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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 Leadership Qualities in Students
Assistant Professor Lionel Wee
Department of English Language & Literature
Research is a lonely activity, especially when the location is a library rather than a laboratory. Few experiences in our working life can be more isolating than gathering materials for a dissertation deep in the bowels of some large library. No one can help; no human voice is heard; the only constant is that very special smell of decaying books… Loneliness or isolation is particularly strong for graduate students in the humanities and social sciences because cooperative research is discouraged, especially when writing a dissertation: that is intended to be individual work to exhibit one’s own capacities.

—Henry Rosovsky (1990: 153–54)

In this article, I want to first suggest some qualities that I think need to be cultivated if the university is serious about producing potential leaders, and then discuss some ways in which these qualities can be allowed to develop.

First of all, it seems clear to me that a potential leader must ‘play well with others’. This is not about simply being sociable or being good company, but rather, it is about the ability to work with others in goal-oriented settings. This requires, among others, an understanding of group dynamics and the ability to resolve conflicts, and is sometimes referred to as ‘emotional intelligence’ (Goleman, 1995).

Second, aside from ‘playing well with others’, a good leader needs to be able to grasp the different skills and knowledge that members may bring to the group. S/he does not need to be a specialist in a multitude of disciplines (even if this were humanly possible). In an age of ever-increasing specialisation, leaders need all the more to be generalists so that they have an appreciation of the basic assumptions that characterise different areas of inquiry and their associated modes of thinking.

Third, a leader needs to be able to articulate a vision, one that is sufficiently inclusive and yet internally differentiated so that different persons may see themselves each as having a stake in the vision. In this regard, we may find it useful, purely as a heuristic, to distinguish administrators, managers and leaders. All, to some extent, oversee or coordinate the activities of others in a relationship that is hierarchical. But the more the under-specified the activity—so that not only the means, but the ends also and perhaps even the rationale for the ends all require articulation—the more we are moving away from administration towards management, and ultimately, towards leadership.

In attempting to cultivate potential leaders, the university, I submit, must therefore aim to create individuals who, in a given situation, are capable of articulating a vision of what needs to be done, and why. These individuals should also be sufficiently well versed in a diversity of fields. And finally, they must have honed these abilities in the context of goal-oriented social interaction.

Coming now to the question of how best to actually develop such qualities in an institutional setting such as the university, we need to be aware of various prevailing institutional norms and ask in what ways these norms facilitate or impede the cultivation of leaders. Where the development of generalists is concerned, NUS’ current emphasis on the value of a general education is certainly an important move in the right direction. This has not been an easy move and in many ways it represents a change that still needs constant pushing as it is often perceived to be at odds with a more entrenched view that prefers greater specialisation in the undergraduate curriculum.

But another, more subtle change is also needed and here, the difficulties are even greater as they come up against our very own views on what it means to conduct research, and by implication, how we ought to go about training our students to be researchers. In the epigraph to this article, Henry Rosovsky draws attention to the highly individualistic nature of research. The enforced isolation is intended, perhaps in the style of Rambo or Dirty Harry, to encourage the creation of individuals who are as self-reliant as possible, and who have a uniquely personal vision (read ‘original scholarship’) of whatever it is they have been straining their mental sinews on. And indeed, David Damrosch (1995: 55), in his reading of Rosovsky, describes the text as exhibiting a kind of ‘scholarly machismo’. But neither Rambo nor Dirty Harry would make very good leaders. Though both are strong-willed individuals with relatively clear ideas about how things ought to be, they are less interested in inspiring others towards a shared vision than in simply being ‘left alone’ to pursue their own views of the world, regardless of what anyone else might say. The emphasis on individual, as opposed to cooperative, work also characterises much of undergraduate training. Group work is still not as common as it ought to be, possibly because without a guarantee that there will be ‘equal’ contributions (whatever that means) from all students in a group, faculty tend to be concerned about free-riding on the part of weaker/lazier students. But if only because undergraduates form the largest portion of the student population, undergraduate training must, obviously, be the main arena in which we aim to cultivate potential leaders. And here, we need to recognise that it is only a very small minority that will go on to enjoy the isolating pleasures of graduate research; the majority will be better served if we think of them less as potential scholars than as potential captains of industry.

But while group work creates the kind of environment needed for developing goal-oriented social behaviour, the group project itself needs to be constructed in a way that encourages students to explain precisely what it is that they are doing and why. Currently, projects seem to place greatest emphasis on the mechanics of application. While certainly important, this often gives students the impression that issues such as how the project fits in with or contributes to current knowledge (in short, why it is worth doing in the first place) can be ignored, so that even when addressed, they are merely given ‘lip-service’.

As students discuss these larger issues, there may be compromises and clarifications as group members attempt to forge a vision of the project that they can all live with. Faculty will often not be privy to such in-group negotiations, but that is quite alright: we are not in the business of rubber-stamping particular individuals as leaders the way we certify specific graduates as being worthy of a First Class Honours Degree. Our goal is simply to create an environment that maximises the opportunities for all students to engage in activities that can help them to develop their potential as leaders. And unlike the illusion of closure created by the awarding of a degree, the cultivation of leadership qualities is an open-ended ongoing process.


Damrosch, David. (1995). We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Goleman, Daniel. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Rosovsky, Henry. (1990). The University: An Owner’s Manual. New York: W.W. Norton.

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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