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A Journey Into The Unknown
By Howard Prince

The following article appeared in Concepts and Connections: A Newsletter for Leadership Educators, Volume 9, Issue 3, 2001.

The number of people involved in leadership programs on college and university campuses continues to grow and may now include close to 1,000 programs serving thousands of students. So the debate about whether leaders are born or made seems increasingly to have been resolved in favor of the position that much of what we think of as leadership can be taught and learned. This is certainly in line with John Gardner's view that the answer "to the question 'Can Leadership be taught?' is an emphatic but qualified 'Yes'---emphatic because most of the ingredients of leadership can be taught, qualified because the ingredients that cannot be taught may be quite important (Gardner, 157)." Ever the optimist, Gardner added, "we can offer promising young people opportunities and challenges favorable to the flowering of whatever gifts they may have (Gardner, 158)." Like Gardner, Thomas Cronin took the position that while leadership cannot be "taught," it can and must be "learned" (Cronin, 308). Cronin seems to argue that learning leadership requires more, perhaps much more, than formal instruction or teaching, though he offers little by way of a prescription for learning leadership.

When the Jepson School was founded, the University of Richmond gave the Jepson faculty the mission to "educate for and about leadership." The leadership studies faculty interpreted this to mean that they had to go beyond the presentation of traditional college courses that convey knowledge and develop critical thinking. They decided to include experiences that would inspire the willingness and confidence to serve in leadership roles, enable students to integrate knowledge and values in leadership behavior, and equip them to use knowledge of leadership and their imagination to create new responses to leadership situations that would only unfold after the students had graduated. And we did so with no clear theory or conceptual framework of how leadership is learned to guide the design and delivery of learning experience.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has one of the world's best research and training programs for the study of leadership. Scholars there have tried to understand leadership development in order to be able to enhance the development of leaders. Some of the CCL staff have suggested that it might be useful to think of leadership development as a form of individual adult development and that leadership development could be defined as "the expansion of a person's capacity to be effective in leadership roles ands processes. Leadership roles and processes are those that enable groups of people to work together in productive and meaningful ways (McCauley et al, 4.)" These authors go on to develop a general model of how experience affects the development of leadership.

But nowhere can we find a complete theory of how to develop leaders. Such a theory would, as a minimum, identify critical leadership knowledge, skills, and values, attitudes and beliefs. It would have to tell us what can be learned and what may be innate. The theory might identify stages of leadership development that could be associated with different capacities and perspectives within the learning leader. The theory would also have to inform both students and teachers as to how each of these leadership outcomes is to be taught or developed. Different learning activities would be required in all likelihood to bring about changes in different dimensions of leadership. Such a theory should help learners develop cross-situational as well as situation-specific leadership knowledge and skills, since there is evidence that the nature of leadership may be contextual. And we should be able to empirically test the key variables in our theory of leadership development so that over time we could refine the ways we engage learners to increase the likelihood of helping them develop their fullest leadership potential. Some promising longitudinal studies of developmental changes and the ability to participate more effectively in leadership roles and processes are under way at Alverno College, Yale University, and the U. S. Military Academy at West Point Mentkowski and Associates, Horvath, et al). But it will many years before these results will be in and we will know what has been learned from a practical point of view.

But if one aspires to nurture the capacity to actually participate more effectively in leadership roles and processes, how does one teach leadership? A second choice now confronts the teacher. One must answer questions such as what do you and the learner want to know and be able to do? And what values or virtues of character should be nurtured since leadership is always a matter of ends and means? Here we must be concerned with much more than the best teaching methods in the tradition of the liberal arts, which might suffice in teaching to know about leadership.

In addition to the ways we impart knowledge and critical thinking, now leadership educators must find ways to allow students to experience what it means to participate in leadership roles and processes. In brief, we must create learning situations that allow students to put knowledge into practice and to experience the consequences of their actions through the reactions of others. There are many ways to do this in the classroom: written case studies, role-plays, simulations and others. We must also create ways for students to apply their leadership knowledge outside of the classroom, to find learning laboratories and ways to capture experience for later discussion and reflection. Here we must confront the artificial ways we divide our campuses and seek to connect the many places students can experience not only their own leadership but also the leadership of other students, faculty administrators, and staff on campus. The more we can connect the classroom with other parts of the campus leadership environment, the more potent leadership education can be. And we can send students off campus to experience leadership in settings where students are entrusted with leadership responsibilities in internships, service learning, and part-time work settings. Critical to learning from experience is the opportunity to discuss and reflect with faculty and other students about the meaning of one's leadership actions and their impact on others. Early results from the work underway at Alverno suggest that reflection is critical to both lifelong learning and the capacity to integrate knowledge, skill and character in life situations (Mentkowski).

We need to provide vicarious learning opportunities for students in addition to ways to learn from direct experience. Complex social behavior such as leadership can be taught by calling attention to more experienced leaders in action. This can be done through the use of videos, current media events such as televised speeches or events, and by bringing leaders to campus and class to interact with students. As teachers we must always be aware of how we lead in all of our interactions with students. We are continuously teaching lessons about power, interpersonal relations, communications, decision-making, motivation, respect for others and much more as we interact with our students in class and elsewhere. When we practice what we teach, we not only teach, we inspire. If we ignore what we teach about leadership, we risk creating disengaged cynics. And we need to inspire our students to believe that while the choice of whether to lead or not must be theirs, they can lead and lead well. Our future may depend upon it.


Cronin, Thomas E, Leadership and Democracy. In J. Thomas Wren, The Leader's Companion. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Gardner, John, On Leadership. New York: The Free Press, 1990.

Horvath, J. A., Forsythe, G. B., Bullis, R. C., Sweeney, P. J., Williams, W. M., McNally, J. A., Wattendorf, J. M., Sternberg, R. J. Experience, knowledge, and military leadership. In R. J. Sternberg & J. A. Horvath (Eds.), Tacit knowledge in professional practice: Researcher and practitioner perspectives (pp. 39-57). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1999.

McCauley, Cynthia D., Russ S. Moxley, and Ellen Van Velsor, The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook For Leadership Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Mentkowski, M., & Associates. Learning that lasts: Integrating learning, development, and performance in college and beyond. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Howard Prince is currently the Director of the Center for Ethical Leadership, a new initiative in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He was the founding dean and first faculty member of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. He was also a professor and the first head of the department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U. S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

August 17, 2001