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Why colleges should teach leadership

Jonathan Doochin
Jonathan Doochin is a founder and board chair of the Leadership Institute at Harvard College. A former strategy consultant at McKinsey&Company, he has since founded a venture-capital group and energy-services company.

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.

By Jonathan Doochin

 |  November 13, 2009; 2:52 PM ET |  Category:  Teaching leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I think Jon is right on. Students won't learn everything they need to know while in college, not even close. However, having an encouraging mentor at an early age, such as a teacher or leader of a school club, can begin the process of introspection and learning that is required to become an authentic, ethical leader. Bravo Jon.

Posted by: Sean17505 | November 23, 2009 11:16 AM

As we're bringing leadership education into colleges, let's be sure not to forget that there's more to it than learning to wield power. Leadership is a humanistic art not a logistic one. If we only teach leaders to exercise influence, we'll simply accelerate current trends towards short-term thinking and an unsustainable future. Leaders need to develop and exercise perspective, awareness, and judgment. Let's teach them how to do that!

Posted by: boblieberman | November 20, 2009 2:23 AM

Some colleges actually do teach leadership. Beginning with a grant from Lilly several years ago, WARTBURG COLLEGE in Waverly, IA undertook a campus-wide leadership program. The program focuses on community leadership as well. This small college, founded in 1852, has often been in the vanguard of good programs in teaching. It has a student-faculty ratio of 1:12, small classes, and a faculty that also researches. You can find information about Wartburg College and its programs at www.wartburg.edu.

Posted by: gkleinfeld | November 17, 2009 10:45 AM

they should teach you leadership after they teach you ethics and patriotism...
maybe then your leadership will help your country and your company...

Posted by: DwightCollins | November 17, 2009 6:33 AM

If "integrity, long-term visioning and value creation" are hallmarks of "good leadership" - then what kind of leadership allows and encourages "creative financial instruments" for short term results and huge bonuses?

And when can we expect a change for the better?

Posted by: shadowmagician | November 16, 2009 8:59 PM

Gee, was that not the purpose of the much maligned liberal arts education. We have too much technical business for that. And so we have the The One, The Bush, and The Clinton.
Oh yes, look at our great financial corporations and the wonders of American Manufacturing these days ( Oh made in China? )

Posted by: peterroach | November 16, 2009 8:41 PM

“Leadership” has different connotations in different cultures.

Some Examples: A Viking leader is a successful raider who can gather wealth and reward his followers.

A Roman leader defeats an enemy, expands the Roman Empire and becomes famous and admired.

A Japanese leader spends years perfecting something, and gains respect.

It seems an American leader kowtows to the wealthy and influential and is rewarded by being allowed to become wealthy in turn.

IMHO, our culture is nothing to brag about.

Posted by: shadowmagician | November 16, 2009 6:44 PM

If "elite" universities want to teach leadership, they should have the courage to put ROTC back on campus. ROTC is a superb leadership training program, and show that we have people who are willing to give back to their country. That is leadership by example.

Posted by: mandog | November 16, 2009 3:39 PM

Maybe it is not the colleges that are failing, maybe we should start putting the focus on having people who will take out 2, 4, or 6 years out of their lives to serve in their country's government.

I know the leadership that has been attempting to lead this country for the past 30 years has been of the lowest quality.

Posted by: skramsv | November 16, 2009 3:24 PM

Elite colleges do offer classes on leadership. I take a class at Bates (also offered at Bowdoin) that teaches leadership. The class uses a case study model to look at leaders in varying situations to uncover leadership traits, qualities, and other factors that great leaders have. The class is taught by the former governor of Maine, Angus King. The class looks at Shackleton, Ed Kranz, Churchill, Lincoln, Thatcher, Roosevelt, Chamberlain, and many others. We try to see some of the tactics and decision making processes they used to success and the reasons why some failed to accomplish their goals.

Posted by: jfreedma | November 16, 2009 3:13 PM

Just caught this:

"..our existing educational models works.."

I guess Harvard doesn't teach grammar.

Posted by: AG11 | November 16, 2009 2:39 PM

Universities don't teach leadership. Political Correctness(TM), groupthink and CYA mentality yes, leadership...no.

Posted by: AG11 | November 16, 2009 2:36 PM

"Elite" universities teach one to bow before wealth and power. Thus, our leadership class, our foreign policy, our..........you name it, our health care "bills," etc.

If you want "better" leaders, quit looking for them in "elite" circles.

Posted by: rusty3 | November 16, 2009 1:36 PM

Our military service academies aren't the only viable models.

Virginia Tech, Virginia Military Institute, Texas A&M University, The Citadel and our other land-grant institutions having a military history stress developing leadership along with academics.

Posted by: CERT8 | November 16, 2009 1:22 PM

A course on "great leaders" would only provide a heap of useless maxims based on anecdotes assembled by biographical flatterers. Too few such people leave behind autobiographies that are in any way candid about how the individuals got their first breaks, eliminated their rivals, or avoided disaster. A big ego helps, but is obviously not enough by itself.

Colleges cannot teach leadership. A leader has to be single-minded or obsessive. Meanwhile, a liberally educated person is likely to be too balanced or too cautious. A leader has to defy or bend rules. A liberally educated one, having attained a high GPA mainly by conformity to rules and mastery of procedures, will be at a loss to make decisions where rules are absent or too constraining. A Harvard graduate, in particular, will always be handicapped by the notion that he will be welcome or heeded because of that credential.

However, maybe the outcome would change if colleges assigned all students to the fundraising function and awarded degrees only to those who added X millions to the endowment within 4 years.

Posted by: jkoch2 | November 16, 2009 1:00 PM

The basic problem, as has been alluded to above, is the academic model.
Mr Doochin makes a very basic error in identifying Harvard: it is absolutely not a liberal arts college. From its admissions policies to its daily activities, Harvard is a research university. The Ivy League and others like it attempt to admit people with unique passions (no matter how obtuse) and then produce the next generation of scholars and researchers. Quite important, but not the model Mr Doochin is searching for.
We in the USA do have a unique model that does attempt to broadly educate the best, brightest and less-narrowly focused young people: it is the liberal arts college. Faculty there are committed to teaching first and research second. Students are encouraged to study across the spectrum of knowledge and significant numbers take interdisciplinary majors.
Amherst and Williams are NOT Harvard and Yale.

Posted by: hfmd | November 16, 2009 12:55 PM

Perhaps it is also because colleges and their faculty have drifted so far to the left. Walk around a campus and you'll see the Save the Earth and PETA types everywhere. Good leadership is stuffy boring and conservative by comparison. Hardly what those lost in the ivory tower care to focus on.

Posted by: FLvet | November 16, 2009 12:43 PM

An important feature of leadership is courage. Courage to stand up to despotic management/ownership/administration. Courage to make changes in the face of resistance. Courage to admit when you are wrong, and courage to hire assistants that may be smarter than you.

Posted by: elonae | November 16, 2009 12:21 PM


Most commentators here claim that leadership can only come through experience. I would agree, although experience certainly isn´t enough.

Others talk about the iportance of charachter, which is even more true, but still not enough.

Having thought about leadership some time, I prefer to sum up good leadership with the availability and courage to see the TRUTH.

Most people who work at any workplace have a pretty good knowledge about what works and hwat doesn't at their workplace. They often know many of the problems with their own group, problems of competition, strenghts and weaknesses of individuals ofthe group, insufficient training, resources, lack of support etc.

Many know a few or a number of things that could be improved.

Very often, most leaders soon understand these things as well. The often have less grasps of the details in the working environment of their staff and often have a better overall view.

Still, so many of these workplaces fail to improve. Even despite some positive reforms. Despite some pay-raises or rationalizations.


Because many leaders don't attempt to, TOGETHER with their workforce, bring about
an all-encopassing improving change among themselves and the way the conduct and share their work. Most of them fail to fight enough with upper-management for more resources.

You know the conventional wisdom: Things might be very problematic now, but it still works in many ways. Start changing things and you risk failure and loose your position, so why bring about change.

A manager can usually criticize people for poor performance and very often with good reasons. Few managers are interested in the reasons for underperforment and even less in how to improve them.

Few managers dare to ctiticise themselves and thus inable their staff to be self-critical.

I say one very important ingredient in becoming a good leader is to have a number of very bad leaders in their career and also a few good ones.

People who think about how they want to be treated can really learn the importance of treating others in the same way. Only one who has suffered under to much work with to little skills or resources or praise for good results can learn how to provide their staff with the opposite.


Posted by: thabomuso | November 16, 2009 11:49 AM

Tell me, please, how you teach authentic leadership, no matter how technically inspired and intellectually refined, without a foundation in the virtues, especially selflessness, generosity, and truthfulness. Nary a word about those "anachronistic" qualities in this article. Hmmm

Posted by: gehrig1939 | November 16, 2009 11:16 AM

The elite universities don't teach leadership anymore because their educational model doesn't support it. Professors pursue their narrow disciplinary subjects with no thought of relevance to students' goals. Teaching and professor-student interaction is discouraged in a tenure model that puts negative emphasis on teaching. A watery form of academic leftism means that the elite institutions are critical of the whole idea of elites, and hence leaders and leadership. University presidents continue to pay lip service to the ideal of leadership, but in practice they have no idea of how it might happen aside from student involvement in extracurricular activities. There was a book "The Guardians" that came out on this subject a few years ago. No offense to Mr. Doochin, whose aims are excellent, but most of the programs pursued by leadership institutes like Harvard's are not going to have much of an impact if Harvard itself doesn't change.

Posted by: DeadCenter | November 16, 2009 10:07 AM

A person presents themselves to higher education with a certain set of values - their CHARACTER. I think one's good character is the foundation for good leadership, which may, or may not develop later.

People of good character will struggle to keep their values and suffer more than those whose careers become an easy path.

You need a good foundation and then a crucible. Will your instructors have the right stuff?

Posted by: rowens1 | November 16, 2009 9:21 AM

Let me guess. The leadership teaching will focus on diversity and progressivism.

Posted by: hipshot | November 16, 2009 8:43 AM

The problem here is the assumption of what leadership is. There should be a definition of leadership in the article that then serves as a map. Without that I sense confusion over the goal making any suggestion of change plausable. Bottom line I see in the article is more classes when maybe the classroom model is the antithesis of the leadership sought.

Posted by: jsjmmurray | November 16, 2009 8:40 AM

I believe that most colleges have bought into the idea of teaching "and" promoting leadership. The problem is that they have abandoned the process of developing sound judement in their students. In fact judgement of any kind is discouraged, replaced by soft ideology that has the look and feel of a new secular catholicism. "Judgement" per se is replaced by mild contempt for the properly maligned and giddy hope for the annointed concepts, persons or organizations.
The new "leadership" is not about acheiving progress, education or solving tough problems. It's real focus is in learning techniques for getting others to follow you using whatever means are necessary. That includes practicing the art of disinformation, distraction, and insinuation. In many cases these new leaders invoke the mantra of science to legitimize their view points but reject conjecture and refutation as vital dimensions of any substantial discussion.
Leadership skills without a developed capacity for scientific, moral, ethical, and legal judgement is not only useless but dangerous.

Posted by: vprevedini | November 16, 2009 8:37 AM

Leaders are born, not trained. Look at some of our leaders: Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Bill Gates in business, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant in sports, and in other areas. All of them either dropped out of college or did not go to college. To be fair, some leaders like President Obama and Warren Buffett did attend college, but they were born with leadership skills, colleges merely provided them an opportunity to practice and hone those skills. Others like LeBron James, who did not attend college, hone those skills on their job. But for every Obama, there are many George W Bushes, who attend Yale-type colleges yet build little leadership skills.

The job of colleges is to provide a well-rounded education that can prepare you for "entering" a professional career. What you do with that career after you leave college is entirely up to the individual. People who have built-in leadership, enterpreneurship, innovative, or creative skills eventually rise to the top, irrespective of where they start from, and people who don't have these skills tend to remain stuck in their middle-class positions (unless helped by friends, luck, or some higher force). More Harvard graduates fit the second category than the first.

If you are thinking that colleges will take 22-year olds with no work experience and miraculously turn them into leaders, you're just being delusional. Don't expect colleges to turn non-leaders into leaders, or non-artists into artists, or non-innovators into innovators. These are inborn skills that make people different and interesting.

Posted by: AlPinto | November 16, 2009 8:17 AM

Is it just me? Whenever I hear praise of "leadership," I have this retching response. Too often, those praised for their "leadership" have mastered a sophisticated art of kowtowing. The conformist tone of this article reeks of that attitude. Personally, whenever I have demonstrated what might be construed as legitimate leadership, I have acted simply as events warranted, typically at the risk of some unpleasantness and without much ultimate reward. More often than not, I have been perceived as either foolhardy or impudent. That said, such event have been quite rare, as I am not a leader.

I suggest the editors of this post consider soliciting their humble readers for examples of how they demonstrated or witnessed leadership, and how cautiously they would recommend someone else to emulate such behavior.

Posted by: ppreston87 | November 16, 2009 8:04 AM

Ancient historians wrote intending to provide their readers with practical advice in leadership. For several centuries in the modern era, history at universities was taught much the same way: so-called "Great Man" history with an emphasis on political analysis. There is nothing inherent in the academy which inhibits inculcating sound principles of leadership. What has happened is that the academic discipline which has traditionally held the leadership brief has abandoned it to fields which take an allegedly more scientific but in fact more narrow and bloodless view of the subject. In short, we do not need more "distinct leadership education" - that sounds like code for new schools, centers, and institutes "of Leadership", which will simply be fiefdoms within the academy, gratifying to social scientists but reaching only a small portion of the student body. If you want to encourage students to think and learn about leadership, encourage history departments to hire political historians - no one has ever improved on the analysis of leadership to be found in Tacitus or Thucydides, and no one now can do that job better than their academic heirs.

Posted by: count_six | November 16, 2009 8:01 AM

Let us remember that universities are, at their core, professional associations of scholars. Academics have their own distinctive subculture, and university cultures appear to change very slowly. For example, while one expects a leader to be direct, stand-up type of person, the Academy, having been formed by the geological forces of intramural political infighting, appears to favor a more passive-aggressive personality that would be considered unsuitable for leadership in the broader world. Trying in some way to teach "leadership" in such a context would not address a problem if it results from an academic culture that is several centuries-old in its younger respects and a millennium-old or more in its older respects. Let us consider, therefore, that the very leadership gulf discussed in this piece may be a direct result of the culture of so-called elite universities playing itself out in the broader culture. The result may thus be to look to the academy less for leadership and more as a source of expertise in narrow fields that have value but no commercial outlet.

Posted by: Bob999 | November 16, 2009 7:32 AM

This article is spot on. Take a look at the U.S. Naval Academy for a model.

Posted by: amacadams | November 16, 2009 7:18 AM

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