Date of Award


Degree Name

PhD Leadership Studies

Dissertation Committee

Cheryl A. Getz, Ed.D., Committee Chair Lea A. Hubbard, Ph.D., Member Moriah Meyskens, Ph.D., Member


Social innovation, leadership, adult development, social change



The past two decades have seen increased interest in social innovation as a leading source of change. While social innovation literature experienced vast growth, particularly in the Western world, there is limited research on the individuals engaged in it, especially concerning their leadership practice. The extant research focuses mostly on identifying traits and competencies exhibited by social innovators. These individuals are often thought of as exceptional people able to think systemically to identify and solve problems in novel ways. The field runs the risk of perpetuating the idea that to be a social innovator one must possess a specific list of impressive qualities and that possessing such qualities is sufficient to be a successful social innovator. Consequently, there is an incomplete picture, a one-dimensional portrait of social innovators. There is a need for comprehensive insight and knowledge regarding how they think, operate, and make meaning of their experiences.

This study explored how social innovators make sense of their life and work, and how this meaning informs their leadership practice. Through qualitative interviews, the study investigated factors shaping participants’ journeys into social innovation, as well as emerging patterns concerning how they make meaning. The study identified the developmental stage of each participant through the use of constructive-developmental theory, a stage theory of adult development, and the administration of Cook-Greuter's instrument, Leadership Maturity Assessment for Professionals. The research examined relationships between participants’ assessed stages and the way they described themselves as social innovators.

The results revealed that participants clustered around four developmental stages, with the majority within stages representing the societal expectations for most adults, particularly in professional settings. The analysis identified four critical factors shaping their social innovation journeys, as well as four strategies participants used to make meaning of their experiences. The study examines how these factors intersect and proposes recommendations for those interested in developing future social innovators. The findings of this study add a nuanced, more comprehensive understanding of social innovators. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the study is its potential to help reframe the conversation about who social innovators are beyond the current exceptional trait narrative.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access


Leadership Studies