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Leadership education using case-in-point teaching.


This article was written as background information for the author's doctoral students to prepare them for a new approach to leadership education - to turn the classroom dynamics into a case study. The author explained to his students that he had undergone a personal transformation in "teaching leadership." A certain book (Parks, 2005) followed by a Harvard workshop had introduced him to "case-in-point" teaching. He had now radically changed his approach by doing leadership rather than teaching about leadership.


Educational leadership programs across the county are experimenting with new instructional strategies to prepare future leaders effectively to do the adaptive work of their changing organizations. The search is on for ways to design more powerful, dynamic, and authentic means of preparing leaders and to close the gap between theory and practice. Over the years, programs have experimented with simulations, action research, problem-based learning, cohort groups, and case studies (Acker-Hocevar, Pisapia, & Coukos-Semmel, 2002; Amey, 2005; Barnett, 2004; Jackson, 2001; Orr, 2006).

While case studies are portrayals of reality, they are not true reality. They tend to over-generalize from studying only one case, plus students may not see relevance to their own situation (Acker-Hocevar, Pisapia, & Coukos-Semmel, 2002). Avolio and Luthans (2006) contend we should be doing more building adaptive reflection and more development in context. We should be capturing the "moments that matter" that eventually leaders create when they become cognizant of how important they are.

Case-in-point teaching has the potential to enrich professional development "in the moment." The role of the leadership educator is to try to bring issues relating to leadership more alive in the classroom so the learning and experience can be more real, more integrated cognitively and emotionally. Classroom systems replicate and function like work systems and the role of the educator is to use these interactions to illustrate to students the way they, individually and collectively, respond to and attempt to influence these processes. Case-in-point brings a degree of reality and aliveness into the classroom so students have material to work with. The curriculum is in fact what develops in the classroom through the interactions and exchange among students and faculty (Johnstone & Fern, 2004).

Before delving into what exactly case-in-point teaching is, some basic concepts need to be presented. We need to draw a distinction between "technical problems" and "adaptive challenges" (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). A technical problem can be solved by an expert with a routine solution. For example, a student with an advising problem goes to an expert, the advisor, for a technical solution. An adaptive challenge is very different. It calls for changing the values, beliefs, and habits of people. An example of an adaptive challenge in higher education could be figuring out how best to respond to a declining enrollment. The distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges is often not clear cut. They frequently come bundled together and we have to separate. The advising problem could call for both a technical solution and an adaptive challenge of getting students to take more responsibility for their own academic progress.

The single most common source of leadership failure is that people in leadership positions treat adaptive challenges like technical problems (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002, p. 14). For example, a new marketing campaign might be the strategic response to a declining enrollment when the real underlying adaptive challenge is for institutional personnel to face reality and examine how they interact with students and prospective students. Helping people face reality and adaptive challenges is what real leadership is all about. Leadership is an activity of mobilizing people to do adaptive work (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). This is a definition which we will return to again and again.

Teaching leadership is itself an adaptive challenge. If leadership education were a technical problem, we would work on studying leadership characteristics and techniques. This might be very comfortable for you in that you wouldn't have to look at yourself. But leadership education is not a technical problem. It's an adaptive challenge because of the realities we need to face and the inward journey we need to take. My passion is to mobilize you to do adaptive work on yourself so you can thrive in new and complex environments. We are going to do leadership rather than study about leadership. We are going to develop capacities for leadership rather than simply learn about leadership theories. The design and practice of the course are intended to model the kind of leadership activity I am advocating.

The second important distinction to examine is the difference between leadership and authority. We all know people with authority and power who don't have a leadership bone in their body. And, we also know tons of people who display leadership behavior without holding a position of power or authority. The teaching of leadership is in essence leadership. While I may be the "authority in the room," all of us can engage in leadership activity. You have to contend with my "authority" just like the folks in your organization have to contend with your "authority." My leadership is open for our scrutiny as much as yours. Everything that happens in here is a leadership activity related to our central purpose of learning. We are going to practice "in here" what you need to do "out there." This is our adaptive challenge, our group work.

Case-in-Point Teaching

The learning model that we will use calls for a degree of disequilibrium in order for growth to occur. This is in contrast to keeping things so technically structured that we never learn. To do adaptive work, we have to operate in a productive range of distress. Each of you has an individual horizon of readiness to engage in adaptive work. I want to nudge you toward your personal horizon without pushing you over the edge. Each of you has a range of disequilibrium for working on your adaptive challenge that falls between your personal threshold of learning and your personal limit of tolerance. My job is to create a safe holding environment for learning, a safe container, and to monitor the "heat" thermostat at the same time. I want to disturb you and hold you tight simultaneously. That's the razor's edge (Heifetz, 1994) we all must walk. When I challenge your defense mechanisms, remember I'm trying to help you learn.

What's going to happen in class? How are we going to go about our business of learning? We are going to work on two levels - content (above the neck) and process (below the neck). Think about the basic currency of leadership as getting and holding attention. All of us want to get and hold attention. The getting is relatively easy. Holding is a totally different proposition. Another key leadership activity is making effective interventions in a group to help it make progress on its central purpose. Effectively intervening in systems is a leadership skill that we can practice right here, right now. You are encouraged to see the class itself as a social system of which you are a part and a studio-laboratory in which you can practice acts of leadership and learn from your experiments.

Case-in-point teaching uses the here-and-now interactions of the group as our raw data for learning. Case-in-point teaching (or leadership) is not a stand alone technology. It is a way of thinking, an attitude. We are going to use what is occurring in the room as a "case-in-point" for our own learning. When you do that personally, you become your own case study. I encourage you to use the group experience as your personal workout gym and practice into the sweet spot of your incompetence. What does that mean? It means allowing yourself to become, baby step by baby step, vulnerable. Why? To learn. (Remember our central purpose.) Is this risky and scary? Yes. Can you do the "work in the room" without being vulnerable? No.

One of the issues we undoubtedly will have to confront is "work avoidance." Chances are you are going to engage in some resistance to change, resistance to adaptive work on yourself.
 Adaptive change stimulates resistance because it challenges
 people's habits, beliefs, and values. It asks them to take a loss,
 experience uncertainty, and even express disloyalty to people and
 cultures. Because adaptive change forces people to question and
 perhaps redefine aspects of their identity, it also challenges
 their sense of competence. Loss, disloyalty, and feeling
 incompetent: That's a lot to ask. No wonder people resist. (Heifetz
 & Linsky, 2002, p. 30)

Take a loss? What in the world could I be asking you to consider giving up? When it comes to leadership behavior, you have "default settings" that have worked well for many years. You also have probably internalized, to one degree or another, a default "command and control" leadership model. I will be challenging you and you will be challenging one another to consciously consider other options. I need to be sensitive to recognizing and managing your grief and loss. (Remember that what I'm inviting you to do in class, by the way I teach, is akin to what you have to do in your practice of leadership in the wider world.)

Certain dynamics are likely to play out in here. When I keep handing the work of the group back to the group, you may try harder to get me to take over. This will place us back in the dance of "work avoidance." Sometimes the intentional disequilibrium may get to the point where you do things or look to me to "restore order." While I want you to experience in your gut the yearning for authority and the hunger for order and structure, at the same time I want to help you resist the inclination to do something about it. Why? Because you are going to face the same thing on the job where you have the formal authority. Your group and this group need to keep confronting their adaptive challenges. That's our paramount leadership responsibility. We do that by keeping the "heat" turned up. The teachable moment comes when people in authority are pressured with a natural expectation to restore order. It's so tempting to cave in and give people what they long for. I fully expect you to put that same pressure on me. The lesson is that we must disappoint them and I must disappoint you at a rate they and you can tolerate. Why should we do that? To mobilize people to face their adaptive challenge.

A New Mindset

How can you orient yourself to contribute to your own learning and to the group's work? You will be engaging in three primary activities: observing, interpreting, and intervening to move the group forward, to help it make progress on its central purpose. Interventions are really hypotheses offered to the group to help further its work. The group may confirm or contradict your hypothesis. View each action you take as an experiment, not a solution. Every class session, you must decide whether to put your contribution out there or keep it to yourself to avoid upsetting anyone. Do I go along with the system or do 1 perturb the system? Think about your responsibility for the collective whole. Do I take a risk or play it safe? Ask yourself, "Is the group ready for what I have to offer?" and "How can 1 intervene in a way that will help the group make progress?" I will be asking myself these same questions.

You may use story telling to make an intervention. All of us like to tell stories where we are the hero or the heroine--or the victim. If you do share a story, give it context. Make your intervention purposeful. The goal is for our stories to move a group to a new understanding in order to do the adaptive work.

When interventions are offered by anyone in the group, what makes intervention X useful and intervention Y not so useful? Why would an intervention offered by person B be welcomed by the group when person A made the same intervention thirty minutes earlier? In what way are your interventions effective or ineffective? Do you sometimes get in your own way? Together we will analyze how we are operating, what's effective about it, what's brilliant about it, and what's sloppy or clumsy about it, so that we can each become more effective.

I think you will find a particular metaphor, developed by Ron Heifetz, to be very helpful in this practice (and in your outside world). Picture our interactions as though you are on a dance floor. The action is sometimes fast and furious. At other times slow and deliberate. The point is that you are so close to the action you can't see the forest for the trees. You can't see the patterns in the system. An activity takes place and you say to yourself, "What just happened here?" Any one of us could raise that question aloud and we could debrief our interactions. There probably would be multiple interpretations. Another option is to go to the balcony to gain a new perspective, to look for patterns. While you may conduct your observations and interpretations from either the dance floor or the balcony, a trip to the balcony might give you a fresh perspective on coming up with an hypothesis you think might be helpful to the group. You can then rejoin the dance, call "timeout," and share your hypothesis. We could collectively offer our different observations and interpretations before reconvening the dance.

When folks are unusually quiet in the room we have to wonder if they are on the balcony or simply sitting out the dance? Is sitting out the dance okay? Is the group missing a valuable resource? Would there be too much heat on them if we invited them to dance? Or do we let them join when they are ready? If they join in, do we dare ask where they have been? At that point, do we really care? Is it possible to hide to avoid individual work? The notion of vulnerability is scary stuff. Some people operate with the mind set, "If I don't play, I don't lose." In other words, "If I sit out the dance, I don't have to be vulnerable." My response is that with this work avoidance pattern, you are choosing not to learn. Is that why you are here?

Every group has factions. Factions are neither good nor bad. Their different perspectives are important to understanding what is going on and how best to intervene. You are probably a member of one or more factions. Chances are you are in a faction you are not even aware of.

Use yourself as a barometer of what is happening in the group. If you are bored, for example, the whole group or a faction may also be bored. If you don't speak up, the noisy ones in the room will have their way. Then you will want to blame them.

Also examine the role playing that goes on in the group. Has the group or one of your factions created a role for you and have you complied? Can you distinguish self from role playing? When you think you are being an authentic self, might you just be playing another role? Could a role be, "I don't play roles"? This is taxing work -just like in the "real world." Listening is a major if not the major diagnostic skill before making a leadership intervention. As you listen repeatedly to your group members over time, can you listen for "the song beneath the words" (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002)?


Leadership is a risky business. I am pushing you to the edge because there is something very important here to learn. I want to make it safe to be unsafe. Leadership interventions are sometimes wrong and sometimes right. Mine too. With our interpretations and interventions, each of us is open to making a public mistake. We can unintentionally hurt one another because we make mistakes. But no matter what happens, we are alive and learning.

What am I trying to accomplish? I hope you will gain a greater ability to use a critical, systemic perspective. I also hope you gain a greater ability to understand and deploy yourself in more strategic ways. Furthermore, I want to convey to you a greater sense of choice and confidence. Lastly, I hope you will reset some default settings by conscious choice or at least become somewhat less vulnerable to earlier default settings, thereby enlarging your capacity to lead. Here are some final pointers to remember for all of us who exercise leadership behavior:

* Identify the adaptive challenge;

* Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range for doing adaptive work;

* Focus attention on ripening issues and not on stress-reducing distractions;

* Give the work back to the people, but at a rate they can stand; and

* Protect voices of leadership without authority. (Heifetz, 1994, p. 128)

The primary implication from this case study is take leadership education to a new level of authenticity and impact. This particular "case study" is not one to read and analyze. Our "case study" is us--what actually develops in the classroom in the here-and-now interactions among us. These exchanges and insights can indeed become special "moments that matter" in truly accelerating authentic leadership development (Avolio & Luthans, 2006)--for the student and leadership educator alike.


Acker-Hocevar, M., Pisapia, J., & Coukos-Semmel, E. (2002). Bridging the abyss: Adding value and validity to leadership development through action learning--cases-in-point. Paper presented at the American Educational Association Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA.

Amey, M. (2005). Leadership as learning: Conceptualizing the process. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 29, 689-704.

Avolio, B., & Luthans, F. (2006). The high impact leader: Moments matter in accelerating authentic leadership development. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Barnett, D. (2004). School leadership preparation programs: Are they preparing tomorrow's leaders? Education, 125, 121-129.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Jackson, B. (2001). Exceptional and innovative programs in educational leadership. Paper commissioned for the first meeting of the National Commission for the Advancement of Educational Leadership Preparation, Racine, WI.

Johnstone, M., & Fern, M. (2004). Case-in-point: An experiential methodology for leadership education. Unpublished manuscript.

Orr, M. (2006, March). Mapping innovation in leadership preparation in our nation's schools of education. Phi Delta Kappan, 492-499.

Parks, S. D. (2005). Leadership can be taught: A bold approach for a complex world. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

David W. Cox, Arkansas State University, AR

Cox, Ed.D, is Professor of Educational Leadership in the Center for Excellence in Education
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Author:Cox, David W.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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