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Leadership is vital in all organisations. As the writers discuss on the subject of Cultivating Leaders in this issue of CDTL Brief, find out if leaders are made or born, about the role education in nurturing leaders and who or what is responsible for developing ethical leaders.

April 2003, Vol. 6 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Teaching and Leadership
Dr Jeff T. Webb
Assistant Dean, University Scholars Programme

As teachers we teach leadership. No matter what we may be teaching, the way in which we teach presents students not only with models of leadership, but also—at least potentially—with opportunities for leadership. Considering the amount of time students spend in class, and the effort they spend preparing for class, these models and opportunities may well be the most significant they encounter during their university careers. So what sort of leadership should we be teaching our students?

Recent writing on organisations has influenced how I think about this question. Any society obviously needs people to run its institutions—the people we generally recognise as leaders: CEOs, Presidents, Managers, Directors—but these individuals are not exclusively, or perhaps even primarily, responsible for organisational effectiveness. It is a “myth”, organisational theorist Ralph Stacey writes, “that organizations have to rely on one or two unusually gifted individuals to decide what to do, while the rest enthusiastically follow.” In the business world, he argues, emphasis on CEOs as agents of change has in fact produced “cultures of dependence and conformity that actually obstruct the questioning and complex learning which encourages innovative action.” For Stacey, the sort of leadership that really matters is provided not by leaders, but by “followers”—the employees who ask questions, learn, and act. Leaders obviously play an important role in facilitating this process by articulating a vision, giving employees autonomy, and setting appropriate expectations and standards. But to overemphasise their role is to risk obscuring perhaps the most important form of leadership in organisations: the leadership exercised by individuals regardless of position. As the authors of Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience put it, leadership is not a position, but a process.

Hiring a high-profile CEO has rarely solved a company’s woes, argues management professor and business consultant Henry Mintzberg. Even when a company does turn around, he points out, it is ludicrous to credit only the CEO. Stories need heroes, however, and reporters typically idealise the role of the executive: “When Merck’s directors tapped Gilmartin, 56, as CEO four years ago, they gave him a crucial mission: Create a new generation of blockbuster drugs to replace important products whose patents were soon to expire. Gilmartin has delivered.” Mintzberg sarcastically remarks, “You would think he had his hands full managing the company. Yet there he apparently was, in the labs, developing those drugs. And in just four years at that. From scratch.” Clearly, Mintzberg thinks that the “followers” at Merck were the “leaders”. What was true of Merck is true of every successful organisation, not only in business, but also in all sorts of other institutions. Any organisation will be stronger and more adaptable when the “followers” themselves take responsibility for organisational outcomes, not just by performing their roles, but by exercising leadership: questioning current practices, where appropriate, and coming up with alternative ideas and practices.

What does this have to do with teaching? I want to suggest that this is precisely the sort of leadership that universities should cultivate in students. Organisations operating in the complex, fast-paced, and rapidly-changing environment of today’s knowledge-based economy need employees who can think for themselves, take initiative, and be entrepreneurial within the organisation. Moreover, to the extent that a teacher creates leadership opportunities for students in the classroom, he or she is also modelling a form of leadership that—to return to Stacey’s point—encourages rather than obstructs “questioning and complex learning”. The specific ways in which teachers encourage this sort of learning will of course be different for different teachers in different disciplines, and will be inflected by other pedagogical considerations, but here are several ideas.

  • Treat the classroom as a learning community.

    Think of ways to foster peer learning. Can you give students responsibility for teaching some of the course material? (As all teachers know, the best way to learn something is to be responsible for teaching it.) We tend to underestimate students’ abilities. When they are put in positions of responsibility—particularly when the stakes are high and they are performing before their peers—they often do startlingly good work. Furthermore, allow for student questions and interruptions in class, which can almost always be turned into productive digressions. Although the teacher will always be an important source of information and expertise for students, the classroom becomes a much richer learning environment when students are also responding to and learning from each other.

  • Emphasise active learning.

    Students often need to be encouraged to ask questions. Explain to them why active learning is important, describe your expectations, and schedule activities and exercises, either during class or before class, that will help them both understand and critically evaluate the course material. Asking good questions is always difficult; the more preparatory work students have done, the better questions they will ask in class. Moreover, plan activities and exercises that help students develop analytical questions exploring genuine problems in the material. Questions arising at the level of comprehension are important, but students also need to be taught how to develop them into deeper questions.

  • Organise the module around a problem.

    Scholarly activity is motivated by problems. Why shouldn’t modules also be organised around problems? Not only does this focus give students an accurate understanding of how and why knowledge is actually produced, it also puts them in the position, at least potentially, of producing it themselves. This orientation has important pedagogical implications. Students are more likely to make critical observations if a topic is presented in terms of debates and unresolved questions rather than established facts. They will feel they have something to contribute and will work harder. Organising your module this way will of course require that you survey the facts—how else will the students be able to understand the problem?—and will engage them in a way that a survey by itself might not.

These are suggestions for how to help students become active learners. In the group context of the classroom, active learning is leadership. The student, who sitting in a group of other students, sees a problem and asks a question or makes a comment, thus advancing or redirecting the discussion, is exercising leadership. The teacher who fosters this kind of engagement is modelling leadership.


Hughs, Richard L.; Ginnet, Robert C., & Curphy, Gordon J. (1999). Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience. McGraw-Hill: Singapore.

Mintzberg, Henry. (Spring 1999). ‘Managing Quietly’. Leader to Leader. 12: 24–30.

Stacey, Ralph. (1999). Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: The Challenge of Complexity. Trans-Atlantic Publications.

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Inside this issue
Cultivating Leadership & Stewardship
Leaders: Born or Cultivated?
Teaching and Leadership
Cultivating Leaders in Learning Communities
Cultivating Leadership Qualities in Students
Developing Leaders
Education—The Journey to Moral Leadership and Moral Citizenship