How We Teach Leadership

Introduction from Dr. Cristina Stasia

Can leadership be taught?” is the question that I am asked most often as Director of Leadership Training and Development at Canada’s first leadership college. Interestingly, it is very rarely students who ask me this; their understanding of leadership is both more inclusive and more current than most of ours, in part due to watching adult leaders fail to take meaningful action on issues including climate change and the rise of white supremacy while their peers mobilize action on both. And while the answer to “can you teach leadership?” is a confident and enthusiastic “yes,” I understand people’s confusion, curiosity, and⏤often⏤suspicion about “teaching” leadership.

Leadership as a field of study

Not (yet) a discipline, leadership’s place in the academy is precarious at best. It does not fit easily into traditional academic structures because it intersects both academic and professional worlds, and it depends on skill-building in addition to theory. However, as Ronald Riggio (2013) argues, the study of leadership fits many characteristics of academic disciplines: there are common methodologies, dedicated journals and professional associations, and foundational theories that run across different leadership courses and studies. As Riggio explains, “Intro to Leadership looks a lot like Intro to Any Recognized Academic Discipline” (11).

The concern about academic status is not unique to Leadership Studies. John Furlong (2013) reminds us that Education was only recognized widely as a discipline in the mid-20th century. In his presidential address to the International Communication Association, Wolfgang Donsbach (2006) made the same point about Communications, which developed as a discipline in the 1960s-70s: “the salience of [the field] is increasing and, therefore, there is an increasing demand for explanatory knowledge about this object and for people to operate in this field.”

Disciplinarity status is a more extended conversation, but the point is that we do not question whether we need leadership (or education or communication), but we used to debate if it could be taught and where it should be taught. These disciplines are now a vital part of the academy, and the impacts of leadership education in higher education continue to demonstrate that students who take even one leadership course report higher levels of “collaboration, leveraging differences, communication, diversity awareness, negotiating conflict, strengths awareness, emotional intelligence awareness, and leadership confidence” (John Egan et al. 2020, 82). As the world becomes increasingly complex, the urgency to integrate leadership education into higher education increases.

Leadership must be taught, and taught in higher education, because we still cling to outdated notions of leadership, ones developed for a different world and time, which mitigate our ability to practice leadership now. Leadership is not a role: it is not about personal capacity or a position of authority. It does not rely on being charismatic or having a formal title or a corner office. The founder of adaptive leadership, Ronald Heifeitz (2010), explains this well: “We often complain about the lack of leadership we get from executives and officials and we see every day on the news that many people have enormous formal authority because they hold high office and may also have informal authority gained through inspiration, persuasion, charismatic, or moral authority but then do not use those formal powers and informal influence in the practice of leadership” (14). If universities prepare students to hold positions of authority without building their capacity to lead both in them and beyond them, our ability to make progress on our pressing challenges will remain stagnant.

Leadership is an activity that involves mobilizing people to make progress on an issue they face, “to adapt to a world with different constraints and opportunities than they had imagined” (Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky 2017, 59). It is an activity that everyone can learn how to be better at, especially with the opportunity to learn leadership in an interdisciplinary classroom that privileges experiential learning activities where they can experience and reflect upon the pains, possibilities, and dangers of leadership, connecting their learning to current and future professional and personal challenges.

Our classes show that it’s possible

So, can leadership be taught? Yes. Five years of teaching hundreds of students from every faculty at our large research university have shown us not only that it can be taught but that students from every discipline can enact it with little to no prior experience with leadership theory or activity. There are many examples in the pre-requisite course I teach, INT D 301: Foundations of Leadership:

  • students who have never before spoken in a university class regularly contribute provocative ideas to class discussion;
  • students shy to volunteer eagerly jump up to join in the experiential learning activities;
  • students with no previous interest in social change start student groups that focus on increasing equity and inclusion at the U of A; and
  • students who thought leadership meant giving loud speeches create reflective artistic pieces and dances to reach and empower new communities.

When you teach students that they can lead from where they are and as who they are, they show you that you are right.

Moreover, the students who think they know a lot about leadership? They realize that maybe the leadership theory they can recite is not a substitute for experiencing leadership. They are often surprised to find that students who do not have any prior knowledge of leadership theory⏤or, especially, no previous “leadership” experience (and by this, I mean experience in a formal position of authority)⏤are more successful at leading teams and resolving conflict in our experiential learning activities. They realize the value of different perspectives, paradigms, and⏤critically⏤disciplines in enhancing their own leadership capacity and that of the group. By their final year, as they continue to explore leadership in all of our courses, these same students have founded companies and non-profits, run for political office, started study and support groups to ensure no one is isolated, created significant social change and⏤most importantly⏤become more aware of how their own values and biases impact their ability to mobilize change. They have also learned to listen across perceived differences⏤of discipline, identity, and political viewpoints⏤and collaborate towards a collective goal, not just their own goal(s).

Do you have what it takes to learn leadership?

So, the question should not be “can leadership be taught?” But instead, “can you learn leadership?” And the answer is also “yes,” although a bit more of a cautious “yes.” My Lougheed Adjunct Professor colleagues, the Teaching Fellows, and I can teach you leadership, but whether you can learn leadership depends on several factors. First, it depends on a commitment to self-awareness and a focus on how you get in your own way. Leadership is hard and deep work: theory is helpful, but humility, curiosity, and a strong holding environment are more important (Heifetz and Linsky 2017, 102-107). We push our students to embrace this difficult work by examining past leadership challenges and failures⏤not abstract case studies⏤which can be scary for them. We use highly innovative experiential learning activities to raise the heat and make the theory real for students, from custom escape rooms, to crafting crisis communication plans with a speaker from the Mayor’s Office, to running board meetings. We divide our students into interdisciplinary forums, supported by highly trained graduate or law Teaching Fellows who get to know students as they build their leadership capacity, providing real-time feedback on the student’s leadership. Because our entire teaching team works to create a caring, committed community of practice with expert support, students cannot only embrace change but can also recover from failure more quickly.

Second, are you committed to increasing your ability to accept feedback and coaching? Often our students are surprised at the focus on self-awareness and reflection in our courses, whether through large group debriefs, one-on-one leadership coaching sessions, collaborative assignments, or the role of mentorship. Leadership cannot be taught through theory: instead, leadership must be taught experientially because “it is when people learn through their own experience that the concepts and language really come alive for them. They begin to have a way of naming previously unnamed features of their experience and seeing new possibilities of action” (Sharon Daloz Parks 2005, 196). Experiential learning allows students to experience firsthand the way that leadership and followership are alive in the classroom, the way conflict surfaces and how to respond to it as a group while it is happening, how to speak up in the moment about equity, diversity, and inclusion⏤and not afterward in the group chat. Further, teaching leadership experientially develops the skills that we often perceive as lacking in those who occupy leadership positions: “empathy for others, giving and receiving authentic feedback, and mentoring and coaching” (Ken Starkey and Carol Hall 2012, 94).

Lastly, are you committed to making this world kinder, safer, healthier, and more inclusive? Are there wicked problems you want to make progress on⏤white supremacy, ableism, hunger, lack of housing, the opioid crisis, political polarization, climate change, anti-intellectualism, the erosion of democracy? Instead of waiting for leaders to appear, you can learn to be one, leading from where you are (student, community league member, linebacker, barista, student club member, voter) and how you are (extroverted, reflective, confident, soft-spoken, pragmatic, artistic). In our increasingly “networked society with power and information widely distributed, the presumption of ‘born leaders’ along with command-and-control leadership models are inadequate” (Parks 4). We can, and must, lead from where we are if we hope to make any progress on adaptive challenges.

Students have untapped leadership potential

In our classes, we see all our students as leaders. Our responsibility is to help them build their capacity to lead how they are, from where they are, and with the people in the room with them. They do not need to be in positions of formal authority or look like the primarily white, charismatic male leaders who dominate the popular imagination about who can lead. Instead, we help students discover their values, amplify their talents, work with them to recognize their biases, and consistently remind them that it is not just that they can lead but that they have a responsibility to do so. And to do so not alone, but together. Leadership is not a solo sport, and by building the capacity of our students to lead as individuals as well as in a diverse, interdisciplinary group, we ensure they are ready to mobilize change not just by themselves but also by building on the diversity and talents of others. The best part is that our students go on to teach leadership to others: precisely because leadership is about mobilizing others. They show others⏤their colleagues, friends, classmates⏤that leading from where you are can not only be learned, but it can also be taught.

- Dr. Cristina Stasia, PLLC Director of Leadership Training and Development

Works Cited

Donsbach, Wolfgang. “The Identity of Communication Research.” Journal of Communication, vol. 56, no. 3, 2006, pp. 437-448.

Egan, John, et al. “Exploring Alumni Evaluation of an Undergraduate Leadership Program.” Journal of Leadership Education, vol. 19, no. 4, 2020, pp. 68-86.

Furlong, John. Education--An Anatomy of the Discipline: Rescuing the University Project?. Routledge, 2013.

Heifetz, Ronald. “Leadership.” Political and Civic Leadership: A Reference Handbook, edited by Richard A. Couto, SAGE Publications, 2010, pp. 12-23.

Heifetz, Ronald, and Marty Linsky. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Change. Harvard Business Review Press, 2017.

Parks, Sharon Daloz. Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World. Harvard Business Review Press, 2005.

Riggio, Ronald E. “Advancing the Discipline of Leadership Studies.” Journal of Leadership Education, vol. 12, no. 3, 2013, pp. 10-14.

Starkey, Ken, and Carol Hall. “The Spirit of Leadership: New Directions in Leadership Education.” The Handbook for Teaching Leadership: Knowing, Doing, and Being, edited by Scott Snook et al., SAGE Publications, 2012, pp. 81-98.

Student Leadership Competencies

In the spring of 2020, PLLC applied the lens of the Student Leadership Competencies model created by Corey Seemiller, PhD, to improve our programming and help track participants’ growth. Dr. Seemiller defines Leadership Competencies as knowledge, values, abilities and behaviours that help an individual contribute to or successfully engage in a role or task. Of the 60 competencies, PLLC focuses on the 12 that are most relevant to our scholars and applicable to our program.

  • Collaboration
  • Creating Change
  • Diversity
  • Initative
  • Listening
  • Problem Solving
  • Receiving Feedback
  • Responding to Change
  • Self-Development
  • Self-Understanding
  • Social Responsibility
  • Verbal Communication

What does this mean in practice? Upon starting the program, students are assessed on their proficiency in each competency to set a benchmark for their performance throughout the certificate program.

These competencies are also offered to graduate, law, and professional students in the Teaching Fellow and Graduate Leadership Development programs, and to members of the public in the Lougheed College Lectures

Student Leadership Competencies

Watch for these boxes throughout the website, which will match our programming to the competencies it supports. See our Undergraduate Programming page as an example:

Undergraduate Programming