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Exploring leadership teaching methods.


This article discusses effective instructional methods for teaching leadership in the classroom. The effective pedagogical approaches for teaching leadership discussed in this article include social learning theory, collaborative learning, and reflective learning. Also, specific instructional methods aligned with the three pedagogical approaches are explored. They are biography critiques, leader analysis activities, group presentations, case studies, writing autobiography and the leadership development plans.


There is no doubt that leadership is essential for everyone. This importance is reflected by the numerous leadership text books and autobiographies describing leadership that are released everyday. In addition, many universities and programs offer leadership courses to students. For example, according to Florida State University's quality enhancement plan (2004), there are 175 leadership courses offered to undergraduate and graduate students across the colleges at Florida State University alone. Although almost all the colleges provide leadership courses to students, the Human Sciences and Education programs appear to offer more than other programs (Florida State University, 2004). Despite the high demand for leadership courses, leadership is not an easy subject to teach to instructors in classrooms. Leadership is a broad concept with no clear consensus on its definition (Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy, 2002). In addition, most leadership classes may suffer from the constraints of time and setting; a typical 3 credit residential class meets in a classroom for 3 hours per week for 16 weeks. Given that leadership development is an on-going process embedded in one's daily life, teaching leadership in class within a limited timeframe is challenging to instructors.

A classroom as a learning environment has a limitation to provide ongoing hands-on leadership experiences (Marquardt, 1999). However, the cognitive approach, such as lectures and group discussions, appears to be more effective for teaching multiple students leadership in a classroom because of its efficient, standardized and structured format (Lord & Emrich, 2001; Reigeluth, 1999). The purpose of this paper is to discuss effective pedagogical approaches for teaching leadership in the classroom and to suggest practical instructional methods to instructors. The instructional approaches discussed in this paper include social cognitive theory, collaborative learning, and reflective learning. Instructional methods aligned with the three approaches, which can be utilized in the classroom, include biography critiques, leader analysis activities, group presentations, case studies, writing autobiography and the leadership development plans.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory can easily be applied to teaching leadership because one's leadership is recognized through observing his/her behaviors and their consequences. According to Bandura's social learning theory (1977), people can learn from observing others without trials and errors. Bandura (1977) explains the three major components that enable learning to occur. They are vicarious learning, an individual's ability to utilize symbols (verbal and imaginal), and an individual's self-regulatory capability (p.12-13). Vicarious learning, also referred to as observational learning, indicates that people can learn by observing others' behaviors without direct experience. Bandura's explanation implies that people have the cognitive ability to predict or generalize the results of certain behaviors after they observe others' behaviors and their consequences. Therefore, a set of observed behaviors and subsequent results are expected to play the role of references for the individual's actions in the future. However, if an individual has to store information as he or she receives it into short-term memory and then retrieve it from long-term memory, information processing is extremely slow and flawed. In other words, an individual's ability to utilize symbols enables learners to encode and decode information efficiently. Finally, self-regulatory capabilities mean that an individual does not passively react to external stimuli. Rather, he or she exerts power over information processing and his or her own behaviors. Hence, external influences are not expected to produce identical learning outcomes for all learners. The decisions an individual makes regarding certain behaviors are influenced by their self-regulated capabilities.

Leadership should be addressed in real-life situations because it is contextual (Conover, 1996; Marquardt, 1999). It is dill]cult to expect learners to fully understand the mechanism of one's leadership potential and capacity without an understanding of the process of his/her leadership practices (Riley, 2002). Hence, it is necessary to provide a holistic picture of leadership as a process to students. Teaching leadership using social learning theory is expected to help learners understand in a greater depth why one's leadership worked well in a particular situation as it shows one's behaviors and their consequences in a realistic context. The proposed instructional methods based on social learning theory include a biography critique and a leader analysis activity. A biography critique has long been used in research and learning in history, literature, and other liberal arts fields (Wilson, 2005). This approach is perceived equally effective for teaching and learning leadership. In a teaching leadership context, biography critiques enable learners to thoroughly analyze one's leadership from learners' own perspectives in the absence of an actual leader to observe. Once students choose a biography based on their preferences, they are required to read it cover to cover. Learners are expected to make sense of how that an individual became such a great leader through reading about his/her life. Although a biography is a restructured reality of a leader's life from the author's viewpoint, it can still provide learners with a full picture of a leader's life, not just a snapshot of his/her final achievements.

Along with a biography critique, a leader analysis activity provides students with an opportunity to research a particular leader's leadership experience as a group project. Each group selects one leader of their choice and then studies why he/she is an excellent or failing leader. From the author's teaching experience, the examples that students choose frequently include John F. Kennedy, Rudy Giuliani, Oprah Winfrey, or Adolf Hitler. The students may collect data from biographies, newspaper articles, or historical films. For a learning purpose, students analyze the leaders from many different angles: their strengths/weaknesses as a leader, sources of power, frequently used influence tactics, situational factors, and their influence on society or a community. Because both the biography critique and the leader analysis provide students with a realistic context for understanding leadership, they are expected to head to similar learning outcomes. However, one difference may arise in that the biography critique provides students with an opportunity to examine their favorite leader's life from their own perspective, whereas the leader analysis activity allows students to learn collaboratively about leadership through teamwork.

Collaborative learning

Constructivists, who believe that learning occurs through social interaction, consider collaboration a prerequisite for obtaining higher-order thinking skills (Driscoll, 2005). Similarly, Dully and Cunnigham (1996) consider learning as "a social-dialogical process" (p.187), emphasizing the importance of using groups for meaningful learning outcomes. Gokhale (1995) defines collaborative learning as "an instructional method in which students work in groups toward a common academic goal" (p.23). Curtis and Lawson (2001) characterize collaborative learning by making a contrast with cooperative learning. The purpose of the two types of learning is identical, obtaining the common (or shared) goals through teamwork. However, the type of process used in each distinguishes the two approaches. In cooperative learning, individuals independently work to complete their individual part of the assignment without a synergic interaction between group members, whereas collaborative learning requires a thorough group interaction between members in the entire process of problem solving. In other words, learners work together as one unit of problem solvers in collaborative learning. In organizational settings, leaders need to be aware of others' viewpoints and should be able to cope with the discrepancies between different perceptions (Goleman, 2004). The primary reason for using the collaborative learning approach for teaching leadership is because it facilitates the understanding of alternative perspectives. Through the process of working together, learners can come to understand others' viewpoints and hence they can reach a synergetic conclusion.

Furthermore, leadership itself is inseparable from interpersonal skills. Using a collaborative (or cooperative) learning approach, students can enhance their interpersonal skills through group process (Johnson and Johnson, 1996). Despite the significance of interpersonal skills in leadership, it is difficult to teach interpersonal skills because they are implicit knowledge. Using the collaborative learning approach, students can have the opportunities to learn how to work with others in a practical way.

There are many ways to facilitate collaborative learning from the constructivist perspective (Jonassen, 1999). Examples include case studies, problem-based learning, and group presentations. From the author's teaching experience, these methods were found to be effective for teaching and learning leadership. According to Noe (2002), a case refers to "a description about how employees or an organization dealt with a difficult situation" (p.255). A case study provides students with an opportunity to examine how to handle a realistic problem in a simulated situation. Alden and Kirkhorn (1996) explain for purposes of using case studies. They are thought-provoking, provide learning content in the form of vicarious learning, allow the application of theory, and finally can be used for participant testing. Case studies can offer students new perspectives on a situation. Also, students can directly learn content from the reading and analysis of the case. Additionally, the case study can be used for practice and test purposes for examining students' learning progress. Alden and Kirkhorn (1996) also indicate that case studies can be used for proactively enhancing students' capabilities to make recommendations for a better solution.

A group presentation method, which is well supported by social learning theory, is also expected to promote collaborative learning. To make a group presentation of a particular leader, students are required to voice their own perspectives and integrate other students' opinions to make a holistic conclusion. Through this collaborative learning process, the students are expected to expand their perspectives on an individual's leadership. The conclusion they present is an integrated learning outcome rather than just combined viewpoints.

Reflective learning

According to Kolb's experiential learning theory (1984), learning occurs through the following four phrases: experience, reflection, theory, and application. For learning to occur, learners need to transform what they have experienced through reflection to the theory and then apply it to new situations. In Kolb (1984) explains that the four phases are equally important to produce meaningful learning outcomes. However, reflection is an especially important component in teaching and learning leadership because it is a process that forces learners to internalize their experiences through contemplating and constructing their meanings. Without reflection, learners' experiences remain casual occurrences which fleetingly pass. Similarly, Schon (1987) proposes the concept of reflection-in-action, in which individuals' reflection on their past behaviors influence future actions. For example, he explains that a trial-and-error process contains a reflection process. According to the trial-error learning process, behaviors are shaped through a series of trials and errors. In other words, the following trial is improved through reflection on the previous error that has been made. Hence, without the reflection on the prior trial, it is unlikely that the next trial will be better than the previous one.

Writing is an effective way to facilitate the reflection process (Chiang, 1998; Carter, 1997). Possible class activities for teaching leadership based on reflective learning include writing an autobiography, a reflection paper, and establishing a personal leadership development plan. Writing an autobiography is expected to provide learners with an opportunity to take a look back on their own leadership experiences in order to assess their strengths and weaknesses as a future leader. In a classroom setting, this activity can be provided in the beginning of the semester to enable learners to reflect back on their leadership experiences. In addition, it allows students to assess their entry behaviors in a leadership class. Writing a reflection paper alter watching videos or reading books about a particular leader also will help learners synthesize their own opinions and leadership experiences.

Establishing a personal leadership development plan is another reflective learning activity. For writing personal leadership development plans at the end of the semester, students are asked to reread the autobiographies that they wrote in the beginning of the semester that represented students' self-assessments of their leadership prior to the class. At the end of the semester, students are expected to establish their own leadership development plan based on what they have learned from the leadership class. From the author's teaching experience, some examples the students provided were "reading a biography every month," "keeping a log about leadership experience," "attending leadership workshops," and "analyzing the situations they've experienced and thinking about how it could be handled differently next time." The leadership development plans are made based on the reflection of their current and past leadership. Writing an autobiography in the beginning of the semester and establishing a leadership development plan at the end presents a consistent, reflective learning activity for the length of a semester.

Discussion and conclusions

Teaching undergraduate students leadership in a classroom is challenging to instructors because the environment does not fit with the premise that leadership development is an ongoing process. The instructional methods for developing leadership should be carefully chosen based on sound pedagogical approaches for successful learning outcomes. The purpose of this paper was to discuss effective instructional approaches for teaching leadership in the classroom and propose practical instructional methods to instructors. In a classroom setting, the cognitive approach that provides learners with conceptual ideas about leadership appear to be more effective way to teach leadership based on personal teaching experience. If a leadership class is structured with instructionally sound methods, desirable learning outcomes can be obtained despite the constraints of time and place.

The instructional methods this article explored are as follows: A biography critique and a leader analysis activity are effective instructional methods in accordance with the premise of the social learning theory, which explains people can learn from observing others. The collaborative learning approach is important for developing leadership as leaders do not exist alone in organizational settings. Group presentations and case studies are powerful methods for facilitating collaborative learning. Learners need activities that allow them to engage in actual leadership because leadership is not explicit knowledge taught solely by instructors. For internalizing leadership, the learners should be able to reflect on their experiences. Writing an autobiography and a leadership development plan is expected to facilitate learners' reflection on their own leadership ability. Given that these methods are based on sound instructional theories, if they are properly implemented in the classroom, these methods are expected to lead to successful learning, outcomes. Also, they were found to be practical, but powerful for teaching leadership in the classroom from the author's teaching experience. Leadership development should be an ongoing process. In addition to learning leadership in the classroom, students should be encouraged to exercise their leadership knowledge outside classrooms in a real world context as well.


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Min Young Doo, James Madison University, VA

Min Young Doo, Ph.D. is a faculty member of the Adult Education/Human Resource Development program, College of Education, James Madison University.
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Author:Doo, Min Young
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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