LEADING UNDERGRADUATES TO BECOMING LEADERS: A CASE STUDY
Abstract: this study intends to unveil key principles that configure theUndergraduate Leadership Program (ULP) implemented at a private universityin the State of Michigan, USa. through a qualitative method of case study, thispaper depicts the model and how students have responded. Data were collectedusing a focus group and model characteristics. the results indicate thatstudent-centered and active learning was associated with significant leadershipgains among students. although some academic settings may have resistanceto innovation, the program outcomes represent a promising programalternative for universities as well as non-academic trainers who desire to beintentional about developing leadership skills in young people.
Keywords: Leadership development, undergraduate leadership program,
Our increasingly global world endures constant, unavoidable disruption
(Scharmer, 2013). Yet, american society has framed becoming a leader as a
mantra based on the presumption that capable leaders can actually or potentially
help improve, or even solve, society’s problems. Moreover, leadership Randy J. Siebold serves as associate Professor of Leadership at andrews University. he has spent time as an
academy principal, associate superintendent, and has been a college academic vice-president. he received his
Ph.D. in Instructional Systems technology from Indiana University and holds a master’s degree in art, as well
as undergraduate degrees in industrial education and mechanical engineering technology. Dr. Siebold and his
wife, Brenda, have been married 35 years and have five children and one grandchild. they make their home in
Berrien Springs, Michigan.
David K. ferguson serves as Senior Pastor of the collegedale Seventh-day adventist church (the university
church for Southern adventist University). he has experience as a denominational youth ministries leader,
high school chaplain, college professor and has developed leadership curriculum on the secondary and higher
educational levels in addition to his work as a local church pastor. Dave holds a Masters Degree in Religious
Education and undergraduate degrees in Religion and Business. he has been married to caryl Lynn for 29 years
and has three children. the fergusons reside in collegedale, tennessee.
further, supporting the personalized nature of leadership training, successful
leadership must rest on an awareness of individual characteristics, that is,
essential leadership ingredients such as influence crucially depend on being
aware of one’s unique blend of personal strengths. Indeed, the foundation for
anyone being a leader involves precisely who they are (George, 2003; Quinn,
2004). In fact, leadership has been represented as fundamentally autobiographical
(tichy & Devanna, 1986). and, while much of the leadership development
literature addresses leaders as holding a position of authority within
an organization, many have also recognized that people are often leading others
in all positions of an organization.
the idea of developing leaders is not new. Jesus worked with his disciples
during his active ministry. Indeed, it seems clear that while about his ministry,
he worked to intentionally develop the twelve disciples and build the foundation
for the church. further, as Jesus went about teaching, preaching and healing
(Matt. 9:35), he was meeting the needs of the whole person—mind, spirit
and body. here we see the Master teacher addressing the whole person as a
part of his leadership educational program.
Recognizing the value of a whole-being perspective as well as the importance
of providing opportunities for all persons to be developed for leadership,
it can be understood why thoughtful educators are seeking to provide opportunities for leadership development for all of their students, particularly as they
enter the job market.
In fact, education in an undergraduate context often primarily focuses on
theories or the development of job-based skills to the neglect of valuable life
skills (or, soft skills) that prepare one to not only succeed in the workplace, but
to also succeed in the home and the church—in short, to succeed in life
In light of these key ideas, this paper addresses an important need of many
who are involved in the development and improvement of young people as
leaders, both in undergraduate curricula as well as outside of academics. the
purpose of this paper is to provide a glimpse into an alternative leadership
training program, so that interested professionals may learn from the experience
We use a case study approach that explores undergraduate leadership
development in two ways. first, we review the program characteristics, then
we explore student perceptions of the program. the program we selected is an
innovative model among undergraduate students in a private university in the
state of Michigan in the United States. this undergraduate leadership program
focuses on developing the whole person—physically, mentally, and spiritually—
and it is organized, not just on leadership theory, but on balancing theory
development with practical skills that can apply not only to the work environment,
but to life.
this is an innovative model of leadership. the apparently successful implementation
of this training process used to advance leadership skills in students
could be utilized in other similar university settings. We also believe this model
could also be used outside of the more traditional college setting and see the
potential for others outside of academe to use these this approach when considering
the intentional training of young people for leadership. clearly, when
young people have leadership skills they will have additional opportunities for
advancement, benefiting not only their marketability upon entering the job
market, their organizational and personal performance, but the performance of
the communities and organizations in which they function as well.
Principles of Training
Over the past few decades, educational research has explored and advanced
understanding regarding learning. Researchers and theorists from cognitive
science, developmental psychology and neuroscience (Bransford, Brown, &
cocking, 2000), as well as those from the learning sciences perspective
(Schank, 2011) have contributed to an increasing understanding of how people
learn. and, while educators have sought to apply these learnings, they have found they lead “to very different approaches to the design of curriculum,
teaching, and assessment than those often found in schools today” (Bransford,
Brown, & cocking, 2000, p. 3). this reveals the often frustrating distance
between the approach used in schools and authentic understanding.
accordingly, these new ideas about learning have been turned towards education
to seek application to the many challenges with the existing, dominant
educational system. Yet for years there has been a tension between knowing
what to do and doing it. Recognizing this, Brown, collins, and Dogoid (1989)
lament that, “Many methods of didactic education assume a separation
between knowing and doing, treating knowledge as an integral, self-sufficient
substance, theoretically independent of the situations in which it is learned
and used” (p. 32). Perkins (1992) addresses this tension by explaining, “we do
not have a knowledge gap—we have a monumental use of knowledge gap”
(p. 3, emphasis in original). Specifically, a similar situation happens when
institutions look for ways to train leaders.
Much of the research on how to best grow leaders has addressed leadership
development in the corporate world (hill, 2005, p. 28). and while the principles
learned from these studies might be helpful, they often conflict with the traditions
of higher education. however, this has not kept colleges from developing
leadership programs. While much growth has happened more recently, several
authors have addressed these programs (Brundgardt, Greenleaf, Brungardt,
& arsendorf, 2006), finding that “relatively few of them are curricular-based
undergraduate programs offering academic credit in the form of a bachelor’s
degree, academic minor, or certificate” (Riggio, ciulla, & Sorenson, 2003,
p. 223). Given this context, some universities are exploring various models to
bridge theory and practice, to create more effective leadership learning processes
at the undergraduate level (freed, covrig, & Baumgartner, 2010).
the program studied in this article operates on the central assumption that
development of leadership capacities cannot be taught mainly as theory—as
an academic subject—it must be experienced. this belief is consistent with the
aPa’s (american Psychological association) learner-centered psychological
principles (1997). the report stipulates 14 principles to “provide a framework
that can contribute to current educational reform and school redesign efforts”
(aPa, 1997, p. 2). the principles are clustered in four general categories as
- Cognitive and Metacognitive Factors Nature of the learning process. Deep learning of complex subjects is best
accomplished when theory and experience are intentionally blended in the
- Goals of the learning process. Learning goals help create meaningful and
coherent understandings, especially when goals are student generated, personally
relevant, and are assisted via expert guidance.
- Construction of knowledge. Learning grows deep when built upon and
added to previous learning.
- Strategic thinking. Successful learners have and thoughtfully use a variety of
- thinking about thinking. Reflection on one’s thinking and learning can
- context of learning. Learning does not happen independent of its context.
the learner’s context (culture, place, experiences, etc.) deeply impact student
Motivational and Affective Factors
7. Motivational and emotional influences on learning. Motivation powerfully
impacts what is learned, and is informed by a student’s beliefs, attitudes,
interests and goals, among others.
8. Intrinsic motivation to learn. factors such as the level to which students
believe they can learn and the ability to exercise personal control impact a
student’s motivation to learn.
9. Effects of motivation on effort. Instruction designed to increase student motivation
tend to increase student effort—an essential ingredient for the “acquisition
of complex knowledge and skills.”
Developmental and Social Factors
10. Developmental influences on learning. Learning is most effective
when the learning environment allows for differentiated development
(i.e., emotional, physical, social, etc.).
11. Social influences on learning. Social interactions, communication and relationships
with others all influence learning.
Individual Differences Factors
12. Individual differences in learning. the inherited and cultivated tendencies
of an individual impacts their learning. Some of these habits are not useful in
helping learners achieve their goals and require the help of wise educators to
help them examine, for instance, their learning attitudes.
13. Learning and diversity. culture, language, socioeconomic status, among
many others, all influence learning, and thoughtful instructors promote an
environment of respect and value for these differences.
14. Standards and assessment. Effective learning must include feedback and appraisal of student development.
these principles are useful to review and are especially salient as we seek to
understand some of the key characteristics of the program reported here.
In addition to a literature review to theoretically frame leadership training,
this paper uses a qualitative case study method to explore the impact on
students of an undergraduate leadership program at a private university in
Michigan in the United States. although this program has been implemented
for relatively few students, the obtained experiences allow us to raise this
general question: to what extent are undergraduate leadership certificates
and minor trainings advancing leadership development?
the results are divided in two sections. During the first stage, we describe
the global characteristics of the case in depth with details of how the program
was organized, a particular concern to many undergraduate educators. this
program offered classes that led to both a certificate and minor. In the second
stage, we use a focus group data collection technique to understand students’
perceptions. the information was collected from a focus group comprised of 15
undergraduate students in October 2015. the students were at various stages of
their training and were participants of both the certificate and minor programs.
the researchers conducted the interview using a set of open-ended questions.
the data were recorded, transcribed and analyzed using NVivo software, version
10, to capture emerging themes, coding commonalities, differences, and
patterns (creswell, 2008). the results describe how and in what dimensions
the training model impacted participants.
although this is an ongoing research project, preliminary results indicate
that the program is well organized and students believe they have been experiencing
significant personal and group growth. the data suggest important
competency development among participants.
The Model and its Characteristics
the case under study, the andrews University Undergraduate Leadership
Program (ULP) emerged from a handful of significant presuppositions about
leadership influence and impact. first, the program is built on the idea that
while leadership characteristics can be innate in some individuals, they can
also be taught. Second, the program articulates that all functional human
beings attempt to influence those around them beginning shortly after birth.
Juxtaposing this belief with the definition that leadership is “intentional, individual
influence,” this natural-born trait launches a lifelong journey of leadership
development, mostly informal, but occasionally formal. third, the use of
the word “leadership” is ubiquitous and often confusing. for clarity, the program
considers two categories of leadership: lower case “l” leadership, which
includes any individual moment of influential impact whether impressed upon
or seen by many or few; and upper case “L” leadership comprised of publicly
recognized authority. the ULP addresses leadership to include both upper and
lower case forms, but espouses the notion that teaching foundational principles
of leadership best prepares the student for both cases. these presuppositions
led to the creation of a program welcoming any undergraduate student to
pursue leadership electives, an academic leadership certificate (11-12 credits
plus co-curricular program), or a leadership minor (20 credits plus co-curricular
program) based solely on election and continued productive engagement.
In fact, the program is designed specifically to introduce the idea of leadership
growth to students who wouldn’t traditionally see themselves as leaders, in
addition to those most likely to respond.
a fourth principle is that leadership development is highly individualized
rather than a specific recipe of courses and projects. this provides motivation
for a broad set of characteristics. for example, the ULP facilitates regular and
thorough processes for reflection, critical analysis and application or reapplication
intended to answer the question, “What is this specific students’ leadership
DNa?” additionally, the program uses a process providing fertile atmospheres,
plentiful resources, student self-determination, and attentive program
mentoring and coaching in contrast to a typical course-by-course pathway of
growth. this allows students to productively grow their power of influence in
ways most suited to immediate and sustainably passionate use—the program is
flexible in this way. as a result, specific program activities vary widely by the
finally, the ULP leans heavily on the practice of leadership principles and
capacities. Likely all productive leadership education includes tight revolutions
of theoretical reflection, applied practice and additional reflection. this is
aligned with Kolb’s (2014) learning cycle which indicates that without exploration,
discovery, application, and observation of results (or personal reflection),
potential learning suffers in leaders as well as in organizations. however,
this program carefully targets a multiplicity of practice opportunities.
therefore, a ULP classroom regularly employs active learning, case-in-point
methodology, group activities and other student centric processes.
additionally, the program involves regular and varied co-curricular experiences
and reflections comprising approximately 50% of its requirements. the knitting of these presuppositions and attending program characteristics allow
fluid student-by-student program design intended to launch formal elements
of leadership development, attract a broad range of leadership types, facilitate
momentum-gathering success, and maximize the potential impact of each
the analysis of the focus group data provided three broad themes: personal
development; about the leadership program; and suggested changes. Each one
also has several subthemes that are explored as follows.
Personal Skill Development. as mentioned above, one of the central
aspects of this undergraduate program is to facilitate students’ self-understanding.
this was described as essential in unfolding the leadership potential of students.
the program uses a combination of scholarly and hands-on activities to
promote the reflective experience and foster a deeper understanding of the student’s self. as participants get involved, they go through progressive stages
demonstrating gains in various areas.
Communication. commenting about the program, Student 4 said:
It taught me a lot more than would have regular classes. I learned how to
engage in conversations with people in authority how to, I guess, get at
least the information that I was looking for. . . .
Student 5 added:
. . . a more specific contribution and the ability to see other contributions
and what other people can bring and then be able to put that altogether
and say this is what we are as a group and this is what we can do.
Student 9 connected communication with a very practical case:
I think that was very helpful especially in like medical school interviews
[where] you are talking to someone for 45 minutes and you know they are
asking you about yourself. how do I come off as not cocky but, you
know, still confident and hold a conversation and show them, you know,
that I’m a good person . . . .
these students’ opinions of the program are also interrelated with a growing
sense of self confidence that facilitates a clearer articulation toward personal
and group development, as Student 4 rephrased it, “I feel more in control.”
the next subtheme explores this idea more in detail.
Confidence in Leading. Student 10 synthesized it here:
I had an internship this summer at an advertising agency . . . my major is Marketing and I think for me going in and reflecting on the experience
it allowed me to have a greater impact . . . because I was confident in my
abilities and I was more intentional . . . without the leadership program
I don’t think I would have seen myself having those abilities . . . my
contribution levels would have been lower.
addressing some activities the ULP requires, Student 9 remarked that developing
her organizational skills have also brought personal confidence to cope
with unexpected situations:
I’m the head ta (teacher’s assistant) for the biology lab and so on
tuesdays I have 64 students that I have to get through lab and I have
eight other tas that are under me who also need assistance and guidance
as to how to run the lab so just . . . just going up there . . . in front of the
class and being confident in my lecture that I have to give before lab and
giving instructions and even if I don’t know the material . . . just to be
confident enough to say I don’t know the answer to that and let me get
back to you with that later . . . so one of my things that I had to build on
and develop was my organizational skills which I’ve gotten a lot better at
from having to be in that leadership position.
Student 4 stressed that the program has “. . . allowed me to be more intentional
in my interactions with my friends and colleagues and to be more intentional
about using my influence in those situations.” In short, as Student 6 put
it, “after this (ULP) training I feel like a more well-rounded person; it just
makes you a better person in general.”
Better Thinking. Student 7 underscored that “I think the leadership program
has helped us to develop critical thinking as well as thinking outside of
the box and how we could apply it to our everyday lives . . . in our classes, in
our friendships, in our relationships.” Participant 13 explained that leadership
theories have helped him to expand his understanding of how to better navigate
daily relationships and tasks:
You can tell who is what kind of leader . . . and who I would want to work
for in a future job just like in the medical field . . . so you can choose who
you work for but you can take out traits here and there out of each person
just like, hey, this is going to work out the best. So that’s how I have
taken this class.
Students were encouraged to learn the ability to adjust their thinking based
on new ideas, to not only overcome barriers in all possible ways but to be
proactive in creating innovative solutions to their challenges.
About the Leadership Program. although some of following quotations
overlap personal competency development, students also recognized some of
the other dimensions this program has impacted, as Student 3 put it:
I think it taught me that leadership is process driven so it can be learned,
and it isn’t something that you have to be necessarily born with but it is
like a characteristic way to learn and develop things.
In theories, Student 9 saw a way to understand people and situations, “I
think theories helped me to put a name and a face to the leadership . . . helped
me to . . . put . . . into practice creative problem solving because we are faced
with problems everyday of our lives.” Exposing students to different theories
and literature to understand leadership has assisted them in making bridges
to real implications and possible scenarios to which leaders can contribute. In
addition, Student 8 explained his gain through not only knowing about leadership,
but experiencing it:
My job currently is a flight instructor and it does take a lot of leadership
qualities and leadership characteristics . . . because . . . not everyone is
and not everyone wants to be a flight instructor and I think that in learning
more about leadership traits I’ve actually carried the most over into
flight instructing and in many ways it has made my profession that much
more, I don’t want to say easier, but it has made it a lot more enjoyable.
Student 9 gave reasons as to why she would recommend this program,
I have had people telling me, why are you taking what you don’t need?
But you will never ever learn what you learn in this program in any of the
other programs. . . . I feel like these are life lessons that will take you
years to learn that you can learn right here. . . . I just really want to say
that you will never ever learn this anywhere else except for here.
In addition, the program combination produced some clear excitement,
as Student 14 put it:
I feel like I’m a kid at a candy store and I have to pick my favorite candy
. . . just because each class is so unique yet you learn so much out of it. I
really, really enjoy this class because each one of them are so different yet
they all connect together.
It was clear that the students appreciated the value-added of this program
and type of training. It appears that they recognize how the program components
bridge the university and content with real personal and professional
experiences that expose them to advancing both their intellectual and spiritual
potential and growth.
Suggested Changes. Regarding possible areas of improvements, participants
gave several suggestions. among others was the need of a conference to
share the program on campus and improve networking, “I would love to see
that the program could go to leadership conferences as a team of students . . .
that would be fun” (Student 14). Student 6 also added, “I do love the idea of
the leadership conference going somewhere with that but I also want to give high praise to the team and the actual program that is already in place.”
Student 6 suggested that a type of this training should be available for other
leaders, “Or provide a class that maybe doesn’t have credits to pay for . . . like
the practicum that we have going on that can be very tangible for youth leaders
to be able to process.”
the idea is to propagate the model to other sectors of the university, as
Student 15 proposed, “Make the program bigger and have more to offer across
the campus for us as minor students and more classes.” the overall feeling
about this program can be captured in what Student 6 said, “It is still incredible
that this program is different than anything else on campus and it provides
a unique experience that you can’t really get anywhere on campus or any other
University.” this perception shows how some students may see the current
model of academic training as mismatching their learning needs, affirming the
research that suggests the need for change in education.
Analysis and Implications
this study intended to explore the extent to which an undergraduate
leadership program at a private university in Michigan was able to advance
leadership skills. around that initial and global research question, the descriptions
of the principles used in training revealed the characteristics of the model
implemented to carry out this program, though undergraduate academic certificates
or minors in leadership appeared to be based on very proactive and
engaging premises. as discussed in the literature review, the aPa theoretical
framework seems to map closely to the ULP model, as it has clearly been
designed around program components that promote cognitive and metacognitive
learning as well as viewing leadership development as addressing the
whole person. additionally, the ULP students are required to build their own
understanding over iterative interactive experiences that imply cycles of action
and reflection in distinctive thinking levels. additionally, it appears that the
model also takes into account the motivational and affective factors that influence
beliefs, attitudes, goals, and personal interests toward a deeper intellectual
and spiritual learning. these experiences are developed in specific contexts
that settle social factors as facilitators for broader leadership development.
finally, the ULP hinged on the central assumption that leadership is best
developed when personal differences are taken into consideration, and that
is vital for assessing learning progress.
the data from the focus group highlighted activities and experiences that
students perceived lead towards significant leadership gains over their training.
areas they underscored were communication, personal confidence and
critical thinking. the ULP model appears to demonstrate that the combination of academic and real-life experiences successfully facilitated the development
of these important competencies students need to be effective leaders.
Students suggested that a crucial element seemed to be the way instructors
deliver and structure the multiple teaching activities, not in a conventional theory-only approach, but rather active and student centered, allowing students
the ability to apply their new learnings. the principles outlined for the ULP
model reinforced what participants expressed.
as with all programs, the ULP program has challenges and room to grow,
but the data clearly showed that students perceived tangible and important
personal development. Regarding possible areas interviewees felt improvement
was needed, there was little data to support direct change. While one student
reported the idea of incorporating travel to leadership conferences, overall, the
data supports program expansion and availability across campus.
While much can be learned from this study, important limitations should be
highlighted. the focus group of the study was a self-selected sample of program
participants—not all students were involved—and while the students did report
learning gains, students themselves are not always the best judge of the quality
of their learning. additionally, although this study demonstrates strengths of
the UGL program, it does not draw a clear line of cause and effect; it should not
be taken to imply that all programs designed like this will get similar results.
although this study has limitations, it also clearly demonstrates that students
perceived that leadership training can be taught as part of a traditional academic
format, such as certificates and minors, and that they have already recognized
personal benefit from the program in their lived experiences.
this study provides clarity of how one academic institution has implemented
a leadership development program for young people and how the students
who received the training have responded. Leadership development is important
in any area, and is vitally important within the christian community.
Developing leaders both informally and formally is crucial to the development
of the church. With the strong student support of the program it seems appropriate
to summarize the five key design principles of the program studied: (a)
leadership can be taught; (b) leadership is a life-long journey that is about
intentional, individual influence; (c) the foundational principles of learning
how to lead are the same for leading in both formal and informal environments;
(d) growing in one’s leadership potential is an individual process and
thus the program must have the requisite flexibility and individual choice and
engagement; and (e) both inside and outside of classroom activities should
be blended in such a way to provide exposure to theory, time for practice, and
time for individual reflection—these different activity types should be more
balanced. Designers and developers of leadership training programs of any age should consider these principles that seem consistent with respecting the
whole person and consistent with the teachings of Jesus.
While it is important to recognize that it may be difficult for some academic
units to implement a training system based on the premises arranged in the
ULP and suggested in the Learner-centered Psychological Principles presented
by the aPa (1997), the results suggest that it is worth trying. this research also
has important implications for leaders who want to shape others to accomplish
shared visions. the ULP model exposed in this study is centered on the five
basic principles that can also be used in nonacademic settings. Based on what
was presented here, practitioners and trainers can advance leadership skills in
a way that learning would be more experiential. Implementing similar models
of leadership training can be the beginning of a more effective approach to the
need for qualified leaders both within the church structure as well as in nonprofit
organizations and businesses.
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Gustavo Gregorutti is currently a professor of the School of Education at Andrews University in Michigan. Prior to this appointment, he has been a visiting professor in several Latin American universities teaching and carrying out various research projects. Dr. Gregorutti also conducted research at the Humboldt University Center for Higher Education in Berlin, Germany, where he is finishing his second Ph.D. He is presently aiding in International Comparative Research.
Randy J. Siebold serves as Associate Professor of Leadership at Andrews University. He has spent time as an academy principal, associate superintendent, and has been a college academic vice president. He received his Ph.D. in Instructional Systems Technology from Indiana University and holds a Master’s Degree in Art, as well as undergraduate degrees in Industrial Education and Mechanical Engineering Technology. Dr. Siebold and his wife, Brenda, have been married 35 years and have five children and one grandchild. They make their home in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
David K. Ferguson serves as Senior Pastor of the Collegedale Seventh-day Adventist Church (the University Church for Southern Adventist University). He has experience as a denominational youth ministries leader, high school chaplain, college professor and has developed leadership curriculum on the secondary and higher educational levels in addition to his work as a local church pastor. Dave holds a Masters Degree in Religious Education and undergraduate degrees in Religion and Business. He has been married to Caryl Lynn for 29 years and has three children. the Fergusons reside in Collegedale, Tennessee.