Academic Exchange Quarterly      Summer     2007    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  11, Issue  2

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“This I Believe:” Students on Leadership


Paul S. Szwed, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, CT

Laurel R. Goulet, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, CT

Jason M. Siniscalchi, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, CT


Szwed, D.Sc., is Management Department Head and Associate Professor of Decision Sciences, Goulet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Management, and Siniscalchi, Ph.D. is Research Social Scientist, Leadership Development Center.



Many educators note that understanding student beliefs is a critical component in teaching leadership. In order to challenge and advance student leadership philosophies, teachers should first understand their students’ entering assumptions and beliefs. The This I Believe minute paper provides a means by which educators can elicit student beliefs. This elicitation process is described and the results of a trial elicitation are described and discussed.



When was the last time you had the opportunity to engage your students in a dialog about their beliefs? Understanding student beliefs, or conceptions, plays an important role in understanding their developmental progress. We often get a glimpse of student beliefs through reading their papers, portfolios, and journals or by listening to them in their presentations, classroom discussions, role plays, and exercises or even by way of their feedback and evaluation of a course. However, these sorts of learning experiences and assessments are usually not explicitly designed to elicit student beliefs.  While considering student beliefs is important in any context, this paper will specifically focus on student beliefs about leadership.


Many writers have called for leadership education to, among other things, help students critically evaluate their own leadership assumptions and beliefs (e.g., Densten & Gray, 2001; Gallos, 1997; Gibson & Pason, 2003; Mello, 2003).   Perhaps most compelling is Gallos’ call for leadership educators “to look at our students, not as subjects, cases, or needy receptacles for knowledge or skills, but as individuals seeking opportunities to clarify their special contribution” (p. 7).  Additionally, Gibson and Pason exhort us to work with students to “adopt a form of leadership that may be more challenging than their view upon entry” (p. 23).  Denston and Gray (2001) assert that the role of leadership educators is to develop a reflective leadership learning experience for students in order to address negative assumptions that students may hold.  Finally, Mello (2003) suggests that in order for students to truly understand the complexities of leadership, it is important to let students discover this understanding on their own terms.  It is our contention that unless you understand students’ entering views, it may be difficult to create learning experiences that fully challenge and advance their leadership philosophies.  Still, there seems to be a dearth of scholarly literature examining students’ leadership beliefs and assumptions as they enter leadership courses.


To help us close this gap in understanding student leadership beliefs in our own classes, we were inspired by the This I Believe essays.  In the 1950’s, Edward R. Murrow began the This I Believe project where Americans communicated openly about their defining beliefs and values. This project was resurrected in April 2005 through a National Public Radio series of the same name. In a similar fashion, to elicit student beliefs, we asked students to briefly describe in writing “what they believed to be true about leadership” during the first week of a required junior-year course in leadership that has been in existence since 1996.   We did this early in the semester, before a trust relationship was established with the teacher and also to better understand student preconceptions and prior beliefs. It is important to understand students’ current state of knowledge if we want be effective in dispelling myths or advancing their development (Denston & Gray, 2001). By reading student papers and analyzing the contents, we gained considerable insight into their beliefs and where they were developmentally regarding leadership. To us, the results of our analysis have challenged us to rethink how we deliver this and other courses, training, and experiences in our leadership development program.


This paper will describe the process by which we elicited these student beliefs, the results of our analysis, and a general implication for leadership educators. While the context of what we have done is the teaching and learning of leadership, the This I Believe minute paper can be used across other subjects and in many contexts.



Within the first week of a Leadership and Organizational Development course, students were given a blank piece of paper, and were instructed to:

Write down what you believe to be true about leadership.  Think about everything in your life: not just training and classes, but also your own leadership experiences, observations, reflections, etc.  Please don’t write down what you think I want to hear; please write about what you, personally, believe to be true about leadership.


The same instructions were read to five sections of this class.   The data were collected at the beginning of each class period, so students would not be influenced by the presentation of material.


Rather than sampling, we collected data from the population (n = 109) of students enrolled in a Leadership and Organizational Development course in the Spring 2007 semester.  In three sections of the course (n = 64), students responded anonymously; in the remaining two sections (n = 45), students included their names on the paper, so that it could be handed back and used as part of a leadership portfolio assignment later in the semester.  All respondents have previously participated in leadership training, primarily experiential and practical.  Additionally, respondents have also had limited exposure to leadership theory via training and coursework in Organizational Behavior.


The typical student response was less than two paragraphs long, and copies were made for three coders.  The coders were two faculty members and one outside reviewer familiar with leadership principles. Each reviewer independently read all student responses and developed a set of themes.  In an effort to gauge reliability, coders met on several occasions to discuss results and come to consensus to identify a set of themes common to all. 



The themes of each of the three reviewers were numbered in ascending order based upon frequency of occurrence (i.e. the student belief observed most frequently is ranked one, the second-most prevalent student belief two, and so on). The agreement between raters was relatively strong and the lists were aggregated by adding the individual rater rankings. Note that each of the below themes were in the top ten themes of each rater. The number in parenthesis represents the aggregated ranking “score” (e.g. if each of the raters ranked a theme as one for most frequently occurring, the aggregated “score” would be 3 = 1 + 1 + 1). Therefore, the lower the ranking score, the more frequently the theme appeared in the students’ beliefs about leadership.  The following is an aggregated list of student belief themes listed in decreasing order of ranking score.

  • Leadership is learned through experience. (6)
  • Leadership is best displayed by example. (8)
  • Leadership cannot be taught in the classroom. (9)
  • Leadership depends upon the situation. (12)
  • Leaders posses certain traits. (14)
  • Leadership is about taking care of your subordinates. (15)
  • Leadership is motivating others toward a vision, goal, or task. (17)
  • Leadership is a continual developmental process or journey. (19)


Because the focus of this paper is on the process of eliciting student beliefs about leadership, we will limit our discussion to two broad themes: student beliefs about how best to learn leadership (which we subsequently term leadership learning style); and skills and traits of successful leaders. Regardless of leadership learning style, nearly all students identified that leadership was something specific to an individual.  However, there was variation among how students came to derive their individual leadership style.  Though students held multiple beliefs about leadership learning styles – styles were not always mutually exclusive – students were generally divided on whether or not leadership could be learned in the classroom, if leadership was dependent on experiential learning, or if leaders were born with innate, unwavering qualities.


Students reported that leadership learning in the classroom environment provided them with an opportunity to understand leadership from theory and case studies of notable leaders, but classroom education needed to be put into a personal context to make it relevant and identifiable. Other students that believed leadership was best learned through first hand experiences.  However, students endorsing this belief were split on whether or not formal classroom leadership education was beneficial.  Those opposed to formal education felt classroom leadership learning was “boring and repetitive” and sought more real-world experiences.  Those not opposed to the formal classroom-style of leadership education stated the theories gained in class helped guide them during real life interactions.  These groups recommended reflection was vital to assimilating experiences (either classroom theory or case studies or specific real-life) into their personal leadership style.  Collectively, these groups of students could be characterized by the quote, “leaders are made, not born.”  Additionally, many of the students believing classroom and experiential learning were beneficial, were proponents of continual learning and commented, “Leadership development is just a phrase for ‘life,’” and were developed through personal successes and failures.  Lastly, a final group felt leadership was based on innate properties of an individual, using an analogy “some people are coordinated...others are less coordinated.  Some people can run faster than others...leaders are [born] the same.”  Proponents of the innate qualities group tended to be more critical of formal classroom leadership education.


Regardless of the leadership learning style (or styles) students’ believed in, students identified a number of skills and characteristics believed to be held by successful leaders.  For example, students indicated that leaders are effective role models and should lead by example, though few students provided examples of what being a role model means beyond “getting your hands dirty” by working directly with employees.  Students believed that good leaders are employee-centric and selfless.  Students indicated that leaders take care of their employees by providing needed training and nurture a positive, open environment to facilitate communication.  Many students concluded it was vital for leaders to take time to understand their subordinates.  Through this understanding, students believed that leaders could read a given situation and apply a personalized leadership style based on the environment or personnel involved.  Finally, students indicated that leader understanding engendered trust and mutual respect, and that once trust was established leaders could motivate others toward a shared goal. 



The findings of this study have several implications for leadership education.  We are currently exploring these implications at our own institution and in our own context, as part of our curriculum review.  At this point, however, it is noteworthy that our elicitation of student beliefs about leadership seems to imply that many students believe that leadership cannot be learned in the classroom.  Therefore, we, as educators, need to address this common student belief.   For the most part, the leadership educators agree that leadership can, indeed, be learned (Watt, 2003), and therefore can be taught.  There are ample assertions that a critical part of leadership education is the understanding of the relevant leadership theories (Connaughton, Lawrence, & Ruben, 2003; Cress, Astin, Zimmerman-Oster, & Burkhardt, 2001; Dobbins, 2002; Gibson & Pason, 2003; Mello, 2003). 


One way to counteract this contradiction is to help students to integrate leadership theories and skills with their own life experiences.  Indeed, several authors claim that leadership education is best done through a combination of theory study, experience, and reflection (e.g., Connaughton, et al, 2003; Denston & Gray, 2001; Gibson & Pason, 2003; Mello, 2003).  The more that students can personally relate to the theory and apply it, the useful the theory becomes.  The key becomes allowing students to discover the ways in which many of these theories can be observed in their daily lives.



In this paper we propose a means of eliciting student beliefs using a This I Believe minute paper.  We also share the results of our initial usage of this process and describe what we believe to be the most important global implication to leadership teaching, learning and education.  Additionally, this concept for elicitation of student beliefs can be extended to any subject or context.



Connaughton, S.L., Lawrence, F.L., & Ruben, B.D. (Sept/Oct, 2003). Leadership development as a systematic and multidisciplinary enterprise. Journal of Education for Business, 79, 1, 46-51.

Cress, C.M., Astin, H.S., Zimmerman-Oster, K., & Burkhardt, J.C. (Jan/Feb, 2001). Developmental outcomes of college students’ involvement in leadership activities. Journal of College Student Development, 42, 1, 15-27.

Denston, I.L. & Gray, J.H. (2001). Leadership development and reflection: What is the connection? The International Journal of Educational Management, 15, 3, 119-124.

Dobbins, T.R. (Fall, 2002). A comprehensive leadership education model to train, teach, and develop leadership in youth. Journal of Career and Technical Education, 19, 1.

Gallos, J.V. (1997). On creating leaders: A pedagogy of courage and passion. Journal of Management Education, 21, 1, 6-8.

Gibson, F.W. & Pason, A. (Sept/Oct, 2003). Levels of leadership: Developing leaders through new models. Journal of Education for Business, 79, 1, 23-27.

Mello, J.A. (2003). Profiles in leadership: Enhancing learning through model building and theory. Journal of Management Education, 27, 3, 344-361.

Watt, W.M. (2003). Effective leadership education: Developing a core curriculum for leadership studies. Journal of Leadership Education, 2, 1, 1-14.