Empowering People: Innovative Approaches to Teaching Leadership

Solutions Journalism Network

When disadvantaged people are given the tools to succeed, they develop confidence in their own problem-solving skills. Likewise, when programs are developed and managed by the communities served, they are more likely to have an impact; this collection explores tactics for empowering individuals via leadership training, returning local control to vulnerable communities and encouraging resilience in all populations.

The definition of “leadership” is subject to much debate in both scholarly literature and more casual discussions; is a leader primarily responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of an organization? Are they more of an inspirational figure, like a coach or cheerleader? Is a leader required to have high-level visionary or strategic goals for the people or groups under their direction? Such flexible definitions can benefit organizations and groups that need to tailor the definition of leadership to their unique demands, but too much room for interpretation can also lead to confusion regarding roles and responsibilities, a lack of purpose, or even serious ethical challenges.

The leadership debate was significantly influenced by 19th century philosopher Thomas Carlyle, a key advocate for the Great Man theory: the idea that great leaders are born possessing certain innate traits that enable them to lead, and that they will naturally rise to the occasion when society is in need. This ideal has influenced our historical reverence for figures like Julius Caesar, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Winston Churchill. Clearly, the way we define leadership impacts how we understand who has the capacity to become a leader. If leadership is viewed mostly as a result of intrinsic qualities like charisma, then it is something that must be watched for and cultivated in select individuals (and seriously likely to be impacted by social biases surrounding race, gender, sexuality, and ability). If leadership consists of learned skills like organization, teamwork, crisis management, empathy, and strategic thinking - all things which can be taught - then the questions shift to when, how, and where those skills should be taught. Despite centuries of debate on the topic, this issue continues to gain importance as employers and educators wrestle with the importance of ethical development, mentorship, human relations skill development, and theoretical versus practical learning opportunities. 

This collection presents multiple ways in which schools, workplaces, and community organizations are creating opportunities for individuals who might not fit the historic ideal of the Great Man to learn and practice leadership skills, find mentors, and grow into their potential. 

Student experience and critical analysis level: introductory