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The Real Transformers

The Real Transformers
Spring 2010 | Volume 33, Number 1 | Features

Lessons From a Prodigal Father

Transforming Self to Transform Others

Lessons From a Prodigal Father
Bartolomé Esteban Murrilo, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Gift of the Avalon Foundation. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

By Margaret Diddams Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology; and Richard Kobayashi

Transformational leaders represent the very best of humanity. They are visionary, able to inspire and motivate, challenge people to do things that they would not typically take on. Yet they do not lead by vision alone. They are empathetic, showing genuine concern for the needs and feelings of those they lead.

They are also rare. How does someone become the kind of leader who can push forward change and bring others along who are glad to be a part of the journey? The process is not necessarily simple or painless. These leaders often begin with a transformation of their own lives, sometimes through loss or tragedy — as in the case of a father changed forever because of his love for a wastrel son.

The familiar parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is a powerful story of transformation. But who is transformed? And to what end?

Having squandered his inheritance through a wild lifestyle and degrading behavior, the prodigal son finds himself forced to contemplate eating from a pigsty far from home. Humiliated and despairing, he returns to his father’s household, hoping to be taken in as a mere servant.

At this point in the story, we most often focus on the transformation of the son — from pride and independence to humility and reliance on others. We see the father as representing God the Father, who, Scripture tells us, does not change. But I think there is other wisdom we can find in the story as well. By framing the parable as the experience of a human father, perhaps we can see that the father also has a transformative experience, one that moves him toward becoming a transformational leader.

“Give me my share of the estate.”

The story begins with the son asking his father to hand over his inheritance. The audience for this parable would have recognized not only that the son was impudent in asking for money that was not yet rightly his, but also that he was in effect telling his father, “You are dead to me.”

The father gives the son the money, and the son goes on his way. But why does a man who is so grace-filled at the end of the parable seem to enable willingly what appears to be such a disastrous plan in the first place?

Any parent of young-adult children can commiserate with the difficult decisions involved in parenting offspring prone to risk-taking. Hover too closely, and risk that your children will remain immature. Give in to half-baked requests and risk handing them the keys to their own demise.

I like to imagine that this young man was already a hellion, disrupting family life and driving his father to his wits’ end — so that giving him his inheritance might have seemed like the only option.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.

Researchers report that there are several attributes that mark people who experience the deep change that leads to transformational leadership. They begin by entering a period of self-examination. It is not uncommon for transformational leaders to have experienced their own dark night of the soul in response to a great personal disappointment, a workplace that they can no longer tolerate, or an action about which they are deeply ashamed. Transformational leaders often begin their journey with self-transformation, because their own lives are no longer tenable.

The parable of the prodigal son tells us nothing about the father’s thoughts or emotions after his son’s departure. But we have a glimpse of the father’s heart when Jesus tells his listeners that the father saw his son while he was still a long way off.

Perhaps he scanned the horizon several times a day hoping to be reunited with this son. He likely knew what his son had been up to — later, the older brother reminds his father that his son has been squandering his inheritance on prostitutes. Imagine a father who decides that the only choice left is to allow his son to live on his own and then finds out that not only have his worst possible fears come true but also that he has had a hand in it.

As the father looks off into the distance, I imagine his emotions as he thinks about his son growing up, the parenting choices he has made, and what he would do differently if he had a chance to start over. I imagine him praying and pondering as he looks, squints, blinks, and looks again.

So they began to celebrate.

Far from disowning his son, the father runs to meet him, embraces him, and kisses him. Then he throws him a party. And just in case anyone misses the point, he makes sure that his son is shown off in the finest attire. Not only is the son reclaimed within the community, but the community is also invited to share in the celebration. The father has led the way to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Transformational leaders emerge from these dark nights more purposeful in their leadership. This is the visionary aspect of transformational leadership. They become less worried about the expectations of others and become more internally directed, less defensive and more willing to adapt and learn from mistakes. Christians recognize this as “dying to self.”

As leaders minimize their own ego, they free themselves to become other-focused and transparent, which in turn nurtures the trust of their followers. The relationships they build have room for deeper qualities of intimacy and closeness.

The older son was in the field.

The older brother, who has continuously worked by his father’s side in his brother’s absence, hears the party. But not having made a spiritual journey of his own, he cannot enter into community. And he’s angry. Ego-filled and self-directed, he vilifies his brother and harangues his father for never giving him, the “loyal” son, a party.

But the father, having faced his own weaknesses, is tender with him. He reminds him that the prodigal is still his brother and there is a connection that has not been severed: “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

The parable ends with this loving admonishment. But does the eldest get it? Not right away perhaps. But transformational leaders effect change because they model it in their own lives. This grown man will either continue to stew in his own rage or, as he watches his father and younger brother enter into a deeper, more authentic relationship, I imagine that he too will yearn to call his father “Abba.”

Transformation leaders are effective, not because they are superhuman, but because they are fully human beings who, having experienced grace from God and those around them, are more empathetic and caring to those they lead.

Such leaders do not always begin their journey with suffering. But for those who do, that suffering is a gift, a reminder that the life we know is not the definitive end-state. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Margaret Diddams is a professor in the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Department at SPU, where much of the curriculum is devoted to teaching students how to empower leaders. Diddams’ research is focused on the integration of management scholarship with Christian theology. She and her students, such as doctoral candidate Richard Kobayashi — who assisted with this article — study the role of theology and belief systems in motivation, use of time, vocation, and moral sensitivity.

View a video of Diddams’ Day of Common Learning presentation at

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