A Tool for Teaching Personal Leadership Online: The Real Life Leader in the Mirror Assignment
By Summer Odom and Valerie McKee
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Summer Odom is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, & Communications (ALEC) at Texas A&M University. She teaches courses in personal and professional leadership at the undergraduate and graduate level and has taught over 1,755 students during her tenure. Dr. Odom is a leadership coach, leads a learning community for first generation veteran students, and coordinates a college-wide graduate learning community. Her research interests include leadership and life skill capacity building of young adults with a focus on collegiate leadership education, assessment and evaluation of leadership pedagogy, and intrapersonal leadership development.
Valerie McKee is the Leadership Programs Coordinator for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Center for Leadership. She graduated from UF with a bachelor of science degree in Agricultural Education and Communication in 2014. Valerie went on to graduate with a master of science degree from Texas A&M University, specializing in Agricultural Leadership. She is now a doctoral student at UF, specializing in Agricultural Leadership Education. Valerie’s research interests include interpersonal leadership, problem solving, and agricultural leadership programming. Valerie is grateful to continue research with her former advisor, Dr. Summer Odom.
There has been an increased frequency of leadership courses being taught online. Finding best practices for teaching leadership online can be a challenge. An assignment, the “Real Life Leader in the Mirror” is given to undergraduate students in an online personal leadership course as a final project. In this project-assignment, students synthesize leadership concepts by comparing and contrasting their personalities, interests, beliefs, and capacities with a leader in the media or popular press. As an outcome from this assignment, students gained leadership competency in the category of self-awareness and development.
Teaching leadership online can be a challenge! Coming up with ways for students to engage and apply the leadership content without simply taking an exam can be difficult. In search of a way to combine a final assignment in a course and avoid a dreaded final exam, we developed this assignment that combines students’ interests in popular media with the content learned in a personal leadership course and synthesizing their own leadership style. According to Bach (2011) and Berk (2009), providing opportunities for students to connect class material to examples seen outside of the classroom in their lives — or the outer world — can provide students with the aptitude to better comprehend, retain, and engage in the material being taught. Furthermore, the opportunity to utilize pop culture mediums for learning “can create authentic, meaningful and transformative teaching encounters with students of all levels” (Bach, 2011, p. 144). And, while there is some evidence that students in online courses may engage more often in deeper learning on assignments (Manning-Ouellette & Black, 2017), assignments and curriculum plans designed by online educators must be intentional in how they engage students with the instructor and the course material.
For the “Real Life Leader in the Mirror” assignment, students were asked to think of a leader in the media that is similar to themselves individually. The leader chosen had to be someone students could easily search for in the media (Internet, book, articles, television, etc.) and find background information on to help them assess some personal characteristics about this leader. The leader also needed to be one that was similar to the student and not a leader they simply want to emulate. Leaders chosen for the assignment ranged from war heroes to political leaders to athletes to movie characters. Examples of specific leaders chosen by students include Abraham Lincoln, Dick Cheney, Ellen DeGeneres, Yoda from Star Wars, General Martin Dempsey, J. J. Watt, Oprah Winfrey, and Hillary Clinton.
Through a written paper, students were asked to describe how they and this leader are similar in characteristics using topics, concepts, and vocabulary learned in the course. Specifically, topics in the course included the five practices of exemplary leaders (Kouzes & Posner, 2014), values development, authentic leadership, strengths, personality type, emotional intelligence, balance, and creativity as well as a variety of self-assessments designed to allow students to assess their intrapersonal characteristics. Students could differ slightly from their chosen leaders in some ways and it was acceptable for them to point out these differences in their paper. Finally, students were assessed on their articulation of the description of the leader, discussion about the similarities of themselves and the leader using proper terminology from the personal leadership course, and their personal reflections about the leader and what they learned about themselves through the process of completing this paper.
Self-Awareness as a Learning Outcome
Self-awareness is a key component of interpersonal leadership development, and “is vital to effective leadership” (Seemiller, 2014, p. 23). For students to become self-aware and identify their values, vision, and personal qualities, it is necessary to provide an open, reflective, and creative learning environment (Pennington, 2006). Reflection has been shown to develop greater self-awareness for college students (White & Guthrie, 2016). And, reflection about a learning activity reveals how students have developed self-awareness (Scott, Whiddon, Brown, & Weeks, 2015).
Seemiller’s (2014) competency category of self-awareness and development was utilized as a conceptual framework for this assignment. This broad category includes the competencies of: understands oneself (knowledge), values understanding oneself (value), motivated to enhance the understanding of oneself (ability), and enhances the understanding of oneself (behavior).
What Our Students Learned
From these assignments, students revealed that they gained leadership competency in the categories of self-awareness and development. Additionally, students articulated knowledge and understanding of self, the value and ability to understand self, and the behavior of actually enhancing their understanding of self. Students also demonstrated that, through this assignment, they became aware of their personality, beliefs, capacities, and interests. Self-awareness and development competency was the one most easily assessed through the assignment. Students provided examples from their life of how they demonstrated knowledge of personality, beliefs, capacities, and interests through this assignment. Here is a quote from one of the student’s assignments:
As an intuitive personality, I feel that I can sense the emotions of other people. I think this intuition helps Diane Sawyer get those she interviews to disclose information to her that they normally may not feel comfortable sharing. Intuitive people also focus on future possibilities, the big picture, and insights. I tend to focus on the future and the big picture when it comes to everything including life, school work, or an organization.
Students demonstrated their value of understanding self through this assignment. Though not as easily assessed from this assignment, there was some indication that students believed it was important to know one’s personality, beliefs, capacities, and interests. Some students discussed how they can now leverage their leadership capacities to be more effective leaders. An example of a student valuing their leadership capacity is shown through this student’s quote: “Having communication as a strength is vital in the leadership process.” Another student said this:
Through this assignment I have learned that I am capable of many things. I have become more aware of what I can do if I put my mind to it. If I have some of the same traits of a man that once led our country, then what is stopping me from doing that? I have realized that I have the ability to be not only a successful man but a successful leader.
Students demonstrated their motivation to understand self as they discussed researching more about their own personality types. Some mentioned that they actually reevaluated what their strengths or personality type meant as they were writing this paper. Some students discussed how the assignment helped them critically evaluate their less preferred aspects of self and how they can use this newfound insight to improve for future situations. One student reflected:
His actions motivate me personally as a leader. I am honored to be able to find similarities with him [Blake Mycoskie] and his personal visions. His story has helped me in creating a personal goal for myself. I aspire to be a leader like him.
Changes in behavior were evident in this assignment as students did actually enhance their understanding of self. Some students remarked that this assignment helped them gain a clearer idea of aspects of their personal leadership characteristics that were helpful and those that may need improvement. An example of how a student reflection illustrated the understanding of oneself is through this quote:
I have learned that all of my results from the Gallup’s Strength Report, Life Values Inventory, and MBTI test results all go more hand-in-hand than I realized. Being able to think of all of these in retrospect of this semester and combining them to match to another leader makes me realize how much they all make one entire picture of me as a leader.
The “Real Life Leader in the Mirror” assignment appears to help students gain self-awareness by looking at themselves through the lens of someone else. Some students remarked at how fun the assignment was and that they had never really thought about how they compared to other leaders. Leaders chosen for the assignment ranged from war heroes to political leaders to athletes to movie characters.
We believe this assignment was effective at getting students to think differently about themselves and engage more deeply with the course content. This assignment is easy to administer and with little instruction, other than giving the assignment description and rubric.
However, while students did very well in synthesizing course topics for this assignment, they struggled to articulate specific course concepts. For example, some students tended to use vague language instead of the terminology from the course when explaining characteristics about themselves and their chosen leader. Leadership educators who choose to utilize this assignment should reiterate for students the need to connect course concepts by using vocabulary and terminology from course materials and to use proper citations throughout the paper.
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