The Holocaust and Leadership Learning

The Holocaust & Leadership Learning: Developing Social Justice Capacity for a Complex World

By Anthony C. Andenoro and W. Jake Newsome

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Anthony C. Andenoro Anthony C. Andenoro, Ph.D., currently serves as the Executive Director and Professor of the Institute for Ethical Leadership at St. Thomas University in Miami. His research initiatives include the development of moral decision-making in leadership learners; the role of cognitive diversity and active learning strategies in the development of engagement, positive sentiment, and neuroplasticity within leadership learning environments; and the use of behavioral economics principles to shift attitudes and change behaviors in under-resourced communities for the purposes of addressing complex problems and creating sustainability. He has published 20 refereed journal articles, presented 70 refereed and invited conference papers, and secured and managed more than $10.3 million in gift and grant funding to advance his programmatic, teaching, and research initiatives. He is also actively engaged in the field of Leadership Education and Development through several professional associations and is the Project Lead for the National Leadership Education Research Agenda. Additionally, he has worked to enhance organizational dynamics, efficiency, and performance as a leadership consultant working with corporate, government, non-profit, and higher education organizations.

W. Jake Newsome W. Jake Newsome, Ph.D. is a museum educator and a scholar of German and American LGBTQ history. He is the Manager of Civic Learning for Campus Communities at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. As part of the Museum’s new Initiative on the Holocaust and Civic Responsibility, his work aims to empower college students across the nation with the knowledge, motivation, and skills necessary to apply the lessons of the Holocaust in their lives today by cultivating communities in which hate cannot flourish. Newsome earned his Ph.D. in History from the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and his research focuses on Holocaust history, gender and sexuality, and memory studies. His current book project, Pink Triangle Legacies: Holocaust Memory and Modern Gay Identity, explores how various individuals and groups in Germany and North America have debated the legacy of the Nazis’ violent campaign against homosexuality. These debates ultimately shaped contemporary understandings of sexual identity, human rights, and citizenship in modern democratic societies.

Social justice is both a process and a goal (Adams & Bell, 2016). Much like leadership, social justice is not only about knowing, it is about doing. As a social process and an outcome, both are grounded in our learners’ capacity to create change in institutions, organizations, and communities existing within our complex world. More specifically, for a socially just society to be possible, the next generation of leaders will require the capacity to influence significant shifts in human behavior and develop cultures of moral practice that define ethical standards with the communities of our world. This daunting task is complicated by a myriad of variables including the perpetuation of misinformation, the rise of political amorality, extreme polarization, the acceleration of complex problems, and the widening disparity gap between the haves and the have nots. These issues, along with the drastic influx of cynicism and anxiety, call for a change in the way our society behaves and the development of leadership and problem-solving capacity in our learners (Andenoro, Baker, Stedman, & Weeks, 2016). However, leadership learning often falls short of actualizing the importance of brain-based learning in favor of teaching and learning environments that embrace the anti-Freirean, banking model of education and employ lecture and passive, discussion-based teaching methodologies. These linear approaches create leadership learning contexts that are significantly inadequate for developing the necessary capacities, skills, and dispositions critical for addressing global challenges. Thus, a new approach is required if we aspire to develop a foundation for a socially just society.

Embracing the neuroscience literature that provides insight into how leadership educators can best develop moral imagination, emotionally engaged thinking, and adaptive leadership capacity for addressing the complex challenges of our world, researchers at the Institute for Ethical Leadership at St. Thomas University in concert with United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) have developed a compelling framework for leadership educators. The following provides a snapshot of the process that yields implications for the development of the critical capacities necessary for social justice agency and action.

To understand the proposed process for integrating social justice and leadership learning, one must start with the end in mind. Specifically, that learners with elevated levels of moral imagination, emotionally engaged thinking, and adaptive leadership capacity demonstrate significantly higher competence for addressing complex problems and managing change versus their peers (Andenoro, Wasserman, & Newsome, 2019). These provide the foundation for social justice learning built upon the pillars of equity, civic responsibility, social literacy (Ayers, Quinn, & Stovall, 2009), and agency — a temporally embedded process replete with an understanding for the past, context for the present, foresight for the future, and a propensity to act on that knowledge (Andenoro, Sowcik, & Balser, 2017). Understanding the importance of these variables, it is critical to contextualize them.

First, moral imagination is a critical component of building social justice and leadership agency as it provides a framework for the decisions our learners will make. The process of moral imagination includes the following three areas (Werhane, 2008):

  1. Reproductive Imagination - Reflection about oneself and the given situation, including disengagement from and awareness of the given situation.
  2. Productive Imagination - Reframing the problem and imagination of new possibilities.
  3. Creative Imagination - Development of moral alternatives for problem solving contextualized within the given situation.

The connection between moral imagination and social justice is intuitive, as moral imagination emerges from the intentional development of interpersonal competencies and heightened awareness for complex variables and problems within diverse contexts (Odom, Andenoro, Sandlin, & Jones, 2015).

Second, emotionally engaged thinking (Andenoro, 2014; Stedman & Andenoro, 2015) results from an innovative educational process lying at the intersection of counseling psychology, psychotherapy, and neuroscience. Emotionally engaged thinking turbocharges the decision-making process and the prefrontal cortex by engaging the temporal lobe. Through the prioritization of systems thinking and the associated learner emotions, positive decision-making is possible (Andenoro, Dulikravich, McBride, Stedman, & Childers, 2019; Stedman & Andenoro, 2015). The connection between emotionally engaged thinking and social justice is evident, as large-scale behavioral change is often linked to social movements grounded in the development of emotional triggers that speak to the values and social consciousness inherent to segments of the population.

Third, adaptive leadership capacity is a fundamental piece to cultivating social justice agency in our learners. Traditional views of leadership are no longer useful given the increasing complexity of our organizations and global communities (Lichtenstein, Uhl-Bien, Marion, Seers, Orton, & Schreiber, 2006). Adaptive leadership capacity includes self-awareness, intercultural competence, preference for collaboration, effective communication, systems thinking, and high internal locus of control (Andenoro, Sowcik, & Balser, 2017). Thus, adaptive leadership capacity becomes an essential component for working with diverse populations to address complex problems. Additionally, it creates the foundation for social justice agency and action by fostering adaptation, embracing disequilibrium, and generating leadership (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009).

Understanding that moral imagination, emotionally engaged thinking, and adaptive leadership capacity are the destination, a process was developed utilizing neuroscience principles, historical content from the USHMM, and specific teaching methodologies to create a path to that destination. The resulting process has significantly impacted multidisciplinary leadership learners at the University of Florida, Iowa State University, St. Thomas University, and beyond. The following provides a staged approach detailing a process for developing social justice capacity and, more importantly, agency for our world. Additionally, the process validates brain-based learning by creating a full-cerebral cortex experience that engages sensory, back integrative, front integrative, and motor areas (Sousa, 2016; 2011). The identified areas align with the natural learning cycle of experience, reflection, abstraction, and active testing (Zull, 2002) and are fundamental to the following stages within the proposed process. 

Stage 1 – Exposure: The process encompasses a two-week experience utilizing reflective learning activities and instructor-facilitated dialogue. This affords multidisciplinary students the opportunity to learn differently. The crux of the first stage centers on active student engagement with historical photographs, artifacts, film footage, and oral testimony maintained and shared by the USHMM. Through this stage, students participate in instructor-facilitated discussions exploring ethical leadership modules identifying the widespread involvement of people at all levels of society in the Holocaust. The ethical modules within this stage were developed by the USHMM in tandem with the special exhibition, Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust. The modules examine morality and ethics revealing leadership failures of individuals, societies, nations, and the international community. The modules also detail the political and cultural factors that influenced people’s choices that were not unique to the Holocaust creating contemporary relevance for students. Through an understanding of the social and psychological dynamics that played into people’s decisions and actions during the Holocaust, students begin to understand similar human vulnerabilities posing ethical challenges in their lives today.

Stage 2 – Foundational Awareness: This stage provides a reflection point for establishing emotionally engaged thinking and creating a foundation for moral imagination and adaptive leadership capacity. During the second stage, instructors use basic prompts asking students to consider personal implications of the situations illuminated in the first stage. This leads to students owning the problem, applying their understanding of the problem to current contexts, and considering societal implications. Instructors are encouraged to prompt students to consider the universal questions raised by the modules. Specifically, these prompts should provide a forum for students to address the pressures and motivations that influenced people’s actions and decisions and the social and psychological vulnerabilities that people faced during that time period. This facilitates the development of reproductive imagination within the learners, as they develop contextual schema and begin to understand and foresee the possibility of moral conflicts that may arise (Werhane, 1998).

Stage 3 – Authentic Engagement: Authentic engagement relates to how the learners see themselves in the scenario and creates empathy for individuals affected by the identified problem. By focusing on the role of “ordinary people,” the USHMM’s modules move beyond the traditional categories of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders allowing learners to take ownership of the content. This stage indelibly links the learner to the problem. This elicits an emotional response based upon the perceived situation and expectations for the situation. As the learner addresses how he or she feels about the problem, a heightened level of authenticity with respect to the context and problem is presented. This leads to a broader array of experiences and emotions that provide context for situational variables, effective decision-making, and cultivate character formation.

Stage 4 – Connective Analysis: This stage utilizes a systems approach for meaning-making (Neimeyer & Raskin, 2000). The learners develop critical perspectives for the variables influencing and systems impacted by the problem. This further creates an emotional connection between the learners and the problem that increases engagement and predisposes the students to sharing the newly acquired knowledge with their peers. Further, the process within this stage leads to a synthesis of the information shared and their peers’ perspectives of it. This deepens the learning environment and allows for students to envision new possibilities within the scope of their role and context. Werhane (1998) identifies this as productive imagination, the second construct within moral imagination. The increased understanding and application also set the foundation for practicing adaptive leadership (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009) and ultimately lead to the development of sustainable and adaptive solutions.

Stage 5 – Empowerment & Change: Within this stage, the learner psychologically shifts from the development of progressive attitudes to the practice of accompanying behaviors. The embedded attitudes and related behaviors result in the propensity for adaptive leadership practice and creative imagination, the third construct of moral imagination. This involves the ability to imagine new possibilities outside of the current context that account for diverse variables, while assessing the morality of new ideas (Werhane, 1998). The USHMM’s modules and the employed facilitation techniques prompt students to reflect on the collective impact that individual actions and inaction can have, while illuminating the unintended consequences that their decisions might have. This stage identifies that small, seemingly innocuous actions can lead to harmful outcomes as they did during the Holocaust, while simultaneously revealing that individual actions can have meaningful and positive impacts for communities and organizations. This empowers students, as they begin to recognize that their moral agency and action can lead to real-world change.

Parting Thoughts

The previously identified process significantly adds to the leadership learning tool kit. However, prudence and caution must be exercised in the usage of materials that elicit an emotional response from learners. We would advocate that instructors considering adoption of this process should first consider how to create a trustworthy and authentic learning environment for their students. This will create a space that is conducive to constructively processing the information shared. Ultimately, when used intentionally, this process turbocharges leadership learning by temporally embedding attitudes and instilling a propensity for action in our learners. This creates a foundation for the development of leadership learner agency grounded in moral imagination, emotionally engaged thinking, and adaptive leadership capacity and, more importantly, capable of creating a more equitable and socially just world.


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About PAUSE for Pedagogy

PAUSE for Pedagogy aims to connect leadership education theory to practice and seeks to take lessons learned in the classroom to expand our theoretical knowledge of teaching and learning. Written for both the experienced educator and those new to the profession, this column will add tools to readers’ pedagogical toolboxes. Most columns are accompanied by a video interview with the author exploring the ideas raised in the article in more detail. The series is edited by Lisa Endersby and Dan Jenkins, members of ILA’s Leadership Education Member Interest Group. Have you implemented an innovative practice in your leadership education? Contact Dan and Lisa at

Dan Jenkins Photo Dan Jenkins is Chair and Associate Professor of Leadership & Organizational Studies at the University of Southern Maine. He received his doctorate in Curriculum & Instruction (Higher Education Administration) from the University of South Florida. Dan has published more than 30 articles on leadership education and assessment and is an associate editor for the Journal of Leadership Studies. Dan is also a past Chair of the ILA Leadership Education MIG, Co-Chair of the ILA Leadership Education Academy, and enjoys numerous volunteer roles with the Association of Leadership Educators. Follow Dan @Dr_Leadership.

Lisa Endersby Photo Lisa Endersby is a speaker, educator, and storyteller exploring the intersecting realms of technology, leadership, and assessment in higher education. Her current role as an Educational Developer at York University involves supporting faculty in exploring and implementing innovative best practices for teaching and learning. Her doctoral work examines the relationship between professional identity development and communities of practice. Lisa also volunteers her time as the EDC Institute Coordinator for the Educational Developers' Caucus (EDC). Lisa can be reached at