15 years ago, a group of K-State students noticed something. While there were several organic opportunities for student leadership development on campus, there was nothing available for students to intentionally focus on developing themselves as leaders. The students were concerned about their own ability to contribute in their professions, understanding that the real world calls for both technical and interpersonal skills. Voicing their desire for a structured environment to do so, the university listened – understanding the importance of student input – and provided its support.
Fast-forward to today, and now the university has an academic minor that provides structure for the development of leadership through the academic theories and practice. Housed in a building that was funded entirely by outside donations, the School of Leadership Studies emphasizes the importance that everyone, regardless of position, authority or inherent leadership traits, can practice leadership. That while every university department encourages leadership development; sometimes its academic curriculum requires more focus on the technical aspects of the field. The school provides an option for an intentional focus of developing as a leader – should the student so choose.
To illustrate the purpose of the school, compare the contrasting problem solving techniques of a mechanic with those of a gardener. When faced with a challenge, the mechanic identifies what’s wrong and fixes it by replacing the broken part. The gardener, on the other hand, identifies the problem and fixes it by changing the environment from which the problem arose. While both effectively solve the problem, the gardener’s method is more likely to ensure growth that leads to an impactful and longer-lasting change.
The School of Leadership Studies recognizes this and serves as a catalyst for the development of more gardeners among the K-State student body. The students that choose to actively participate in the program are given a foundation of knowledge composed of leadership theories, concepts and terminology, that they then use within their own communities to instigate positive change.
Please note in the previous paragraph the phrase “actively participate.” In order to get the most out of the courses, students need to do one thing: participate. And not just in class with the discussions or homework, but participate in leadership. The intent is that students take the theories and concepts they learn and practically apply them outside of the classroom, whether it be in the opportunities the school houses – School of Leadership Studies Ambassadors, Lead 212 class leaders, alternative breaks, etc. – or any other chance that life provides.
There are going to be those students, or K-State faculty, that find the program pointless or “only good for enhancing resumes.” Unfortunately, to me this says there is a possibility that the person had a negative personal experience with the school. One cause for this viewpoint may stem from a student’s negative experience in the introductory leadership concepts class, Lead 212. As 1 in 4 incoming freshmen are enrolled in the course, the reality is always going to be that there is chance for someone to fall through the cracks, for someone whose learning community group projects – which are constantly reevaluated by and with students and faculty – didn’t facilitate the intended purpose.
Or maybe they just haven’t yet recognized the value of a learning environment centered on developing the skills a changing world requires of its citizens. Citizens who understand that being a leader doesn’t always mean being at the front of the group, or being the first to speak. That being a good leader boils down to being an intentionally ethical, caring and inclusive human being.
At its core, the minor isn’t teaching people how to be a leader. It’s teaching people how to be authentic in their relationships, intentional with their actions and aware of both themselves and others. These are qualities of a leader who seeks to be a transformational element in their world, something everyone has the capability to be.
Ultimately, being a leader is a choice. While some may be born with traits that make them more inclined to assume leadership, the true leaders are those who buy into the idea that the world has a need for authentic individuals who will intentionally practice being knowledgeable, ethical, caring and inclusive. Sometimes this calls for a technical touch of a mechanic, but other times it calls for nurturing intent of a gardener.
Those who buy into that idea of leadership probably buy into the ideals that makeup the framework of the School of Leadership Studies. There are going to be those who don’t, and that’s completely fine. However, if people have a problem with the school, then their issue doesn’t lie with the institution. It lies with the students from 15 years ago who saw a collective need, and the thousands of supporters since – both inside and outside the K-State campus – who have continued to fill that need with a program that constantly evolves to the desires of the K-State student body.
At the end of the day, the School of Leadership Studies is another unique opportunity K-State has to offer its students whom seek to discover themselves and their role in the world, in addition to K-State’s other fantastic academic programs.
Erin Poppe is a graduate student in public administration. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.