Teaching Leadership: What We Know

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It has been more than twenty-five years since a handful of intrepid associates in West Point’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership published their pioneering work, Leadership in Organizations (1985), widely considered to be the first formal textbook specifically designed to “teach leadership”. Since then, the field of leadership has exploded. A simple Google search of “leadership books” returns more than 84 million hits. Not surprisingly, as overall interest in leadership has grown, so has the demand for courses on the topic. Scan the mission statements of most major universities and professional schools and you’ll find that “educating leaders” is the common thread. Search the catalogues of almost any college and you’ll find dozens of courses with the word “Leadership” in their titles.

And yet, if you were charged with teaching a course on leadership today, where would you start? Where would you turn to learn about the incredible array of approaches to teaching this ill-defined, yet important topic? How would you go about tapping into the wealth of practical experience in order to benefit from the hard-won lessons of those who have gone before you? What are the various theoretical assumptions and pedagogical techniques you might consider in the process of designing and delivering a course in this underdeveloped and undisciplined (in both the literal and practical sense of the word) field? How should one even “think about” the challenge of “teaching leadership”? This Handbook is intended to be a foundational reference for educators who teach primarily in traditional classroom settings and who find themselves facing this increasingly important but daunting challenge.

The teaching of any subject is many-sided. However, discharging the responsibilities of a university educator is particularly complex. Teaching is only one of many activities expected of a typical faculty member. There is also an expectation that what is taught should be grounded in research. Even for teachers who do relatively little leadership research, it is still assumed that what they convey to students represents the most important research relevant to the field. Moreover, when it comes to the subject of teaching leadership, university educators must also recognize that they are members of a larger community of academics responsible for shaping society’s future leaders. Therefore, academics involved in teaching leadership must consider a broader context that often extends beyond the traditional boundaries of their home discipline and intellectual community. Finally, those of us who teach leadership must also acknowledge an increased responsibility to our larger community. If we are successful as teachers, by definition then, our students—that is future leaders—will play a disproportionate role in shaping the future of society. This is an obligation we should not and cannot take lightly.

If the teaching of leadership comes with unique obligations for the instructor, it also begs similarly important questions about the nature and quality of what is taught. Teaching languishes if it is not rooted in a solid understanding of pedagogy and grounded in quality research. University educators are expected to have a more intricate knowledge base—in both breadth and depth, more fundamental and more strictly criticized and tested—than is available to a layperson. Teaching in a university places a special obligation on an educator. In particular, what is asserted to be knowledge about leadership must be true. This is particularly challenging when it comes to leadership. Because when an academic makes an assertion in the field of leadership and communicates knowledge to students, engages students in the practical applications of that knowledge or imbues the identity of leadership on that student, the educational outcomes need to adhere to the criteria of veracity and accuracy we hold for any other field taught in a university setting. Moreover, academics must do this while adhering to societally expected commitments to scholarly, detached and dispassionate judgment. Without such a commitment, academics and the subjects they teach are in danger of being discredited.

It is far too easy to enumerate flaws in the current state of leadership education: course content rarely conforms to the norms of the scientific method (Bennis & O’Toole, 2005); teachers employ casual and often self-serving empirical evidence (Ghoshal, 2005); approaches are rarely grounded in well-established theoretical traditions (Doh, 2003); there are as yet few credible communities of practice dedicated to developing and sharing best practices; and there is scant empirical evidence that any of these approaches really work (Pfeffer & Fong, 2002; Mintzberg, 2004). In short, the current state of leadership education lacks the intellectual rigor and institutional structure required to advance the field beyond its present (and precariously) nascent stage.

In our opinion, the field of leadership education has reached a critical stage. After several decades of experimentation, with scores of teachers having developed and delivered a wide range of courses on the topic, we believe that the time is right to take stock and share our collective experience. Just spend some time with a group of people who are currently teaching leadership and you will come away with a few inescapable conclusions.

First, individually we have learned a great deal. Over the past twenty-five years, largely on our own, in various classrooms scattered throughout the glove, thousands of educators have accumulated an impressive wealth of individual wisdom. Unfortunately for the field, we rarely talk to each other, and surprisingly little gets shared. Second, with few exceptions, most of us are extremely passionate about what we do. The demand for improving the practice and quality of leading has never been greater for those responsible for preparing future leaders, the sense of urgency and commitment is palpable. Third, after spending only a few minutes with such a group, you quickly discover that there clearly is no consensus onthe one best way to teach leadership. There are currently as many ways to teach the topic as there are definitions of it (Rost, 1991), each proponent as enthusiastic as the next about his or her favored approach. And finally, we have learned that most experienced teachers are not only happy to share what they have learned, but equally eager to discover what others have been up to as well.

Unfortunately, unlike some of the more well-established academic disciplines, there are few institutional resources available to support this increasingly important and motivated community of educators whose academic homes are widely scattered across traditional disciplinary boundaries. To us, the implications were clear. Such a wide-ranging collection of promising, yet unorganized, individual experience demanded an equally impressive collective effort to take stock and consolidate. As a result, we offer this handbook with the following three goals in mind:

  1. Take Stock and Consolidate Progress. Our primary goal is to share what we have learned after almost three decades of accumulated experience teaching leadership. To do this, we cast a wide net. Leadership educators from a broad range of disciplines and in a wide range of settings have experimented with a dizzying array of pedagogical approaches. Upon closer scrutiny, it is clear that some of us have been largely teaching about leadership (informing our students about the nature of the phenomenon); others have been teaching how to lead (equipping students with a set of skills and capacities enabling them to lead more effectively); and still others have focused primarily on helping out students actually become leaders (assisting students to gain access to and acquire the identity of a leader). These are but a few of the fundamental distinctions in an emerging field that have significant implications not only for design and delivery, but also for assessment. As a result of such conceptual disarray and interdisciplinary diffusion, solid data on outcomes assessment and theoretical grounding have lagged significantly. It is clear that a comprehensive volume is needed at this point in order to take stock and consolidate what we have learned.
  2. Establish a Foundational Reference for Teaching Leadership. It was also clear that fresh theoretical approaches to teaching leadership abound, but no central clearing house currently existed to consolidate and share such potential. Exciting advances in related fields such as brain research, identity, ethics, adult development, communications, positive psychology, human intelligence and educational theory require a single source for educators to consult if we are to have any hope of realizing our potential for improving the practice of teaching leadership. The explosive and yet undisciplined field of leadership education has reached a critical mass where a comprehensive volume is required not only to share novel ideas but also to help establish conceptual boundaries and shape the future contours of this emerging field. With a steadily increasing number of schools committed to developing leaders as a central goal, and with more and more educators entering the field from an increasingly wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, the time is right to consolidate what we have already learned and to establish a foundation upon which intelligent progress can be made. We hope to address this need by providing leadership educators with a single reference that not only shares current best practices, but does so within a broad conceptual framework that encourages greater theoretical rigor.
  3. Build a Respected Community of Practice. With the demand for courses on leadership growing exponentially, the need to establish a respected community of dedicated scholars and practitioners is more important than ever. As a nascent field, leadership education is currently populated by a loosely coupled collection of wildly diverse, well-intentioned, but poorly organized gaggle of scholars and practitioners who are largely left to their own devises when it comes to deciding how best to teach leadership. From the college classrooms to corporate universities to snake doctors, the field is littered with unsubstantiated yet flourishing responses to the seemingly endless demand to grow better leaders. Despite leadership being so central to the core mission of many schools, there is surprisingly little serious scholarship on how to teach it in any of these institutions. Indeed, research on leadership education falls at best on the periphery rather than at the center of most schools that profess to educate leaders as their animating purpose. Many of today’s most popular leadership courses are delivered by external consultants, senior lecturers and adjunct faculty, all largely marginalized members of the academy who were either denied tenure or had broken ranks with their “more academic colleagues” in order to teach leadership. More still are being taught by former practitioners who attained iconic status as successful leaders and now want to share their wisdom, secure their legacies or cash in on their success.

If we continue to allow leadership education to be framed, defined and sustained by such an ad-hoc approach, we open ourselves to an entire range of potentially grave risks: Will students continue to take university mission statements seriously? How long before students recognize the yawning gap between espoused aspiration and reality in our classrooms? And perhaps most importantly, how long can society survive without growing a stronger field of emerging leaders?

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