Authentic Leadership in the College Classroom
Penny Pennington, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Agricultural Leadership at Oklahoma State University and Project Director for the Leadership Education Institute, a USDA funded project.
As leadership continues to grow as an academic area of study at universities across the nation, leadership educators continue to create and modify curriculum that represents the current discipline of leadership. This article explores the theoretical and philosophical foundations of an authentic leadership development course taught in the college classroom and shares recommendations for leadership educators seeking to implement a personal leadership development course on their campus.
Universities and colleges across the country continue to add leadership courses to their list of offerings. Brungardt (1996) reported a decade ago that as many as 500 colleges and universities across that nation were offering leadership development programs. As the trend grows, not only are courses being added, but both minors and majors in leadership are being created. Furthermore, leadership programs rather than claiming one academic home have planted roots across our universities in not only the business or social sciences, but in the agricultural, natural, and technical sciences. As leadership grows as an academic discipline, so does the need to define what leadership actually is as a course of study (Pennington, 2005).
Most of my peers would agree that students of leadership must study leadership theory, not only graduate students, but also undergraduate students. Students of leadership should know the difference between leadership traits and leadership styles. They should be able to discuss contingency models of leadership and differentiate between the terms transactional and transformational as they apply to leadership. But beyond the basics, there appears to be little agreement.
After, or possibly before, a basic course in leadership theory, what should we be teaching? Should there be more than one theoretical course? Should our students be studying teams, should they be studying ethics, maybe both, or maybe something else? What about context? Should leadership be taught within a specific context? Or should students major in leadership as a stand-alone program? Should leadership as a discipline develop a common core of study or should each program continue to do what works for them? As a discipline, many of these questions will take years to answer, upon which some will never be agreed.
Authentic Leadership Development
At the foundation of our leadership curriculum are five core values including authentic leadership, critical thinking, professionalism, open minds, and commitment to agriculture. Our students study leadership within a specific context—agriculture and have the opportunity to major in Agricultural Leadership. As do many faculty across the nation, our faculty teach leadership within the agricultural context (Fritz, et al., 2003). The theoretical concepts as they apply to leadership are the same; it is the future application that differs. As a whole, our students will serve the nation’s food, agriculture, and natural resources systems with many of our students moving beyond our nation’s borders to serve our global society.
The recent scholarship surrounding authentic leadership has strongly influenced our curriculum. As a faculty we agree that “leaders must know what is important to them—they must be totally immersed in their core beliefs and values” (May, Chan, Hodges, & Avolio, 2003) and that as a faculty part of our job is to help students develop their authenticity through an exploration of their personal values and beliefs. Authentic leadership concerns self-exploration, an understanding of the true self, recognizing one’s values, and infusing personal values and leadership specifically as they apply to follower relations.
Our primary source of content as we structure our curriculum comes from the leadership classics, classics grounded by research and subjected to peer-review. Additionally, we strive to continually update our curriculum to reflect new scholarship in the leadership field introducing our students to the current state of leadership as a discipline through the study of journal articles and current research. Although a theoretical framework for authentic leadership has not been agreed upon by the leading scholars, our knowledge of authentic leadership as a theoretical model is evolving (Avolio & Gardner, 2005).
Authentic leadership is described as a root concept
(Avolio & Gardner, 2005; May, et al., 2003) that underlies positive
approaches to leadership such as transformational, charismatic, and servant
leadership. A special issue
dedicated to authentic leadership development was published by the Leadership Quarterly in June 2005. In
the lead article, Gardner, Avolio, Luthans, May, & Walumba (2005) propose
that authentic leadership begins with developing authenticity, that increasing
self-awareness is a key component in developing authentic leadership and that
authentic leaders are “more aware of, and committed to, their core end values”
(p. 9). Avolio and
Personal Leadership Development
Students majoring in Agricultural Leadership, as well as
students throughout the
Personal Leadership Development has been taught as a
sophomore-level course at
The nature of the course is open, reflective, and creative. A lecture format is not used in the course. Classroom discussions, opportunities for personal reflection and small group work serve as key teaching approaches. Selected experiential learning activities are used to introduce students to course concepts and provide an avenue for discussion and application. Discovering the Leader in You by Lee and King (2001) is currently used as the course text supplemented by assigned readings.
Student evaluation includes both an individual and team project each requiring the student to synthesize and apply authentic leadership concepts, four leadership development papers, a midterm exam, and an optional final exam. Additionally, in-class activities are a vital component of the course and as such class participation accounts for fifteen percent of the course grade. Descriptions are provided for the leadership development papers and the individual project.
Leadership Development Papers
The course begins with a series of writing assignments related to the course text. Students must be given time to “warm-up” to the course which is best facilitated by structure and feedback (grades). The leadership development papers serve as a bridge between a typical classroom environment and the reflection needed to begin the authentic leadership development process within the confines of the classroom environment.
The leadership development papers account for twenty percent of the course grade. Grading criteria includes professionalism, depth of thought, application of course concepts, and writing effectiveness. Each paper must be typewritten and should be approximately two pages in length. Assignment descriptions are provided below:
Each semester students are assigned as their final project, an individual project that requires them to articulate their personal vision as it relates to their core values. Students are asked to examine their vision as it relates to ten areas: self-image, tangibles, home, health, relationships, work, personal pursuits, community, leadership, and life purpose. Students may select any format or delivery method to express their personal vision. Grading criteria includes depth of thought, reflection related to core values, synthesis of course concepts, creativity, exploration of new ideas, writing and artistic presentation.
The majority of projects submitted by students are highly creative and reflective. Projects have taken on various forms including storybooks, films, memory boxes, recipe books, games, websites, and songs. Occasionally students offer reflections related to the overall learning process developed through the course, selected student quotes from the personal vision projects are included below:
Results to Date and Recommendations for Educators
Student feedback and evaluations of the course have been overwhelmingly positive as demonstrated by sample comments related to course content and assignments from course evaluations provided below:
The majority of students have strongly connected to the personal vision assignment which is completed at the end of the semester and serves as a synthesis of course concepts. As a whole new students are eager to enroll in the course based upon former student and faculty recommendations. In the last four years, enrollment in our agricultural leadership courses has grown four-fold with the personal leadership development course continuing to enroll more students than any of our other leadership courses.
Recommendations for leadership educators implementing a personal leadership development course are as follows:
Avolio, B., & Gardner, W. (2005). Authentic leadership: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 315-338.
Brungardt, C. (1996). The making of leaders: A review of the research in leadership development and education. The Journal of Leadership Studies 3(3), 81-95.
Fritz, S., Townsend, C., Hoover, T., Weeks, W., Carter, R., & Nietfeldt, A. (2003). An analysis of leadership offerings in collegiate agricultural education departments. NACTA Journal 47(3), 18-22.
Lee, R, &
King, S. (2001). Discovering the leader in you: A guide to realizing your
personal leadership potential.
May, D., Chan, A., Hodges, T., & Avolio, B. (2003). Developing the moral component of authentic leadership. Organizational Dynamics 32(3), 247-260.
Pennington, P. (2005). The leadership pie: grab your piece before it’s gone! Journal of Leadership Education 4(1), 74-44.