Bringing a Learning Mindset to Improving Each Other's Practice as Leadership Educators

By S. Todd Deal

S. Todd DealTodd Deal, Ph.D., is Higher Ed Portfolio Leader & Faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership, which he joined in 2018 following a 28-year career in higher education, working in both academic and student affairs. Todd also owns his own leadership education and leader development business, TDLearning, Inc. Todd is married to his high school best friend, Karen, and they have two young adult daughters - an artist (graphic design) and a scientist (biochemistry).

Upfront, I would like to lay claim to being the LEA facilitator with the most “unique” background. I know for a fact that none of your other facilitators for ILA’s 3rd Leadership Education Academy has a Ph.D. in chemistry with over 25 years of teaching experience in higher education! How does a chemist get to be a leadership educator? I’ll save the full story for one of our group dinners in Denver.

This year, I will be serving as a facilitator for the second time, having been a member of the LEA faculty team in the summer of 2017 in Denver. At the 2017 LEA, I had a tremendous opportunity to work with a talented group of facilitators and participants. In fact, it was at LEA 2017 that several of us had a fun-filled opportunity to take Nathan Eva, who is on our faculty team this year, to his first professional baseball game! (Nathan is almost as quick a study of baseball as he is an expert in leadership.) That outing to a Colorado Rockies game is one of my fondest memories of LEA 2017 because it highlights the full immersion experience of the week. Facilitators and participants spend the week discussing leadership and leadership education in sessions, over meals, in group outings, and more — all while learning and working together to improve each other’s practice as leadership educators.

I currently serve as Senior Faculty and Higher Education Practice Leader at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in Greensboro, NC. CCL is a global, nonprofit institution dedicated to “Advancing the understanding, practice, and development of leadership for the benefit of society worldwide.” Interestingly, the opportunity that led to my current position came about from my role as faculty for LEA in 2017. One of our faculty colleagues that year was from CCL, and he and I were roommates. The following fall as CCL sought to enhance its focus on leadership development in higher ed, we connected about the opening, one thing led to another, and my family and I found ourselves relocating to Greensboro! CCL is an amazing institution with a rich history of research and practice in the field of leadership development, and I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned during my time here with all of you when we connect in Denver!

My career as an educator started some 30+ years ago when, as a graduate assistant in Chemistry at Ohio State, I participated in a seminar for new teaching assistants where we “learned” how to teach and practiced with each other. I refer to my first practice session as the epiphany that catalyzed my conversion to a career as a college professor. For more than 20 years, I taught chemistry at the collegiate level (primarily at Georgia Southern University), authored a chemistry textbook (which is now in its 4th edition), served as an associate dean, and was deeply involved in campus life as an advisor, public address announcer for our sports team, and sponsor for a faith-based student organization on campus. In that role, the campus minister and I had the idea of developing a curriculum to develop young people as leaders who would take their faith and leadership into the marketplace as well as their homes, churches, and communities. Thus began my journey into leadership education. As a professor and author, I hesitated to simply grab the first leadership book I could access and rely on it as my source for developing leadership programs. Instead, I dug deep and conducted research on the literature on leadership theory and leadership education. I immersed myself to gain understanding of the practice of leadership and of leadership development, and, using what I learned, I helped to author a new leadership curriculum for our students.

As that curriculum gained momentum and folks on campus began to hear about what we were attempting, the Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management approached me with the idea of developing a student leadership and community engagement program on our campus. The idea caught me completely off guard. How could an old chemistry professor re-invent himself as a leadership educator? Did I have the academic chops to do that? Of course, like any good academic, I enrolled in a graduate certificate program in leadership – we have to prove ourselves, right? – and embarked on a transformative journey. Over the next 10 years, my team and I created a co-curricular leadership and community engagement program that has received two NASPA awards – a bronze and a gold – and that was recognized by the Association of Leadership Educators in 2018 as the Outstanding Program of the year. In the midst of all of this, I created my own leadership education and leader development firm, TDLearning, Inc., through which I work with corporate, non-profit, and educational clients to help organizations capitalize on the talents and strengths of their people to create high-performing, collaborative teams. As you might guess, I do not do well with lots of downtime!

I applied to be an LEA facilitator for the 2017 academy hoping to be able to share some of my learning journey with colleagues, but really hoping to be able to engage deeply in the week and learn from my faculty colleagues and participants. Throughout my journey as an educator, I have found that if I bring a learning mindset instead of an expert mindset into my work or any place for that matter, opportunities pop up that I hadn’t anticipated, but that enrich my life and my practice as an educator. I can affirm that LEA 2017 was an enriching and engaging experience for me as a faculty member. I had the opportunity to invest in a small group of high-energy professionals with whom I still have contact, to share and learn from the large group of participants, and to witness the practice of a group of seasoned educators who were my faculty colleagues.

Regardless of your level of expertise or experience, bring what you have and come prepared to learn, to be challenged, and to grow. At LEA you will find a community of practice filled with colleagues who will support you during our week together and long after. And you will find a community – friends with whom you share an interest, folks who will challenge your thinking, experts that you never thought you would have a chance to meet, and people who, like you, invest in the lives of others to according to ILA’s mission advance “leadership knowledge and practice for a better world.”