Learning to Lead

| December 5, 2013

Story by Jennifer McManamay | Illustration by Megan Wells

For Ashley Federico ’16, constantly being pushed is what she likes best about Sweet Briar’s Leadership Certificate Program. Sometimes it’s her peers doing the nudging, but often it’s LCP director Joan Lucy.

“I do harp on them,” Lucy says. “I tell them the whole College is here to support them. This is the best of all possible places to step out of your comfort zone. I tell them if you never fail, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Sweet Briar’s Leadership Certificate is earned over three years through academic and experiential learning focusing on the theories and models of leadership, personal development and organizational theories. Its mission is to prepare women to become influential members of a world community and to lead with integrity.

The first 22 students completed the certificate in 2008. Forty-four more have followed and 77 are in the pipeline — more than 10 percent of the College’s student body — including 34 in the first of three two-semester phases. Historically, of those who stay through the first year, 95 percent finish.

Although many students progress as a cohort, the format allows time for study abroad or other pursuits. It also gives first-years a chance to adjust to the rigors of college before committing to the program.

Motivational speaker Stan Pearson II, “The S.A.L.S.A. Guy,” was a hit as the keynote presenter at the 2013 Leadership Conference for undergraduates students.

It is a commitment, but students and alumnae say the dividends are real. In high school, Federico wanted to be captain of her soccer team. She wanted to lead in the classroom. Trouble was, her teammates, coaches and teachers didn’t perceive her that way.

“I wanted to see what it took to be seen as [a leader],” says Federico, an engineering science major from Milford, N.H. “That’s what made me decide to join.”

Now, she speaks up, especially on the soccer field, and others look to her for guidance. Last spring, Coach Kevin Fabulich asked her to represent the team on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

“As a freshman and now a sophomore, it is a big deal to me as it means my coach and peers are seeing me as I want them to see me,” Federico says.

A new discipline

Studying leadership as opposed to leaders — a worthwhile distinction perhaps best argued by the acknowledged architect of “leadership studies,” James MacGregor Burns — is relatively new in academia. Hundreds of undergraduate programs have sprung up over the past 20 years, even as debate continues about whether and how leadership development should be taught on college campuses.

Some programs treat leadership studies as an academic discipline, offering courses taught by faculty from across the liberal arts spectrum. They may result in a minor or certificate; several now offer degrees. The other approach emphasizes skills development and training, often offered as co-curricular or residential life workshops that students can take individually or in series.

“Every program has to find its particular niche and fulfill it. You have to find what rings the bell,” says Georgia Sorenson, visiting professor of leadership at the University of Maryland’s law school.

Joan Lucy leads a discussion with LCP students.

Sorenson founded the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership and was a visiting scholar at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies. To some degree, she says, student expectations drive programming, as they should.

“They are the customers. When Jepson started, we focused on the science of leadership, but students came in expecting to learn to be leaders. Programs need components of both, but I think stronger ones are academic.”

What’s great about the field, Sorenson says, is that it crosses disciplines. “There is no discipline that can’t include leadership studies and be enriched by it.”

Ringing the bell

Sweet Briar’s LCP, launched in 2005 as a co-curricular life elective, doesn’t fit neatly into one or the other mold, but aims to capture the best of both.

“Not too many [co-curricular models] have a structured, developmental one-, two-, three-year program like we do,” Lucy says. “It was in place in 2006 when I stepped in. Now, we could have changed it over time, but we want it to be progressive, of substance.”

Professor of Spanish Pam DeWeese, who directed LCP the first year and led its founding committee, says they studied models that stressed collaboration between the two sides of campus life.

“We adapted what we thought would work at Sweet Briar, where we did not have academic courses that ‘taught’ leadership,” she says. “But many existing courses had components that included learning about or implementing leadership skills.”

In addition to meeting experiential requirements, LCP candidates took a minimum of courses from an approved list. Today, the onus is on students to identify and document through reflective writing at least 12 credit hours of coursework that apply to their leadership studies. 

Phase II and III leadership students begin the academic year with a retreat.

Lucy ensures they’re equipped to do that through assigned readings and discussions when she meets with each group every other week. Readings might be articles or selections from books such as “The Leadership Challenge” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, and Marie Wilson’s “Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World.”

“We ask them to make connections between what they’re studying in the classroom and what we’re talking about, and to learn by going out and actually ‘doing’ leadership,” Lucy says.

“In each stage, we’re getting them to assume a leadership role or take on a project, to go out into the world beyond Sweet Briar and practice the things we’re talking about, preparing them for the world beyond college. There’s no way to fully simulate real-world experience, but we’re trying our best to get them the things we think will serve them well beyond college.”

Aha moments

Activities progress from focusing on time management, public speaking and other practical skills in the first year to planning and executing large projects such as the College’s annual Leadership Conference in the second and third. Phase II and III students also collaborate on semester- and yearlong community service projects that must include a benefit to the receiving organization that persists beyond their participation — developing a marketing plan for a local nonprofit, for example.

Throughout, there are a number of personal assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for first-years and 360-degree inventories in the third. There is a lot of introspection, then focus on the group, then the broader community.

Joan Lucy, Leadership Certificate Program director

“One of our big tenets is that leadership is not positional, it is relational,” Lucy says. “Another is that it can be learned, [although] I use the caveat that leadership skills can be learned.

“I also try to emphasize that good leadership is not about yourself, it’s about the vision, the goals, and the people you lead. ‘A leader gives the credit, takes the blame.’ I didn’t make that up, but I use it.”

She savors the moments when students make the connections the program is designed to elicit — for example, when they get that leading is more than managing, that at its best it transforms people and organizations for the better. She sees it in the essays they write or, better yet, an impromptu conversation.

“They’re in my doorway all the time talking about their experiences, their successes and their failures, and I love it,” Lucy says. “I feel like that’s where a lot of it happens and comes together.” 

Paying dividends

LCP alumnae say they benefit from the program in a number of ways.

Anne Lojek McQueen ’08 studied biology and government. She earned a master’s and went to work for the government writing technical policy and doing exercise planning. The skills she learned — including advice from guest speakers — helped her negotiate her starting salary and get the promotion she asked for after a year of employment.

A few students seek leadership credentials because it looks good on a resume, and employers say it can be a plus.

“Leadership training adds value if the reviewer can evaluate the program to know whether it fits in the work environment,” says Fred Armstrong, CEO and chairman of the Lynchburg architectural and engineering firm Wiley|Wilson.

Details will come out in an interview, but he thinks applicants should include basic information about the training when they apply.

“It’s much more helpful to know that it’s a comprehensive three-year program, that [they] developed certain skills, etcetera,” he says, adding that he also considers the initiative and drive students demonstrate by completing a substantive program.

Melaina Macone believes her promotion last February had a lot to do with LCP. A biochemistry and molecular biology major, she never took a business class, and things like group dynamics and personality types weren’t covered in her science classes — things she has discovered are “pertinent in the real world, especially in manufacturing and production.”

Since graduating in 2011, Macone had worked as a group manager in production at the Anheuser-Busch Williamsburg Brewery. Now she is the brewery’s management systems specialist responsible for coordinating more than 500 personnel to implement a plant-wide operations system.

She says she sought the job because of her LCP experience.

“I learned that I was good at motivating people and bringing out the best in them and it helped me identify roles where I could make an impact,” she says.

Macone is also enrolled in William & Mary’s MBA program, where the material in her organizational behavior class sounds awfully familiar.

“I’m very thankful that we had the LCP.”



Category: Features, Features Winter 2013, Winter 2013