Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

A River Runs through It: A Metaphor for Teaching Leadership Theory

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

A River Runs through It: A Metaphor for Teaching Leadership Theory

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

Leadership educators are some of the best teachers around when it comes to creating exciting, effective experiential learning opportunities, which teach students leadership skills. Where the curriculum and instruction falls short is when we try to teach leadership theory. Some courses and programs even omit theory as part of the curriculum. This article explores a new instructional metaphor for teaching leadership theory. The metaphor has been an effective tool for helping students understand the historical development of leadership theory as a foundation for the leadership skills they are learning.

To despise theory is to have the excessively vain pretension to do without knowing what one does, and to speak without knowing what one says.


Good leadership is a channel of water controlled by God, he directs it to whatever ends he Chooses.

Proverbs 21:1 The Message

Theory is not a Four-letter Word!

Students who take leadership courses are excited about the various practical skills they are likely to learn, and the experiences both in and out of class they will have to reinforce their learning. Indeed the leadership educators I know are some of the best teachers I've ever observed, creating experientially based courses which generate incredible energy and motivation for learning. Most students however, do not want to explore the theoretical underpinnings of leadership. Who can blame them? Our culture is geared to the pragmatic. Outcomes are what matter most. Students have little interest in learning about our scholarly debates over definitions of leadership and they similarly discount the importance of theory.

It is not just college students who act as if theory is a four-letter word, something to be avoided in pleasant company. Professional development programs and workshops often deliver training in immediately useful and practical leadership skills without placing those skills in a theoretical framework. Theory is not perceived as important or useful.

Leadership educators may be partially responsible for this perception. Many leadership educators have risen to our positions because we have been excellent practitioners who can enthusiastically and effectively communicate about our skills, not because we have demonstrated we have a thorough understanding of leadership theory. Either because we may have little theoretical training ourselves, or because we know students intensely dislike this "dry" part of our curriculum, the leadership courses we design often slight instruction about leadership theory.

The challenge then for the leadership educator is to teach not only leadership skills but to inform those skills with leadership theory. When skills are wed to theories that inform them, students have the opportunity to continue to make theory driven refinements to the application of their skills in our constantly changing environment. Indeed theory is not a four-letter word! Knowledge of theory is crucial for those who desire to conduct leadership in a world that is in a constant state of change. Understanding the theoretical context of leadership may be the most important "skill" we can offer students, even if it is presently the least glamorous element of our curriculum.

A New Instructional Metaphor

Throughout history various philosophical, political, and social influences have forged schools of thought or theories about how we think about the interaction between leaders and followers. These schools of thought have each influenced our contemporary definitions of management and leadership. Organizing this literature and helping students make sense of it is a pesky, but rewarding task.

Over the more than 15 years I have been teaching leadership studies I have experimented with several different instructional methods to organize and teach students about the historic influences on the evolution of leadership theory. …

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