Can Higher Education Improve Leadership Skills?

In the midst of a global economic crisis, leadership has become more important than ever

By Elizabeth Sanger
Posted 2012

The Importance of Leadership Training Programs
The Importance of Leadership Training Programs

Leadership is a hot topic in the modern American workplace, and for good reason: While it’s a matter of opinion whether Americans are suffering a global crisis of leadership, as our punditry periodically claims, it’s a matter of fact that we are still suffering the backlash of a global economic crisis.

In order to excel in the emergent new economy, the American worker needs to adapt. There’s no better way to adapt than to acquire strong leadership skills. But today’s savvy workers already know that. The question they currently pose is how best to achieve and refine those skills.

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Recent studies suggest that higher education, the traditional means of acquiring new skills and knowledge, is still the best.

Study Finds Connection Between Leadership, Education

A 2011 study conducted by the Network for the Development of Higher Education Management Systems (DEHEMS), an institution devoted exclusively to assessing higher education’s impact on graduates in the workplace, concludes that higher education is a primary indicator of leadership skills in the average worker.

The study focuses especially on current instructional models and their efficacy in shaping leaders, and the results include a quantitative analysis that leaves little room for doubt: among entrants to today’s labor market, those who possess higher education are better-equipped with the competencies inherent to leadership.

Some of the instructional models that students today are most likely to encounter, including group projects and professional presentations, are proven means of acquiring leadership skills, according to the same study.

The Emerging Micropreneurial Age

Dr. Richard A. Greenwald, professor of history and expert on the modern American workplace, concurs. In a 2010 article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he posits the emergence of what he terms the “micropreneurial” age: an economy in which only the most adaptive, flexible, creative, and self-reliant workers thrive. In other words, Greenwald foresees an economy in which every worker must also be a leader, if only of a team of one.

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That’s because the competencies associated with leadership, including creative problem-solving, conflict resolution, team-building, self-reliance, innovation and long-term planning, allow the worker who possesses them to forge multiple careers over the course of his or her lifetime, as the current economic climate demands.

Greenwald asserts that our current economic climate is already demanding it. He predicts an uptick in freelance and consultancy workers who optimize leadership skills by taking direct control of their application.

Greenwald also observes that the current generation of students, whether “traditional” (i.e., recent high school graduates attending a brick-and-mortar institution) or part of the ever-widening “non-traditional” demographic, has a better grasp on the importance of leadership in today’s economy than former generations. The dearth of professional, in-house programs offering leadership training has created a vacuum higher education should continue to fill, he concludes.

The Importance of Leadership Skills

Although “leadership,” as a concept, can be poorly defined, the skills associated with leadership are not. Clearly defined skills and behaviors can be learned and, therefore, be taught. The prevalence of leadership training and instruction at modern institutes of higher education ought to put an end to the outdated maxim that “leaders are born, not made.”

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The aforementioned question posed by today’s savvy professionals—how best to achieve leadership training and skills?—has already been answered. Higher education is adapting itself to the demands of the evolving student demographic, and students themselves are demanding leadership training and instruction. In this case, the consumer really is right; and society as a whole stands to benefit.

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