Finding the Purpose of Leadership Programs

npeterman225by Nancy E. Peterman, Partner

One common element of many recent university campaigns is the establishment of a leadership program. A popular brand as a program or institute, a leadership center has come to represent a collection of experiences that are designed to develop desirable characteristics needed for graduates to make a difference in society. Such characteristics include the ability to inspire, make difficult decisions, and act ethically and boldly. Leadership programs often involve funding opportunities that may include scholarships, endowed faculty and executives-in-residence positions, lecture series, internships, study abroad, research opportunities, and reference materials. Some focus on a cluster of students; others may have optional offerings open to the entire study body. They are attractive to captains of industry, many of whom have had successful careers because of their leadership traits. Now in a position to give back, they wish to encourage the advancement of the personality qualities that led to their accomplishments.

At a campaign strategy meeting, one committee member questioned the inclusion of a leadership institute in the case for support. To paraphrase, she said that she was not necessarily opposed to the establishment or expansion of a specific leadership program, but she would like to know how leadership programs measured success. What specific proficiencies are we seeking? Are there characteristics that graduates will exhibit, and if so, how will we determine that they have acquired these traits? Or is the purpose of the program simply to expose a select group of students to a set of experiences, which can be life enriching?

The committee member made a valid argument. Are universities without specific leadership programs ones where students graduate devoid of such skills? Or are the students who are not selected or chose not to participate in such programs restricted to being followers or relegated to mid-level management careers? But most importantly is it not a hallmark of our higher educational programs that we are developing leaders across the campus regardless of their course of study or inclusion in a special co-curricular program? Whether the leadership program participant is actually in quest of a career managing a board or personnel does not necessarily negate the argument of the importance of all students to acquire such a positive skillset.

From boardroom CEOs to coaches and drill sergeants, as difficult as it may be to measure in the absence of a war, a close football game, or a financial crisis, good leadership is something that, “we know when we see it.” As colleges and universities develop their cases for support, it is important to ensure that funding opportunities are included not only for their ability to attract dollars, but as components that institutions believe will make a difference. Measurement is easier when it involves quantitative factors such as passing a standardized test. The more subjective qualities may not be truly measured or tested for many years. Explaining the rationale for establishing such programs may be challenging in a case for support, but necessary. The institution should be open to and prepared for debate and discussion with potential funders.

As programs with such subjective outcomes as leadership mature, one hopes that in the not too distant future society will not only benefit, but that there will be extensive longitudinal data for comprehensive program evaluation.