The Leadership Institute was established in 2001 to provide educational programs, research opportunities, and a learning community, dedicated to the preparation and support of leaders of character from a variety of professions. The mission of the Leadership Education Institute is to improve the study and practice of leadership so that individuals, organizations, and communities can better meet the adaptive challenges facing them.
The mission of the Leadership Education Institute is to improve the study and practice of leadership so that individuals, organizations, and communities can better meet the adaptive challenges facing them. The Institute will accomplish this mission by promoting: (1) significant innovative research aimed at enhancing the understanding of the dynamics of leadership and authority in groups as well as research into effective ways of teaching and learning leadership capability; (2) engaging the field of practice by providing an integrated set of educational offerings including undergraduate and graduate courses, conferences and executive programs for practitioners.
From a practical viewpoint, good theory is vital. Many leadership programs currently in start-up around the country try to teach skills without a conceptual framework, and as a result do a poor job of reinforcing all sorts of implicit assumptions about leadership that may be misleading when it comes to action. Teaching practice well involves more than skill building and professional development. An effective theoretical framework and specific information regarding context are also essential.
The defining characteristic of leadership is not simply the activity of gaining authority and influence, although these can be important resources, but the mobilization of people to clarify aspirations and do the adaptive work of defining and solving the problems created by the gap between those aspirations and current conditions. In short, leadership is the activity of getting people to tackle tough problems (adaptive challenges). Adaptive challenges are not like routine problems which can be solved with technical solutions. Adaptive challenges require a change in attitude, habitual ways of doing things, and even deeply held values. Exercising leadership frequently means getting people to face the internal contradictions of the situation being addressed, to examine the unconscious processes, patterns, and mental models related to effectiveness, and usually demands the orchestration of social learning among conflicting aspirations and points of view.
Our interest in leadership education is based on the assumption that leadership can be learned, and therefore taught. Take, by analogy, the process of becoming a musician. Many a talented youngster fails to realize his or her musical potential because of poor teaching, while an ordinary child can become an excellent player with terrific teaching. Becoming a great musician usually requires not just talent, but expert training. Likewise with leadership, there may be predispositions for leadership, but they will be harnessed or squandered depending on the quality of education.
Our teaching strategy rests on three principles. First, people learn best by experience because the evidence generated by experience is so compelling. Second, to make experiential evidence useful requires giving people either the conceptual tools to organize the evidence or tools to develop such tools. Third, educators must try to “practice what they preach.” In particular, the form of teaching should communicate the same message as the material.
We use four different modes of experiential teaching. (1) We have students in our courses consult with one another in small groups on their own past cases of leadership failure. We devote one full class sessions per week to analyzing one of these cases in depth, and students write extensive papers analyzing their own cases. (2) We use the classroom dynamics as they unfold in real-time as a case-in-point to illustrate a variety of social dynamics. (3) We provide structured exercises (e.g., small group exercises, improvisational musical performance and films). (4) We supervise field work. The theory we present provides the interpretative framework for transforming these various experiences into lessons.
Students are engaged quite deeply and personally in an inquiry into the orienting values that guide their careers: the meshing of ambitions for power, wealth and recognition with aspirations to serve the larger community. If leadership entails gauging and engaging a sense of purposefulness in an organization and managing the process whereby a shared interpretation and understanding of key values emerge, then one who leas must also have the capacity to work with one’s own complex set of beliefs, values and ethics. This kind of learning and teaching requires the kind of internal re-structuring which comes only from struggling through fundamental issues of meaning, purpose, complexity, and paradox. This is the capacity Robert Bellah calls for when he speaks of the need for leaders who are able to “translate constantly between different scientific and imaginative vocabularies” (Bellah, Beyond Belief). It is a great challenge to leadership educators to devise a classroom environment which engages a sufficiently broad range of human capabilities to have this kind of transformative effect on students’ senses of self, to shape their identities in a lasting way by promoting the development of a distinctive character and value system which emphasizes meaning, purpose, generosity, authenticity, ethical behavior and initiative taking.
Our efforts in leadership education have utilized the existing structures within USD and the School of Leadership and Education Sciences. Our degree programs and conferences regularly draw students from all of the professional schools at USD as well as professionals from diverse work settings: educators, politicians, public manager, journalists, social workers, clergy, lawyers and health professionals.
During these years of teaching and experimentation, a number of students have sought to teach leadership either in high school, university or professional contexts. Several have gone on to develop applications of our content and pedagogy in various teaching or consulting contexts. For example, several former students are presently teaching leadership to Navy SEAL officers, and others are consulting to the Catholic priests of a major east coast archdiocese recently beset by sexual abuse scandals. In addition, our teaching has generated national interest among many involved in school reform initiatives.