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Building leadership capacity through service-learning
Article Type: Commentaries From: International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Volume 18, Issue 2
The world we live in is inherently paradoxical (Cameron and Quinn, 1988; Handy, 1994). In so many instances, we are faced with contradictory demands, or situations that seem to lead us toward contradictory solutions. For example, we look to leaders to lead us, but we also want leaders to listen to our ideas and opinions. For leaders of government organizations – including elected and appointed officials, as well as career employees – there is a constant struggle in trying to manage under conditions of reduced budgets and increasing expectations for more services, the paradoxical “doing more with less.” The same is true for many leaders of nonprofit organizations.
Arguably, in the past few decades, both globalism and technology have contributed to the types of paradoxes we face. Information and computing technologies, for example, have increased people’s ability to connect to others around the world in nanoseconds, but many would argue that it has also decreased our ability to communicate face to face or voice to voice, as college roommates sitting in the same room might be more likely to send an “instant message” than to talk about a particular issue. At the same time, globalism has altered the very nature of our economic systems, creating new career paths for some and leaving some with unusable skills. The unscripted future is thus not simply unscripted, it is one that will present our next generation of leaders with great dilemmas, but also with great opportunities.
As colleges and universities increase their attention to civic engagement, using service-learning approaches as an effective teaching methodology to engage students in the learning experience, we should be equally cognizant of its potential for building the leadership capacity of our students, and for preparing them to face an unscripted future. Two key aspects of leadership development, in particular, appear to be inherent in service-learning experiences. First, while conceptualizations and definitions of leadership have evolved over the past few decades, there has been an increasing recognition of the notion that leadership is not held by a single individual or team of individuals at the top of the organizational hierarchy, but rather can – and, more importantly, should – be demonstrated by individuals across the organization (Fletcher and Kaüfer, 2003; Helgesen, 2006). In a somewhat paradoxical manner, leaders must be as prepared to follow as they are to lead, and organizations must help prepare followers to be leaders. Service-learning experiences that allow students to engage in reciprocal relationships within community-based organizations provide unique opportunities for students to learn how leadership can emerge from across the organizational hierarchy. As Longo and Shaffer (2009, p. 155) note:
[…] higher education is perhaps the single most important catalyst not only for educating the next generation for a new kind of leadership but also for mobilizing institutional resources to engage in the type of collaborative problem solving necessary to address difficult public issues. Thus, leadership education needs to be relational, collaborative [and] community based.
Second, and clearly related to this new conceptualization of leadership, is the potential for students to learn about collaborative problem solving in a diverse environment. Checkoway (2001, p. 127) argues that:
“Education for citizenship” becomes more complex in a diverse democratic society in which communities are not “moncultural” consisting of people who share the same social and cultural characteristics, but “multicultural,” with significant differences among groups.
Thomas (2006), a leader and pioneer in the field of diversity education, maintains that for organizations of the future to be effective, they cannot simply increase “representation” of different cultural groups and gender identities, they must change their mind-set so that they benefit from the different perspectives that people these different groups can bring to the organization. They must be able to make “quality decisions in the midst of similarities, differences, and tensions” (p. 50). Organizations must thus attempt to encourage cohesion and commitment toward a common goal of learning, while they paradoxically also learn to value differences and encourage individuals to voice different perspectives. Again, service-learning experiences in community-based organizations can provide students extraordinary opportunities to recognize that they can learn from others whose life experiences have differed from their own, as well as to work toward a common goal, even when there are differences in perspectives. Engaging in service-learning experiences, students may have greater opportunities to develop the leadership capacity to “communicate with people who are different from themselves, and build bridges across cultural differences in the transition to a more diverse society” (Checkoway, 2001, p. 127).
As a unique approach that gives students greater responsibility for their own learning, service-learning also gives students an opportunity to develop their leadership, as well as their followership. Ultimately, if we are to prepare students for an unscripted future, we must consider how service-learning can help them to understand that they must embrace paradox and expect the unexpected.
Sue R. FaermanUniversity of Albany – SUNY, Albany, New York, USA
About the author
Sue R. Faerman received her PhD in University at Albany-SUNY and she is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Distinguished Teaching Professor of Public Administration and Policy at the University and Albany-SUNY. Her research interests focus on the paradoxical nature of leadership and organizational performance and she has published in European Journal of Information Systems, Human Resource Management, Organization Science, Public Management Review and Public Productivity and Management Review. She is also co-author of Becoming a Master Manager: A Competing Values Approach. Sue R. Faerman can be contacted at: email@example.com
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