Learning to Lead

The Batten Curriculum Poses a Bold Question: What Makes Good Leadership?

By Molly Hannon
Learning to Lead illustration
Illustration by Keith Nagley
What Do Effective Leaders Do? 

How can individuals work with others to accomplish goals that they could not or would not want to accomplish alone? Students and faculty at the Batten School explore these questions daily. Side by side, they examine the anatomy of organizations, delve into the research findings of social psychology, and dissect instances of successful and unsuccessful leadership. Through this collaboration, Batten students learn to analyze and respond to the complex challenges that leaders face. And it all starts with a shared assumption that the skills of leadership can be learned and practiced.

Made, Not Born

“Leadership is a set of skills,” says Batten professor and behavioral scientist Eileen Chou. In her courses on interpersonal and group dynamics, she teaches that leadership means cultivating the capacity to integrate, motivate, and enable a group of individuals toward a common and positive goal. In her view, the belief that some people are born leaders—as romantic as it sounds—is simply untrue. “Leaders are not born,” she says. “Leaders are made.”

With students in his courses on the psychology of leadership, professor Benjamin Converse explores how viewing leadership as an inherent quality rather than a learned set of skills can limit the imagination for who a leader can be. “Questioning whether leaders are born is important because it invites a more inclusive view of leadership,” says Converse. “We should not look to only a select group of privileged people for leadership; we should look to anyone willing to step up and put in the work.” 

For students at Batten, that work involves acquiring more knowledge about the world by developing both their domain expertise and their understanding of human behavior. “Our approach to leadership emphasizes practice, growth, and learning,” Converse says.

I learned valuable lessons about my leadership blind spots, and my supportive, dedicated classmates helped me brainstorm ways to mitigate them going forward.”

—Emma Finkelstein (MPP ’21)
Leadership Across Contexts

It’s common to define leaders as people who hold prominent, high-status positions. But Chou is quick to note that this isn’t always the case. “Leadership doesn’t only exist at the top,” she says. “It can come from anywhere in an organization, as long as people are moving the group to a better path.” 

Similarly, Converse adds, leadership isn’t always as visible as we might think. “Some of the work of good leadership might be in the spotlight—giving a good speech, making a scrutinized decision,” he says. “But leadership also happens behind the scenes.”

The full picture is that leaders must lead in a variety of contexts while working with a range of people. Many of Converse’s lessons seek to illustrate how different situations affect behavior. He believes that this allows students to envision how they, as future leaders, might design their professional situations to prepare their groups for success. “One of the central themes of social psychology is that situations can be really powerful,” Converse says. “People’s behavior often depends on the situation. Working from this assumption, leaders can also do effective work by designing situations in thoughtful ways.”

Leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Rather than painting leaders as figures acting in isolation and without reflection, Converse’s course posits that all leaders can be more effective by understanding intrapersonal and interpersonal processes.

“This course helps students to engage in better judgment processes as individuals and as group leaders,” he says. “It teaches them to recognize and correct potential interpersonal and organizational barriers to success, to influence others, and to bring about positive change through their organizations.”

Leading is a Contact Sport

Professor Andrew Pennock, who teaches courses on leadership, policy analysis, and political institutions, approaches teaching leadership from a slightly different angle. Pennock first cut his teeth working in state government as a nonpartisan committee staffer at the North Carolina General Assembly, and his experiences have given him helpful insight into the personal and practical facets of leadership.

“Leading in public policy is a contact sport,” says Pennock. “Just like basketball, it’s not enough to read about how to play and watch the game; you need to practice and then re-evaluate yourself in order to improve. Nothing engrains leadership frameworks for students more than when they learn to recognize those frameworks in their own current and past practices of leadership.”

Throughout his course, Pennock asks his students to present on failures they’ve had in the past as leaders. “They’ve presented on everything from international incidents to corporate disasters,” he says. “These failures are fertile ground for students to begin learning and practicing how leadership operates in the real world, where problems don’t always come in neatly packaged settings. “

It was this fertile ground that allowed Emma Finkelstein (MPP ’21) to identify the reasons behind her former shortcomings as chief of staff at Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C.

“I brought a professional leadership failure that had eaten at me for years,” says Finkelstein. “I had thought about it so much that I was sure I had analyzed it from every angle possible. But bringing it to the class was both illuminating and humbling.”For Finkelstein, the process allowed her to move beyond her own frame of reference to see the broader systems around her and the constraints others were facing. “I learned valuable lessons about my leadership blind spots, and my supportive, dedicated classmates helped me brainstorm ways to mitigate them going forward.”

Leadership on the Ground

One of the dynamic ways Batten students learn leadership skills is through simulations. Since its inception, Batten has focused on the personal, interpersonal, organizational, and institutional contexts of leadership. Simulations offer students the chance to experience these contexts as directly as possible. The Center for Leadership Simulation and Gaming, under the direction of Batten professor Noah Myung, offers new and engaging leadership challenges for students. 

“The Center creates what we call ‘Participatory Simulations in Public Policy,’ in which students take on leadership roles—such as Prime Minister or Minister of Health—and work with their teams to achieve specific public policy goals,” Myung explains.Immersive, experiential learning lies at the core of the Center’s work, giving students the opportunity to practice skills studied in the classroom by putting them to use in a real-world scenario. “We create controlled environments that place students under very real pressure, offering them the chance to hone critical thinking, crisis management, and negotiation skills,” Myung says. “Students learn not only how they perform under pressure, but also how to get the most out of their team and their knowledge in high-stakes situations.”

Skills They Can Use

Leadership education plays an essential role in the Batten student experience. “It’s not just something that they’re taught at the beginning of their Batten studies, and then that’s it and we send them off,” says Chou. “Rather, it’s something that they continually learn throughout their courses at Batten so that they become better and more informed leaders once they graduate.”

Learning to lead is a process that transcends any formula or algorithm. The Batten School, with its unique interdisciplinary focus on leadership, will continue to push students to challenge their own assumptions about leadership—and to develop the skills they need to lead as effectively as possible.