Leadership studies revisited

s reported in the April 15 edition of the Record, the long overdue approval of the leadership studies concentration means that Williams now joins at least 27 other colleges and universities with similar programs. For several reasons, Williams should have been one of the first colleges to establish a leadership studies program. First, when alumnus and professor emeritus James MacGregor Burns wrote and published the book Leadership in 1978 (a book considered by many to be the seminal work in the field) the College should have formally recognized this innovative discipline soon after. Second, an interdisciplinary program that is applicable to nearly all disciplines is a meaningful element of a liberal arts curriculum. Third, by promoting the study of leaders, Williams can help to create even better leaders for the future.

Through an interdisciplinary introductory course, a course on ethical issues related to leadership, two core courses, a Winter Study course and a capstone course as requirements, students are given a great deal of choice in the type of leadership they are most interested in studying. Unfortunately, this flexibility is meaningless if the College does not offer leadership studies courses in a variety of disciplines and departments. Although many courses already revolve around the studies of political leaders, and while these studies of presidents and other “great men” are assuredly important, the program should try to expand in order to include the studies of both leaders and followers in other domains. Leadership studies courses should not be restricted to the social sciences, but expanded to include courses in the humanities (art, music and theater) and the sciences (biology and astronomy). Under the current curriculum, only the capstone independent study course (and a select few Winter Study courses) provide students the opportunity to explore leaders outside of the governmental sector.

The preponderance of free time and the ubiquity of interdisciplinary courses offered during the month of January make Winter Study an ideal time for in-depth and experiential study of leadership. Seizing the unique opportunity Winter Study provides, several recent Winter Study courses have helped to promote interaction between students and leaders in a variety of disciplines. In particular, courses such as “Williams in Washington,” “Corporate Leadership and Social Responsibility” and “Managing Non-Profits” expose students to a variety of unique challenges which confront leaders in their respective sectors and elucidate the various requirements necessary for effective leadership in different arenas.

In addition to intellectual diversity, the success of the leadership studies program is tied to its ability to continue to bring in extraordinary leaders to campus. Last semester, leadership studies students participated in seminars with leaders from various fields including Thomas Friedman (columnist for The New York Times), Theodore Sorensen (Special Counsel to John F. Kennedy) and Robert McNamara (best known as former Secretary of Defense, but also a leader in the corporate sector at Ford Motor). As charisma, interpersonal relations and demeanor are all crucial aspects of leadership, it is through this type of personal interaction with leaders that students are best able to study leadership. Through meetings and discussion with illustrious yet down-to-earth leaders, students are able to learn substantially more about leadership than ever possible through books, articles or video.

A great deal can be learned from the study of past and present leaders and their relationships and interactions with their followers. None of the leadership studies courses are designed to teach students how to become better leaders per se; rather, they explore what makes a great leader. While the program states that the primary goal of leadership studies is not to create leaders, courses about leadership and interactions with leaders can only help to form better leaders for the future.

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