During office hours last semester, I met with a student who had been attacked with a box cutter, and as a result had nineteen stiches in her neck.
Another student had a semicolon tattooed on his wrist. He said his life nearly ended at one point via suicide, but he persevered. The semicolon was a simple yet powerful symbol of ‘continuing.’
And yet another student stood bashfully in my door. He asked if he could bring his girlfriend to office hours with him the following week. She was pregnant and he was stricken with stress – wondering how they would ever survive as new parents and a young couple with no family financial support.
Most college students who meet with me need don’t need help with course work, they need help with life. They need help with problem-solving and planning. They need help navigating their social worlds. They need help understanding how to affect change with the little authority that comes with their young age. In short, they need a strong dose of personal leadership skill. And they need it soon.
What are we faculty members to do?
We are not counselors. We are not clergy. We are not parents, nor psychiatrists. We are not experts on leadership and self-help. And we might not initially even want to take up this charge. After all, it seems beyond our job descriptions, and we might wonder, can’t the health center and career center just handle all this drama?
At the end of the day, however, we care deeply about our students. And we are smart. And we are creative. And I am certain that, if prompted, most faculty could come up with a way to embed meaningful and personal leadership lessons into their standard courses of study with just a little bit of effort.
Carefully designed “leadership studies” curriculum and course work can help students both on and off campus. It can help them in their years at college and in their years beyond college. If leadership studies curriculum works like it should, it could raise retention, decrease campus conflict, prompt students to look more fondly on their college experience, allow them the ability to achieve greater career outcomes, live stronger lives, and become more active donors in the future.
And, to be sure, “leadership studies” should not be an option for a just a select few in a specialty seminar, or embedded in an extracurricular activity, or available only via a volunteer campus organization. I believe that this sort of training and guidance should start directly in the classroom itself. The daily college classroom is where learning, academic growth, and personal development is supposed to happen in the first place. This is where respected faculty make memories, change careers, and spark imagination. This is where knowledge can sink in and become even more significant and impactful. This is where the students are; where they are paying attention; and where they are open to new ideas.
So I propose we start there.
Leadership studies. In the college classroom. In as many colleges as possible. And for as many students as possible.
In stark contrast to this proposal, however, is a long past. Leadership courses are not typically saluted by the liberal arts community. Perhaps because the name “leadership studies” feels separate from the scope of the ivory tower. Maybe it’s not scientific enough. Maybe it’s not theoretical enough. Maybe it’s too real-world-y. Too business-y. Maybe even it’s too self-promotional, or profit-driven, in our mostly non-profit academic world.
And maybe it’s also too dangerous for us faculty to stick our noses into areas where we are, perhaps, not experts.
My solution to this problem.
Two years ago I worked past these concerns and began teaching a course aptly named the “Sociology of Leadership.” It was a professional risk no doubt. Would my colleagues laugh at me? Think of me an inferior scholar for this new approach? Would my Ph.D. mean less if I didn’t focus on Sociology as it was traditionally taught? The American Sociological Association doesn’t even have a section on leadership. Who was I to start paving this road?
I worried about these things until I recognized that my concern for my students and their wellbeing outweighed my concern for what others thought of me. I got creative. And I easily found a way to not “squeeze out” traditional sociological content to make way for leadership studies. Rather, I found a way to amplify my student’s understanding of sociology through its inclusion. This new Sociology of Leadership course is about organizations and how individuals operate within them. We investigate the social construction of authority and legitimacy, emotion, symbolism, and identity – all standard content when it comes to sociology, social psychology, and organizations. We spend class time discussing intense textbook readings and journal articles, watching videos, and participating in exercises, to bring ideas to life. Again, pretty standard content, but with a powerful twist. We cover theory related to conflict and cohesion, the formation of status hierarchies, and power. And we relate ideas from Weber and Durkheim to ideas from HBR articles on management.
Just imagine what leadership studies could look like in a biology class, a computer science class, a geography class, a history class, and even in classes like drama and foreign language….
My hope is that educators recognize the science of organizational leadership matters. The science of personal leadership matters. Having knowledgeable, respected professors develop and deliver this curriculum in the college classroom matters. The personal notes I have received from students in these classes is a testament to this and certainly would prompt all faculty to action if only they could read my students’ heartfelt sincerity and thanks.
A call to action.
The need is there – from all students within all fields and disciplines. And the possibilities are endless because we have not hardly begun. So, my call to action for all interested faculty and potential faculty members? Take the risk. It is well worth the reward.
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Dr. Ganem is founder and director of Lion Leadership, a consulting organization that helps private and non-profit companies with leadership and managerial training, strategic planning, and organizational effectiveness. She is primary writer for the ROAR blog at www.ImTheLion.com where readers gain perspective on themselves, their organizations, and how to reach their potential at work.