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Professional Opinion

College requires first-year leadership course

Turning an abstract idea into an achievable skill with real-world challenges
University Business, August 2016
Susan West Engelkemeyer is the president of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.
Susan West Engelkemeyer is the president of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.

With increasing urgency, today’s colleges are being asked—by business, government and the nonprofit field—to impart so-called “21st century skills” of communication, collaboration, problem-solving and creativity to their students.

What’s often missing from the list is leadership, which galvanizes these other skills and equips students to make informed decisions, take meaningful action, and develop pathways to accomplish goals large and small.

Not many academic programs view 18-year-olds as mature enough to qualify as leaders or even to understand what it takes to be one. Those who do eventually rise in the business and nonprofit worlds often take years to discover their own leadership talents and inclinations.

Personality tests and role playing

In the fall of 2014, after two years of development, Nichols College launched Lead 101, a semester-long, three-credit course required for all freshmen. Students wouldn’t just follow the leader, they would become the leader.

The curriculum combines extended exercises in self-awareness, real-life case studies in decision-making, and talks by recent college graduates who have become innovators and entrepreneurs.

In the first few weeks, the freshmen in Lead 101 self-administer personality tests, which among other findings, determine whether they are more extroverted or introverted. (Research shows that up to 40 percent of those identified as leaders have the latter characteristic.) And the extroverts and introverts get firsthand experience in understanding how members of each group react in different situations.

Throughout the term, students are presented with a series of case studies that require leadership decisions, ranging from how an automobile company CEO could respond to defects that have caused fatal crashes to whether the mayor of a city should oppose the licensing of a fast-food restaurant whose parent company has taken anti-gay positions.

The students work in small groups, and for each case a different group member becomes the one in charge.

In one mid-morning class, for example, a student in the role of the mayor gave everyone a chance to present their case, listened intently, and ultimately decided on the course of action that he himself had proposed.

“This is how it’s going to be,” he announced—that’s one leadership style, certainly, but also a teachable moment about alternative approaches. Group members routinely give feedback to their leader, and on this day the message was, “You’re being too authoritarian.”

Role models have proved valuable as well. During the first year Lead 101 was offered, Nichols College hosted the young founder of the nationwide Food Recovery Network, whose college chapters rescue leftovers from college dining-hall kitchens and deliver them to local food pantries and shelters.

All of the freshmen taking Lead 101 had to attend the event, and within months, a cadre established a functioning chapter of the network on our campus.

Leading early and often

Our leadership-building activities do not end at the conclusion of the course. We are entering the second year of our Emerging Leaders Program, which covers sophomore through senior years—and for which 100 rising sophomores and juniors have signed up.

Colleges may be hard-pressed to create space for an additional course during the usually busy freshman year, especially a required course. Introducing leadership modules into the curriculum—such as a case study in a sociology or psychology class, or a personality assessment in an organizational behavior or communications class—would represent a good start.

The key is to provide focused leadership education early and often. And if that education is required of all students, all the better.

As these young adults venture into a world where businesses have to compete intensively and organizations have to do more than ever before to accomplish their missions, strong leadership skills will be required.

Susan West Engelkemeyer is the president of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.

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