FYS as a Leadership Laboratory

“The world is not the same as it was in the 20th Century.  It is more than ever a complex global society and economy that is remarkably unpredictable.  Regardless of major or career path, students will need an inquiry mindset to compete let alone thrive.”

These words are a regular fixture in my seminars, but I sometimes wonder if my student’s only hear, “Blah, blah. Major. Blah.”

What keeps me up at night is the worry that they now see this refrain as an FYS (or Williams!) talking point.  Students need to transfer their FYS experience to other contexts.

The question of transferability is essential. If students see our approach to critical thinking, complex problem solving, and the value of cognitive diversity as an “FYS nuisance they must endure before getting on with the real work of their major”, we’ve missed an opportunity.

Certainly our credibility on this message will improve as the UC curriculum ramps up and advisors talk more about the guiding question beyond freshman year, but in the meantime we can change the context within our seminars by associating their work with a completely new frame.

My intent is to wrap up the semester by connecting their FYS experience to a first rate leadership development program.

Yes, it truly is..

Although my study of teaching and learning only goes back to 2004, I have been thinking about the nature of leading and leadership for as long as I can remember. And the more I work in instructional design, the more I see the nexus of the two.

Here’s how.

To teach well in FYS you must develop relationships, a climate of trust, and a culture of learning.  These relationships evolve as you and your seminar influence each other’s behavior through every encounter.  Student are subjects in the philosophical sense, with personal agency and intent. They are not objects at our disposal.  Students learn because they find mutual purpose in our mission.

Many leadership scholars characterize in the same way: evolving influence relationships among collaborators working toward mutual purpose (Rost, in Volckmann (2005).

You may exercise authority, but authority is not leading. Student may comply with your expectations, but this is not subordination.  As the semester progresses, students become collaborators, and sometimes “leaders” as they influence you, their peers, and the program.

True leadership is not linear, or predictable.  The best leaders see demands, direction, and tight boundaries as an elusive comfort.  It should not surprise you to know that scholars like QU’s own Bob Yawson use the wicked problem construct to discuss leadership studies (Yawson, 2015).

Thusly, leadership (like critical thinking) cannot be taught as a skill. As with any human endeavor, it is too complex to distill into styles, internet memes, or “10-step” bromides. That’s why scholars so often use the word relationships.  Leading relies on perception and one person’s hero may be another’s goat.  Where a leadership environment is authentic, perceptions and responses evolve constantly through a cycle of learning encounters.

That said (and again, like critical thinking) we can identify key competencies that underwrite these relationships, to include:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Systems Thinking and Questioning
  • Discernment and Judgement
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Risk acceptance
  • Communication

Note that these six competencies are not simple skills that we build and apply. People are too complex for what I would deride as a fixed “drop down menu” approach to leading.  Rather, taken together they represent a “growth mindset”, a recognition that we don’t have all the answers, that “unknowing” is normal, and that the process of investigating and learning never ends.

You must see that these competencies align with the philosophy of and evidence based activities we employ in FYS.  The Roadmaps and Milestones project, wicked problems and Issue Maps, critical thinking, writing and speaking to share and collaborate, finding that personal quest…these all flow from and to leadership and leading.

FYS is as much a leadership laboratory as it is a learning laboratory.  Like knowledge, we develop leadership through “desirable difficulty” (Bjork & Bjork, 2009), changing contexts, regular practice and timely feedback.

The trajectory of the syllabus lends itself to this idea.  You first build a climate and culture that enables you to cede control to your students.  You continually ask them to forge the relationships necessary to function despite ambiguity and uncertainty.  In this environment they interact and benefit from the diversity of background and viewpoint. They figure out how to respond when confronted with unknowing, or being wrong.  They learn to underwrite honest mistakes.  They learn the value of trust.

When you foster multiple expressions of learning, rely on your students to initiate action, and give them credit for insights that are old hat to you, you are serving in a way that puts your team in the spotlight, not you (Spears, 1998).  You create an environment – a laboratory – for leadership to flourish.

If you are a habitual reader of this blog, you know that I see teaching as creating the conditions for student-owned learning. Teaching is about setting the right tone in the lab.  Teaching is leading.

This simple substitution matters. The more I see what I do as leadership and leading – fostering evolving influence relationships with 21 collaborators bent on mutual purpose – the more I focus on the key learning objectives (as opposed to the transaction of information, products, and grades).

And the more I get my students to associate their work with new contexts, the more likely they are to transfer the value and purpose of FYS in their personal and professional lives.

Spears, L. C. (1998). Servant-leadership

Yawson, R. (2015).  The “wicked problem construct” for organisational leadership and development.

Volckmann, R. (2005). A Fresh Perspective: 21st Century Leadership. An Interview with Joseph Rost


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s