Teaching Leadership?

I was once charged with creating a Spanish-language leadership development ‘curriculum’ (you’ll see later why it’s in quotes!) to use with a community development grant in which El Centro, Inc. and several community development corporations (CDCs) were participating.  Having never attempted something quite like that before, and somewhat skeptical about the whole enterprise, I made it my business to know as much as possible about what other nonprofit organizations were doing with such leadership development programs.

So, I signed up to attend several sessions, read dozens of curriculums, reviewed any scientific program evaluation I could find (there were not many), and conducted some focus groups with those who had participated in leadership development programs. I debated the merits of the whole enterprise and had long conversations with the proven grassroots leaders with whom I was working about whether they felt that they needed any kind of leadership development and, if so, what it should include. And then, facing a deadline and some not-too-amused donors, I sat down and actually wrote a curriculum, albeit one that I had, by then, ceased to really believe in.

Now, a few years later, I still see a lot of nonprofit organizations, particularly of the neighborhood/community development variety, engaging in similar kinds of leadership development exercises, and so I thought that it might be helpful for me to share what I found out and what I have come to believe about the idea of ‘teaching’ leadership. Some of my analysis relates particularly to the dubious endeavor of translating curricula developed for English speakers into other languages, and, therefore, to the cultural context of leadership, but most speak to the general idea of such leadership classes, and their limits.

As I have spoken with others about this over the years (and, for awhile, I was a little bit obsessed, so I used to talk about it all the time!), I have discovered just how passionate those who conduct such leadership development classes are about their courses, and their students. So, I fully expect that there will be those who strongly disagree with some of my conclusions, and I welcome the opportunity to talk about it. If you have participated in such a leadership development class, as a trainer or a student, how was your experience? Most importantly, how did it affect you as a leader and/or change your trajectory of leadership activity? If your organization sponsors leadership development programming, what does it look like? What are your responses to my analyses?

1. The people who have participated in leadership development classes, almost without exception and across several different programs, are very enthusiastic about their experiences. They have very positive memories of their classmates, their ‘teacher’, and the time they spent together. Interestingly, few had much to say about the actual curriculum, suggesting that the act of bringing people together to learn more about themselves and each other, and the building of a community of committed people, was far more valuable than anything contained in the actual curriculum (but more on that later).

2. The few program evaluations I could find, supplemented with my own follow up with participants, revealed that there were remarkably few differences between participants and non-participants in terms of actual leadership behavior. What this means, unfortunately, is that, despite judging their own experience to be very positive, most of the leadership development programs failed to actually produce new leaders–few participants could point to any new positions they had taken on, any campaigns they were working on, any real, tangible ways in which they were now leaders in ways they were not before.

3. Which leads to the fact that many of the people in leadership development programs are, in fact, already leaders by any definition of the term: neighborhood block captains, PTA Presidents, church deacons, etc… I found this rather troubling, honestly, when I reviewed the curricula in which these folks were participating; in most cases, they seem to be written as though the participants are going to be embarking on leadership endeavors for the first time, when, in fact, many are quite seasoned (more so than the instructors!).

4. While still overwhelmingly reporting positive assessments of their experiences, the Spanish speakers with whom I spoke reported, when asked directly, less satisfaction with the actual curricula than others. Pieces of it just didn’t translate well. As an example, one person told me that her leadership development program spent a few hours on the concept of ‘servant leadership’, dispelling the myth, so to speak, that leading was all about getting credit for things and having a lot of power. She explained that, in her understanding as a Latina, a Mexican immigrant female, servant leadership is how she understands leadership–it’s an extension of her Catholic faith and her commitment to her family, and she never really understood why they felt that they had to teach her that. Another participant told me that there were some analogies and jokes in his program that just didn’t make sense in Spanish, and, in a particularly regrettable incident, one youth participant showed me a workbook where ‘leadership-building’ was translated ‘líderazgo-edificio’ (literally, leadership and then like a building that you see walking down the street, you know?). Um, not quite.

As I said, I’m not at all happy with what I came up with after all of this soul-searching; it was one of those times when you’re under contract to create something that looks like X and you kind of have to do it even if you’ve become convinced that Y really fits the bill. I’ve linked the curriculum I created here, in case you read Spanish and feel like looking at it, but here are my thoughts for those of you who want to do leadership development (not, at all, a bad idea!) and have a little more flexibility than I did regarding how to do it.

1. Find out about your participants’ leadership experiences first and, if at all possible, tailor your program to meet their actual needs. A far more rewarding leadership development program was when I provided some specific content to some of our grassroots leaders who wanted help with:

  • Understanding organizational budgets (many sat on other nonprofits’ Boards of Directors)
  • Robert’s Rules of Orders
  • Legislative advocacy, especially how the legislative process works
  • Public speaking
  • Conducting 1:1 meetings and some other skills for community organizing

    All leaders have areas where they want to improve, and it’s a real mark of leadership to identify these and seek out resources to aid in your own actualization. Nonprofit organizations working with grassroots leaders can play an important role in this, and it’s much more likely to result in enhanced leadership than a standard curriculum.

    2. Bring leaders together. Again, the part that really stuck with the participants in these programs were not the True Colors exercises or the worksheets outlining their goals, but the opportunity to sit down with their peers and talk about themselves, their communities, their aspirations, their fears and challenges. You don’t need a workbook around which to do that–just build opportunities for fellowship, reflection, and relationship-building into your organizing and advocacy work.

    3. Finally, there’s no shortcut and no alternative; the best way to develop leaders is to give people a chance to lead. I was pretty dismayed that none of the leadership curricula I found included any kind of service-learning component. To me, we can’t expect people to feel or act like leaders unless we give them a chance to really lead something or someone. So make sure that your organization is opening up opportunities for those with whom you work to take on ownership of work and spread their wings, so to speak, as leaders. That’s probably how you developed as a leader, and that’s the route that most of those we admire took, also. Our clients deserve no less.

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  • One response to “Teaching Leadership?

    1. Pingback: Civic Engagement in Social Services « Classroom to Capitol

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