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A problem-based learning approach to leadership.


This paper argues the case for a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach to the learning and teaching of Leadership. The problems confronting two very different leaders, Mordechai Rumkowski and Josephine Baker, are suggested and discussed in terms of some key concepts from leadership studies. Their responses are evaluated as a possible exercise in PBL.

The Problem-Based Learning Approach

Problem-Based Learning began with the Ancient Greeks, was revived by Dewey, continuing through medical and health schools to the present day in many disciplines. It has been described as "... an instructional method that challenges students to "learn to learn", working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems." (Duch, 2001: 1).

PBL has been contrasted with traditional instruction, where students prepare for a class by reading from prescribed texts. A checklist of defining characteristics of PBL instructional strategy has been proposed by Bridges (1992:5-6), and Leadership Studies can be seen to fit. First, the starting point for learning is a problem, that is, a stimulus for which a student lacks a ready response. Leaders have clearly faced a major problem, which could be: the survival of the group, or extreme prejudice, in other words, one that any student could face as future professionals, actually or metaphorically. Second, the knowledge that students are expected to acquire during their professional training is organized around problems rather than disciplines. Although academia is organized into disciplines, problems often overlap many disciplinary boundaries. Third, students individually and collectively assume a major responsibility for their own instruction and learning. Most learning in the discipline of leadership occurs within the context of small groups rather than lectures "the integration of specific courses and classroom contexts for enhancing students' critical-thinking skills and for developing both a collective and independent ownership of knowledge." (Eck and Mathews, 2000: 12).

The instructional design includes theories of leadership combined with a case study method that is appropriate where behavior cannot be controlled or manipulated (Merriam, 1988:8). In addition, the study of leadership requires an imaginative leap to gain insight in a process called by Merriam "... discovery of new meaning ..." that is, a heuristic approach (Merriam, 1988:13).

Theoretical Approaches to Leadership

The relationship between leadership and profound political change is obvious, but between the academic disciplines of political science and leadership studies, the relationship is implicit rather than explicit, so that one commentator has observed that the analysis of the role of leaders in the political process has been dominated mainly by historians and psychologists (Kets de Vries, 1990). As the following case studies in leadership will reveal, there are many insights waiting to be drawn out by the PBL group, such the controlling of fear, the building of confidence, and the ability to maintain some kind of working relationship with persons who may be known to be mortal enemies. A major conceptual distinction in leadership types is between transformational and transactional types (Burns, 1978). Another key concept is the legitimacy to lead (Waiters, 1999: 27), which can also be seen from the obverse face as leadership without authority (Heifetz, 1994). These four concepts of leadership type-transformational, transactional, legitimate and non-legitimate--are of great value in understanding the roles of the two leaders chosen as examples of people who were forced to confront some immense problems.

The imaginative leap required to grasp the meaning of the situations confronting leaders is the central challenge, and here Perry's "Journey" of students through nine "positions" with respect to intellectual and moral development can be helpful (Rapaport, 2001). Of the nine positions, one could single out four classes of stage: dualistic thinking, (in terms of right and wrong knowledge), early multiplicity, (an elementary form of realization that there are no right and wrong answers), late multiplicity, (where students start to value thinking for themselves and appreciate that some problems are unsolvable), and contextual relativism, (where proposed solutions must be supported by reasons and reviewed in a context), and the teacher is seen as a consultant rather than a dispenser of "truth" (Rapoport, 2001). The purpose of the PBL approach is to allow students to reach these insights themselves, after presentation of the leader and the situation which confronted them.

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (1877-1944)

The first problem that could be posed for a PBL group is: what, if anything, can a leader do to save a ghetto community that is in grave peril? Here the case of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski can be examined. Rumkowski is a very controversial figure, who was called upon to act as a leader in an impossible situation of the extreme threat, which was later revealed to be one of genocide. Many commentators have observed that Jewish ghetto leaders promoted cooperation with Nazis and therefore were implicated in the destructive process, or had at best a dual role "the Jewish leadership both saved and destroyed its people--saving some and destroying others, saving the Jews at one moment and destroying them at the next" (Hilberg, 1967:146).

At its peak, 200,000 people were crammed into the Lodz ghetto,. Its main function was that of a holding centre for Jews from Germany, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia and Austria, some 7,000 Gypsies and about 25 Christians, mostly married to Jews. Of that population, 130,000 were deported and exterminated, mostly at Chelmno or Auschwitz, while 60,000 died in the ghetto through starvation, disease, hypothermia, suicide or execution. About 10,000 survived after their deportation to destruction was interrupted by the end of the war (Adelson, in Adelson and Lapides, 1989:493-4). When the ghetto was liberated, another 877 survivors came out of their hiding places (Dobroszycki, 1984: Ixv). If the Russians had not stopped at the River Vistula through the summer and autumn of 1944, most of the 80,000 Jews in Lodz in May 1944 would have been saved (Adelson, in Adelson and Lapides, 1989:489). Lodz was thus the longest surviving ghetto and also the one with, at five percent, the highest survival rate.

In assessing the leadership of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, it must be noted that, after being appointed by the Germans as ruler, his strategy for survival was to turn the ghetto into a major manufacturing centre. Rumkowski's terrible moral dilemma was whether or not he should facilitate the Germans in their work of genocide by deportation to the death camps, the existence of which he was probably aware following the receipt of a letter by Rabbi Sillman (or Szulman) (Adelson, in Adelson and Lapides, 1989:490-91) (Bloom, 1949:119-120

Many allegations have been made about Rumkowski's character: greed, corruption and lechery (Bloom, 1949), (Weingarten in Adelson and Lapides, 1989:492), pedophilia (Eichengreen and Fromer, 1999), and that he was a "sadist-moron" (Sierakowiak, in Adelson and Lapides, 1989:156). In that he had his own face printed on postage stamps, undeniable evidence of personal vanity exists (Adelson and Lapides, 1989:107). But it was also recognized that he had personal courage (Weingarten in Adelson and Lapides, 1989:429) (Bloom, 1949:118), and that he was not a mercenary (Bloom, 1949: 115). There is evidence that other Jewish leaders saw validity in Rumkowski's rationale and attempted to apply it. Jacob Edelstein, the leader of Theresienstadt ghetto/concentration camp, (Bondy, 1981:213), and Jacob Gens, leader of the Vilna Judenrat, also applied the Rumkowski strategy (Bauer, 1982:161).

In answer to the question: what, if anything, can a leader do to save a ghetto that is in grave peril?, it could be observed that Rumkowski's leadership, which was transactional and nonlegitimate, attempted to confront a situation of genocide, but genocide is a moral failure also of bystanding individuals, communities and nations, to react towards its prevention (Staub, 1989). Even so, Rumkowski was able to save a small percentage of the total ghetto population, though not himself, being sent with his wife in August 1944 to extermination at Auschwitz. Based on previous PBL exercises, discussion is likely to express deep sympathy for his predicament. Rumkowski can be seen as a morally flawed leader with impaired political judgment, in that he believed he could work with Nazis. After discussion, the conclusion of the Shoah Resource Center may find acquiescence "Some historians view Rumkowski as a collaborator and traitor. Others believe he made a serious, yet flawed, attempt to rescue as many Jews as possible."(Shoah Resource Center, 2005).

Josephine Baker, (1906-1975)

The second problem that could be posed for a PBL group is: to what extent can a performing artist use her or his position to take a role of leadership in changing a political and legal status quo? Josephine Baker was a performing artist who used her standing and acclaim for the political purpose of reducing the burden of racist legislation and custom. When one examines her story, one can see both the capabilities and the limits to achievement of the artist in matters of discriminatory racial policy, and one can see and assess the limited range of strategies available (Baker and Bouillon, 1976).

Josephine Baker's abilities and personality got her to The Plantation night club in New York, and from there she was taken in 1925 to Paris, but even then, as the ship flew the American flag, she was, like all nonwhite passengers, restricted to specially designated areas while on board. Once in France, she was surprised to see that all people could eat in the same restaurant carriage of trains, or sit at the same dining tables as whites. Soon achieving acclaim in the review theatres of Paris, Josephine Baker felt the breathtaking liberation of French society but the impression was not to hold true for the deeper levels of French society, as she was to find when she was rejected for marriage, probably on racial grounds.

After the Fall of France in 1940 she offered her services to the Resistance and became one of their most effective agents, using her cover as an entertainer to transmit information as she traveled throughout France to Portugal, Spain and North Africa. Throughout this period she carried a Jewish prayer book belonging to her only recently married husband whose illness and death had come shortly after their marriage. Finding of the prayer book by the Gestapo or their French agents would have meant certain deportation and death in a concentration camp. Later it became impossible to return to France until after the Liberation. Although by now she been a French citizen for over ten years, Josephine Baker was never to lose the love of the U.S.A. and so a tour was arranged after appearances in Cuba, then under U.S. tutelage. In Havana she was denied accommodation on account of her racial background in the hotel that had been booked many months in advance

On a second trip to U.S.A. in 1951 Baker became even more politically active and worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a 'Baker Day Demonstration' was held in Harlem on May 20. But in the prestigious Stork Club in New York she was refused service. Walter Winchell, the celebrated newspaper columnist, was present, and was later asked by Baker to act as a witness in an action for damages, whereupon Winchell denied that he was present during the incident. Thus originated a long-running vendetta through a nationally syndicated newspaper column. Although some papers such as the New York Times remained impartial, a national campaign of hatred and denunciation of Josephine Baker was soon created. In U.S. politics she vigorously supported the Kennedys, John and Robert, for election, and also Martin Luther King, and when each one of these great figures fell, she suffered her darkest days. She was on the point of accepting Martin Luther King's mantle when illness prevented her from assuming this role. Josephine Baker dedicated her life to two objectives, her art and her fight against racism. Racism has been defined as "any attitude, belief, behavior, or institutional arrangement that favors one race or ethnic group (usually a majority group) over another (usually a minority group)." (Farley, 2005: 12).

Baker's actions made a successful contribution through non-violent means because certain preconditions were met. Her political training in the French Resistance taught her the techniques of secret physical movement, concealment, and the need to guard against betrayal. Her success as an artist gave her not only training in successful media access but also continuing access in a way that a non-celebrity would not have obtained. Her status as a celebrity gave her immediate access to the powerful decision-makers of her times such as de Gaulle, the Kennedys, Golda Meir, Princess Grace of Monaco, and the President of Yugoslavia. Her legal status as a French citizen afforded her protection from individuals and institutions such as J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (Goldstein, 1978) who may have seen her as a challenge to the status quo, and also her entourage of security gave her physical protection from extremist racist groups and individuals. Had any one of these conditions not been met, it is possible that her actions would have been a meaningless gesture or worse a gesture silenced by imprisonment or assassination.

In answering the second problem that could be posed for a PBL group: to what extent can a performing artist use her or his position to take a role of leadership in changing a political and legal status quo?, it could be noted that while immensely successful in Europe and Latin America, Josephine Baker's credentials as a leading artist were transformational and legitimate for her supporters though strongly criticized in the U.S.A. It is hardly surprising that she should have been accused of communist sympathies, which was misplaced as she maintained no affiliation with any organized political party, as has been noted, but worked with any group dedicated to peace and the reduction of racism.

An understanding of the process of intervention by a performing artist must also include the reactions of the plaintiff minority as well, and other minorities. Many black Americans were ambivalent about Josephine's political activities, for fear of putting into jeopardy their few existing privileges, in a process remarked upon by Dollard (1937) and many other observers. Josephine Baker also had difficulty in gaining acceptance by Blacks as she was in fact olive-skinned, the classic case of the marginal person. Not only was she attacked by other Blacks through denial of identity, but also by Jews. The fact that she was Jewish by conversion could only have heightened the sense of injury and injustice. Josephine Baker always saw a link between racism, aggression and violence (Farley, 2005: 444).


This article has presented a case for a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach to the learning and teaching of Leadership in the historical context of extreme threat of likely genocide, and profound political change to racial law and custom. The problems confronting two very different leaders, Mordechai Rumkowski, a transactional and non-legitimate leader, and Josephine Baker, a transformational leader with denied legitimacy, are presented and discussed in terms of these concepts from leadership studies. Their responses can be evaluated as a possible exercise in PBL.


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Bloom, Solomon F., (1949). "Dictator of the Lodz Ghetto, The Strange History of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski". Commentary 8, pp. 111-122.

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Duch, Barbara, (2001). Problem-based Learning, University of Delaware. February 20, 2002).

Eck, James C. and Mathews, Dea G., (2000). "A sample of assessment finding related to Stanford University's Problem-Based Learning initiative, PBL Insight, 3(3), 12-13 (Retrieved February 20, 2002).

Eichengreen, Lucille and Fromer, Rebecca Camhi, (1999). Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz. San Francisco: Mercury House.

Farley, John E., (2005). Majority-Minority Relations, 5th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Heifetz, R.A., (1994). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Boston: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Hilberg, Raul. (1967). The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago, Quadrangle.

Kets de Vries, M. F. R., (1990). "Leaders on the Couch.' Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 26. 4, 423-431.

Merriam, Sharon B, (1988). Case Study Research in Education, A Qualitative Approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rapaport, William J., (2001). "William Perry's Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development." (Retrieved February 20, 2002).

Shoah Resource Center, (2005). The International School for Holocaust Studies, Rumkowski, Mordechai Chaim(1877--1944), Chairman of the Judenrat in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. Word--5839.pdf. (Retrieved January 17. 2005).

Staub, Ervin. (1989). The Roots of Evil: the Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Walters, R., (1999). "The Legitimacy to Lead." In Meeting of the Minds--between those who study leadership and those who practice it", Selected Proceedings, 1998 Annual Meeting, Leaders/Scholars Association. College Park, MD: Center for the Advanced Study of Leadership, James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership. (Retrieved 10 February 2000).

William W. Bostock, University of Tasmania

William Bostock, Ph.D., is Senior Lecturer in Government at the University of Tasmania. His research interest is leadership and collective mental states.
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Author:Bostock, William W.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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