Seeing the light bulb flicker on – the point of our theories is to explain how people behave!
A few weeks ago, I was teaching content on the Behavioral Approach (Blake and Mouton, 1964) to leadership – particularly on leaders who show both paternalistic and maternalistic behaviors towards their followers. A student who typically stays quiet during class burst out – “wait, that’s my manager at work – exactly!” We went on to discuss the types of situations she has experienced at work, many of which lined up with this particular theory.
A few days later, we were covering leader-member exchange (LMX) theories (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995) and describing the outcomes for in-group members vs. out-group members. Again, an outburst from the class – “wait, I think I’m in the out-group at my work!” We went on to discuss that student’s experiences and they did, indeed, line up with outcomes of LMX. Other students got excited about these real-life experiences and started to bring up how their own situations were explained by the different leadership theories.
As an instructor, this is my favorite time of year – not the grading, not the worries about final grades - but seeing students realize someone out there (probably teams of someones) have observed similar situations and spent time studying them. Those studies, of course, help explain the phenomenon of leadership. I feel like my purpose is to help students understand how to read those scientific results with a critical eye, to understand how they might incorporate the field’s findings into their own working relationships, and to seek out organizations where they feel leadership is valued. Leadership as a field is unique – almost every one of my students comes with preconceived notions about which leadership behaviors work and which ones don’t – this doesn’t happen in nursing, or biological sciences, or physics. Teaching leadership challenges instructors to make the theories relevant to our students by connecting in different ways – and we know we’re succeeding one light bulb at a time.