Friday, February 18, 2011

When Leadership Stopped Smelling Like Sheep

Two words: "mission creep". That was the first thing that went through my mind when I was recently asked to facilitate a working group at the next ITI Think Tank that is going to consider engaging student leadership in the classroom. Now mind you, these are freshman level art courses were talking about here, not business administration or political science classes. I have long been an advocate of expanding the foundations curriculum beyond the introduction of art and design principles, eagerly engaging progressive approaches to course content, classroom delivery and curricular structure. The last twenty years or so there has been a steady drum beat to expand the mission of these introductory art courses and I must add, most programs and students are much the better for it. But with the learning outcomes for these courses beginning to rival the optimistic inclusiveness of a six-year-old's christmas list, my first impulse was to wonder of all the things that we should and could be teaching, is leadership really where we ought to spending our time and resources?

Add to this this the fact that I continue to harbor a deep rooted wariness of leadership in general as a positive social value. One of the reasons I was attracted to the arts in the first place is it's romantic aura of revolution, art's history of challenging traditional notions of leadership-- the artist as individual free agent blithely aloof or actively eroding the consent of the governed to fall in line with social convention, political coercion or corporate co-option. Despite my best effort to shake off this admittedly romantic and historically shortsighted bias, "leadership", with its evocation of herd mentality, and connotations sheep and shepherds, still retains the faint aroma of the barnyard for me. So I seem a somewhat unlikely candidate to head up discussions about engaging student leadership in art foundations classroom.

However after a bit of reflection and research I have come to realize that it is the language of leadership, not its principles or implications for student learning that I find vaguely troubling. I discovered that my misgivings are largely based on traditional understandings of leadership, the "command style" of the singular leader with its attendant hierarchical power structures, narrow conception of individual achievement and cult of personality. Contemporary theories of effective leadership tend to eschew this model in favor of shared or distributive leadership and the "flattening" of organizational structures. The term "shared leadership" has an oxymoronic attraction that I find somewhat irresistible. The idea of shared leadership is on its surface as silly and comical as a Yogi Berra malapropism but its implications can run as deep as a Zen koan. There is something to be gained by re-imagining what we do as foundations art instructors using a student leadership framework and I look forward to getting schooled at Think Tank where maybe we'll find out just how many leaders one organization can stand...

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