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.
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 efforts in leadership education have utilized the existing structures within USD and SOLES. 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.