Posted June 6, 2014 by Missy Burgess 

Things We All Say

Leadership development is a common topic in nearly all aspects of our union team. Our Operations and Building Retail Teams developed a leadership series for our lead student employees and managers this year. Our programming board executive board members complete a leadership journal each week. We host Titan Lead, a leadership workshop each year. We talk about and develop leadership in all that we do. However, one of our challenges is, how do we package all of these opportunities so that students don’t see them as independent functions, but rather holistic development? To that end, I have been reading some leadership literature to get a pulse for what the research may tell us.CoveringMouth

In 2011, John Dugan, higher education faculty member at Loyala University–Chicago, contributed a Journal of Leadership Studies article titled “Pervasive Myths in Leadership Development: Unpacking Constraints on Leadership Learning," in which he talked about three common myths we often share that can and do constrain how we work with leadership development. Finding myself guilty of often saying and believing all three, I found it to be a very brief but thought-challenging article that caused me to reflect on how we do leadership development. The three myths presented were:

  • Leadership Development Is Simple
    Dugan argues that this myth assumes that, “…leadership development as a functional outcome for which learning is summative as well as a capacity that can be rapidly accrued.” He discusses the rapid growth of leadership development and education programs in both the academic and cocurricular areas on campuses has placed many people in the role to be leadership educators who do not have a background in the field. However, the leadership literature shows that the process of leadership development takes time and has great complexity. When examining all types of leadership education, the area of learning mattered much less than the incorporation of high-impact practices. In the case of my institution, it made me think of all of the things we call “leadership development” and how we assume great impact of one-time events, but in actuality, it is more likely the cumulative experience of our students over time. Additionally, we need to think about our methods of delivery and the use of high impact practices.
  • Leadership Capacity Is a Function of Training and Experience
    For this myth, Dugan discusses that research reveals that leadership capacity is predicted by leadership efficacy, rather than just leadership experience. Dugan suggests we may need to focus our training on development of the whole student with an emphasis on higher order cognitive skills, rather than solely focusing on the building of leadership capacity. In other words, we cannot consider our students in a vacuum. We cannot focus solely on leadership development without recognizing where students are in their personal development and bringing them forward as entire individuals and not just student leaders. For me, I began to think about how we might assess where our students are developmentally and how we need to focus on development of cognitive skills on an ongoing basis if we truly want our leadership development experiences to be impactful and effective.
  • Everyone Can Be a Leader
    This final myth was, for me, the one I am most guilty of saying. We want to believe that all of our students have the ability to be leaders. Dugan reminds his readers that this perspective is a very privileged one. He argues that this statement does not take into consideration the factor of social oppression for many in our population. Access to resources, cultural messages about social status, and fears for safety are all things that Dugan argues hold back many in the world’s population from having a strong leadership efficacy—and therefore effective leadership development. Dugan states that we must take into consideration the different social constructed systems that exist surrounding leadership development and make sure that we pay attention to social identity when constructing leadership programs. One size does not fit all. This challenged me to think about how we may need to recognize and increase the value on the individual backgrounds that our students bring to our programs. What messages are we sending and how do we recognize and use our privilege for positive gain?

Dugan’s article provided a thought-provoking read that will influence my outlook on leadership moving forward. It also motivated me to read and learn more before making any quick decisions about the programming we do on my campus.

Do you use these myths in your leadership programs?

Missy Burgess

Missy Burgess is the Associate Director for Student Involvement at University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh.

Missy supervises student leadership and involvement staff in the Reeve Memorial Union, including volunteer service, student organizations and emerging programs, Reeve Union Board, leadership, diversity and inclusion, and greek life. She holds a bachelor’s from Southern Illinois University–Edwardsville, a master’s from Kansas State University, and a Ph.D. in educational leadership from the University of North Dakota.


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