#Leadership & Experience

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.

Another student:

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.


6 replies »

  1. I didn’ even know about the availability of academic journals and research until after ten years in a leadership development role, I went to a graduate program at Northwestern University. Oh, the early shock that sources I found challenging to get through, such as Harvard Business Review, were “popular” publications and the academic journals that supported their “cliff notes” articles offered actual research. I must have read my first Journal of Applied Psychology Article five times and still scratched my head at its end.

    Today, understanding how to do and understand research is one of the most valuable skills I have. I wish I had it so much earlier in my career. No,
    no way would I email a Journal of Management Science article to a leadership team and request “read this.” But, now I know how to think much more deeply about problems and solutions. I am far more skeptical of the leadership and team solutions for sale ( On a tangent, agree with you Colleen. Some of this stuff is just dreamed up.) and ask more informed questions. Plus, Harvard Business Review is much easier to read.

    • One of the big reasons I write this blog is to translate the academic journal information into plain English for the rest of us, because I agree that the journals are terrible.

      Learning to think critically is one of the things I try to do with my students. And, as you pointed out, it’s about thinking deeply about issues.


  2. Colleen, you seem to have identified a flaw in the system. The first words that I heard when I completed my first serious kick at the educational cat was, “Forget everything you were taught and we’ll teach you how to do it
    right”. This, for me, was a red flag as I’d already spent ten years in the workforce. What it meant was, “We only want you to make mistakes our way”.
    My thought here is this. As stated in your last paragraph, are you one of those “Professionals” and do you have a “Somehow”. I believe that my last kick at the educational cat involved the actual process that you have suggested. Are you up to shaking up the stats quo?

    • I already am shaking up the status quo. It’s not that the theory is bad or wrong, it’s that we don’t know how to teach theory in a way that students actually can understand it and know when and how to apply it.

  3. Leading as you point out comes from lots of experience which is why young people are often not thought of as leaders, however young people are very good at leading on issues that are concepts that do not have actual costs to them. I am not saying this is a bad thing, however it is a different type of leadership, not one with a major downside.

    The true test of leadership comes when you take risk with major downside and you lead regardless of the consequence, you do it because it is the right thing to do at that moment in time.


  4. As a practitioner of 30+ years, I never got much out of books on leadership. They seem to concentrate on what leaders have done, sort of like telling a prospective car mechanic not to study cars but study what car mechanics do.

    Once I started to learn more about people by actually listening to them for a change, I slowly broke free of the traditional top-down model and eventually moved to fully meeting the five basic needs of all people: to be heard, to be respected, and to have competence, autonomy, and relatedness (purpose), these last three proven as what motivates us all by researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. The better I met those needs, the better they performed. I eventually learned that people are at least 4 times as capable as I had thought possible.

    When I met these needs 100%, people were so very thankful and appreciative that they had to pay me back the only way they knew how, unleash their full potential of creativity, innovation, and productivity on their work. In this state, they were fully engaged, literally loved to come to work, and were over 300% more productive than if poorly engaged – workforce and management nirvana land.

    Best regards, Ben Simonton
    Author “Leading People to he Highly Motivated and Committed”

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