Leadership Experience Shapes Students Outlook on Life
FROM JAN. 11–16, more than 50 Susquehanna University students sacrificed their last week of winter break to attend the LeaderShape Institute. They participated in a series of intense workshops and discussions at a remote retreat north of Scranton, Pa., beginning early in the morning and finishing late in the evening.
LeaderShape Institute is an innovative program that teaches young adults how to “lead with integrity.” Originally developed in 1986 by the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, the LeaderShape Institute now serves young adults representing a wide array of organizations in the United States.
The premise behind LeaderShape is to “build community, understand the value of one and the power of all, and to challenge what is by looking at what could be,” says A. Paul Pyrz Jr., president of LeaderShape Inc.
Lisa Scott, special assistant to the president and Susquehanna’s chief diversity officer, who served as program coordinator for the retreat, says she introduced LeaderShape to Susquehanna because she wanted to actively engage not just current student leaders, but also emerging leaders. “Our mission is achieve, lead and serve, but until now, we haven’t addressed the leadership part in a formal, structured way,” she says.
Beyond building students’ leadership skills, the program teaches a willingness to be vulnerable and culturally self-aware, and to see cultural differences as assets. Scott says creating this type of environment “involves a measure of self-assessment around your ability to walk in another person’s shoes.
“It’s about understanding that your reality is not the only one that exists, that you have to acknowledge other people’s humanity and experience.”
During the retreat, Scott says she noticed several students mature culturally. “Students who, prior to coming to LeaderShape, thought they could only make friends with people from the same background, reached out across boundaries to inquire about other ways of knowing and being. In one instance, a young man who at the outset of the week was standoffish and proclaimed, ‘This is silly,’ learned by midweek that he was indeed able to make friends across race and geographic backgrounds. By Friday he was initiating conversation and thinking about how to have successful outcomes once back on campus.”
LEADERSHAPE'S APPROACH is to engage participants with inventive group activities designed to help students think creatively and work as a team. Ebony Bradley ’13, a liberal arts open major from Reading, Pa., was pleasantly surprised by the structure. “LeaderShape wasn’t a boring convention where we sat around and took notes on how to be a leader,” says Bradley. “It was more like a weeklong journey we traveled on together.”
One of the activities along this journey helped students see the world from the vantage point of others whose life situations are different from their own. Using different colored chips to denote social and economic status, students traded their way up and down the ladder of success and, in the process, learned about privilege and what it’s like to be someone who doesn’t have it.
In another exercise, small groups built freestanding balloon castles. Their tools: tape, balloons and a good set of lungs. Their time limit: 20 minutes. The purpose: to see how the various elements of leadership—vision, relationships and action—played out in a complex and challenging task; in other words, how did the different behavioral styles of the team members contribute to the accomplishment of the task.
In the Videre Exercise students were separated into three groups representing manufacturing teams for the fictitious Videre Inc., producer of the magic vision accelerator. Their goal was to produce as many bottles of vision accelerator as possible by tossing a ball to every person in the group. One bottle was produced each time a group finished a rotation.
But there was a catch, evident in the title for this session, “Chaos and Change.” Extra balls, badminton birdies and balloons were added to the mix. Eventually, imaginary chemical spills, power outages, striking union workers and natural disasters were wreaking havoc on their ability to keep production moving. The high-spirited game was a great way to unwind after a long day, but as with everything else in the LeaderShape curriculum, the exercise had a lesson. Its purpose was to teach students how to adapt to change and handle crises as a team.