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The real leadership crunch

Since Confucius and Plato, scholars have theorized about how humans lead. Leadership is everywhere - in business, government, and even the home. And yet, as historian and noted leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns has noted, "Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth."

In a presidential election year, our thoughts turn naturally to leadership. Our world has grown so complex, so interconnected, that we need leaders who can engineer consent and cooperation to make necessary changes that will improve our communities, nation, and world.

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"Never in our history have there been more massive demographic changes, greater differences in socio-economic well-being, and such alarming environmental and social challenges," says John Parr, past president of the National Civic League. "And never before has there been such a lack of confidence in the abilities of our leaders and institutions to address these challenges."

However, effective leadership is going on all the time in our communities at the grass-roots level.

So what's missing overall? I believe it is the identification and explicit training of future leaders. It is time for colleges and universities to formally prepare students to be leaders. And it's time for the media to acknowledge that it can be done. Schools prepare accountants, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, historians, poets, journalists, scientists, mathematicians, and novelists.

But, by and large, they leave the study and practice of leadership to chance.

Of course, higher education has always presumed to educate tomorrow's leaders. But in the first half of the 20th century, only a small percentage of Americans attended college and they were often - by virtue of birthright - already destined for leadership roles in society. Thus it was an easy claim to make.

It is not so easy today. A far larger cohort of citizens attend college than was the case a half-century ago. How many of them will become effective leaders? Not enough, I fear, although the potential is there.

Until 80 years ago, only isolated scholars gave much attention to the characteristics of effective leaders and the process of leadership. More recently, leadership has become a subject for serious scholarship.

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Since World War II, thousands of studies and books have been published about leadership processes. From this body of knowledge, and from some older sources, has grown the awareness that leadership can be taught.

In other words, the question of whether leaders are born or made has been answered. They are made.

Effective and beneficial leaders in the 21st century must have an enhanced sense of social responsibility and citizenship. They will need to lead in a world where power is splintered and which offers challenges too burdensome for traditional forms of civic and political leadership to cope with. The hierarchical model doesn't work anymore to take care of our complex society.

When we think of leadership, it is presidents, senators, corporate CEOs, generals, and admirals that come to mind. But I'm talking about something different: citizen leadership. America badly needs leaders to address and improve community conditions such as, homelessness, inner-city decay, substandard education, racism, and diversity. Citizen leadership is solving community-wide problems, generally through unofficial means and by sharing leadership tasks and knowledge.

Citizen leadership de-emphasizes institutions as a source of power, vision, or solutions. It emphasizes teamwork and communities taking responsibility for their own welfare. Communities need not be limited by geography. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, for example, are considered leadership responses to a nationwide "community" problem - the damage caused by drunk driving.

A citizen leader is open to other people's ideas, optimistic about our ability to solve problems, knows how to draw people together around a cause and to draw the best from them.

Leaders can challenge long-standing assumptions, articulate a shared vision, build confidence in others, and create a process that people believe in.

The proper combination of theory and practice can develop these characteristics and skills in many people.

To be fair, a sizable minority of colleges and universities are starting to pay attention to leadership. By one count, the number of US higher education institutions with some sort of formal leadership education effort - an academic major, a minor, a formal co-curricular program, an annual seminar or retreat - is now above 600. The vast majority of these programs sprung up in the last five to 10 years.

That means, however, that 80 percent of two-year and four-year colleges still offer no leadership education. Leadership should be a priority for higher education. It can be taught. It must be taught.

*Dr. Catherine C. Sweeney is director of the Pioneer Leadership Program at the University of Denver.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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