Transdisciplinary Reflections

Alfonso Montuori

Teaching an Introduction to Leadership Course When Leadership is “Dead.” (Part 1)

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

How do we teach an Introduction to leadership course when Leadership is allegedly “dead?” The discourse and practices of Leadership are undergoing dramatic changes, as we see in these pages. The heroic leadership model has been strongly challenged, not least because of the demands of the new, more collaborative, uncertain, networked distributed environment, as well as the emergence of women as both leaders and scholars of leadership. In the age of pathographies, transparency, massive leadership failures, globally televised fiascos, and moral abandon at the top, leaders have lost the esteem they once had. Two important social movements in 2012, The Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, were arguably “leaderless organizations,” or at least “distributed,” but perhaps most importantly without heroic media-friendly televised leaders. If anything, these movements were out to get the corrupt leaders and they systems they had created.

Books with titles like Barbara Kellerman’s The End of Leadership strongly suggest that the leadership “industry,” which includes academic leadership programs, is facing an uphill battle, and is on the verge of bankruptcy, although not necessarily of the financial kind. Given this “post normal” situation, what might an Introduction to Leadership course look like? In a time of great change, how should leadership be approached? What should such an introductory course include? How should the definition of leadership be explored? What might be the right balance of the historical canon with innovation? How do we discuss the importance the larger social and historical context? What is the role of models and frameworks to make sense of the underlying issues, of skill-building, of the relationship between personal, organizational, and social transformation? How are the emerging generations viewing leadership? How do we integrate recent innovations and trends that risk being the flavor of the month?

There are also more pedagogical questions. How do we integrate the practical and the theoretical? Historically, we might find some instructors, courses, and programs focus on one over the other. An obvious answer to the problem is to say we need to have both practical and theoretical components. But stressing the importance of both doesn’t mean that the two actually inform each other. We’ve all probably seen and even experienced situations where theory and practice are included in a course of study, but still exist separately: there’s the theory, now let’s do something practical. The very language of theory and practice creates a dualism that can perpetuate their separation. But we can also distinguish but not separate—and see how every action, every praxis is informed by a theory, often implicit, and every theory involves an interpretation of action.

The older theories, built on the notion of the Great Man are increasingly fading. As befits post normal times, there is no clear understanding of what might replace them. Even as we struggle to articulate and embody new approaches, new ways of being, new forms of leadership, most of us still have implicit theories of who and what constitutes a leader and leadership, and also of the where and when of leadership. Particularly when times get hard, it’s easy to revert to the old models, to perhaps unconsciously fall back on old ways of doing and being that we may feel are “really” what leadership is about. The tried and trusted, the known. Becoming aware of our personal and collective history, of the images that have dominated our world for so many years, is an important task, a form of mental hygiene and care of the soul, as we explore new possibilities

Here is one entry point into connecting theory and practice, of course. To what extent are we already in-formed by the older views of leadership? How do we already embody theories, perhaps unbeknownst to us? How do our most fundamental assumptions about ourselves and the world shape us, and how do we shape the world through them? Do we have ideas? Do ideas have us? We are in the world, but the world is also in us. What are our assumptions about the nature of human nature, gender, power, creativity, leadership, about what constitutes a meaningful life?

The who, what, when, where, and how of leadership are all being questioned. Most if not all of my students are not really interested in reading about CEOs or Presidents or Generals. In this they are not particularly unusual. They do not assume that leadership occurs only in the offices of executives or battlefields. They are looking for new ways to lead, or should I say to actively participate in the world and create positive changes. But what constitutes positive change, even? What has become of progress? What is a better world, and can we even realistically expect one?

I have drifted through some initial questions that emerged for me reflecting on teaching leadership in our times, and will continue to address this question in forthcoming columns. In the meantime, I’d like to invite readers to add their comments about how they might approach the topic in an introductory course or talk. What are the most important issues that should be addressed? How would we address them? What does integral theory have to offer? What might a post-formal approach to post normal leadership involve? What can we hope to see as ‘learning outcomes’ for such a course? How might we address some of the questions I have posed above, and what other pressing issues emerge in these efforts? I look forward to your reflections.

 About the Author

Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future, complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.


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