Academic Exchange Quarterly  Fall 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 3

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Educators’ Experiences Teaching Leadership


Heath E. Harding, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

Gina S. Matkin, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, NE


Heath E. Harding, Ph.D. is the associate director of the Illinois Leadership Center, and Gina S. Matkin, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.



Current and emerging situations are demanding leaders exercise more leadership capacity.  Little is known about the role educators play in developing leadership capacity in undergraduate leadership development programs.  This phenomenological study explored the experiences of 12 leadership educators at colleges and universities in the Midwest.  Four themes emerged: (a) “I teach leadership. What does that mean?” (b) “not dancing alone” in the learning community, (c) helping students make a difference, and (d) the educator’s journey: “A place of becoming.” 



In the last 30 years over 1000 leadership development programs have been established at academic institutions (Riggio, Ciulla, & Sorenson, 2003; Rost, 1991) in an attempt to formalize the leader and leadership development process (Day, 2000; Day & O’Connor, 2003; Van Velsor, Moxley, & Bunker, 2004) for undergraduate students.  These programs have been charged with developing leaders to negotiate increasingly complex problems (Camilllus, 2008; Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009; Zaccaro & Klimoski, 2001).  However, little is known about the leadership development process in general (Avolio, 2007; Day & O’Connor, 2003) at a time when more complex situations demand leaders that can exercise more leadership capacity (Heifetz, Linsky, & Grashow, 2009).


Several research studies have found that educators present curriculum, share experiences, model, coach, provide challenges and support, and give feedback (Connaughton, Lawrence, & Ruben, 2003; Day & O’Connor, 2003; Doh, 2003; Kirby, Paradise, & King, 1992; Komives, Owen, Logerbeam, Mainella, & Osteen, 2005; Niremberg, 2003).  “Students and stakeholders spoke consistently about the importance of teachers, facilitators, administrators, and staff members for student leadership development” (Eich, 2008, p. 180).  Few studies give voice to the experiences of leadership educators.


This phenomenological study was to describe the experiences of educators who taught leadership to undergraduate students at academic institutions in the Midwest.  Teaching leadership was defined as providing developmental opportunities to increase both leader and leadership capacity.  The central research question was: What are the experiences of educators who are teaching leadership to undergraduate students at academic institutions? 



Phenomenological inquiry seeks to acquire scientific knowledge through “concentrated studies of experience and the reflective powers of the self” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 25).  It is the philosophy and science of trying to obtain knowledge through the examination of the experience of the participants in combination with the researchers consciousness (Creswell, 2009).  A phenomenological study design “involves a return to experience in order to obtain comprehensive descriptions that provide the basis for reflective structural analysis that portrays the essences of the experience” (Moustakas, 1994, p. 13). 


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with twelve educators at four different academic institutions in 2010.  Participants were currently teaching at least one undergraduate course that had explicit objective(s) to increase leadership development.  The participants had at least three years of experience teaching leadership.  The average number years of teaching at the collegiate level were 13.9 years, and the average number of years teaching leadership at the collegiate level was 10.6 years.  The educators’ ages ranged from 28 to 63 years old with a mean of 45 years old. 



Four themes emerged from the data: (a) “I teach leadership. What does that mean?” (b) “not dancing alone” in the learning community, (c) helping students make a difference, and (d) the educator’s journey: “A place of becoming.” 


“I teach leadership.  What does that mean?”  The experiences of the leadership educators in this study shared a broad narrative of trying to define and defend leadership.  Not surprisingly, the educators’ definitions of leadership varied but primarily focused on engaging in behaviors to accomplish a goal or task.  June, a leadership educator with 35 years of experience, liked to boil it down for students.  “I tell students that leadership really at its most basic level is making things happen.  And that has to happen in relationship.”  She expanded on her definition by adding that it could also be “a process that empowers others to achieve some things of importance.”  This definition of leadership changes the task from an external change to an internal change – other people’s internal sense of empowerment.  Her perspective centered on influencing other people in ways that help them find their own power to accomplish goals. 


The leadership educators related experiences of trying to explain and defend teaching leadership to others within their respective academic institutions and to the general public.  Carol, a leadership educator with seven years of experience, said, “You have to defend yourself.  For right or for wrong, you have to demonstrate that you are an academic discipline.”  Kathy, a leadership educator with seven years of experience, states, “In some cases they’re absolutely right.  It’s not a discipline, but you know, you have to be willing to stand in a room of pure science folks and defend.  That’s the challenge.”  Even if she felt it was not a disciple, it was still beneficial for students. 


The relevancy of teaching leadership was another sub-theme that many of the educators shared.  The educators addressed the issue of relevance from two broad perspectives.  They shared their beliefs about who should participate in leadership programs (relevant to whom) and the benefits of their participation (relevant to a successful future) (Brungardt, 1997; Cress, Astin, Zimmerman-Oster, & Burkhardt, 2001; Zimmerman-Oster & Burkhardt, 1999). 


“Not dancing alone” in the learning community.  Many educators shared the perspective of getting students involved in their own learning.  Shane, a leadership educator with five years of experience, intentionally created a holding environment (McCauley, Drath, Palus, O'Connor, & Baker, 2006) that he felt would facilitate the developmental movement of the students.  A lot of the experiences that the educators talked about extended the holding environment beyond the classroom environment.  Kathy felt that teaching leadership doesn’t just happen in the classroom: “The advising and the mentoring and the one-on-one, the clubs and organizations, [and] all the programming that we do, I consider all of that teaching and leadership.”


The educators considered getting students directly engaged in the learning and development process to be a key challenge in teaching leadership.  Jack, a leadership educator with four years of experience, found it frustrating when students would not engage in the opportunities he provided.  “I was up there dancing, trying to get everybody else to dance and nobody would dance ... and so it caused me to really examine why they weren’t dancing.  Why was I the only one dancing?” 


The educators had varying degrees of control over the curriculum in the courses they taught.  June said that restricting an educator’s freedom to alter a syllabus or course is “an efficient thing to do, but I don’t think it’s very effective for the whole learning process.”  She believed that making a course your own takes time, but based on her experiences, it was a worthy use of the time. 


One of the strongest subthemes to emerge from this study was modeling the way for the undergraduate students.  Many of the educators talked about the importance of modeling leadership, both in and out of the classroom environment (Morrison, Rha, & Helfman, 2003).  Kathy believed: “What we teach may not nearly be as important as… how we teach.”  The leadership educator’s behavior and language was a part of the curriculum. 


Helping students make a difference.  The educators felt that one of the main purposes for teaching leadership was to prepare students to make a difference in their lives, their families, their communities, and the world.  For many educators, it wasn’t about just improving the raw talent of their students, but rather about developing that raw talent into the best it could be.  Karla, a leadership educator with three years of experience, gave them tough love, saying, “I just think that sometimes they’re over-rewarded, so when I think of teaching students today, I really expect more out of them.” She doesn’t want to make them cry but was trying to get them prepared to be successful for life after college. 


A part of preparing students to make a difference was helping students make sense of who they are (Drath & Palus, 1994; Kegan & Lahey, 1994; Komives et al., 2005; McCauley et al., 2006).  Some educators wanted to help students have a clearer understanding of both their personal and leader identity.  For Shane it was about “understanding [their] values and understanding [their] personal philosophy.”  It was about getting students to open up in a real and authentic way that allows them to discover what they believe in.


The relationships the educators experienced with their students mattered (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1998; Myers, 2006).  The educators talked about a variety of positive outcomes for building relationships with students.  June stated,  “For me, the transformational piece was… in so many instances, the one-on-one relationships that would exist.”  June leveraged her relationships with students to teach leadership and help students make a difference in the world. 


Preparing students to be successful at making a difference in the world brought a lot of joy and satisfaction to the leadership educators (Kirby, Paradise, & King, 1992).  For Marge, a leadership educator with 13 years of experience, it was the daily joy of helping students grow into their potential.  “You get to work with people and help them be the best that they can be.”  The joy could come from simply reaching one student and helping him or her develop a skill that would stick with him or her so he or she can use it later in life. 


The educator’s journey: “A place of becoming”.  The first three themes pertain to the external experiences of being a leadership educator.  The fourth theme that emerged revolved around the educator’s internal journey as a leadership educator.  The leadership educators shared that their interests in leadership, which eventually led to their interest in teaching leadership, began with experiences with leadership mostly in high school and college and in some community activities.  Bett, a leadership educator with 15 years of experience, attributes her interest in leadership to experiences in elementary school.  “Other students looked at me as someone who was leading them, whether it was in reading, or just within the classroom.”  She said that this led to other leadership opportunities throughout K-12. 


Colleagues were identified as important models and mentors that helped the educators on their internal journeys and in their current positions as leadership educators.  Models and mentors played a role in the development of undergraduate students as well (Komives et al., 2005).  June shared how the learning that she gained from having rich discussions with colleagues and others had impacted her understanding of leadership.  “Over the years, the individuals with whom I have had rich conversations have been so important to help me learn about leadership.” 


Another substantial part of the leadership educators’ journey was facing and overcoming their own personal challenges when teaching leadership.  As a new professional, Jean, a leadership educator with 25 years of experience, had felt inadequate in her responsibility to teach students about leadership.  “I didn’t feel like I had the skill sets to teach others about leadership.”  The educators shared a variety of personal challenges that included learning the language of leadership, handling the responsibility they felt, helping the undergraduate students be successful, and finding and maintaining a work-life balance. 


An important part of teaching leadership discussed earlier was modeling or walking the talk.  Marge cautioned that leadership educators needed to be authentic in what they’re doing or the students wouldn’t respect them, saying  “You have to be who you say you are…If you aren't who you say you are, number one, you aren’t going to have credibility, and number two, nobody is going to want to be around you.”  Most of the educators shared that it was also important to be authentic or genuine when modeling leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Shamir & Eilam, 2005). 


A central part of teaching leadership was the educators’ internal journey.  Kathy applied what she talked about with students to her own life.  “Every time I teach a concept of leadership or we’re involved in an exercise, I find myself doing it myself – questioning who I am.”  She went on to explain her own sense of her always-changing journey (Van Veslor, Moxley, & Bunker, 2004):

I am not the same person or … have the same skills.  I don’t practice leadership in the same way.  My roles in my family, and my work environment, and in my community shift all the time.  How I view them changes based on what I’m reading and what I’m doing, so … I’m in a constant development phase because there’s no end game.  So yeah, it affects everything. It’s kind of insidious that way. (Laugh) You can’t shut it off.

For Jack it went beyond changing his behavior; it was about his identity (Kegan & Lahey, 1984) as a leadership educator:

For me being someone who teaches leadership is the discovery of an identity that was always there but hadn't come out yet.  And so I no longer define myself professionally based on what I used to do.  I only want to talk about what I want to do now because this is what I am.


The essence.  The essence is the integration of the textual and structural descriptions (Moustakas, 1994).  The textual description describes ‘what’ the educators experienced and answers the first sub-question.  The structural description describes context of the experiences and answers the second sub-question.  Thus, the essence answers the research question: What are the experiences of educators who are teaching leadership to undergraduate students at academic institutions? 


The leadership educators in this study reported the essence of teaching leadership was a place of becoming.  Teaching leadership was about parallel journeys: the students’ journeys of leadership development, and the journey of self-discovery for the educators.  They shared experiences of empowering students to make a difference in their world in the classroom, in their office, online, or beyond the academic institution.  The educators felt that teaching leadership helped them discover their own identities.  They tried to teach the leadership content, share examples from their own lives, and modeling effective leadership.  Teaching leadership is about a community of people helping each other discover their leadership identities and then using that knowledge to make a difference in the world. 



Twenty years after Rost’s (1991) and others’ attempts to create a single definition of leadership, these12 leadership educators differed in how they defined leadership.  Interestingly, the leadership educators in this study expressed perspectives and experiences that fit both the industrial and post-industrial paradigms of leadership.   In this study, the educators’ definitions of leadership matched more with an industrial paradigm.  Many of the definitions shared by the educators in this study focused on some type of social influence and power to accomplish specific goals or changes.  For example, Mave said leadership was “the ability to get others to do things that they might not otherwise do.”  There were some definitions that began to move towards a post-industrial paradigm of leadership (Rost, 1991; Drath & Palus, 1994; Rost & Barker, 2000). 


Eich (2008) and Komives et al. (2005) found that educators’ interactions with undergraduate students play an important role in leadership development. The educators felt that the learning community is important, supporting Eich’s (2008) finding that high quality leadership programs developed learning communities.   The communities often extend beyond the traditional classroom and include one-on-one coaching, role modeling, and advising organizations, to name a few examples.  However, one of the significant challenges that the educators in this study experienced was getting students to become leaders in the learning community.  Barbuto (2000) proposed that educators adjust their leadership styles in the classroom to match the developmental stages of the students as a means to motivate the students to become engaged in the development process.


Although the goal of most leadership development is learning or improving specific techniques (Riggio, 2008), these educators talked more generally about the goal of helping students being the best they could be rather than specific skills or behaviors.  The experiences shared by the educators in this study seemed to express elements of servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1970) and transformational leadership (Avolio, 2007).  The educators listened to their students as followers and worked to get them to take leadership roles in the classroom.  The educators also shared experiences as transformational leaders.  Kirby, Paradise, and King (1992) found that transformational leadership was more prevalent in higher education than K-12 settings and were most associated with individual consideration and intellectual stimulation.  The educators modeled the ideals, values, and morality they hoped to inspire in others.


A significant part of the experience of teaching leadership to undergraduate students that the educators shared focused on navigating their own development process.  The educators shared experiences of discovering and understanding their identities as a person, as a leader, and as a leadership educator.  Teaching leadership was the meaning-making (Wenger, 1998; Stacey, 2007) curriculum that helped the educators construct their identities. Kegan and Lahey (1984) believed that an individual’s identity drives their behavior and Maturana and Varela (1987) take this idea a step further, arguing that individuals did not react to environmental stimuli in simplistic terms; rather, individuals brought forth or enacted an environment that was in accordance with the individual’s identity.  The brain was not a passive reflector but constructed meaning from its external stimuli based on prior meaning.  Therefore, the world that the individual experiences have not been found as a pre-world but was one in which the educators created relevant to the individual’s identity.   These authors suggested that the identity development process and the environment, created in conjunction with identity, was an interconnected, paradoxical system. 


These findings provided a better understanding of the undergraduate leadership development process in academic institutions that are developing leadership capacity of future leaders.  Since educators play a key role in the leadership development process and little was known about their lived experiences, this study provided valuable knowledge from the perspectives of leadership educators. 


Recommendations & Further Research

An individual’s identity serves as the foundation for behavior; therefore, a recommendation is to provide leadership educators more time to explore how teaching leadership impacts their identity development.  Several of the educators shared the importance of interactions with colleagues and mentors.  Establishing an intentional learning community of leadership educators would be a worthy endeavor.  Another recommendation is to provide leadership educators opportunities to explore how their traits, behaviors, and identities (e.g. values, beliefs, and definitions) impact their work with students to improve leadership capacity in the learning community.  Exploring alignment and conflict between personal definitions, programmatic definitions, content, and pedagogy would benefit the entire leadership development process of everyone involved, including critics.


Overall more research is needed to better understand the leadership development process at academic institutions from different perspectives.  More specifically, research on the role a leadership educator’s underlying paradigm of leadership plays in the leadership development process would merit attention.  Understanding the leadership/teaching practices of the educators in leadership learning communities more fully would be helpful also.  Also, more research needs to be conducted on the different types of learning communities established by leadership educators and their impact on leadership development.


There is growing interest in the intersections of identity development and leadership development as well, which provides more opportunities for research in this area.  In relation to this study, more research is needed on the identity development of leadership educators.  Based on the findings of this study, an opportunity for future research exists to better understand the identity development of leadership educators as they teach leadership.



Scholars and practitioners alike are recognizing the growing need for leaders who can negotiate increasingly complex organizations and contexts.  Academic institutions have created leadership development programs to meet this need. This study describes the experiences of twelve educators who taught leadership to undergraduate students at academic institutions in the Midwest. The educators struggled to get the students to engage in their own learning, but the educators felt that the challenge was worth it to help prepare the students to make a difference as leaders in a complex world.  The educators own development as leaders was greatly impacted by teaching leadership to the undergraduates.  Leadership educators are a key component of the undergraduate leadership development process; therefore, more research is warranted to better understand their experiences and their own leadership development as educators.


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