Leadership Knowledge and International Education

By Mestenhauser, Josef A.; Ellingboe, Brenda J. | International Educator, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

Leadership Knowledge and International Education


Mestenhauser, Josef A., Ellingboe, Brenda J., International Educator


Successful mainstreaming of internationalization throughout and across entire institutions in the United States will require an integration of knowledge about leadership, culture, and international education.

EVERY DAY, INTERNATIONAL EDUCATION PROFESSIONALS (IEPs) in the United States perform many leadership functions. Managing work and planning work. Writing strategic plans. Supervising staff and students. Representing their offices at conferences and organizations. And the list goes on and on. In some of these functions, IEPs are both leaders and followers; in many of them they perform different roles. This raises several questions: Where does the knowledge about these multiple leadership functions come from? What kind of prior preparation is required? Which functions are domestic and which are global? What leadership theories guide their performance?

Many international educators take leadership for granted and do not pay much attention to its conceptual foundations and its multidimensionality. Global trends moving toward a "knowledge and innovation society" seem to have found their way into international education in recent years. The direction to switch the focus of our work from projects that we do to concerns with what we learn and know is welcome. Because knowledge is constantly being upgraded and renewed, such a shift is essential in the field.

The success of international education depends not on a few projects and programs, but on its institutionalization and mainstreaming throughout and across entire institutions. And that is a function of leadership for which we are still searching, especially at the highest places.

Of the more than 10,000 "studies" of leadership published in the United States, most of them are written from a management perspective. But as cynics claim, we have more studies than knowledge. If we are to address the trends of a knowledge society, knowledge is what we need, including knowledge about leadership and organizations. If we are to apply that knowledge to international education, we must also seek knowledge about the complex field of international education and the context in which it functions. To accomplish the task of internationalization also requires knowledge about change, for international education is about change and the future. That brings us to the question: Where is such knowledge?

Two Kinds of Knowledge

The first kind of knowledge is in several academic disciplines, ranging from history and religion to philosophy, political science, and others. Yet, an estimated 90 percent of the literature is overwhelmingly dominated by theories of management. As can be suspected, the literature is fragmented, contentious, and confusing to practitioners. The second type of knowledge is implicit knowledge that virtually everybody has because we all have experienced leadership and followership through acculturation and socialization. Such implicit knowledge is often subconscious and is not formally organized in neat categories in our mind; once it gets into the long-term memory, it forms a solid cognitive map that is difficult to change and that projects a prototype by which leadership is evaluated. These traditions assume that knowledge is universally valid, a notion reinforced by the egalitarian culture of the United States and by assumptions that leadership exists in all societies. The result is that most mainstream theories of leadership ignore the role and influence of culture.

The "new wave" approach to leadership changes the scene, but even then some of the cross-cultural studies tend to locate culture as only one of many other variables, which fails to integrate culture into the mainstream thinking. Additionally, these new theories treat culture as a variable only when there are some foreign people (from outside the culture being studied) involved in the work of groups. This neglects the role of our own culture as an "operating system" of the brain that determines what we know about leadership. …

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