Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Finish Line represents the successful completion of my studies and graduation from Northern Kentucky University with a Bachelor's degree in Organizational Leadership. My final college course that concluded my undergraduate degree at NKU was LDR 480 - the Capstone course for the leadership program in which we took a reflective look at our collegiate journey and assessed our learning experience. 

The Finish Line

"'Failing forward' is the ability to get back up after you've been knocked down, learn from your mistakes, and move forward in a better direction."   ~ John Maxwell

The circumstances that drive a person to alter the course of their lives are often wrought by personal hardship or failure. The realization that, in light of the current unemployment crisis, my decades of business experience had very little value without a college degree was terrifying. The anxiety that I experienced upon returning to the classroom for the first time in over twenty years felt like a public announcement of personal and professional failure. This process was not unlike a caterpillar entering a cocoon; and the transformative process and leadership development that ensued culminates in a metamorphosis of equal proportion.

This description reflects my experience over the past several years, which has been nothing less than miraculous. It has changed my personal perspective and worldview through practical leadership and personal development. I have been both humbled and inspired. Experiential learning made it possible for me to self-assess and grow. Active-learning enabled me to apply what I was learning and develop as a leader. Group project presentations became an opportunity to teach. Honest feedback and professional mentorship affirmed my decision to embark on a new career in academia. I believe leadership education is applicable to every profession and beneficial for every person. My plans to continue my education align with my aspirations to teach leadership in higher education.

Building Character and Leadership

"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved."  ~ Helen Keller

My knowledge has evolved. Through a retrospective lens I have been able to use my most traumatic experiences to analyze myself in particular situations. This became a personal case study that progressed through each course. Equipped with new knowledge and understanding, as well as feedback from professors and fellow students, my failures became very valuable life lessons. This approach exemplifies experiential learning, "A process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill, and value from experience" (Luckman, 1996, p. 6); and resulted in a new level of self-awareness. Northouse (2013) provides an excellent explanation of self-awareness:

                             Self-awareness refers to the personal insights of the leader. It is not an end in itself but a
                             process in which individuals understand themselves, including their strengths and
                             weaknesses, and the impact they have on others. Self-awareness includes reflecting on
                             your core values, identity, emotions, motives, and goals, and coming to grips with who
                            you really are at the deepest level. . . . Other people see leaders who have greater self
                            awareness as more authentic. (pp. 263-264)

This level of authenticity is achieved only through honesty with oneself as well as openness to seeing through the lens of others, resulting in acceptance of our own imperfections and the need for change.

In leadership education, deep reflective learning requires students to consider the underlying dynamics of power and to question basic assumptions and practices (Jenkins, 2011, p. 73). Jenkins’ words resonate with my learning experience thus far. Reflection is important for leadership development as it can provide leaders with a variety of insights into how to frame problems differently, to look at situations from multiple perspectives or to better understand followers (Densten & Gray, 2001). I have learned the importance of caring leadership that determines needs in light of the particular situation, circumstances, and people involved in a way that is considerate of others. The following foundational leadership principles support this knowledge:
1.      Leadership is a concern of all of us.
2.      Leadership is viewed and valued differently by various disciplines and cultures. A multidisciplinary approach to leadership develops a shared understanding of differences and commonalities in leadership principles and practices across professions and cultures.
3.      Conventional views of leadership have changed.
4.      Leadership can be exhibited in many ways. Different settings might call for different types of leadership. Pluralistic, empowering leadership values the inclusion of diverse people and diverse ideas, working toward common purposes.
5.      Leadership qualities and skills can be learned and developed. Today’s leaders are made, not born. Leadership effectiveness begins with self-awareness and self-understanding and grows to understanding of others. Identifying your core values and strengths and maximizing those in your leadership are key components in your leadership development.
6.   Leadership committed to ethical action is needed to encourage change and social responsibility. 
      (Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 2013, pp. 6-7)

These principles provide an overview of the depth of understanding and knowledge that is encompassed in my leadership studies. My knowledge of different leadership styles and theories has resulted in a deep understanding of the need for flexibility on behalf of the leader and the effectiveness of eclectic leadership.
The ability to be flexible and follower-focused as a leader necessitates a broad knowledge of leadership theory as well as practical service learning experiences in leading. Service learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development (Jacoby, 1996, p. 5). I feel fortunate that the Organizational Leadership program included this type of learning and enabled me to apply the concepts being presented in real leadership situations.
            The most poignant knowledge I gained was the realization that leadership is something that can be taught and that it continues to develop throughout one’s life. Leadership is complicated. It is personal and involves relationships with others. Leadership development is an initiative that is both interpersonal and intra-personal. Burns (1978) describes leadership as one of the most observed and least understood phenomena, and proposes that one of the most universal cravings of our time is a hunger for compelling and creative leadership. This truth remains relevant today.

Learning Leadership Skills

"Leadership, like swimming, cannot be learned by reading about it."  ~ Henry Mintzberg

My skills have been expanded and enhanced. Many skills from my business experience served me well in my studies - this includes graphic design and computer skills, such as my expertise in Microsoft Office programs like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. My educational experience included active-learning (Fink, 2003), through which many other skills were honed and developed. The Organizational Leadership program is unique in that it has relevancy in all professions as well as in personal relationships. It quickly became evident that not only is the leadership program comprehensive, but it is also effective, and it has passionate and caring professors. I believe the signature pedagogy of leadership could be a model for other disciplines. Fink (2003) describes "good" courses as those that:
1.      Challenge students to significant kinds of learning.
2.      Use active forms of learning.
3.      Have teachers who care – about the subject, their students, and about teaching and learning [not just research].
4.      Have teachers who interact well with students.
5.      Have a good system of feedback, assessment, and grading.

The Organizational Leadership program excels in each of these areas, but also emphasizes skills such as team building, communication, and critical thinking. These skills, in particular, have become personal strengths.
According to Moorhead and Griffin (2010), teambuilding emphasizes members working together in a spirit of cooperation and generally has one or more of the following goals:
1.      To set team goals and priorities.
2.      To analyze and allocate the way work is performed.
3.      To examine how a group is working – that is, to examine processes as norms, decision making, and communication.
4.      To examine relationships among people doing the work

Effective team building activities require participants to reflect on these experiences as a guide to becoming a leader in a collaborative environment. My leadership educational experience has improved my team building skills immensely. I value collaboration and have witnessed the increased level of success resulting from an effective group, as opposed to that of an individual. The importance of building trust and respect through interaction, especially conflict, is a critical competency that I have learned. “Leadership happens through relationships among people engaged in change. As a relational process, leadership requires the highest possible standards of credibility, authenticity, integrity, and ethical conduct. Ethical leaders model positive behaviors that influence the actions of others” (Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 2013, pp. 6-7). Group projects – especially those in online courses – presented the greatest challenges, but also resulted in the greatest growth. I found that my inter-personal skills and genuine concern for others, combined with the technical skills that I possess, enabled me to emerge as a group leader. I also learned that I had to relinquish control, engage everyone in the group, and truly collaborate in order to achieve the best results.
            Communication is an aptitude that is universal in its importance, and it subsumes both oral and written forms. My communication skills have improved considerably due to in-class participation and presentation, which included research and written assignments. Learning activities where students actively research a leadership theory or topic and present findings in oral or written format are critical to developing communication skills (Allen & Hartman, 2009). As I embark on a path that is focused on teaching I will need to continue to improve my communication skills. I am seeking positions that will enable me to teach and/or tutor in order to hone my oral communication skills. Graduate school will provide ample opportunity for growth and development of my written communication and research skills.
Communication skills are honed through the type of learning explicit to the Organizational Leadership program, and have been instrumental to my personal transformation. Communication (the ability to listen and give feedback in transformational leadership) is connected to what Mezirow (1998) posited as a critical requirement of transformative learning. This is reflective of transformational leadership, and is especially important when considering a teaching career. As the role of leader shifts from authoritarian to teacher and coach, transformational leaders are able to facilitate learning in others and use their capabilities to bring self-awareness to others, while continuing to be an active learning participant, “. . . this represents a synergy of communications, caring, follower-centered, and creative leadership behaviors and characteristics” (Gabriel, 2008, p. 30). I have been the benefactor of many different teaching styles, but the transformative learning (and the synergy mentioned herein) was consistent and apparent in every course.
Critical thinking is an essential leadership skill, and one that my studies have strengthened immeasurably. It involves discipline and truth-seeking. It is important to have an open mind and a rational thought process. This might imply that emotions are not involved, but that is incorrect. Critical thinking involves gathering all available data and facts, of course, but in regard to leadership decisions this will include the emotional state of the people involved. “Exercising critical thinking is a key to furthering your understanding about leadership” (Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 2013, p. 6). The decisions made by leaders affect everyone; thus, it is not only important to think critically, but also to reflect on previous decisions and actions critically. Critical reflection is a way to integrate and reintegrate meaning, experience, perspective, and information; it facilitates cognitive and moral development by “attending to the grounds for one’s beliefs” (Mezirow, 1994, p. 223). Critical learning is built through student-centered experiential learning (Moore, Boyd, & Dooley, 2010), which is central to helping students develop as leaders and bridges thinking with action (Jenkins & Cutchens, 2010). Leadership education is inherently designed to improve critical thinking by cultivating self-regulatory judgment through the interpretation, analysis, evaluation and inference of a leader’s own decisions and actions. Critical Reflection, therefore, is a behavior that integrates personal experiences with new learning and understanding to engage and mobilize students to act on new ideas, and to challenge conventional thinking in both theory and practice (Reynolds, 1999). In my past, I had a tendency to rush decisions and was often quick to assess a situation and pass judgments. Although my intentions were good, my decisions were often bad. The critical thinking skills I have developed have made me a more effective leader.
Empowering Others Is Its Own Reward

"The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born -- that there is a genetic factor
to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities
or not. That's nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather
than born."
 ~ Warren G. Bennis

My vision has been inspired by my educational experience. As my undergraduate learning concludes, and I reflect on this life-altering experience, I am amazed at the transformation. I have a newfound passion for leadership and lifelong learning, and feel a profound responsibility to continue this development and utilize my leadership skills to empower others. In my limited experience thus far, where I have been able to help others and witness their success, I have realized personal joy and satisfaction that is priceless. Leadership matters, and it transcends the organizational context.
Leadership matters for society, higher education, and students. In recent years, a growing number of scholars have asserted that American society is in a “leadership crisis” and, in turn, there is a compelling need for more and better leadership from diverse people. A growing number of leadership programs in higher education pave the way for higher education to better prepare its graduates to exercise leadership. (Eich, 2007, p. iv)
People are at the heart of leadership. Within the context of leadership for college students, Komives, Lucas, and McMahan (2007) define leadership as a “. . . relational and ethical process of people together attempting to accomplish positive change” (p. ix). Leadership, therefore, relies on relationships, ethics, people, and change. Leaders are made, not born; everyone can learn to lead. My personal journey culminates with a broader viewpoint, a global perspective, and an honest realization that I still have a lot to learn.

Leadership and Learning

"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."  ~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy

I have a new perspective regarding leadership and how it is applicable in all areas of life and society. The humbling transition that has occurred in less than two years reflects the excellence of the Organizational Leadership program, and the efficacy of my professors. Those who have taught me have provided the leadership and support that enabled me to be successful in failing forward; they have also inspirec my aspiration to teach and pay it forward.

Reflecting on my first classes, I can relate to the stereotypical viewpoint of college students; I simply wanted to get the piece of paper I needed as quickly and painlessly as possible. Studies indicate that students typically hold hierarchical views of leadership when they come to college. These perceptions are more consistent with traditional leadership approaches as trait, behavioral, and situational theories where “leadership” and “leader” are interchangeable concepts. However, once they start to view themselves as interdependent with others, they shift their view of leadership to something many in a group do and as a process among people, which is more consistent with the post-industrial view of leadership (Komives, Dugan, Owen, Slack, & Wagner, 2006, p. 412). I found this to be true across generations as I interacted with students of all ages and from all backgrounds in my classes. Effective student leadership development is an intersection of student development and relational leadership. Once students begin to understand their roles as leaders and as part of a relational process, they have achieved the final stage of integration and synthesis (Jenkins, 2011, pp. 59-60). I don’t believe we ever stop learning, and therefore viewing this type of leadership achievement as a final stage may be short-sighted. I can relate, however, to the transformative process whereby students participate as collaborative students and leaders in such a way that their views and perspectives change.

Lifelong Learning and Teaching

"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."  ~ Gandhi

The trials and tribulations that turned my life upside down and left me jobless, without any prospects for viable employment, no longer conger up negative emotions; in my rearview mirror I can see the broken road that led me to this place of accomplishment, and appreciate the silver linings. I am appreciative of the experiences that have re-formed my perspective, and especially of those who have led by example, paving the way to achievement and opportunity. Through self-awareness and leadership development, I have become confident and self-assured. 

When I teach I will emulate the action-learning modeled by my professors in the Organizational Leadership program - in part because it has been so successful for me, but research also supports this type of teaching as being most effective:
“. . . instructors teaching leadership to undergraduates are using discussion pedagogy as well as a collection of other pedagogies including projects and presentations, self-assessments and instruments, and critical reflection. Holistically, these pedagogies all emphasize and model inclusive, relational, and interactive processes. High-quality leadership programs should practice this kind of inclusive, empowering, purposeful, ethical, and process-oriented leadership for the positive change that they advocate to their students. (Eich D. , 2008)
I have had the opportunity to practice the skills that I have added to my repertoire through group projects in both traditional and online learning environments. These projects have become one of my favorite activities. More often than not, my fellow students did not share my enthusiasm for group projects. Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee (2001) state this is common:
Many students tell us they dislike group projects, but unless you learn the skills required for working effectively with others and building common purpose with others, including handling frustration when things do not go well, you have not practiced collaborative leadership. Most great things were not accomplished by an individual acting alone. Even when one person is singled out for credit, there were usually many others who contributed or collaborated to make that accomplishment possible. (p. xiv)
It was within these small groups that I was able to put into practice the things I was learning in my classes. Fink (2003) describes this as active learning, which involves students doing things and thinking about the things they are doing, where doing refers to activities such as group projects, presentations, and case studies. Thinking refers to reflections about the meaning of what students learn or about the learning process itself. He incorporates these methods into course design and instruction (teaching and learning) in a model of integrated course design that emphasizes a “significant learning” or learning-centered approach where faculty decide first what student’s can and should learn in relation to the subject and then figure out how such learning can be facilitated.
This type of significant learning is evident in the Organizational Leadership program, especially through the effective use of group projects and the inclusion of peer feedback. Experiencing this type of practice and subsequent feedback in the classroom has shown to produce leadership development in undergraduates. Hess (2007) calls this the “classroom practicum approach” to develop leadership skills – where student learning is enhanced by integrating a greater emphasis on the transfer phase of the learning process. By engaging students in opportunities for extended practice and informed feedback, student learning is improved. When the classroom becomes the setting for each student’s leadership experience, they are afforded a significant opportunity to lead a project and to receive detailed feedback on their effectiveness. The practice opportunity is of complexity and duration sufficient to require the exercise of a broad range of leadership skills, from providing direction and support to managing conflict and achieving consensus. At the same time, the conditions are required for competent feedback are also met in that feedback is received within a few days of practice, and all team members are trained specifically to provide feedback that is concrete, specific, descriptive, balanced, nonthreatening, and constructive (Hess, 2007, p. 204). This detail aptly describes my experiences during group projects and presentations.
Future Growth and Learning

"Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders."  ~ Tom Peters

As I end my undergraduate career I will immediately begin the next step by entering the Graduate Program at NKU. One of my lessons learned is the importance of having a vision of where I want to be, and then creating a plan to get there. My vision is to earn a doctorate degree and teach at the college level, so graduate school is the next step in my plan. I am also seeking out every available opportunity to teach along the way. I will continue my relationship with those who have mentored me thus far, and look forward to expanding my network as I continue this journey. 

I have become passionate about lifelong learning and anxiously anticipate opportunities to continue the personal growth and leadership development that I have begun. Throughout my first career and entrepreneurial endeavors I viewed leadership as a superior position that created followers. My naivete and misunderstanding regarding the true concept of leadership contributed to most of the failures I have experienced in the past. My perspective has indeed changed. My  new goal in life is to utilize the knowledge and skills that I acquire to create more leaders. My reward will be witnessing others' success and marveling at the impact they will have in the world.


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