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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
Cultivating Leaders in Learning Communities
Associate Professor Ora Kwo
Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong

The forces of globalisation bring new opportunities but also new challenges. Societies that were in the past relatively self-contained now face an invasion of products, services, ideas and values from beyond their borders. This process brings the erosion of some cultural and national traditions. In such circumstances, societal leaders in various sectors must be responsive to new agendas, and equipped for informed choices and courageous innovations.

In the domain of higher education, one way to confront the challenges is to blur disciplinary boundaries through collaboration. The NUS core curriculum initiated in 1999 with a focus on writing, history, biology, human relations and scientific thinking is one bold innovation along this line (Shih, 1998). The core curriculum attempts to create a common discourse about social changes.

In a related vein, this paper explores the nature of leadership from the perspectives of teachers in higher education. It asks how leaders can be cultivated in the fast-paced era.

Who are the leaders and who are the cultivators?

I am inclined to regard our students as our leaders. As their teachers, we shall fade out sooner or later, while they will be the new blood that will make a difference to the future of our society and world. Therefore, cultivating leadership should be our serious commitment: instead of merely consuming our energy through the chores of teaching and committee meetings, we must invest in humanity by nurturing the younger generations of professionals.

Curriculum innovation is certainly a prominent component in the cultivation of leadership. Yet, across disciplines, what matters is not so much the content of subjects as our modelling of essential leadership qualities. These qualities, I would argue, must be cultivated through our journeys with our students.

Admittedly, this is not a brand-new, sparkling idea. When preparing this article I read a quotation from John Schlatter, published in 1993 (pp. 145–147). “I am a teacher...”, he began. But:

Despite the maps, charts, formulas, verbs, stories and books, I have really had nothing to teach, for my students really have only themselves to learn… I am a paradox. I speak the loudest when I listen the most. My greatest gifts are in what I am willing to appreciatively receive from my students…

Schlatter then proceeded (pp. 146–147):

A doctor is allowed to usher life into the world in one magic moment. I am allowed to see that life is reborn each day with new questions, ideas and friendships… I am a warrior, daily doing battle against peer pressure, negativity, fear, conformity, prejudice, ignorance and apathy. But I have great allies: Intelligence, Curiosity, Parental Support, Individuality, Creativity, Faith, Love and Laughter all rush to my banner with indomitable support.

That perspective really gives me pause for thought and inspiration in the whirl of this fast-changing and obsolescence-threatening life.

How does the educational environment relate to the cultivation of leaders?

We teachers in higher education are generally recruited on the credibility of our expertise in particular disciplines. As we become more experienced, most of us become aware that there is more to teaching and learning than the mere transmission of knowledge. Teaching, in its most actualising form, is the active interflow between teacher and students where teaching and learning merge in harmony. Thus, we should focus our commitment to build learning communities that are driven primarily by positive teacher-student relationships.

Teaching by nature involves other modes of relationships that are often assumed rather than addressed. Dimensions of teacher-student, student-student, and teacher-teacher relationships can be problematic as well as resourceful, stimulating and inspiring. Much depends on our sensitivity in handling and promoting them. Our students have independent access to various channels of information and peer support in learning offers a valuable resource yet to be harnessed.

Collegial relationships are among the most powerful yet neglected aspects of learning communities. Of course, we have to work together to build our curriculum with joint decisions. However, when the focus is on the allocation of teaching responsibilities and administration of course-implementation, the true potential of collegial teamwork in teaching development tends to be neglected. If we expect our students to strive for excellence in learning to become dynamic leaders of tomorrow, it is vital for us teachers to inspire each other to strive for excellence in teaching and so build up our learning communities beyond the classrooms. By learning from our failures and successes, we will acquire deeper understanding of their meanings.

Concerning teaching development, some points for teachers to consider include the following:

  • Apart from meeting external assessments of our research and teaching, what sorts of criteria should we develop to assess our own progress?

  • How do we build communities of reflective practitioners who are willing to go beyond self- justifying pedagogical actions so as to improve teaching effectiveness with a continual search for higher goals?

  • Through our teamwork, how do we teachers contribute to the ethos of our learning environments for the nurturing of our future leaders?

These questions have no ready-made answers, but they do need to be addressed by the higher education community as a whole.

Can teachers in higher education model leadership qualities for our students?

As teachers in higher education, what kinds of leadership qualities do we wish to instil in our students? What is the effect of our own modelling as teacher leaders? The work of Parker Palmer is another source of inspiration to me. He succinctly defines one form of leadership (1998, p. 156) as follows:

When we talk about leadership, we have a tendency to contrast communities, which are supposed to be leaderless, with institutions, which need leaders. But it is possible to argue the opposite. Institutions can survive for a while without a leader simply by following bureaucratic rules. But community is a dynamic state of affairs that demands leadership at every turn… This kind of leadership can be defined with some precision: it involves offering people excuses and permissions to do things that they want to do but cannot initiate themselves.

In higher education, the essential quality of such community leadership lies in our courage to initiate desirable changes inspired by an understanding of teachers’ deep sense of values. Grounded in such understanding, our modelling effect can be powerful in the nurturing of leaders for learning communities.

During a recent visit to mainland China for a research project entitled ‘Teacher Educators in Action Learning’, I experienced a stimulating process of community-building amongst teacher educators in schools of foreign languages in Zhejiang Province. Key individuals in the project were able to lead by example and to build on what people were already doing. Working with these leaders showed me the power of synergies in action research and the building of learning communities. I was greatly refreshed by the energy and optimism of this process. It is not a unique experience, and I am sure that readers of this article have their own examples and experiences of a similar nature.

The challenge and the solution go together as two sides of the same coin. Forward-looking perspectives require teaching professionals in higher education to be humble despite their maturity and status. By opening up to learning, particularly from the young, we will find new synergies and exciting ways not only to cope, but also to thrive in the cross-currents of global interflow and dynamic changes. As we are learning to develop critical leadership qualities in being self-challenging, giving and enduring, we are committing to model what we wish to cultivate amongst our students—the leaders of tomorrow!


Palmer, Parker J. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Schlatter, John W. (1993). ‘I am a Teacher’. In Canfield, Jack & Hansen, Mark Victor (Eds.). Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open The Heart and Rekindle The Spirit. Florida: Health Communications, 145–147.

Shih, Choon Fong. (July 1998). ‘The NUS Core Curriculum: A Community of Scholars’. CDTLink, 2(2): 1. Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning, National University of Singapore.

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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