on social entrepreneurship may offer a bridge between trait-based notions of social entrepreneur leadership and metacognitive approaches to understanding them as leaders. Competencies necessary for entrepreneurial success include those identified in the examined social entrepreneur literature. Praszkier & Nowak (2012) include the ability to identify an opportunity (p 127), similarly, Martin & Osberg (2007) highlight the social entrepreneur’s ability to identify a social problem and create an innovative response to it (p 6). While not referring to these abilities as competencies per se, this article asserts that the authors’ descriptions of the actions necessary to lead social enterprises can be seen as similar to the competency-based approach to social entrepreneurial leadership. Therefore, examining the competencies deemed essential to social entrepreneurial leadership and identifying metacognitive practices that enable and, or enhance those competencies may illuminate the role of metacognition in the LFSS leadership development journey.

Employing a Delphi study of entrepreneurial competencies, Morris et al (2013) identified 13 core competencies with the purpose of applying findings to improve entrepreneurial education. Of the competencies identified, 75% of them relied on metacognitive abilities. Lundmark et al (2019) found that reflection on past entrepreneurial activities improved entrepreneurial capabilities. Moreover, Kim & Lee (2018) assert that metacognition is an essential factor for SE leaders as it enhances innovation behavior through the leader’s development of their regulating, monitoring, planning and creating processes. Metacognition is seen as crucial because it is defined here as “to plan what to learn to solve the problem, and to check and evaluate what kind of information is connected to knowledge and how to achieve the goal.” (Kim & Lee, 2018, p 1). Therefore, further investigation into the role metacognition plays in the social entrepreneurial leadership journey can be seen as valuable.

LFSS #1 stated in their interview that being exposed to the servant leadership model, which is focused on actions and less on innate leader traits “shifted my thinking of what a leader could look like” (Interview, 12.21). They continued in the interview to demonstrate that rather than conforming to the typical heroic traits they understood to be “entrepreneurial characteristics”, they have spent a fair amount of time in self-reflection. In doing this, they state that they have better understood their strengths, such as: “being able to communicate clearly” (Interview, 12.02.21). Similarly, by engaging in self-reflection, contemplating their strengths and weaknesses, they state that they can “think strategically and find (sic) the right people for the skills I don’t have” (Interview, 12.21).

Recalling how they use their mistakes as an opportunity to approach mentors, LFSS #1 pointed out that they are aware that they cannot and do not know everything. Further, this self-awareness, typical of metacognitive leadership behavior, prompts them to learn, grow and become a better leader through engaging with and learning from their mentors. As a leader themself, they stated that they try to adopt a “growth mindset” when they encounter challenges: “I still don’t like to do those things (difficult tasks)... but the more you do it, it’s going to get easier and faster. And so I just have to keep reminding myself... it’s a steep learning curve but (later) I won’t even think twice about it.” (Interview, 12.21). Their strategy as a LFSS is to remain mindful of their leadership strengths and limitations and to find ways to tolerate distress: “I made a Spotify playlist account of my songs about money make doing payroll more fun to (tolerate) the tasks that I really don’t like to do.” (Interview, 12.21).

The interview with LFSS #1 illustrated what Schaefer et al. (2020) reveal about the benefits of leader metacognition. Like LFSS #1, entrepreneurial leaders for social sustainability who employ metacognitive practices such as self-reflection, and self-regulation can increase their leadership effectiveness by shifting to positive emotions, reducing stress and ultimately enhancing relationships. Additionally, according to Schaefer et al. (2020), new research suggests that habitual metacognition such as that described by LFSS #1 in the interview, can create better outcomes for enterprises.

Metacognitive Processes’ Impact on Success

The importance of self-reflection and self-awareness have been underscored in the literature and are examined in the 2019 study of 125 entrepreneurship students (Lundmark et al., 2019). In particular, their findings showed that students with prior startup experience demonstrated higher baseline metacognitive skills gained through their past work experience (p 1159). LFSS #2’s perspectives on social entrepreneurs are primarily trait-based, though when questioned about their own process of leading as a social entrepreneur themselves, they communicated that they have an awareness of their thinking process as it relates to making strategy decisions. LFSS #2 stated “probably one of the greater challenges of entrepreneurs is that (sic) you’re always thinking about how can you do it differently and better?.... And what do we need to do to make that happen?” (Interview, 10.21). They made a distinction between their early years as an entrepreneurial leader for social sustainability in which they characterized their leadership process as “organic” (Interview, 10.21) with an emphasis on their personal self-reflection and organizational self-reflection as being characterized by being “iterative”. They stated “... core to our work in our model and kind of my approach to work always is looking at what’s working and what’s not, and how do we want to keep iterating?” (Interview, 10.21). This process is described by authors Haynie et al. (2012) as cognitive adaptability; the ability to “ realize and sustain a competitive advantage” (p 238) or in LFSS #2’s case, the ability to develop effective strategy as a new social enterprise. The authors go on to highlight the importance of entrepreneurs’ ability to respond, “strategically and iteratively to changes in the organizations’ environments” (p 238) through self- reflection and rethinking- which LFSS #2 clearly described.

Both LFSS #1 and #2 described their metacognitive processes as being most noticeable in the “unchartered territory” typical of social entrepreneurial decision making. Haynie et al. (2012) conclude that leaders with “high metacognitive knowledge use feedback more effectively than individuals who have less metacognitive knowledge” (p 255). Moreover, both Kim and Lee (2018) and Haynie et al (2012) conclude that metacognition is a leading factor in strengthening innovation and represents an important entrepreneurial resource. The function metacognition plays in social entrepreneurship is to promote innovation through self- assessment, rethinking, and adjusting actions to pursue more successful leadership and organizational strategies.


Exploring the LFSS metacognitive experience, specifically the phenomenon of self- assessment, and including the observations and experiences of leadership professionals in the U.S., this article investigated to what extent metacognition contributes to SE success and social enterprise performance. It was argued that rather than observable personality traits, elements of greater LFSS metacognitive awareness generate the feedback necessary for personal development and ultimately contribute to social entrepreneurial leadership strategy and success. LFSS’ recognition of the limits of their competencies facilitates identification and evaluation of opportunities and broadens their awareness of patterns both of the self and the networks and environment in which they act. This act of noticing and using the information to direct strategy can result in greater success both individually and organizationally.

Both academic research and literature written for lay audiences have much to say about the phenomenon of entrepreneurial leadership for social innovation and the individuals who succeed at it. The main social entrepreneur research areas focus on defining the phenomenon, compare it to other types of organizations and activities, highlight fundamental components of the development, function and impact of social entrepreneurship, and identify predictors and antecedent factors present in social entrepreneurship mechanisms (Hadad, 2017).

The research on social entrepreneurs for sustainability according to Hadad’s (2017) literature review has emerged from business, economics and management disciplines with a predominant conceptual approach exploring the key concepts of strategy and success. Of the aforementioned research areas, this examination focused on defining the social entrepreneurial leadership capabilities- specifically the ability to generate strategy for social entrepreneurial success. The article explored the role of metacognitive regulation which is defined by Mohan (2017) as the ability to monitor one’s cognition and includes planning, monitoring and evaluating. Interviews with two social entrepreneurs revealed that the power of the trait-based approach to social entrepreneurial leadership for sustainability persists. Moreover, the interviews uncovered the natural metacognitive processes in which each leader engaged and illuminated the processes as a central component of their organizations’ forward movement and leadership development. In the future, entrepreneurial leaders for social sustainability may choose to more closely examine whether their leadership journey can be a more empowered one by considering whether or not they subscribe to a trait-based view of themselves, or whether it is more useful to see growth possibilities through the conscious cultivation of metacognitive skills.

Thinking about our thinking- that's metacognition in action.


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