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On-Campus Leadership Development: The Workplace as a Learning Environment

December 30, 1899


​Higher education usually equates leadership development with attendance at off-campus learning events, generally in formal training situations such as national workshops, seminars, and institutes. Yet in other fields, such as business, government, and the military, leadership development consists of a full array of in-house learning opportunities and programs as well as on-the-job development.

Many of America's best-run businesses routinely provide in-house development programs for their executives. These programs address a broad range of topics, from time management and computer skills to business strategy and international relations. Similarly, the Armed Forces use job rotation to ensure that officers experience various areas of military operations.

Within higher education, as well, there is widespread recognition that most learning occurs in one's work environment and that the job itself is the richest, most constant source of development.

Still, colleges and universities lag far behind in the support of in-house programming and on-the-job development. But the recent increase in the number of on-campus fellowships, job exchanges, team-building activities, and formal courses may indicate that some institutions are beginning to see the benefits of providing developmental programming for their employees, including improved job performance.

How Do Leaders Learn?

Higher education traditionally does prepare people from within to take on jobs of greater responsibility. It is typically up to the individual to make the job a learning experience. However,  placing personal leadership development in the hands of each employee may not yield the positive results many obtain in a formal, structured process of leadership development.

It is one thing to understand that the job itself is potentially the richest source of learning; it is another to translate that understanding into a series of deliberate strategies and developmental experiences. Perhaps more organizations do not provide formal structures for on-the-job learning because this type of learning is messy, hard to diagnose, and difficult to plan and implement. Some people are more likely to learn from their experiences than others, and different people will learn different things from the same experience.

Formal on-the-job learning brings forth the concept of shared responsibility between individual and institutional leadership development. Fostering a positive learning climate requires a partnership between individuals who want to learn and institutions that will create appropriate learning opportunities.

Before designing deliberate workplace learning strategies, institutional leaders should analyze the assorted sources of learning on the job and what people can learn from a range of experiences. The following points outline learning strategies for leadership development within the campus environment.

New Assignments

A new assignment promotes learning, whether it is a new job or a new responsibility within a current job. "In retrospect, one of my best on-the-job learning experiences was revising the freshman advising system," an associate dean said. "I dug into the research on advising and freshmen, then called around the country to identify issues and national trends of advising. Then I had to determine the strengths and weaknesses of our current system. I needed to envision a new system, develop a plan, and mobilize others, which taught me to interact with new groups and to develop further my interpersonal skills. It was the first time I took a major leadership project from start to finish and managed all aspects by myself." As this story suggests, there are as many learning benefits from involvement with new assignments as there are types of new assignments.

Starting from scratch

Building a team, program, or any new activity requires several important skills, including vision, planning, organizing, motivating others, and working with new constituencies.

Turning it around

The difficulties associated with a troubled or failing operation frequently teach great lessons. Administrators who try to turn around a tough situation diagnose problems, make difficult decisions, and deal with complicated interpersonal issues such as conflict resolution, negotiations, and trust building. These experiences, although often painful, can be very instructive.

Assuming increased responsibility

Adding more responsibility to an individual's job usually means asking them to managing additional people, money, and functions. Increased complexity (and perhaps workload) requires individuals to manage more effectively, think more broadly, and interact more with peers, supervisors, and staff members.

Joining projects, committees, and task forces. 

There is great learning potential in new projects and temporary assignments.

"Although committees often seem the bane of my work existence, I've learned a great deal from them about how organizations and people work, not to mention about crucial higher education issues," a department chair said. "I've learned that task forces can be deliberately structured to add an extra dimension of learning to the experience." Involvement in committees offers exposure to other institutional operations and gives people a different perspective on their environment and their jobs.

Other People

Exposure to supervisors, colleagues, and employees or staff members helps us learn different ways to complete our tasks, conceptualize issues, and interact with others.


Ideally, supervisors are positive role models as well as teachers. Employees learn from observing them and analyzing what they do. When supervisors are serious about the development of others, they take an active role in coaching, sharing information, explaining their decisions and actions, and providing feedback. If both the employee and the supervisor share the vision of learning, it is more likely to occur. Even a difficult supervisor has valuable experience in coping with stress, accommodating value or style dissonance, and preserving one's sense of self in the face of conflict or disapproval.


Peers also can serve as teachers and role models. They can provide information on the values and culture of the institution, and their feedback is generally less threatening than that of a boss. They can be helpful in developing career strategies and in learning about job options.


A mentor supports a protégé in a variety of ways, such as serving as sponsor and advocate, showing the more junior person the ropes and explaining the system, providing career counseling, and helping the protégé develop a sense of confidence and competence. Good mentors provide feedback and actively coach the protégé by pointing out mistakes and suggesting improvements.

Research shows that mentors are particularly helpful for minority and women faculty and administrators who benefit from a sense of personal connection and affiliation with an individual who can help navigate unfamiliar and sometimes inhospitable territory.


Working with different people—within or outside the institution—enables individuals to broaden their repertoire of interpersonal skills and deepen their appreciation for diverse perspectives and styles. Opportunities for a junior administrator to present information and interact with senior administrators, or for faculty to interact with board members, are potential learning experiences. Another opportunity for development may involve chairing a committee of unfamiliar individuals with the attendant tasks of creating a working team and keeping people on track through persuasion and negotiation. Even negative role models can serve to illustrate bad management or repugnant values, teaching others what not to do.

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