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Authentic leadership in the college classroom.


As leadership continues to grow as an academic area of study at universities across the nation, leadership educators continue to create and modify curriculum that represents the current discipline of leadership. This article explores the theoretical and philosophical foundations of an authentic leadership development course taught in the college classroom and shares recommendations for leadership educators seeking to implement a personal leadership development course on their campus.


Universities and colleges across the country continue to add leadership courses to their list of offerings. Brungardt (1996) reported a decade ago that as many as 500 colleges and universities across that nation were offering leadership development programs. As the trend grows, not only are courses being added, but both minors and majors in leadership are being created. Furthermore, leadership programs rather than claiming one academic home have planted roots across our universities in not only the business or social sciences, but in the agricultural, natural, and technical sciences. As leadership grows as an academic discipline, so does the need to define what leadership actually is as a course of study (Pennington, 2005).

Most of my peers would agree that students of leadership must study leadership theory, not only graduate students, but also undergraduate students. Students of leadership should know the difference between leadership traits and leadership styles. They should be able to discuss contingency models of leadership and differentiate between the terms transactional and transformational as they apply to leadership. But beyond the basics, there appears to be little agreement. After, or possibly before, a basic course in leadership theory, what should we be teaching? Should there be more than one theoretical course? Should our students be studying teams, should they be studying ethics, maybe both, or maybe something else? What about context? Should leadership be taught within a specific context? Or should students major in leadership as a stand-alone program? Should leadership as a discipline develop a common core of study or should each program continue to do what works for them? As a discipline, many of these questions will take years to answer, upon which some will never be agreed.

At Oklahoma State University we have found what works for us. In short, we agree that there should be more than one theory course, that theory does not necessarily need to be taught in an introduction to leadership course, although theory should serve as a foundation for what is taught; that context is important but does not change the core leadership concepts taught; and yes, courses that focus on specific leadership topics are important but should continue to evolve with the current literature. We also agree that in the new millennium authentic leadership development is a key component for a collegiate-level leadership program. This serves as the basis of this article.

Authentic Leadership Development

At the foundation of our leadership curriculum are five core values including authentic leadership, critical thinking, professionalism, open minds, and commitment to agriculture. Our students study leadership within a specific context--agriculture and have the opportunity to major in Agricultural Leadership. As do many faculty across the nation, our faculty teach leadership within the agricultural context (Fritz, et al., 2003). The theoretical concepts as they apply to leadership are the same; it is the future application that differs. As a whole, our students will serve the nation's food, agriculture, and natural resources systems with many of our students moving beyond our nation's borders to serve our global society. The recent scholarship surrounding authentic leadership has strongly influenced our curriculum. As a faculty we agree that "leaders must know what is important to them--they must be totally immersed in their core beliefs and values" (May, Chan, Hodges, & Avolio, 2003) and that as a faculty part of our job is to help students develop their authenticity through an exploration of their personal values and beliefs. Authentic leadership concerns self-exploration, an understanding of the true self, recognizing one's values, and infusing personal values and leadership specifically as they apply to follower relations.

Our primary source of content as we structure our curriculum comes from the leadership classics, classics grounded by research and subjected to peer-review. Additionally, we strive to continually update our curriculum to reflect new scholarship in the leadership field introducing our students to the current state of leadership as a discipline through the study of journal articles and current research. Although a theoretical framework for authentic leadership has not been agreed upon by the leading scholars, our knowledge of authentic leadership as a theoretical model is evolving (Avolio & Gardner, 2005).

Authentic leadership is described as a root concept (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; May, et al., 2003) that underlies positive approaches to leadership such as transformational, charismatic, and servant leadership. A special issue dedicated to authentic leadership development was published by the Leadership Quarterly in June 2005. In the lead article, Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumba (2005) propose that authentic leadership begins with developing authenticity, that increasing self-awareness is a key component in developing authentic leadership and that authentic leaders are "more aware of, and committed to, their core end values" (p. 9). Avolio and Gardner (2005) report that "self-awareness is an appropriate starting point for interpreting what constitutes authentic leadership development" (p. 12). To provide clarity, self-awareness is "an emerging process where one continually comes to understand his or her unique talents, strengths, sense of purpose, core values, beliefs and desires" (p. 12).

Personal Leadership Development

Students majoring in Agricultural Leadership, as well as students throughout the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at OSU, have the opportunity to enroll in a three-hour personal leadership development course designed to enhance self-awareness through an exploration of personal values. The author proposes the personal leadership development course as a model for authentic leadership development in the collegiate classroom with the understanding that authentic leadership development is a life-long process that can be enhanced through formal study.

Personal Leadership Development has been taught as a sophomore-level course at Oklahoma State University for the past five years. The course was originally created in 2001 and has continued to evolve with the authentic leadership scholarship. Students in the personal leadership development course have the opportunity:

* to assess their current view and definition of leadership;

* to assess their personal values;

* to evaluate their stated values as they compare to their active values;

* to create their personal vision and demonstrate how it is aligned with their personal values; and,

* to identify and evaluate current and past authentic leaders.

The nature of the course is open, reflective, and creative. A lecture format is not used in the course. Classroom discussions, opportunities for personal reflection and small group work serve as key teaching approaches. Selected experiential learning activities are used to introduce students to course concepts and provide an avenue for discussion and application. Discovering the Leader in You by Lee and King (2001) is currently used as the course text supplemented by assigned readings. Student evaluation includes both an individual and team project each requiring the student to synthesize and apply authentic leadership concepts, four leadership development papers, a midterm exam, and an optional final exam. Additionally, in-class activities are a vital component of the course and as such class participation accounts for fifteen percent of the course grade. Descriptions are provided for the leadership development papers and the individual project.

Leadership Development Papers

The course begins with a series of writing assignments related to the course text. Students must be given time to "warm-up" to the course which is best facilitated by structure and feedback (grades). The leadership development papers serve as a bridge between a typical classroom environment and the reflection needed to begin the authentic leadership development process within the confines of the classroom environment. The leadership development papers account for twenty percent of the course grade. Grading criteria includes professionalism, depth of thought, application of course concepts, and writing effectiveness. Each paper must be typewritten and should be approximately two pages in length. Assignment descriptions are provided below:

* Keirsey Temperament Sorter: Your assignment is to complete the Keirsey Temperament Sorter and to reflect upon your results. In your paper, you will summarize your results and evaluate the inventory based on how strongly you agree or disagree with the results of the inventory, as well as, the usefulness of this type of information about yourself. Include a discussion of what you have learned through this exercise, specifically, in relation to leadership.

* Leadership Interview: Your assignment is to identify a leader and to interview him/her regarding his/her leadership role. Specifically, you want to develop an understanding of how this individual became a leader and if he/she is satisfied with his/her current level of leadership. In your paper, you will summarize the interview highlighting what you believe to be the most important findings of the interview and then evaluate the interview based on the reading from Chapter 1 in Discovering the Leader in You. It will be helpful for you to read the chapter prior to the interview, you might also want to use some of the questions provided in the text.

* Personal View of Leadership: Your assignment is to read through the views of leadership presented in Chapter 2 of Discovering the Leader in You and to select the view that most represents your own view of leadership. In your paper, identify which view of leadership you most agree with and then explain why you view leadership in this way. In support of your personal view of leadership, give personal examples, as well as, examples of leadership that you have observed. In addition to describing and supporting your view of leadership, include a self-critique of your leadership, as well as, what implications this view of leadership might have on you in the future.

* Role Models and Vision: Your assignment is to identify and read about a leader that you consider a role model. Look for information that identifies his/her personal vision and leadership vision. Describe each of these visions in your paper. Also, compare the words that the leader uses with his/her actions. Critique the leader based on this comparison. Finally evaluate what you have learned based on this research and the reading in Chapter 3 of Discovering the Leader in You.

Individual Project

Each semester students are assigned as their final project, an individual project that requires them to articulate their personal vision as it relates to their core values. Students are asked to examine their vision as it relates to ten areas: self-image, tangibles, home, health, relationships, work, personal pursuits, community, leadership, and life purpose. Students may select any format or delivery method to express their personal vision. Grading criteria includes depth of thought, reflection related to core values, synthesis of course concepts, creativity, exploration of new ideas, writing and artistic presentation. The majority of projects submitted by students are highly creative and reflective. Projects have taken on various forms including storybooks, films, memory boxes, recipe books, games, websites, and songs. Occasionally students offer reflections related to the overall learning process developed through the course, selected student quotes from the personal vision projects are included below:

* Throughout the past three and a half months, I have learned more about myself than I probably will ever know. This class taught me the true values of not only a leader but of a well-rounded individual ready to graduate and take on the real world. As I embark on my journey through life there will always be times that I can reflect on this class and the friends I have made in it.

* After evaluating all we've learned this semester, I have taken a hard look at where I am headed. I have noticed that I am drifting off track from where I want to be. Sometimes it is hard to look ahead and leave things behind that are holding you back, but that is the only way to succeed in your future! Thank you for your insight!

* This semester I had the opportunity to take the personal leadership development class. I learned so many things about myself while in this class. The I st thing I learned about myself is that I can talk in front of a class, and I don't sound like an idiot. The 2nd is about my leadership skills. My leadership abilities have changed drastically this semester. I went from this quiet, withdrawn person who had absolutely no self confidence to someone that can talk to anybody about anything. My thoughts of leadership have really done a 360 turn around in the past 3 months. I plan to take the imitative and do whatever it takes to get the job done.

* This assignment has really caused me to step back and look at what I value in my life. My values have always been pretty simple; but that doesn't make them easier. I learned so much about myself and what I am capable of in the past months.

Results to Date and Recommendations for Educators

Student feedback and evaluations of the course have been overwhelmingly positive as demonstrated by sample comments related to course content and assignments from course evaluations provided below:

* An excellent way to dig deep into the way people think and create a challenge to determine who they are and what they want.

* I learned a lot about myself and was able to establish goals for myself within the next few years.

* Personal vision project was awesome.

* I learned a lot in the course. I felt that it was very relevant to promoting leadership.

* The course was very worthwhile and productive.

* Great job! I learned a lot and really enjoyed the class!

* Good info! Fun subject to learn! Great class. Helped re-evaluate myself as a leader and my goals.

* It's a great course. It helped me to broaden my horizons and do a few things I didn't like to do.

* I learned a lot about leadership and myself throughout this course.

* I enjoyed the class. I really liked the personal vision project.

* Class was so much fun. Best class I had all semester. It wasn't all memorizing; it caused us to think on our own.

* Great! She picked fun and educational methods. Assignments were helpful and applicable to life!

* Opened my eyes and helped me look at leadership from another view. I always looked forward to attending this class. Had a great time and learned a lot.

* I learned a lot about myself!

* I learned a lot in this class. It wasn't about memorizing facts but about values and how to live a more fuller deeply devoted life.

The majority of students have strongly connected to the personal vision assignment which is completed at the end of the semester and serves as a synthesis of course concepts. As a whole new students are eager to enroll in the course based upon former student and faculty recommendations. In the last four years, enrollment in our agricultural leadership courses has grown four-fold with the personal leadership development course continuing to enroll more students than any of our other leadership courses. Recommendations for leadership educators implementing a personal leadership development course are as follows:

* Instructors must be willing to structure a course that appears to be lethargic in pace; the course is not designed to "cover material" but rather to allow students to conduct a guided self-exploration as it relates to authentic leadership concepts. Authentic leadership development is a lifelong process that may be enhanced by the classroom environment but not necessarily rushed by the learning process.

* Instructors must diligently allow students to identify their values, not the values of their peers, their parents or their instructors. Authenticity is based upon knowing one's true self; it is not about identifying "correct values" for leaders, claiming these values as your own, and then trying to align behaviors with these stated values.

* Instructors must develop multiple learning opportunities for students to examine there stated and active values; students must learn to identify dissonance between stated and active values before congruence can be achieved. Instructors are also encouraged to create opportunities for students to explore their values in a variety of contexts: home, work, volunteer situations, social situations, etc.

* The strength of the individual project assignment comes from the semester long exploration of personal values and understanding of self. The project is not designed to "drop-in" to any leadership course and should not be used as such.

* Finally, as the academic study of leadership continues to evolve, leadership educators must continue to update curriculum to match the current scholarship in the field.


Avolio, B., & Gardner, W. (2005). Authentic leadership: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 315-338.

Brungardt, C. (1996). The making of leaders: A review of the research in leadership development and education. The Journal of Leadership Studies 3(3), 81-95.

Fritz, S., Townsend, C., Hoover, T., Weeks, W., Carter, R., & Nietfeldt, A. (2003). An analysis of leadership offerings in collegiate agricultural education departments. NACTA Journal 47(3), 18-22.

Gardner, W., & Avolio, B. (2005). "Can you see the real me?" A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 343-372.

Lee, R, & King, S. (2001). Discovering the leader in you: A guide to realizing your personal leadership potential. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

May, D., Chan, A., Hodges, T., & Avolio, B. (2003). Developing the moral component of authentic leadership. Organizational Dynamics 32(3), 247-260.

Pennington, P. (2005). The leadership pie: grab your piece before it's gone! Journal of Leadership Education 4(1), 74-44.

Penny Pennington, Oklahoma State University

Penny Pennington, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Agricultural Leadership at Oklahoma State University and Project Director for the Leadership Education Institute, a USDA funded project.
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Author:Pennington, Penny
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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