• August 30, 2015

Today's Students Need Leadership Training Like Never Before

Today's Students Need Leadership Training Like Never Before 1

John Macdonald for The Chronicle

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John Macdonald for The Chronicle

In the last few years, leadership programs have sprung up in remarkable numbers at colleges and universities across the country. Institutions as diverse as Creighton University, Arizona State University, and Highland Community College, in Illinois, now offer leadership training and opportunities to their students. Some universities and colleges, like Gonzaga and the City University of Seattle, have developed degree programs in leadership, and many more such programs are being planned. It seems that every university Web page and presidential message now highlights leadership opportunities for students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

The idea is that leadership—like scientific disciplines, for example—consists of a set of skills, methodologies, and ideas that can be taught. The difference is that unlike, say, biology, leadership should inform all aspects of life. Leadership programs teach important life skills, such as introspection, cultural sensitivity, moral acuity, people skills, and decision-making acumen.

When leadership programs were first developed and introduced on campuses 20 years ago, they were at best marginal to the college or university's mission. They were situated in centers led by charismatic personalities, often retired public figures. Some programs, such as the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, then housed at the University of Maryland, tried to carve out an academic home and to make a discipline out of leadership. But they were not taken seriously by the academic community, and many faded from view. Thousands of books, scholarly journals, and conferences aimed to professionalize the field, but still, leadership was not considered a serious discipline by others in higher education.

Part of the problem was its name; "leadership" is an amorphous term. Books on leadership, even serious ones, still get shelved with self-help books in many bookstores. Truth be told, most leadership books—or what are called leadership books—are nothing more than ego exercises for the author. It was and remains easy to dismiss a field that seems to include every chief executive, politician, motivational speaker, and baseball manager who ever wrote a book. And then there is the notion that true leaders are born, not made, and therefore leadership isn't worthy of academic study. Others worry that such programs offer a false promise to students—after all, not everyone can become a leader.

Nevertheless we are witnessing a growth in, and a new respect for, what we now call leadership studies. This is occurring in part because of the perception, at least, that America is suffering a crisis of leadership. In the weeks leading up to November's midterm elections, pundits bemoaned the loss of political visionaries. Recent articles in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Harvard Business Review ask, Where have all the business leaders gone? Many business schools have incorporated leadership training into their programs, or even created stand-alone business-leadership programs. Some undergraduate colleges have embraced the trend by starting leadership programs, which function much like honors programs, or by changing honors programs into leadership programs. Most colleges and universities have incorporated civic engagement or service learning, which is enveloped in a language of leadership development.

So today, the task before us is twofold if we are going to embrace this trend. First, each institution needs to define leadership in a meaningful way before it can develop a meaningful curriculum for its students. A leadership program should be based on the values and mission of the university. If those values are not defined, or if the program does not follow them, students will be left with a mash-up of courses with conflicting purposes and nothing tying them together. I also worry about the rush to slap the "leadership" label on programs that are not really grounded in leadership studies.

Second, we cannot just provide the next generation with the pragmatic tools that this generation of leaders seems to lack, and call it a day. The skills students will need can't be so narrowly defined because by the time a student graduates, those tools may well be obsolete. Rather, students should learn how to recognize and develop such skills in themselves, what we refer to as lifelong learning.

Students are flocking to these programs because they recognize the importance of leadership in ways that older generations may not. Today's students are graduating into a world that is much riskier than the one we knew. We are beginning to recognize that our current economic crisis goes much deeper than the recent drop in the stock market. Our students will find themselves in what I call a micropreneurial age. They will have multiple jobs and even multiple careers during their lifetimes. Many will work for small firms, and a growing percentage will be consultants and freelancers for most of their working lives.

In short, they will need to be equipped to make their own opportunities. They need the skills, knowledge, and qualities that leadership programs cultivate: self-reliance, social and cultural capital, appreciation for lifelong learning, creativity, conflict-resolution and team-building skills, ethics, understanding of economics, and more. Leadership programs recognize that the career ladder of old is broken. In the past, companies could be counted on to develop leaders by ushering bright employees into management-training programs. Today such programs are few and far between. Colleges and universities must do the job.

We should stop snickering every time we hear the word "leadership" on campus and start recognizing the desire of many students to hone and professionalize skills that will serve them long after graduation. Perhaps those skills were once instilled by corporate America or families. Now higher education is stepping up. Graduates of leadership programs may not be crowned leaders as soon as they get their diplomas, but ideally they will have the skills to lead tomorrow's generation and to thrive in the new economy.

Richard Greenwald is dean of graduate studies, director of university partnerships, and a professor of history at Drew University. His next book, The Death of 9-5: Permanent Freelancers, Empty Offices and the New Way We Work, is forthcoming in 2012 from Bloomsbury Press.


1. arrive2__net - December 05, 2010 at 05:02 pm

Maybe leadership skills needs could be conceptualized by a model in which an individual with technical expertise is thrust into a leadership role...what would he or she have to do to achieve great success.

The military spends a lot of time and money on training leadership, and that does seem to help them.

With globalization, the scale of leadership required by the modern world seems to defy old models of leadership, that certainly justifies advanced research and study of leadership.

Bernard Schuster

2. francishamit - December 06, 2010 at 12:54 pm

The military is a "leadership" culture because it requires people, at a very young age, to make "life or death" decisions. People the age of your students are entrusted with millions of dollars of assets and literally have the power at the most critical times to decide if someone lives or dies.

At my Promotion Board for E-5 ( buck sergeant) I was asked by one of the NCOs judging my fitness what would happen if we were both captured by the enemy and an interrogator held a pistol to his head and threatened to kill him if I didn't talk. My reply of "I love you Sarge, but you're a dead man" got a chuckle from the Board and a high score on Leadership. It's fairly easy to give up your own life; a willingness to do so if needed defines a soldier, but putting others at risk is much, much harder. Leaders always think of the greater good. It's not about them or their buddies but the mission and the result.

If Academia wants to find their own version of this, it needs to get over the prejudices that linger from the Vietnam War era. It's about doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time. Making hard decisions.

And if you want a model for putting highly technical people into leadership roles, well, West Point is an engineering school. One that also teaches ethics and responsibility.

3. crickels - December 06, 2010 at 01:09 pm

This is an example of the academic side of the house seceding the moral high ground to the student affairs professionals. We don't need structured leadership programs to teach students life skills! We need to stop slashing general education requirements, because this is where students learn important skills. Introspection, people skills, and sensitivity? Take an Interpersonal Communication course! Moral acuity and decision-making acument? Take a Philosophy course (one in Values and Ethics and another in Metaphysics and Epistemology!) Let the students figure these weighty issues out--and stop spoon feeding them answers, or, worse, propping up the culture of hedonism--do what makes you feel good.

Look, I'm in a Student Affairs program, and I don't believe this type of leadership program is helpful. We should be true to our institutions and recognize the primacy of Academic Affairs. What we should be doing is providing a channel for students to practice what they learn in-class. And, additionally, to be there for them in instances where things do not go as planned. We needn't be teaching leadership courses--that's a step too far.

4. terry_olbrysh - December 06, 2010 at 02:42 pm

Leadership also includes innovation in these times. Our college is trying to create healthcare leaders who take risks to innovative our current system. We have interprofessional Master of Healthcare Innovation and PhD in Nursing & Healthcare Innovation degree programs that are designed to develop leaders who do more than lead people -- they bring change to the entire system.

R. Terry Olbrysh
College of Nursing & Health Innovation
at Arizona State University

5. smfoster - December 06, 2010 at 04:00 pm

with all due respect, I think you are missing the point. It's not about relinquishing "leadership" to Student Affairs or about acknowledging the primacy of Academic Affairs. The point is that the development of leadership skills in students is a legitimate and much needed element in a college education. Both these divisions should be working in concert with each other. Everyone on campus has a responsibility to be invested in the academic mission of the institution. Leadership skills, critical thinking skills, quality writing, etc.--all should be reinforced through classroom and co-curricular experiences. As one writer pointed out earlier, probably no other place does this better than West Point. And guess, what? Leadership at the USMA is taught in the classroom and reinforced daily outside the classroom through the student cadre and the TAC officers (who function much like student affairs professionals assigned to each company). Student leadership development is a valued and valuable investment.
--S. Foster
Eastern Washington University

6. laundrydishes - December 06, 2010 at 11:29 pm

I think the tricky part of this conversation is whether we're talking about creating leadership programs, per se (i.e., a degree/credential termed "leadership"), or infusing leadership learning, if you will, into existing/revised curricula. Being clear on this point -- something the author isn't, for he oscillates quite a bit -- can advance the discourse and mute the "snickering" (at least a bit). I don't think this is a student/academic affairs thing. It's a coherence thing.

7. 22221757 - December 07, 2010 at 06:51 am

It is true that leadership studies are much desired by today's student, but it is very important to populate such programs with individuals who have actually been leaders in their respective fields. Here at West Virginia University, our "leadership" program is run and populated by people who have never been real leaders and have only read about it in books. It is recognized by the students as a joke.

8. cdelance - December 07, 2010 at 07:00 am

Delightful irony.

Micropreneurial mean "tiny take."

9. jffoster - December 07, 2010 at 07:43 am

I've read,

I pondered,

I snicker.

10. cmcclain - December 07, 2010 at 08:01 am

The difference is that unlike, say, biology, leadership should inform all aspects of life.

How sad that the author thinks that biology shouldn't inform all aspects of life.

11. quidditas - December 07, 2010 at 09:03 am

"Recent articles in The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Harvard Business Review ask, Where have all the business leaders gone?"

They went to business schools. Business schools are the most egregious academic promoters of careerism, the logic of which dictates that the careerist must fit in to existing structures and not make any waves, which means not thinking. And FORGET whistleblowing, pace the securities ratings industry.

To have any social significance at all, you'd have to take the whole "leadership" theme away from business and separate it unequivocally from careerism.

This last is not going to be easy to do as college bound young people are positively pickled in the go along to get along model of life success starting in pre-school.

People who DON'T do so are pathologized. (Which may be where your "leaders" are).

12. quidditas - December 07, 2010 at 09:22 am

"Our students will find themselves in what I call a micropreneurial age. They will have multiple jobs and even multiple careers during their lifetimes. Many will work for small firms, and a growing percentage will be consultants and freelancers for most of their working lives."

Here again. Why is it MICROpreneurial--mini career careerists working in/for existing structures-- and not ENTREpreneurial, CREATING new structures?

You are still educating them to be followers, under the rubric of "leadership."

13. a_voice - December 07, 2010 at 10:12 am

The author said, "... after all, not everyone can become a leader." That is a typical misconception because people tend to equate leadership to management and top management. In any given day, we all lead and follow many times across the multiple domains of our lives: personal, family, work, school, etc.

14. sherbygirl - December 07, 2010 at 10:31 am

Did anyone consider that perhaps we are in some of the trouble we are in economically, politically, socially, because EVERYONE now thinks themselves a leader? Who actually does the doing, follows through on the orders leaders issue? Who compromises, because doing so may compromise their position of power? How do we define leadership? Does it just mean boss? Leadership used to be earned by going through trials and real-life tests before people would respect you as a leader. Now, you just need to take some college classes, sheltered from the "real world," and you can consider yourself a leader, demanding all that goes with it. I fear for us all.

15. a_voice - December 07, 2010 at 10:49 am

sherbygirl and others, please don't be afraid. If you have access to library resources, I advise you to read some of the journal articles on leadership. Also take a look at some of the more scholarly books on leadership available at the library or through Google Books. After that, think about what goes on in your own organizations, and you will realize that we all lead and follow, but we could do both things better if we applied some leadership concepts. Leadership is not about a bunch of robots following the commands of a master. We humans are constantly influencing each other to get stuff done.

16. tall_l3arn1ng - December 07, 2010 at 11:00 am

@francishamit - exceptional entry - if you are still on active duty sarge, I'll sleep well tonight (retired LTC).
@a_voice & sherbygirl - some leaders are born, most are made - by developing the moral depth and attitude to do the right thing that @francis described. The problems you both describe are because we frequently confuse management with leadership. While I wonder about the efficacy of these proposed leadership programs, they do represent an acknowledgement of the problem.

17. a_voice - December 07, 2010 at 11:07 am

tall_l3arn1ng, all leaders are born, but they are not born leaders, even though the monarchy would like to believe otherwise.

18. procrustes - December 07, 2010 at 11:49 am

The problem with this society is that we already have too many so-called leaders and not enough followers. The basics of leadership require setting a good example and treating others decently. Perhaps we should all start there (doing as well as teaching).

19. a_voice - December 07, 2010 at 11:59 am

procrustes, do you really believe that statement considering the billions of people who inhabit this world and the millions who inhabit the USA? Leadership includes both leading and following (we all lead and follow). Why is this so hard to understand? What we need is better leadership all around.

20. cwoodso1 - December 07, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I graduated from the Communication Management and Design program at Ithaca College. The program is comprised of various disciplines, but leadership is a huge component. We study leadership within organizations and the foundation of leadership theory. Year after year, students from our program were given awards in honor of their outstanding leadership skills. When you look at the student organization's executive board, students from our program held the highest leadership positions. This degree certainly prepared me to lead in a complex and diverse world. I think the skills I walked away with are essential for any person in any field.

C. Woodson
Atlanta, GA

21. crickels - December 07, 2010 at 01:06 pm

I'm having the worst luck with getting my items posted.

22. crickels - December 07, 2010 at 01:16 pm


I don't believe I missed the point. I too believe that Student Affairs and Academic Affairs should work in concert with one another--I never said they shouldn't. My criticism is that Student Affairs offices are being expanded to include specific departments or personnel of "Leadership Development" when we should be teaching leadership development in a less obtuse way.

I am trying to avoid the notion that "Leadership" can be taught to a student in a structured manner. I will reiterate my earlier point that leadership skills should be manifested in a broad general education curriculum. It is odd to create departments with the sole task of developing leaders. My background is at a small private liberal arts institution, so I am always amazed at the number of new offices which pop-up at large institutions (I work at a large institution now, mind you). The philosophy seems to be, "If you've got a nail, get a hammer." I find that mechanistic solutions to organic problems never work. Why are diversity programs at Ohio State University much better than those at other institutions? Because they asserted that a "diversity officer" was not the best solution, and that every faculty, staff, and administrator should be invested in diversity initiatives. It just makes good sense. We're not fostering a 'learning culture' if we divest all leadership authority to a single department--we should ALL be working to develop students as leaders (ethical leaders at that). Essentially, we don't need new departments of Leadership Development, we need an institution with a commitment across the spectrum to developing leaders.

23. jcastagna - December 08, 2010 at 08:41 am

Re: Crickels comments ... and the statement that "I am trying to avoid the notion that "Leadership" can be taught to a student in a structured manner."

If you'd actually ever enrolled in a program such as Seton Hall's M.A. program in Strategic Communication and Leadership, you would, I'm certain, change your mind. I have done so.

Our current meltdowns on Wall Street, Constitution Avenue and Main Street USA ought to provide proof that we do need more focus on leadership. Too many people think they get it when the truth is they haven't seriously addressed their skills, or lack of them, in a structured and honest way.

One other note. We have graduated millions of professionals from schools of management. They all think they're leaders. The reality is that management and leadership are different things. Management is about numbers. Leadership is about relationships between the people who produce the numbers. THAT is the harder work. And it is why most people choose to be managers and followers.

Anyone here want to run for president? I doubt it.

24. panthony - December 08, 2010 at 01:19 pm

Excellent article. Leadership is more than leading from those provided the title of leader in an organization. Leadership is everyone's responsibility to enhance the opportunity through whole-systems thinking and collaborative decision making of all stakeholders to maintain and expand organizational sustainability.

Dr. Pete Anthony
Program Director - Leadership
City University of Seattle

25. unemployedacademic - December 08, 2010 at 01:41 pm

Gee, Dr. Anthony et al., that sure sounds a lot like citizenship. It's nice window dressing for an ideology that justifies paying elites so much more than they produce or deserve and legitimizing the disproportionate amount of power they exercise. After all, Bill Gates is a "leader," not a monopolist; George Soros is a "leader," not an arbitrage expert; university presidents are "leaders," not experts at sucking up to wealthy businessmen.

26. a_voice - December 08, 2010 at 01:50 pm

unemployedacademic, thank you for giving us some examples of leaders. There are many many more in every household and institution out there. How's the weather down there in Cuba?

27. unemployedacademic - December 08, 2010 at 03:15 pm

a_voice, you are off a bit: don't you know that the new boogeyman is in Venezuela?

28. dboyles - December 08, 2010 at 04:32 pm

Good leadership stems from good education in philosophy and humanities. There is no leadership without knowledge of the variety of ideals held throughout history, and without articulated ideals there can be no governing ethics.

29. a_voice - December 08, 2010 at 04:44 pm

dboyles, good education in philosophy and the humanities has not been proven as a prerequisite for good leadership. Leadership is not about how much you know.

30. nacrandell - December 08, 2010 at 06:55 pm

Unfortunately, the term leadership is in vogue and some of the different leadership books and programs are copied and paste versions of the same information with a slight interpretive twist.

Leadership has become a marketable term for schools, and that does not inspire true leadership qualities.

31. dboyles - December 08, 2010 at 07:06 pm


The last thing we need are leaders who are know-nothings and who fly by the seat of their pants. Charisma alone is no less a recipe for disaster.

32. francishamit - December 08, 2010 at 08:54 pm

Thank you for the kind words. I'm long out of service and only write about these things now. I do have a concern for the current generation of soldiers. There is a lot of lip service about how everyone loves the troops, but I hear reports of the same kind of "warm welcome" on campus that I got at Iowa in 1971.

Which would be a pity. Some of them have this leadership stuff down.

33. crickels - December 09, 2010 at 02:18 am

My original post was related to the discussion of "Leadership Development" offices which fall under Student Affairs. So any criticism of my posts outside of that arena have been unfounded so far. But, to be fair, I will address specific degree programs as well.

If an institution values leadership qualities, then they should deem them central to the institution and incorporate them across the spectrum. Rather than an inflation of titular "Leadership" degrees or departments, work toward a conflation of "leadership" concepts at the institution.

What of students whom do not participate in "Leadership Development" programs or enroll in specific degree programs with leadership components? When they are deemed to be acting unethically as a leader, whose problem is it? We can just say, "well he or she didn't partake in our training seminar." Or, "he or she didn't graduate with a leadership degree."

Everyone across the institution is responsible for developing leaders. It does not require new departments or degrees.

34. 11250382 - December 09, 2010 at 04:26 pm

I think you are all missing an important point. K-12 education strives to create followers; no one wins, no one is better than anyone else, all projects are done in a "team" atmosphere. Leadership training begins in kindergarten. Academia has spent a couple of generations now stressing the importance of collegial discssion. What has this accomplished? We need to begin teaching our children, from an early age, to take the lead and take responsibiity for others. College is too late. Leadership can blossom there but cannot start there. That is like thinking you can teach ethics to someone who has never been exposed to the guiding principle behind what it means to e ethical.Too little too late.

35. 11227291 - December 10, 2010 at 07:41 am

Parallel to 'Leadership Training' there needs to be 'Followship Traininig.' How and when to effectively be a follower and when and how to effectively not follow that leader who contends that they have the right answer. (eg. Hitler, Jim Jones, the military field command at Mei Lai, the charismatic sociopath, "The Charge of the Light Brigade") all very effective with powerful leadership skills.

36. crickels - December 10, 2010 at 11:58 am

Re: 11227921

It's problematic when you have academicians professing to have all of the right answers too. Rarely does the Socratic approach arise in some of our colleagues' lectures.

It's all about discernment and critical thinking.

37. shariyat5 - December 10, 2010 at 09:15 pm

How about some classes in morality and ethics? After 13 years in Community Colleges,the word " leadership" has left such a bad taste in my mouth. I have watched the elite full time faculty be paid 8 times what part time are paid and adminstration plays it's favorites. Many have no sense of how to treat indiviuals but play this ideological game to justfy their actions- similar to Calif politics. Pat the " Good ole boys on the back " and let all the adjuncts go on unemployment. Be sure to Quote ed code,etc.Its time for some radical reform by letting in leaders with a conscience to be in charge for awhile.

38. 22221757 - December 11, 2010 at 07:43 am

The Leadership Program at WVU is simply a shadow of its former self and the person who runs it has never been close to being a leader in anything!

39. rick1952 - December 12, 2010 at 03:23 pm

“Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth,” according to James MacGregor Burns. Many of the posts I have read support Burns' claim.

Different levels of leadership exist depending on the group or organization, its goals and purposes, the resources available and a host of other variables. There is no "one-size-fits-all" model or theory for leadership. Much of the serious scholarship about leadership (read Wheatley, Astin, and Komives among others) point out the complexity involved.

For my part, I agree with those who call for more and better preparation in the traditional liberal arts as a good foundation for leadership development. The humanities in particular are a great way to develop a better appreciation of our human nature, both its flaws and better qualities. Great literature (e.g. Shakespeare or Cervantes) can really help in that regard.

A solid grounding in history is also useful so that we can see where in "the arc" of history we are, how we arrived at this point and where might next go.

Good leadership at the highest levels (e.g., President of the USA) requires offering a compelling vision of the future toward which we might work (but you don't have to be president to do that - witness the success of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the students who organized the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the civil rights movement; or more recently, of Nelson Mandela negotiating from a prison cell the peaceful end of the apartheid regime and helping "jump start" a multi-racial democracy in South Africa.)

Psychology and sociology offer insights as well. I trust many of us are familar with the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison experiment by Zimbardo, each of which show us how those in authority, and therefore in leadership roles, can shape behavior of group members.

Also important - the ability to listen well for understanding rather than just arguing points and "proving" we are correct. That is probably something most lacking in our society at the moment yet if we could develop it more fully, we might yet come closer to reasonable compromises to resolve some of our most difficult problems.

I understand and agree with @2 francishamit, that giving a person real responsibility for a meaningful task can contribute significantly to the development of leadership (or at least point out who is "not ready for prime time.") Perhaps that is one area in which college leadership programs come up short, too often treating students as if they are still children rather than young adults.

Yes, leadership is complex, difficult and requires learning (and practice.) And it is more than the sum of its parts. Maybe that is why it is little understood.

40. bgillies - December 21, 2010 at 06:31 pm

One of the areas in leadership that seems to be lacking is a discussion of specific competencies (not skills) that leaders USE and not have. We can think of leadership behaviors, but not all competencies are manifested as behaviors so consequently we miss some of these things. As an example, what competencies did Rudy Giulian have that enabled him to skillfully direct the entire set of resources for NYC to respond to 9/11. These are what our students need.


41. skip1952 - January 03, 2011 at 10:28 am

The leadership crisis will continue as long as leadership is defined soley as one who others follow. The development of good leaders will improve when the definition is recast to mean one with strategic intelligence who others follow for the common good. Leadership is and always has been a relationship first.

George Casey, Ph.D.

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