Chapman's Winning Student Case Competition Team at the Opening Night Poster PresentationIntegrating Systems and Ecological Literacy in Leadership Praxis at ILA's Leadership Education Academy - A Facilitator's Perspective

By Rian Satterwhite

Rian SatterwhiteRian Satterwhite, M.A., M.Ed., serves as Director of the Office of Service Learning and Leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where they offer academic and co-curricular programs that help students develop critical leadership practices grounded in community, systems thinking, and the pursuit of social justice. He has served as Chair of Leadership Education and Convener of the Sustainability Leadership Group within the International Leadership Association, and co-chair of the 2018 & 2019 National Leadership Symposiums. His most recent book is the co-edited, Innovation in Environmental Leadership: Critical Perspectives.


This August, the ILA will offer the Leadership Education Academy (LEA) for the third time. I hope that you will consider joining us in Denver for a powerful shared learning experience!

Over the coming months, facilitators for this year’s academy will be writing to introduce themselves and share a bit about their motivations and backgrounds. Some are new and some are experienced with LEA. All come from interesting backgrounds and are engaged in innovative leadership work in diverse spaces. I am privileged to be returning as a three-time LEA facilitator, and thus have a bit of perspective and history to offer in my musings that follow.

First, a little about me and why I call ILA home. I currently serve as Director of the Office of Service Learning and Leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Here, I have the privilege of supporting a dynamic group of eight professional staff, three graduate students, and approximately thirty student employees all engaged in delivering what might be considered the four legs of our chair: (1) curricular and co-curricular leadership development, (2) co-curricular service & volunteering, (3) scholarship programs supporting underserved populations, as well as (4) credit-bearing service-learning training, development, support, and reporting for the campus. Our mission is to create curricular and co-curricular experiences for participants to discover self, learn in community, and influence systems while pursuing social justice. We accomplish this through a diverse mix of programs and services that all weave together five threads:

  • Criticality
  • Developing Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, and Values
  • Identity Development
  • Partnership
  • Systems Literacy

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to help design and facilitate leadership development at a number of different U.S. institutions as well as one abroad at the University of Wollongong in Australia. One commonality throughout it all, however, has been a certain annual gathering of colleagues, friends, and mentors each October – ILA’s annual global conference. I first attended an ILA conference as an undergraduate student under the caring and generous wing of a mentor, Nancy Huber. Even then, I knew I had found a home. Since that time I have done my best to participate actively in the ILA community. The ILA holds as much responsibility for my career path as any other influence, and has served as a steady home for me across various professional adventures. Here, I have built a wonderful community that I am continually challenged and inspired by. Like any home or community, having invested the time necessary to making it better is part of what makes it home. I have thus tried to give back where possible. I’ve supported the work behind the ILA Guiding Questions. Some time ago I had the humbling and exhilarating experience of serving in the three-year cycle as chair of the Leadership Education MIG. I helped to launch LEA and have returned to help it grow. And in 2013, together with a group of like-minded colleagues, I helped to co-found the Sustainability Leadership Learning Community, for which I currently serve as a co-convener along with Kathy Allen.

Integrating systems and ecological literacy in leadership praxis is perhaps the best way to describe my scholarship. Leadership, a socially constructed and thus contextually-grounded phenomenon, must be responsive to the environment it is in. But the relationship is, of course, mutual. Leadership practice inherently affects the environment it is situated in. I believe that many folks are experiencing an increasing recognition of our place within and responsibility to complex natural systems. As a scholar practitioner, I am interested in critical theory, systems thinking, marginalized and privileged identity development, the intersection of peace and sustainability leadership, complex adaptive systems, time in leadership praxis, the intersection of social and environmental justice, distributed leadership, constructionist lenses, and numerous related areas. For me, they are all tied together by a central purpose of exploring how a general broadening of our spheres of awareness, concern, care, and influence necessarily reshape what can and should be integrated into leadership theory, education, and development.

Exploring the above ideas, I have published articles and contributed to several books, including the ILA Building Bridges series in 2015’s Leadership 2050. Most recently, I co-edited the 2018 Routledge book, Innovation in Environmental Leadership: Critical Perspectives, which is constructed by authors from around the globe and treats the natural environment seriously as a foundational context for leadership theory and practice.

So that’s a little about me. Why have I decided to return for a third time with the Leadership Education Academy?

It was about six years ago when I connected with Corey Seemiller and Dan Jenkins and their mad plan to create this experience. They were the ones to recognize the gap in the field and the need to create a dedicated, intensive, and supportive space for new leadership educators or those new to leadership education. They were the ones who took action. Their brainstorming eventually became the crazy goal to, as we sometimes joke, cover the core part of a master’s degree in content and share a compendium of resources regarding leadership education in 3+ days. The experience is intense and rewarding. In those early days I was offered the chance to come on board and, along with others, contributed several years of coordinated work to create this experience before it ever became a reality. The shared experience of creating LEA is something that I am so thankful for.

How often are we presented with the opportunity to craft something completely new? To develop a new leadership course from scratch? To create a completely new leadership development program? The chance to address a need in the field that you love? The chance to build something new was, for me, the initial draw. But what has kept me engaged with LEA for more than six years now is the depth of learning (including my own) and relationship building that occurs in such a short period of time.

At LEA, you can expect for me to be a voice regularly practicing what John Dugan (2017) so importantly calls our attention to: the twinned practices of deconstruction and reconstruction. I’ll be talking about systems literacy and environmental leadership as fundamental considerations for any leadership education program. LEA does a great job of covering the leadership theories most commonly taught and utilized, but we also create spaces for critical interrogation of those theories. How can we include more marginalized theory in our leadership education and development? Should we? How can we use what is so immensely useful from the theories most commonly used, but do so in a way that acknowledges their limitations? How can we contribute to their reconstruction in ways more inclusive, wholistic, and adaptable? How do we create educational spaces where learners are empowered to critically engage with and develop, rather than simply consume, leadership praxis? How do we, to borrow from Fink (2013), create significant learning experiences in leadership education? These lenses are what I commit to bringing to LEA this year.

I look forward to hearing from my fellow facilitators in the coming months, and ask you to consider joining us in August for the Leadership Education Academy. I look forward to learning with and from everyone present.


Rian Satterwhite


Dugan, J. (2017). Leadership Theory: Cultivating Critical Perspectives. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Redekop, B. W., Gallagher, D. R., & Satterwhite, R. (2018). Innovation in Environmental Leadership: Critical Perspectives. New York, NY: Routledge.