Teach Leadership Early
At the same time Tom Ricks is suggesting closing the military academies, a proposal is on the table for a U.S. Public Service Academy, an undergraduate institution designed to develop civilian leaders for the public sector. Modeled on the military academies, the academy would offer four years of tuition-free education in exchange for five years of civilian service following graduation. Its mission is to "educate, develop, and inspire civilian leaders who have the character, intellect, and experience necessary to serve the nation honorably and effectively, and who are committed to devoting their lives to public service."
The nonprofit sector is also exploring the most effective ways to prepare the next generation of its leaders, including specialized executive training programs, on-site mentoring, and professional coaching. The Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., spent a year researching best practices in leadership development before creating an experiential-based leadership training focused on advocacy and community organizing. Echoing Green and Ashoka provide fellowships to social entrepreneurs working across the globe to lead social change.
Universities are re-examining how leadership education fits with their core mission, and where it fits in the curriculum. Once in the domain of business schools or student affairs programs, leadership education is finding its way into both curricular and co-curricular offerings across disciplines, from an undergraduate documentary film making course at Georgetown University that focuses on poverty and social justice to a graduate course at Berkeley that gives students the opportunity to explore education policy and decision-making through assignments with the local school board.
There is a growing recognition in all sectors of society that we need to prepare a new generation for leadership in their communities, from local to global, by inspiring them to assume leadership. Leadership education, wherever it takes place, if done right, can do this.
Any discussion about leadership education invariably raises the question, "Can leadership be taught?" Many people are skeptical about the ability to teach something that they generally view as an innate quality. But to put it in practical terms, when people in the workplace describe their experiences with good leadership, they say that the leader shares a vision, has the courage to do the right thing, solves problems creatively, empowers others, and consistently follows through on commitments. Similarly, leaders of social movements are often described as motivators and mobilizers, who have a deep sense of responsibility that comes from the trust that others have given them, who give voice to people without political influence, and who require accountability from our political, economic and social systems. In most cases these are leadership "behaviors," not inborn characteristics.
Core leadership principles and practices, such as critical and creative thinking, visioning, decision making, problem solving, collaboration, conflict resolution, communication, leading change and risk, and understanding groups, cultures and contexts, and mobilizing resources, can certainly be learned. I would take it a step further. Leadership education can and should take root much earlier than young adulthood. It has the potential to empower students, as early as elementary school, to be active learners and citizens in school and society.
So, should the military academies be abolished? Not if they are doing their job right --and based on the officers I have had the privilege of teaching in my "leadership" class at Georgetown, I would say something is definitely working. Should leadership competencies be "taught" more broadly, to wider audiences, beginning in earlier stages of life? You bet.
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