Monday, June 21, 2010

What Students Have Taught Me About Leadership

I started this blog to share my thoughts and insights from an inquiry, which began over ten years ago when I began teaching leadership, initially at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and then becoming much more robust when I joined the M.A. in Leadership program at Saint Mary’s College in 2002. This inquiry centers on the questions of: what is an understanding and practice of leadership reflective of, and responsive to the realities of the 21st century? And how can it best be developed and practiced?

Over the years I have engaged in lots of reading, research, writing, participation in workshops, seminars and programs; and many thoughtful, inspired and passionate conversations with colleagues and practitioners worldwide. Over the past month or so I have been steeped in some in-depth learning on leadership prompted by launching dissertation research project in leadership, and by attending The Art and Practice of Leadership Development program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Over the next few weeks I will share some of my learning generated from these two activities.

But it is what I have learned from my interaction with students over the past ten years that has informed me the most in this inquiry, and one thing that I have learned from them is what continues to animate this ongoing inquiry in leadership, and what I want to share in this post.

The students in the Leadership Studies Programs at Saint Mary's College are all working professionals each come from a variety of backgrounds, sectors, industries, roles, and levels of responsibility. This diversity along with their particular needs, interests, commitments, experiences, questions, challenges, insights, and ways of applying their learning, has shaped much of the way I respond to the above-mentioned questions. From them I have learned that key to understanding and practicing leadership in the 21st century is that leadership needs to be both transcendent to and immanent in the particular setting, circumstance, problem, or kind of work in play.

With this in mind, I have found that too much of leadership theory is colored by specific disciplinary, cultural, and practice contexts, thus limiting its relevance and application across the range of contexts in which it is enacted. For example, leadership in the context of community organizing will look different than in the context of executive management in corporation business enterprises. So why is there so much attention on leadership lesions from C-level executives? And why is leadership so often conflated with the exercise of authority and management? Certainly, there are some important intersections, but too little attention seems to be paid to what is distinct about leadership so the intersections are best understood and leveraged.

When exploring the nature of leadership for our times, I find it much more useful when a variety of perspectives and voices on leadership are present. The recent blog series from the Harvard Business Review on Imagining the Future of Leadershipand the blog On Leadership in the Washington Post are two good examples of offering this plurality of perspectives.

And it has been 350 or so students with whom I have been privileged to work over the past ten years that has provided me with a full spectrum of perspectives, which has contributed mightily to the way I understand the nature of leadership for the 21st century. Their experience and interests help me see that:
  1. Leadership is indeed viable dimension of intentional human enterprises;
  2. It can indeed bring added value and fortify the work of managing, teaching, organizing, governing, administering, partnering, or parenting;
  3. And it must work across the various contexts in which one lives and works.
Click here to hear some students tell their stories

So the question that I am particularly interested in hearing from others is: what are characteristics of leadership are common to all social enterprises, yet can be applied to any one context and to serve the particularities of that context? I welcome your thoughts on this particular question or any part of the perspective offered here.

Up next, what The Art and Practice of Leadership Development brought to my understanding of the nature of leadership for the 21st century.