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ATD Blog

Helping to Make Leadership Learning Stick


Mon Sep 30 2013


Training students in leadership skills is a challenging undertaking, especially in an undergraduate course when students are not yet pursuing careers. Theoretical concepts, models, ideas, and examples are only half the learning equation. The other half is facilitating students’ internalization of leadership skills in the artificial setting of a classroom.

Focus on people


Leading means engaging people. I center student attention on people, not leadership and management per se—behaviors, feelings, differences, self-awareness, communication, interaction, and so forth. In the course, students experience concepts, theories, problems, and techniques for working with and interacting with others. It is designed to expose them to the practical applications of organizational behavior (OB), and emphasizes personal assessment, skill building, and practice, as suggested by Whetten and Cameron in Developing Management Skills. My role, as instructor, moves substantially from lecturer to facilitator.

I tell students right up front that this will be no ordinary course and that I will treat them (individually and collectively) as if they were clients. As the facilitator, it becomes my job to help them meet course objectives and help them clarify their aspirations and career goals. I tell them that the classroom provides a safe environment, within which they can explore the human side of management, leadership, and organizational behavior, including personal change, interpersonal relationships, collaboration, teambuilding, communication, differences, and diversity.

Exercises and short papers

During the term, students maintain a written record of their in-class activities in an online logbook. Seven, two-page, change-analysis (CA) papers provide the information needed for developing a term paper. Familiar exercises that I have used include: 

  • Personal Assessment of Management Skills

  • Competing Values Framework

  • Designing And Conducting Interviews

  • Prisoners’ Dilemma

  • Type-2 Personality and Stress Assessment

  • Me in 60 Seconds (A Response to “Tell Me About Yourself”)

  • Positive Feedback Storm.

The classroom provides a safe place to encounter sentiments, feelings, and reactions. While these are rather commonly used exercises in OB courses, the CA papers that students write are by no means ordinary. They are self-evaluations addressing fundamental human experiences submitted under five main headings:

  1. What I Experienced

  2. My Thoughts, Reactions and Feelings

  3. Leadership Concepts Demonstrated

  4. Things I Learned About Myself

  5. Personal Changes I Want to Make

The term paper

Students write a six-page, self-evaluation, term paper summarizing their insights and learning from the seven exercises recorded in their CA papers. As a part of the term paper, students are required to develop a personal leadership development plan. The CA log book becomes the basis of the term paper recapitulating their self-assessment/self-evaluation, which morphs into an individual plan for expanding personal leadership competencies.

Student feedback

Student response was that while the course required a lot of writing, it cemented the experiences, skills, and inferences into their heads and hearts. Some students found that the power of the exercises added to their developing abilities.

As the instructor, I found that reading the written record of student experiences to be informative and very interesting. Their learning and, in some cases, never-to-be-forgotten encounters with each other were deep-seated. This was particularly apparent and pronounced when using Competing Values and Prisoners’ Dilemma exercises—values and trust being poignant issues in private life and in the workplace.


Try this

Use the exercises described above (or others), then have students write them up focusing on the five areas listed. You will discover that at whatever intensity level that they experienced (positive or negative), they will have learned how things work in the in the real world and that helps to make the learning permanent.

But don’t stop there. Have students write term papers described that use the seven short, self-evaluation exercises as raw data for a summarized, semester-assessment of their learning—about themselves and about and leadership. You will be surprised at how some of their attitudes shift and how much of what you, the instructor, had intended to teach them seems to stick.

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