Advancement of Leadership Programs
General Principles for Leadership Programs
2021 Concept Paper
In 2019, the International Leadership Association (ILA) convened the General Principles Task Force (GPTF) to develop guidelines for academic curricular and co-curricular leadership programs. In this concept paper, the GPTF seeks to establish general principles for continuous quality improvement of leadership learning. The concept paper is intended as a living document which is reviewed regularly and it is not meant to serve as an instrument for accrediting leadership programs.
The GPTF built on the significant work already done by a similar group that developed the ILA Guiding Questions in 2005-2009 – an evaluative instrument that focused on context, conceptual framework, content, teaching and learning, and assessment (https://theila.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Resource-GuidingQuestionsFinal.pdf). The concept paper is based on these five categories in the ILA Guiding Questions and incorporated recommendations discerned from member feedback and reported in the 2012 ILA Task Force on Formalized Program Review White Paper. Specifically, the General Principles for Leadership Programs 2021 Concept Paper echoes the 2012 White Paper in advocating that leadership learning should be “grounded in a coherent Conceptual Framework within the Context of the institution,” and it acts on the recommendation that ILA should “develop a formalized program review model… thoroughly tested across a variety of program contexts” using the ILA Guiding Questions as the model.
It also takes into consideration feedback obtained from the ILA 2020 conference panel that reported progress of the Task Force and over a 100 responses collected over several weeks from the members of the ILA. Finally, the concept paper also includes feedback from a discussion that took place on the HubILA on the ILA Intersections page.
For the development of this concept paper, the GPTF benefitted from the work currently done by the Carnegie Foundation’s Elective Classification on Leadership for Public Purpose through Rice University’s Doerr Institute for New Leaders. This new elective classification, to be rolled out in 2021, will provide a leadership development framework at the institutional level. The ILA General Principles, in contrast, focus on leadership development and education at the programmatic level (e.g., program, department, center, institute, school).
Other efforts to set expectations for leadership learning in Higher Education informed the development of this concept paper as well. For instance, the Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) developed standards for student co-curricular leadership programs in the 1980s. CAS issued its most recent revision of the standards for Leadership Education and Development in January 2020. The American College Personnel Association and National Association of Student Personnel Administrators issued a joint statement in 2004, “Learning Reconsidered,” which argued for a transformative education, a holistic process of learning, that places students “at the center of the learning experience.” (https://www.naspa.org/images/uploads/main/Learning_Reconsidered_Report.pdf). The GPTF shares this holistic perspective when considering principles for leadership learning. We are also mindful of the 2019 edition of the Collaborative Priorities & Critical Considerations for Leadership Education, issued by the Inter-Association Leadership Education Collaborative (ILEC), which included three priority areas in leadership learning: (a) building inclusive leadership learning communities; (b) expanding evidence-based practice through assessment & evaluation; and (c) enhancing our community of practice through professional development and resources.
Cultivating leadership capacity has long been an implicit goal of education at the post-secondary level. As the world has become more complex and seamless, the importance of clarifying what is meant by “leading” and “leadership” has become more important. From the mid-20th century to the present, the focus on cultivating leadership in various sectors has increased exponentially, but the impact of this focus has been unclear. ILA has taken on the challenging task of advocating higher expectations in leadership learning due to societal critiques of the effectiveness of these efforts, and the need to define a better future through more effective and inclusive leadership.
The word “leadership” conjures multiple meanings in the Leadership Studies literature. This concept paper considers leadership as a relational process in which participants or stakeholders work toward a common goal to find solutions to a complex problem they are inspired to solve. This relationship, however, does not take place in a vacuum. The historical and organizational context influences the leadership process. Further, cultural norms and values shape the expectations of those who participate in this process. The GPTF’s greatest challenge was to draft general principles that could cross cultures and reflect truly universal values that could guide continuous quality improvement on a global scale.
Leadership education, training, and development serve as different elements of Leadership Studies. The body of knowledge developed over the past century through the empirical study of leadership now constitutes the core theories and models that are advocated throughout leadership learning. In addition to passing down this knowledge to learners, leadership-program architects may also seek to develop competencies through leadership training (skill-building). The combination of leadership education and training provides a foundation for leadership growth – the essence of leadership development. “Leadership learning” serves as the inclusive term used for what leadership educators seek to achieve in total (education, training, and development).
Many people unknowingly contribute to or undermine leadership lessons by the way they talk about, celebrate, and encourage “leading.” The goal of this concept paper is to present ideas for leadership educators to gain an understanding of how they can build leadership capacity of learners. The work of the GPTF is consistent with recent reports that have identified the top skills that global employers will be looking for in higher education graduates. The World Economic Forum, for instance, has identified these top 10 hard and soft leadership skills for 2025 in a recent report (The Future of Jobs): analytical thinking and innovation; active learning and learning strategies; complex problem-solving; critical thinking and analysis; creativity, originality and initiative; leadership and social influence; technology use, monitoring and control; technology design and programming; resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility; and reasoning, problem-solving and ideation. (http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs_2020.pdf).
Leadership learning remains an emerging field, and the ILA’s Leadership General Principles are an indication that core theories and concepts have begun to unify and thereby improve the study and practice of leadership. The global conversation regarding common principles is crucial and must be recognized as evolving, which requires openness and a commitment to discerning a workable unity among leadership educators that serves all, rather than a detailed, fine-tuned, and prescriptive view that serves only a sub-set of educators.
A statement of general principles about leadership that will be applicable across sector, culture, and time must provide the opportunity for leadership educators to incorporate various research and theoretical frameworks. It is ILA’s belief that there are certain leadership capacities that can be discerned from the current evidence of research, theory, and practice and that these have been, and continue to be, refined over time. Leadership educators cultivate in their learners these capacities: an understanding of history and experience; an agile and open mind; examination of oneself and systems of leadership through a critical perspective; active and engaged learning; effective dialogue and problem solving with others; adaptability and resilience; purposeful and evolving aspiration to achieve societal good; local and global perspectives; ethics and core values; and optimism while engaging in addressing difficult challenges.
Drawing from previous research and initiatives regarding the evolution of leadership learning across cultures and regions of the world, the ILA offers the following general principles that fall within each of the five topical areas outlined below:
- Context: In a world of rapid change and critical, seemingly intractable local and global problems, leadership programs foster optimism and the desire to bring about positive and transformative change. They prepare learners to be agile, open-minded, and humble. Learners deal with increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The best leadership programs encourage a global, as well as local, perspective, and a respectful, holistic, systems approach to engaging multiple stakeholders.
- Conceptual Framework: Leadership programs recognize that the capacity for effective leading and following resides in each person, and that broader numbers and more diverse leadership are important in resolving the challenges of the modern age. Deeper learning in leadership is demonstrated by critically examining one’s own and other’s assumptions through active learning and practice and by analyzing the use of power and its impact. Most importantly, leadership learning is guided by a cohesive and coordinated framework that results in repeated and consistent messages across the entities, disciplines, and experiences that learners encounter.
- Content: Truly transformative leadership is shaped by aspirational vision and the pursuit of purpose, approached from both a humanistic and pragmatic perspective that strives to serve the common good and create inclusive and sustainable communities. It is culturally sensitive and relevant, grounded in ethics and core values such as integrity, courage, humility, honesty, fairness, empathy, and transparency.
- Learning: The most effective leadership education programs incorporate highly active and engaging instructional strategies and recognize the appropriate developmental level and maturity of the learner. They create a “trusted space” that integrates theory, practice, and experiential learning to build core competencies such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork. They promote engagement, dialogue, reflection, and active questioning of learners’ experiences as both leaders and followers.
- Metrics, Outcomes, and Assessment: Clearly and concretely described outcomes are required based on the type of leadership program, its context, individual learner goals, and programmatic goals within each individual leadership program. Similarly, assessments need to be directly aligned to the program’s goals and outcomes to provide valuable information. Leadership learning and program outcomes are regularly evaluated to assess effectiveness and ensure continuous quality improvement.
These five areas and the general principles within them serve as a foundation upon which an existing leadership program – as well as those designing new programs – can build to promote continuous quality improvement.
We will now dive deeper into the five areas and respective principles and offer key questions that programs are encouraged to examine under each. The questions were drafted in the specific context of higher education with the “Learning” area as the most specific in its focus. Other sector leadership educators will likely need to adapt the questions to their own settings.
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Deputy Director, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, United States
Dean of the McDonough Center for Leadership and Business and McCoy Professor of Leadership Studies, Marietta College, Ohio, United States