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Got Leadership? What to Look for in a Leadership Education Program

Back in 2002, when I would tell people I teach in a MA in Leadership program, I was often met with the question, “a master’s degree in leadership, what’s that?” Many of my colleagues at the College were skeptical about leadership as a worthy topic of academic study. Our students often reported receiving similar skepticism. One told me his boss asked, “Why would you want to do that? You should get your MBA.”

A lot has changed in the last 15 years. When we started we were one of only a couple of dozen stand-alone graduate leadership programs in the world, now there are hundreds of programs. In the ensuing 15 years, leadership has become a popular focus of study in both undergraduate and graduate programs worldwide, and leadership has become a viable scholarly discipline with its own journals, associations, and academic departments. Outside of academia, the investment in learning leadership in organizations continues to grow. According to Mike Myatt of Forbes Magazine each year, “U.S. businesses spend more than $170 billion dollars on leadership-based curriculum.” Where there is money and investment, there is a need!

With this exponential increase in leadership development programs the questions about these programs have shifted from asking about their legitimacy and value, to the question of, what kind of academic program is best? As someone who has been part of designing, teaching/facilitating and evaluating leadership development program inside and outside of academia for more than 20 years, here are four things I think are important to look for in a leadership program:

1. An emphasis on leadership and not management

Just because the program might have leadership in it is title or in its description does mean you will learn leadership. Many programs, whether academic or professional, blur the distinctions between management and leadership, and insert the word “leadership” in for marketing purposes. So what are the meaningful differences between management and leadership? One way I think about it is that management focuses on creating structures, controls and routines in service of the reliability of the organization. Leadership on the other hand, focuses on learning, innovation and transformative change in service of the adaptability of the organization. Another way of thinking about leadership is that management is role and authority based, while leadership is relational and influence based. We recently did a survey to senior managers in a healthcare company with which we are working. When asked about how they view the difference between leadership and management, one person wrote, “not everyone in an organization can be a manager, but everyone can practice leadership.”

So while management and leadership go hand in hand, knowing their differences is key to developing the knowledge and skills required. What you want to develop then determines what you should study. In a previous blog post entitled MBA versus MA in Leadership my colleague Doug Paxton writes about the difference between studying management and leadership this way:

If someone wants to learn the language of business, and become facile in subjects like accounting, finance, and marketing, then an MBA is a great way to go…. If, on the other hand, your passion is about working with people and finding ways to address the huge challenges our culture and world are facing, then committing yourself to the practice of leadership may be a worthy direction for you.

2. A priority on developing leadership intelligence

Given there are so many ideas and perspectives of what “good” leadership is, choose a program that cultivates literacy in leadership. What I mean by literacy is that it is important to develop a practice of leadership that aligns with your personal values and the setting and circumstances to which you want to contribute. This is an inquiry for each person, and learning how to think about leadership in the context of your unique work and life is key. For example, as a senior manager you might want to explore how do you practice leadership with role authority and responsibility versus how you practice as an individual contributor relying on your ability to influence and innovate without such authority.

Developing leadership intelligence means you can avoid a one size fits all leadership approach and learn to adapt your practice in context sensitive ways. In the MA in Leadership program here at Saint Mary’s each participant creates a Leadership Development Plan based on their personal values, which they develop and revise throughout the program, to guide their unique future practice.

3. A curriculum that delivers what is required

If leadership is what you want to develop then it is important to make sure that what you experience and study actually produces the knowledge and skills needed.

A wide range of intelligences, skills and abilities are required to practice effective leadership in today’s world, such as emotional and social intelligence, critical reflection, generative listening, complex systems thinking, and collaboration. Be sure the courses and learning activities are ones that will generate results in those areas. For example, if a program identifies social intelligence as an important competency for leadership, be sure there are courses and activities that help you develop this intelligence, and not just have you read and write about it on your own.

In addition, because leadership is a shared/collective activity, we believe learning leadership in a cohort-based program is essential for the most transformative outcomes. Case-in-point methodology, developed by Ron Heifetz and colleagues at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, uses the cohort learning community as a case to direct attention to the experience and dynamics taking place in the room as a living illustration of what is being studied. In this video Talking About Teaching, Heifetz discusses the necessity of employing innovative and varied teaching methods in learning leadership, and describes case-in-point methodology as a central strategy in learning leadership.

4. A focus on the future

Because the world today is in perpetual change, leadership education should develop capacities to work effectively for a future world, not one based predominantly on cases from the past. To enact leadership in an unknown and emerging world, people need to develop capacities that are innovative, collaborative and adaptive to the worlds of emergence and uncertainty.

Certainly there are many more things one should consider in looking for a leadership program (reputation, type of students, price, etc.). And I think these four things are a good place to start. Join our learners, from all sectors of the economy, ranging in age from twenties to seventies, to explore the leadership you wish to bring to the world. We would be happy to have a conversation with you to help you decide if leadership is the best course of study and if the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College is a good fit for you. Helping you find the right leadership program can help us all make a more meaningful difference in the world.

About Ken Otter, Ph.D.

Ken Otter, Ph.D.
Ken is Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Co-director of the Leadership Center at Saint Mary's College. Areas of scholarship include: global leadership development, leadership coaching education, multi-stakeholder collaboration, collective creativity, and the application of lifespan and wisdom development in organizational life.

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