Teaching Leadership: What We Know

The field of leadership education has reached a critical stage. After several decades of experimentation, "The Handbook for Teaching Leadership," Scott A. Snook, Rakesh Khurana, and Nitin Nohria, is intended to be a foundational reference for educators facing this increasingly important challenge.
by Scott A. Snook, Rakesh Khurana & Nitin Nohria

Editor's note: According to the authors of The Handbook for Teaching Leadership, Scott A. Snook, Nitin Nohria, and Rakesh Khurana, we have reached a crossroads in leadership education. Many experiments, approaches, and techniques over the last few decades have been tried, and it's time to bring together what we've learned. This edited volume collects international scholars to not only put forward a foundational reference for leadership training but also to offer a community of practice where ideas can be developed and shared. The following excerpt is from the book's introduction.

Teaching Leadership: Advancing the Field

By Scott A. Snook, Nitin Nohria, and Rakesh Khurana

The Handbook for Teaching LeadershipIt has been more than twenty-five years since a handful of intrepid associates in West Point's Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership published their pioneering work, Leadership in Organizations (1985), widely considered to be the first formal textbook specifically designed to "teach leadership". Since then, the field of leadership has exploded. A simple Google search of "leadership books" returns more than 84 million hits. Not surprisingly, as overall interest in leadership has grown, so has the demand for courses on the topic. Scan the mission statements of most major universities and professional schools and you'll find that "educating leaders" is the common thread. Search the catalogues of almost any college and you'll find dozens of courses with the word "Leadership" in their titles.

And yet, if you were charged with teaching a course on leadership today, where would you start? Where would you turn to learn about the incredible array of approaches to teaching this ill-defined, yet important topic? How would you go about tapping into the wealth of practical experience in order to benefit from the hard-won lessons of those who have gone before you? What are the various theoretical assumptions and pedagogical techniques you might consider in the process of designing and delivering a course in this underdeveloped and undisciplined (in both the literal and practical sense of the word) field? How should one even "think about" the challenge of "teaching leadership"? This Handbook is intended to be a foundational reference for educators who teach primarily in traditional classroom settings and who find themselves facing this increasingly important but daunting challenge.

The teaching of any subject is many-sided. However, discharging the responsibilities of a university educator is particularly complex. Teaching is only one of many activities expected of a typical faculty member. There is also an expectation that what is taught should be grounded in research. Even for teachers who do relatively little leadership research, it is still assumed that what they convey to students represents the most important research relevant to the field. Moreover, when it comes to the subject of teaching leadership, university educators must also recognize that they are members of a larger community of academics responsible for shaping society's future leaders. Therefore, academics involved in teaching leadership must consider a broader context that often extends beyond the traditional boundaries of their home discipline and intellectual community. Finally, those of us who teach leadership must also acknowledge an increased responsibility to our larger community. If we are successful as teachers, by definition then, our students—that is future leaders—will play a disproportionate role in shaping the future of society. This is an obligation we should not and cannot take lightly.

If the teaching of leadership comes with unique obligations for the instructor, it also begs similarly important questions about the nature and quality of what is taught. Teaching languishes if it is not rooted in a solid understanding of pedagogy and grounded in quality research. University educators are expected to have a more intricate knowledge base—in both breadth and depth, more fundamental and more strictly criticized and tested—than is available to a layperson. Teaching in a university places a special obligation on an educator. In particular, what is asserted to be knowledge about leadership must be true. This is particularly challenging when it comes to leadership. Because when an academic makes an assertion in the field of leadership and communicates knowledge to students, engages students in the practical applications of that knowledge or imbues the identity of leadership on that student, the educational outcomes need to adhere to the criteria of veracity and accuracy we hold for any other field taught in a university setting. Moreover, academics must do this while adhering to societally expected commitments to scholarly, detached and dispassionate judgment. Without such a commitment, academics and the subjects they teach are in danger of being discredited.

It is far too easy to enumerate flaws in the current state of leadership education: course content rarely conforms to the norms of the scientific method (Bennis & O'Toole, 2005); teachers employ casual and often self-serving empirical evidence (Ghoshal, 2005); approaches are rarely grounded in well-established theoretical traditions (Doh, 2003); there are as yet few credible communities of practice dedicated to developing and sharing best practices; and there is scant empirical evidence that any of these approaches really work (Pfeffer & Fong, 2002; Mintzberg, 2004). In short, the current state of leadership education lacks the intellectual rigor and institutional structure required to advance the field beyond its present (and precariously) nascent stage.

In our opinion, the field of leadership education has reached a critical stage. After several decades of experimentation, with scores of teachers having developed and delivered a wide range of courses on the topic, we believe that the time is right to take stock and share our collective experience. Just spend some time with a group of people who are currently teaching leadership and you will come away with a few inescapable conclusions.

First, individually we have learned a great deal. Over the past twenty-five years, largely on our own, in various classrooms scattered throughout the glove, thousands of educators have accumulated an impressive wealth of individual wisdom. Unfortunately for the field, we rarely talk to each other, and surprisingly little gets shared. Second, with few exceptions, most of us are extremely passionate about what we do. The demand for improving the practice and quality of leading has never been greater for those responsible for preparing future leaders, the sense of urgency and commitment is palpable. Third, after spending only a few minutes with such a group, you quickly discover that there clearly is no consensus on the one best way to teach leadership. There are currently as many ways to teach the topic as there are definitions of it (Rost, 1991), each proponent as enthusiastic as the next about his or her favored approach. And finally, we have learned that most experienced teachers are not only happy to share what they have learned, but equally eager to discover what others have been up to as well.

Unfortunately, unlike some of the more well-established academic disciplines, there are few institutional resources available to support this increasingly important and motivated community of educators whose academic homes are widely scattered across traditional disciplinary boundaries. To us, the implications were clear. Such a wide-ranging collection of promising, yet unorganized, individual experience demanded an equally impressive collective effort to take stock and consolidate. As a result, we offer this handbook with the following three goals in mind:

  1. Take Stock and Consolidate Progress. Our primary goal is to share what we have learned after almost three decades of accumulated experience teaching leadership. To do this, we cast a wide net. Leadership educators from a broad range of disciplines and in a wide range of settings have experimented with a dizzying array of pedagogical approaches. Upon closer scrutiny, it is clear that some of us have been largely teaching about leadership (informing our students about the nature of the phenomenon); others have been teaching how to lead (equipping students with a set of skills and capacities enabling them to lead more effectively); and still others have focused primarily on helping out students actually become leaders (assisting students to gain access to and acquire the identity of a leader). These are but a few of the fundamental distinctions in an emerging field that have significant implications not only for design and delivery, but also for assessment. As a result of such conceptual disarray and interdisciplinary diffusion, solid data on outcomes assessment and theoretical grounding have lagged significantly. It is clear that a comprehensive volume is needed at this point in order to take stock and consolidate what we have learned.
  2. Establish a Foundational Reference for Teaching Leadership. It was also clear that fresh theoretical approaches to teaching leadership abound, but no central clearing house currently existed to consolidate and share such potential. Exciting advances in related fields such as brain research, identity, ethics, adult development, communications, positive psychology, human intelligence and educational theory require a single source for educators to consult if we are to have any hope of realizing our potential for improving the practice of teaching leadership. The explosive and yet undisciplined field of leadership education has reached a critical mass where a comprehensive volume is required not only to share novel ideas but also to help establish conceptual boundaries and shape the future contours of this emerging field. With a steadily increasing number of schools committed to developing leaders as a central goal, and with more and more educators entering the field from an increasingly wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, the time is right to consolidate what we have already learned and to establish a foundation upon which intelligent progress can be made. We hope to address this need by providing leadership educators with a single reference that not only shares current best practices, but does so within a broad conceptual framework that encourages greater theoretical rigor.
  3. Build a Respected Community of Practice. With the demand for courses on leadership growing exponentially, the need to establish a respected community of dedicated scholars and practitioners is more important than ever. As a nascent field, leadership education is currently populated by a loosely coupled collection of wildly diverse, well-intentioned, but poorly organized gaggle of scholars and practitioners who are largely left to their own devises when it comes to deciding how best to teach leadership. From the college classrooms to corporate universities to snake doctors, the field is littered with unsubstantiated yet flourishing responses to the seemingly endless demand to grow better leaders. Despite leadership being so central to the core mission of many schools, there is surprisingly little serious scholarship on how to teach it in any of these institutions. Indeed, research on leadership education falls at best on the periphery rather than at the center of most schools that profess to educate leaders as their animating purpose. Many of today's most popular leadership courses are delivered by external consultants, senior lecturers and adjunct faculty, all largely marginalized members of the academy who were either denied tenure or had broken ranks with their "more academic colleagues" in order to teach leadership. More still are being taught by former practitioners who attained iconic status as successful leaders and now want to share their wisdom, secure their legacies or cash in on their success.

If we continue to allow leadership education to be framed, defined and sustained by such an ad-hoc approach, we open ourselves to an entire range of potentially grave risks: Will students continue to take university mission statements seriously? How long before students recognize the yawning gap between espoused aspiration and reality in our classrooms? And perhaps most importantly, how long can society survive without growing a stronger field of emerging leaders?

About the Author

Daniel Penrice is a Research Associate at Harvard Business School.

William Joyce is a professor of strategy and organizational theory at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.

Bruce Roberson is executive vice president of marketing and sales at Safety-Kleen.

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    • Mark Exton
    • Principal Designate, Hiroshima International School
    Hiroshima International School has as its abbreviated mission "Peace, Understanding and Leadership through Education": what might the book offer for those of us tasked with leadership education ahead of the tertiary sector?
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Despite importance of good leadership spelled out in business schools and existence of many management books which talk of leadership in detail, there is an acute dearth of good leaders. You can teach but you cannot make a person follow what you teach for good leadership is a self developed and pursued trait. A good leader has to be an amalgam of many positive qualities - absolute truthfulness,high moral and ethical character, humbleness but at the same time non-compromising with basic principles, absence of greed, complete knowledge of the job(s) of his organisation, readiness to learn and work, self discipline, empathy, ability to improve business as well as systems and procedures, clarity of vision, being an example for others, walking his talk, &c. There is no end to this and sometimes a leader could be construed as super haman as he is many in one. In short, a good leader must be a high standard corporate citizen.
    The expectations from good leaders being so many, we can count the prominent ones on finger tips. There then comes an oft heard " born leader" statement.We do understand that leadership can be taught and learned but all do not imbibe the traits of a good leader. One more problem is that whereas it should have been so, leaders do not work hard to create more leaders... for various reasons!
    • Tom Verghese
    • Director, Cultural Synergies
    Obviously, a book whose time as come. I look forward to reading it. Leadership needs to be viewed from a global perspective rather then just the Western view so I hope this book has that additional perspective.
    • joanne greene
    • charg?e de cours, ESG UQAM - ENAP
    Thank you for a great book. Thank you to all the contributors. Great new ideas, contacts and material for professors, teachers and trainers.
    • Jack Slavinski
    • Technology Consulting
    Great perspective! It would be difficult to find a topic more critical than this one. Whether in academics or at the corporate level, we need to continue to elevate the focus on and importance of leadership. I continue to believe that the best way to approach this is to weave leadership principles into the fabric of EVERYTHING we teach as opposed to simply just having a Leadership 101, 201, 301, etc. program approach. This way, it would consistently be front and center in the hearts and minds of teachers and students, as it deserves to be!
    • Robert Liley
    • Founding Principal, The Signal Group
    While it's undoubtedly possible to teach some of the techniques that can be employed by effective leaders, I'm not convinced that 'leadership' can, in fact, be taught successfully. Take a look at successful leaders; they exhibit many different characteristics and qualities depending on the situations they are in. Some successful leaders are wonderful people; others are real bastards! The people they are leading are quite different; the circumstances are often quite different; the competitive pressures are different; and the urgencies differ widely. More importantly, the leaders' motivations often come from quite different personal experiences. While I admire the attempt, I'm not at all certain of the outcome.
    • Jacob Njeru
    • Director, Maro gardens
    Often - history is full of examples, civilisations leave their designed orbits and soon they fly into oblivion. Leadership fads and fashions are on such orbits - but when all is said and done - this is leadership - SERVE IN FAITH, NOT FOR GOLD. Anything else is domination. If you take prisoners be ready to be a janitor - a dog on a leash? This idea to nurture what we know and seek what we need is very commendable.
    • Pamela Hongsakul
    • Leadership Advisor, Hongsakul Media
    Leadership can be taught and developed, the proof is in the pudding. I have worked with executives of all levels, from government ministers to CEOs to students, and I have witnessed crucial transformations. If we explore the world's great literature, we can see that this is not a new topic, it has just gained a renewed relevance and respect. I applaud this book for its attempt to deliver wisdom to our current crop of leaders.
    • Timothy Pascoe
    • Creator, VECTOR Leadership
    Dear All,

    For me, leadership is less something you teach as one might teach a personl how to play the pianoforte or any other instrument. These remain substantially the same across time and place. It is more like teaching skiing where no two days or slopes are the same. Hence, as a practitioner one's first task is to learn how to be empathetic to the mountain - or those you are leading. From day to day and moment to moment, both skiing and leadership involve real-time problem solving. Working out what action is needed - on this mountain, in its particular condition; or with these people facing their current particular challenges.

    It surprises me that leadership remains the missing link in business planning. We plan everythign else - our projects or tasks but not what you or I need to so so people will want to follow us. For me, it's about working out what they need from us: what specific actions we personally need to take so they will trust us professionally and personally and be willing to follow. There is no right or wrong that is universally applicable - beyond some underlying values. But values aren't actions, they just provide context for actions.

    I've developed a planning tool, which I feel addresses these issues - covering both the so-called hard and soft issues. Not laying down any pre-conceived right plan but offering a process, through which the leader works out what is needed for their current followers in their current situation.

    Notwithstanding my different approach, I very much look forward to looking at the book outlined above.

    • Prasanth Gowravajhala
    • Product Manager, Bosch/ETAS
    Leadership is often misconceived as a subject that can be mastered by technical anatomy. However, the practicality of being a leader can be (mostly) better understood when experienced and definitely influenced by many factors. It would definitely be interesting to see the different perspective that leadership can be taught and I hope this book would make me change some of my above said presumptions.
    Due credits to Kapil Kumar as I second his thoughts regarding leadership.
    • Gursharan Singh Bedi
    • Professor & Head Electronics and Communication Engineering, SUS College of Engineering and Technology, Tangori-Mohali, India
    Leadership can not be taught by academicians. It can only taught by proven leaders from the field. Universities, therefore, should engage leaders from the industry and armed forces to teach leadership. The art of leadership has more to do with the art of self-sacrifice for the community and the organisation. With focus on self, one may rise in the hierarchy of an organisation, but will never become an effective leader. Institutions teaching business management with their focus on self advancement can never teach leadership.
    • Dennis
    • Nelson, SFS
    I have a thought.

    I have nearly finished reading "The Handbook for Teaching Leadership" this week. The handbook, a compilation of submissions, confirmed for me several concepts that both prior readings and life observations had raised. The concepts support the idea that we change the world through taking responsibility for and changing ourselves. The concepts are that the world needs to do a better job of identifying our individual and collective principle role in the world and helping us to develop to be the best we can be in that role. The role is "leader".
    Aren't we all leaders?
    If leadership is defined as exerting influence to achieve a specific goal through others within a given timeframe, environment and context (the parameters), how long can we continue to believe that there is a core group of "others" who are the leaders and the rest of us are the followers?
    The questions arise because most of the research and writings about leadership and developing leaders allow, if not encourage, the inference that a select group get to occupy or rise to leadership positions. This allows the inference that there are some positions that do not involve leadership and some of us are relegated to those positions.
    The questions relate to potentially significant impacts.
    What if each of us is a leader?
    What if each of us knew that every other person is a leader?
    How differently would we treat each other?
    How differently would we seek, provide and receive training, feedback opportunities to share with others?
    How different might corporate workplaces and cultures be?
    How different might the world culture and international relationships be?
    How individually and collectively different might we all be?

    By the opening definition, leaders exert leadership. Who doesn't exert leadership? While many people have never been: dictators, presidents, chairpersons, generals, captains, or sergeants, etc., most people at one time or another have been formally or informally responsible for one or more other people tasked to get a specific job done within specific parameters. Is there a minimum amount of exertion or influence or people or leadership times needed for leadership qualification? Where would that line be drawn? Can there even be a line? Situational leadership already is a popular topic and class of instruction: just the scope of the situations needs to be increased.
    Most if not all situations lie on a continuum. For example we can breathe, throw, think etc., super, super softly to very, very hard. Explosions, rainfalls, snow storms can be very, very minimal or totally devastating. The same is true for exerting leadership. The exertion and influence can be minimal, impacting perhaps one other person for a short period of time, or of incredibly greater magnitude affecting millions over centuries. Given that continuum, what person has never exerted leadership through at least one other person for some period of time? Who has never led a conversation, for even a brief period? Who wasn't born? While a person being born isn't verbally aware of or able to portray the event, the person being born certainly exerts influence through another for a specific outcome.
    And if the person never matured, the person still would never stop obtaining by whatever means possible, what was personally desired, wanted or needed to be accomplished in terms of his/her environment despite continuing to be unable of consciously exerting personal leadership or verbally being able to describe it. Might that person and all other individuals better obtain desired results if taught how to be a leader; taught the jargon and context of leadership? Might all people better and less offensively or less irritatingly obtain desired results by exerting influence through others learning that more effective leaders also serve others and contribute to the common good?
    Might all of us achieve more if we learn to be better leaders: improving the communication through shared jargon, planning and moving activities forward better, reducing frictions and other resource wasting stresses? Might we better exercise our own leadership and our own restraint when situations clearly indicate another person should be recognized as the momentary or situational leader given the new constraints and parameters? Might we follow other leaders better having been trained as leaders who recognize the needed and more appropriate interactions between leaders and followers?
    Wouldn't the world have to improve if each of its component parts, all of us, were afforded the environments in which we could best develop to be the best we could be and then applied that development and expertise to working better with all the other world leaders (everyone) to help make the world better?
    In conversations, the leadership changes: from speaker to speaker, and even from those who purposefully chose to remain silent to: learn more, encourage the speaker to continue, have others learn more, or even just to get the conversation (or monologue) over more quickly.
    In military operations, the leadership changes, in small patrols and large battles: as people die, situations change, particular skills have to be executed. In the military and in all organizations, there are different levels of leadership: from leading one or two people to leading 10s of thousands. In community and other social organizations, who leads which committees or fund raisers, etc., constantly changes.

    Leadership on earth is a continuum for its people from birth to death, and for the conversations and all other particular situations in between. Lifelong, we all experience leadership both as leaders and followers. The differences between us as leaders include our level of consciousness of the leadership experiences we've had, the volume and scope of the leadership experiences we've had, the visibility of the outcomes to ourselves and others and the amount of study or leadership assistance any of us have been subjected to either as leaders or followers, despite the amount of leader and leadership study, development and training going on in the world indicating the set of "leaders" is a limited set.

    Perhaps we and the world all would be better off if the delta in leadership training and development between individuals was reduced as more people received more and better leadership training and development.
    Just a thought.
    • Maj Gen M S S Krishnan, VSM
    • Retired, Indian Army
    The king is dead; long live the king. Communities, Societies and Nations can never be leaderless. The flame of leadership can never be extinguished, not just among humans but in other species as well. Yet, the subject of leadership is packed with mysteries not only for students of Management but alsofor others in evry organisation.
    In such a situation, educators involved in teaching Leadership do face stiff challenge in sufficiently igniting the spark of leadership in the target audience. At the end of any session on Leadership, there are more questions than answers. Today this challenge cuts across geographies when events such as meltdown of economies, terrorism, information explosion and the technology boom are putting leaders to stringent tests.
    At this juncture, the authors have done a commendable job in putting together a foundational reference for Leadership in a world of delightful uncertainties, for Leadership can be taught and must find a prominent place in every organisation.