At universities across the nation, leadership programs and seminars are plentiful. At the University, many are based in the College of Liberals Arts and Sciences and various professional schools, a couple of the most prominent being the Self Engineering Leadership Fellowship (SELF) and the Business Leadership Program (BLP).
Programs such as SELF and BLP are most often structured academically, with traditional lectures and interactive project components. They emphasize communication, diversity, and activism — all worthy pursuits. But what is the real value of a “leadership course?”
The truth is, not much. Leadership and activism are fundamentally experiential, and the hypothetical discussions thought experiments and group research projects implemented in an academic framework just don’t cut it.
The nuances of wielding authority can’t be learned without actually doing it, and to attempt to teach it to students in an exclusively classroom setting is detrimental and flawed. More often than not, students don’t glean real leadership ability from these courses — they learn how to decipher academic jargon and gain a rather inflated sense of self-importance.
This practice speaks to a deeply problematic attitude within modern leadership studies, whether that be in politics, business or academia — the fancier the vernacular and the more impressive the resume, the more relevant the opinion.
In fall 2018, SELF provided its freshman cohort slideshows and readings preaching “transformational leadership,” a four-stage theory developed by Harvard-educated academic James MacGregor Burns. While the text of the theory is all well and good, it should be obvious that real leadership is hardly something one can learn from a PowerPoint presentation and a scholastic paper on JSTOR.
It’s true that both KU programs require member students to be “leaders in the community” — but this policy is vague, and the leadership roles that students take on rarely require much introspection or personal development. If the purpose of these programs is to breed the movers and shakers of the future, shouldn’t the program administrators encourage a bit more responsibility on a more meaningful scale?
This style of leadership coaching is more than ineffective — it’s actively harmful, and it works against the very values and ideals these programs claim to be upholding. Studies of leadership and activism, and all that they entail, should be accessible and grassroots. Programs like SELF and BLP are the exact opposite — catered towards a relatively privileged group of college students that only learn to productively engage with each other and not the larger society they’re hoping to help.
Leadership wasn’t invented by CEOs and academics but developed by community organizers, teachers, union presidents — why do programs like SELF and BLP only teach the opinions of upper-class scholars and not the vital, critical work of activists and community members? This style of elitist and exclusionary training perpetuates class divides and hinders the growth of students.
If programs like SELF and BLP truly want to develop exceptional, well-meaning leaders and not corporate middle-managers, they need to take a more holistic approach — one that emphasizes the importance of the community, accessibility and class-consciousness.
Sandhya Ravikumar is a Sophomore from Lawrence majoring in engineering physics.