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
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