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Dissertation Abstract

Laying the groundwork for sacrificial leadership: An interpretive biographical study of the life of Bruce Olson, missionary and leader to the indigenous tribes of Colombia and Venezuela

James Thomas Walz
Regent University

This dissertation examined the epiphanies or turning point moments in the life of missionary Bruce Olson and the impact of these experiences upon the development of his leadership traits as they relate to his 40-year involvement with the indigenous tribes of Colombia and Venezuela. Olson was chosen for this research because of his success in leading this people group into the twenty-first century and helping them to survive and compete in a technological age. In doing so, he employed unorthodox leadership methods that cannot be explained within the context of current leadership theories. The overarching research questions in this study therefore address: how do we describe unorthodox leadership methods and to what can we attribute them? This is accomplished by examining how Olson became the kind of leader he is and determining the traits of his leadership style. The interpretive biographical approach (Denzin, 1989b) was used in this study and answered the following specific questions: (a) What epiphanies did Bruce Olson encounter? (b) How have they influenced his leadership traits? and (c) How do these leadership traits compare with current leadership theories? As an integral part of the interpretive biographical method, epiphanies were examined to gain insight into Olson's life choices and actions. Epiphanies--turning point experiences (Strauss, 1959)--were interpreted as interactional moments such as when Olson encountered, visions and divine manifestations; in them, Olson's personal character was manifested (Denzin, 1989a). Olson's epiphanies were analyzed with regard to his leadership traits and efficacy during four stages of human development: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and middle adulthood (Erikson, 1968, 1974, 1975, 1997). This research uncovered several traits that have evolved from personal values that distinguish Olson's leadership from current leadership theories. His leadership traits include: (a) moral vision, (b) seeking other's satisfaction, (c) process orientation, and (d) commitment without constraints. A comparison to the traits associated with current leadership theories is included and shows a leadership style that is not defined in the literature. This style represents what the author calls "Sacrificial Leadership."