John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Never Enough Opportunities to Teach Leadership

Very early in my career, thanks to a visionary president at the University of South Carolina, I had the opportunity to help design a course, University 101, for which one of the goals was to teach students how to “survive” the University. And I realized in this design process that I had learned a tremendous amount from my US Air Force experience about how to teach someone to “survive” a stressful, important, new, challenging experience. Beyond that, I came to realize you could teach human beings how to do just about anything if you were intentional about it. But you had to believe that it could be taught, and that people would want to learn it and be able to do so. And so we found that we could teach students to not only “survive” but to flourish in this new, to them, university environment and that students truly wanted to learn this.

It was some years later that I realized that the most important purpose of America’s colleges and universities was to produce our country’s and communities’ leaders. And I discovered a field called “Leadership Studies” which is now a widely recognized academic discipline offering undergraduate cognates, minors, majors towards bachelors degrees and graduate degrees too. In fact, this is one discipline that my alma mater, Marietta College, in Marietta, Ohio truly excels in offering as one of its niche elements. And, just as I did early in my career, I have learned both that leadership can be taught, and that students want to learn to understand and to practice it. I was reminded of that this week.

Specifically, I was invited to provide two sessions for a local Rotary Club Leadership Camp held in Brevard, North Carolina this week. I had the privilege and fun of talking with about 60 campers who were rising eleventh and twelfth grade high school students drawn from the western North Carolina mountains region where I have the good fortune to live.

In these two sessions I was reminded that:
1. Female students will disproportionately volunteer for such educational experiences as opposed to male students.
2. Female students congregated near the “front” of the class, males disproportionately to the “rear”.
3. Female students engaged in a higher level of voluntary verbal participation.
4. The adult Rotarians present as “counselors”, local Rotary leaders, were disproportionately male. But that’s because they were all of an age and generation when men overpopulated US colleges and universities.
5. Today’s students really are interested in learning about leadership.
6. They want to become leaders and they “get it” that college is a major proving ground for leaders.
7. And at this point in their secondary school education they really don’t know much about what leadership is or how to intentionally learn how to practice it.

I was reminded that it would be a good thing if all of us higher educators spoke and directed ourselves more often to this overarching societal objective. This really is “relevant” and “relevance” enhances student engagement which leads to so many other positive student outcomes. Really our work does or should all come down to producing more leaders for our society. We all have a stake in this. We all have a contribution to make. I am really glad I spent about 2.5 hours with these campers. There has to be a Rotary Club near you doing something like this. Do check it out. We shouldn’t leave this entirely to the Rotarians, although I greatly admire their initiative.

-John N. Gardner

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