Learners into Leaders

As we approach the beginning of a new academic year, young people everywhere are returning to campus for the first time in a while. Professors welcome these students into their space and strive to impart more than just knowledge; they seek to help learners find their place in the world and strengthen their ability to communicate, work with others, and contribute to collective achievement. Higher education plays a massive part in determining what the future of leadership looks like. As educators, we can transform college learners into leaders.

learners into leaders

Paradoxes of Leadership

What do you think of when you think of a strong leader? Just close your eyes, take a deep breath, and name a few qualities that say “leadership” to you. Now apply your definitions and examples to your lived experiences over the past year and a half. Did your definition miss anything important? What kind of leadership did you most appreciate or need?

Over the last year and a half, there have been calls to social action on many fronts. Such social action requires critical thinking, activism, and accountability. We have to be able to say that enough is enough. But at the same time, many feel a need for connection – the need to help others, strengthen relationships, and build a better world. So, we also want leaders who can help us by demonstrating compassion and humility.

Sometimes we feel at odds with qualities we require in an effective leader. At first glance, these needs seem to compete with each other. For example, we ask, “Is it possible to be practice accountability and compassion at the same time?” Or how can a leader be tech-savvy and a humanist?

Although these qualities and roles seem paradoxical, they can be complementary. As we understand the type of leaders needed in our increasingly complex world, we need to take a page from improv acting and use the “Yes, and…” approach. Yes, accountability is important…AND empathy will help build cultures of trust so others can admit fallibility.

The tech-savvy humanist helps to connects us instantly with an entire network of friends, family, colleagues, customers… which can also mean more opportunity to miscommunicate or exclude. A strong leader today is a tech-savvy humanist, responding with high degrees of empathy and authenticity to a diverse audience. A holistic approach to leadership is the foundation of how higher education will develop learners into leaders who can operate within the nuances in a complex world.

Higher Education’s Response to Turning Learners into Leaders

Given the tensions between leadership demands, we can see increasing relevance for models that highlight the need for emotional intelligence, inclusivity, and sense-making in a post-pandemic world. First, consider distributed leadership. Being a strategic, visionary leader means having the humility and self-awareness to listen to people with different backgrounds, skills, and capabilities. ​Closely related is authentic leadership, which holds that effective leadership is all about being honest, real, and authentic with all stakeholders. ​Finally, servant leadership means that leaders act as servants to their followers or team. They are humble yet courageous and emphasize follower empowerment and development.

Higher education is leaning on servant leadership and authentic leadership frameworks in their response to the challenge of developing learners into leaders. Self-reflective assignments have students define their stories and share them with their peers. Team-based community service projects have students work together to live their values in assisting others. Increasing use of dialogical pedagogy aims at strengthening communication skills. ​Interestingly, what most of the leadership development programs have in common is a focus on Experiential Learning Theory, incorporating the four elements of concrete experiences, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.​

Click here to learn more about Leading Edge LearningSM and how you can add dynamic online content into your course or program to develop leadership competencies.


Kiersch, C., & Peters, J. (2017). Leadership from the inside out: Student leadership development within authentic leadership and servant leadership frameworks. Journal of Leadership Education, 16(1).  https://doi.org/10.12806/v16/i1/t4