Why colleges should teach leadership
Elite colleges perceive themselves as incubators for future leaders, but liberal-arts schools are not doing enough to train leaders.
During my senior year at Harvard College in 2005, I realized that while I was receiving an excellent education, I was not learning how to translate that knowledge into leadership. The "how" was missing. Classes were all about lectures, papers or problem sets. Yet I believed, and still do, that leadership begins with understanding yourself. Only then can you go into the world and motivate others toward a socially responsible vision.
Liberal-arts colleges need to embrace this kind of whole-person education, which requires hands-on, real-world experiential learning. What we've all learned from the financial-industry melt-down, not to mention past corporate scandals like Enron or Worldcom, is that unless you're explicit about the principles of good leadership -- integrity, long-term visioning and value creation -- bad leadership can quickly fill the vacuum. I believe liberal-arts colleges, where so many young people spend their most formative years, have a responsibility to cultivate the best leadership qualities.
In pursuit of this vision, I helped found the Leadership Institute at Harvard College, a student-directed initiative to promote the leadership development of the college's undergraduates. With generous support from the Harvard College administration and other donors, the initiative brings in speakers, hosts workshops, supports student leaders, provides a home to Harvard's leadership magazine , and operates a leadership-training program for middle-school students in Boston.
Since our founding, we've learned a lot about what works and what doesn't when it comes to promoting leadership. Initially, we embraced a grassroots model, where every one of our programs depended on the vision of a passionate individual who recruited a team and brought the idea to life. In the high-turnover college environment, however, this strategy has its limits, and today we realize the need for a tenured executive director, even while the initiative of individual students remains at the core our programming.
We've also realized that extracurricular programming is not enough. Education is a college's reason for being, and leadership needs to be a part of the classroom experience. For that to happen successfully, the definition of the classroom must evolve. It should not simply be a place where students hear lectures, but rather an interactive environment that extends beyond the confines of the room itself. Experiential learning emphasizes discussions, projects and team work rather than problem-set solving or textbook-reading.
Just like cars from Detroit, our existing educational models work, but significant advances have taken place in the field, and these models haven't always kept up.
Universities serious about leadership education should include more distinct leadership education both as a separate curriculum and as a part of every discipline. This will take time, patience, and financial investment, but it can be done. The Harvard Kennedy School, for instance, has made significant attempts to offer dedicated classes on leadership, and it requires that many students, through lengthy field exercises, engage in real-world experience prior to graduation.
There is no silver bullet for bridging the leadership gap in 21st century universities. But the gap is real, the need is clear, and change only happens when we make it a priority. At a time when many perceive a crisis of leadership in the United States, perhaps our universities should take a stronger role in solving the problem.
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