Exploring Leadership’s Cultural and Social Contexts - Leadership Education Academy Graduate Returns to LEA as Facilitator

By Nyasha M. GuramatunhuCooper

Nyasha M. GuramatunhuCooperNyasha M. GuramatunhuCooper, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies at Kennesaw State University. Nyasha was born and raised in Zimbabwe, and the country’s social, cultural, and historical background features heavily in her Leadership Studies scholarship. As a Leadership Studies educator, Nyasha prizes exploration of non-Western contexts of leadership, as well as the connection between leadership and cultural and social contexts. Additionally, Nyasha's teaching focuses on developing intercultural competence and global mindset in leadership education.

This year, I have the honor of serving as one of the facilitators for ILA’s 2019 Leadership Education Academy (LEA). Our team of facilitators is a combination of returning facilitators from previous years, participants from previous cohorts of LEA, as well as some new team members. I have the unique honor of being a facilitator and a past participant, having been part of the first cohort in 2015 in Orlando where I first met Rian Satterwhite, Dan Jenkins, and Corey Seemiller. I count LEA as one of my most meaningful and transformative professional experiences and have happily and frequently shared about this experience with colleagues near and far. When I saw the call for facilitators in 2018, I thought about applying with the intent to give back to a program that had richly influenced my development as a leadership educator. Any hesitation I had to apply was quelled by two emails I received separately from past facilitators, Kerry Priest and Paige Haber-Curran, encouraging me to submit my application.

I am a faculty member at Kennesaw State University, in the Department of Leadership and Integrative Studies. Our department offers a leadership studies certificate, as well as upper level leadership elective courses. My colleagues and I are committed to helping learners demonstrate capacity for scholarly informed practice of leadership in different contexts including personal, professional, cultural, and societal spaces. Greatly appreciating the fact that leadership moves the world (in positive and negative ways), my commitment to the various learners I have the great fortune of working with each semester is to challenge them to become practitioners of leadership who are capable of independent and innovative thought, who can solve problems, who read and write critically, and who navigate the world around them in creative and productive ways. Ultimately, the goal of my teaching practice is to have learners consider and reconsider their paradigms and attitudes, learning to pivot between an appreciation of self, other, and context as they conceptualize and practice leadership in all its complexity.

My journey as a leadership studies scholar and educator began when I was a doctoral student in a leadership studies program. I was immersed in leadership theories and concepts that were steeped in a long tradition of scholarship. However, I noticed that my part of the world (I was born and raised in Zimbabwe) was not represented in the literature and curriculum. This made an impression on me as a student because when theoretical frameworks and concepts are not inclusive of different ways of knowing and being, it limits the impact and growth of the discipline. I knew I wanted to teach leadership from a global and cultural perspective. This meant creating content and using texts that centered other parts of the world as sources of knowledge about leaders and leadership and interrogating dominant leadership theories and maxims rooted in exclusively Western thought and contexts.

An easy entry-point to facilitate my goal was to teach about leadership and culture, leadership and global issues, and leadership and personal identity. By focusing on the nexus between leadership and the aforementioned topics, I present leaders and leadership as flexible concepts that can be embedded in different geographical, cultural, and ideological contexts. My students constantly hear me say, “I am happy you are interested in leadership, but you need to be aware of how the world works from different perspectives.” As part of my teaching practice, I use instructional materials that present the Global South as a worthy, applicable, and relatable source about leadership. For example, when exploring the connection between leadership and culture, I show the film Invictus (a depiction of Nelson Mandela’s early presidency) to demonstrate how cultural orientation impacts leadership values, styles, and relationships.

As an LEA facilitator, I am looking forward to sharing my passion for intentionally integrating cultural ways of knowing and being in leadership education. As our field expands (both in scholarship and teaching and learning), I am committed to making space for global and cultural perspectives. I believe that leadership is a culturally and socially mediated concept and practice. It means different things to different people, at different times, and it does not exist in a vacuum. Leaders and leadership are shaped by historical and political contexts (whose meaning is grounded in cultural perspectives). These perspectives apply to leadership education and challenge us (leadership educators) to be mindful of the type of knowledge, experiences, and narratives we prize or promote in leadership education.

When I registered for the inaugural LEA in 2015, I was not quite sure what to expect. I had just completed my first year in a tenure-track position, and I was looking for a professional development opportunity that would provide a community of support outside of my department and institution. I was specifically looking to develop my pedagogical skills as a leadership educator. After an intense but rewarding three-day period, I left LEA with more confidence about my teaching skills, and a network of colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of working with in different leadership education spaces since then.

A few things stood out to me during my LEA experience. I was very impressed with the facilitators. I get to work with some of them this year as co-facilitators. Their knowledge and dedication to leadership education was remarkable. The fact that they each came from different backgrounds and institutions modeled the diversity of leadership education and leadership educators. As a participant, this was encouraging to see because it highlighted the different spaces in which leadership education can take place. Related to this point, I was also struck by the diversity amongst participants. There was a mixture of faculty, administrators, student affairs staff, and consultants. I fondly remember participating in a “Think, Pair, Share” activity with the president of a small college!

Another part of LEA that stood out to me was the one on one coaching session at the end of the program. These sessions were available to all participants on the last day, and provided a chance to sit with a facilitator and ask questions about various aspects of leadership education. During my 20-minute section, the facilitator and I discussed different ways of assessing student learning in leadership courses. I left this session with valuable tools and strategies that I could easily and immediately implement during the semester that was just about to start, five days after LEA . I started the semester with confidence in my teaching skills because of the immersive experience that LEA provided. The experience of participating in LEA mirrored the classroom environment in ways that prompted me to be mindful about the tools, strategies and methods I was using as a leadership educator. Reflecting on my experience, I realized that leadership education is about content and skills, and is also heavily shaped by the environment that educators and learners co-create. The classroom-like LEA setting allowed us as program participants to experience leadership education from our learners’ perspectives.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of my LEA experience was the spirit of intention and thoughtfulness that was present throughout the experience. It was evident that each activity and segment had been planned with great care to mirror learning experiences in leadership education such as collaboration, reflection, discussion, and application. The cohort model provided an intimate setting where we worked and learned together, laying the foundation for a community of fellowship and support. This experience also helped me think about the kind of leadership educator I wanted to become. I use the word “become” because I believe that our leadership educator identities are in a constant state of ‘becoming’ as we add experiences and knowledge through programs such as LEA .

I am looking forward to meeting new leadership educator colleagues in August, and working with a group of facilitators who are passionate about their work and have provided many learning moments for me.

See you in Denver!

Nyasha M. GuramatunhuCooper