One of my ongoing objections to teaching “leadership” at an undergraduate level is that individuals understand leadership through a lens of personal experience. Most undergraduates, especially in first and second year just don’t have enough personal experience to benefit from a deep theoretical understanding of the concept of leadership, because understanding leadership is so tightly tied to practice.
That said, I might be changing my mind, at least a little bit. Here is a quote from one of my recent students who had just recently interviewed a leader for an assignment:
Once you see something in a close and personal level you start to understand things at a different level. Before you experience what you are researching at a personal level, you’re almost like an audience; only seeing what’s going on during the show, not what’s happening backstage.
Initially when I began to form my research question I had many beliefs about what the research and my interview subject would say. I was proven wrong on many accounts. … I was unaware that there would be such disagreement within the discourse of this subject.
Understanding leadership comes through three distinct levels of understanding: conceptual, observational and experiential. Most academics approach leadership from an observational and conceptual perspective. The problem is that many students need concrete examples and experiences to understand and apply the theory. By linking research and experience together, my students have a much deeper understanding of the complexity of leadership.
So why does this matter to the average working professional? Leadership researchers actually know a fair amount about effective leaders, followers and effective leadership practices. The problem is that much of this knowledge is stuck in unreadable academic journals behind impenetrable pay walls. This knowledge also appears to be so abstract that most people dismiss it as “just theory” or “unworkable in the real world”. They then continue to rely on anecdotal observation and leadership clichés to identity and develop leaders. Much of the “professional” leadership development industry is based on dead wrong assumptions about leadership.
Somehow, those responsible for identifying and developing leadership talent need to integrate credible, reliable research with experiential learning to ensure that our next generation of leaders are able to understand what it means to be a leader.