Teaching freshmen to lead

Today’s students are asked to develop “21st century skills,” but leadership is often not among them

How can freshmen who may not even be able to find their way around campus during their first weeks in school learn to lead others? The question may sound like a new riddle of the Sphinx or the beginning of a joke.

But the concept of 18-year-olds learning to lead should not be a riddle and is no joke.

With increasing urgency—in business, government, and the non-profit field—today’s college students are being asked to develop the so-called “21st century skills” of communication, collaboration, problem solving, and creativity. Those abilities may not have drawn as much attention in generations past, but they have become keys to career success today—and a primary requirement of prospective employers.

What’s often missing from the list is leadership, which galvanizes these other skills and results in making informed decisions, taking meaningful action, and developing pathways to accomplish goals large and small.

Not many academic programs view 18-year-olds as mature enough to qualify as leaders or even to understand what it takes to be one. Those who emerge in the business and organizational world often spend a decade or longer before discovering their own leadership talents and inclinations.

And while a considerable number of graduates from our college end up as CEOs, company presidents, or business owners, many have come to realize their ability to lead well into their careers.

We wanted to change that paradigm. So in the Fall of 2014, after two years of development, we launched Lead 101, a semester-long, three-credit course required for all freshmen.

The curriculum combines extended exercises in self-awareness, real-life case studies in decision-making, and live appearances by recent college graduates who have become innovators and entrepreneurs.

Within weeks, the freshmen in Lead 101 self-administer personality tests, which among other findings, determine whether they are more extroverted or introverted. (Research shows that 30 to 40 percent of those identified as leaders have the latter characteristic.) And the extroverts and introverts alike get firsthand experience in understanding how members of each group react in different situations and how to respond to them.

Throughout the term, a series of case studies requires leadership decisions, ranging from how an automobile company CEO could respond to defects that have caused fatal crashes to whether the mayor of a city should oppose the licensing of a fast-food restaurant whose parent company has taken anti-gay positions. The students work in small groups and for each case, a different group member becomes the one in charge.

In one mid-morning class, a student in the role of the mayor gave everyone a thorough say, listened intently along the away, and ultimately decided on the course of action that he himself had proposed.

“This is how it’s going to be,” he announced—one leadership style, certainly, but also a teachable moment about alternative approaches. All of the group members routinely give feedback to their leader, and on this day the message was, “You’re being too authoritarian.”

Lead 101 also teaches how “followers” in a group can function as leaders themselves, from taking on particular parts of the project to advocating for their own ideas and initiatives.

Role models ave proved valuable as well. During the first year Lead 101 was offered, Nichols College hosted the young founder of the nationwide Food Recovery Network,whose college chapters rescue leftovers from dining room kitchens and deliver them to local food pantries and shelters. 

All of the freshmen taking Lead 101 had to attend the event, and within months, a cadre established a functioning chapter of the network on our campus.

Our leadership-building activities do not end at the conclusion of the course. We are entering the second year of our Emerging Leaders Program, which covers sophomore through senior years and for which 100 rising sophomores and juniors have signed up. Over their remaining three years at Nichols, they will attend leadership workshops, and take leadership roles in student organizations and initiatives on campus. They will do the same as volunteers off-campus.

Colleges may be hard pressed to create space for an additional course during the usually busy freshman year, especially a required course. Introducing leadership modules into the curriculum—a case study in a sociology or psychology class, a personality assessment in an organizational behavior or communications course—would represent a good start.

Courses during intercession of one-credit offerings during the regular term are also worth considering. The key, though, is to provide focused leadership education early and often. And if that education is required of all students, all the better.

As these young adults venture into a world where businesses have to compete intensively and organizations have to do more than ever before to accomplish their missions, leadership will be required.

—Susan West Engelkemeyer is the president of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.

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