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The Dynamics of Leadership

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Photo by Kris Qua

The Archer Center for Student Leadership Development helps students develop the skills necessary for success in the workplace — and beyond.

By Linda Anderson

During the first week of Introduction to Engineering Design (IED) 10 sophomore engineering students are invited to the front of the room. They are given an 8-foot tube of rolled paper — referred to as a helium stick — and asked only to rest the stick on their fingers and lower it to the ground. Some students roll their eyes, some snicker. But to the students’ amazement, the stick goes straight up in the air instead of to the ground. They quickly discover that this happens because they are not working together as a team.

This deceptively simple exercise is one of the numerous tools used by instructors in Rensselaer’s Archer Center for Student Leadership Development to show students the link between leadership skills and success in the classroom and the workplace, as well as in life.

Rensselaer graduates have long been recognized for their accomplishments in science, engineering, technology, and other diverse fields. But the 21st century workplace also demands that people possess strong leadership abilities — skills and knowledge in communication, critical thinking, multiculturalism, values, ethics, self-awareness, and teamwork. The mission of the Archer Center, which makes more than 6,000 student connections each year inside and outside the classroom, is to help develop these skills and enable students to be leaders in their chosen fields and in their campus endeavors.

It can be a challenge to explain to students the value of leadership, says center director Linda McCloskey. “Some know they are good at math or formulas and think that’s all they need.” What they don’t realize, she adds, is that poor teamwork skills will prevent them from expressing their technical expertise — as the simple, yet instructive, helium stick exercise illustrates.

The center, named for Mary Jane and Hugh M. Archer ’37 and located in the Rensselaer Union, was founded in 1989 as a result of an initiative by the Rensselaer Union Executive Board to provide leadership training for campus club presidents and student government leaders. Today, the center is part of the Division of Student Life and anyone on campus can benefit from its programs, says McCloskey. “The soccer team or the National Society of Black Engineers might come to us and ask ‘Can you work with us on communication?’ Well, communication is broad. So we sit down and talk with the group and design a workshop specifically for them.”

Leadership training is based on the premise that you don’t have to be a natural-born leader — leadership can be taught to anyone, and everyone can benefit from the training. The Archer Center’s 11 educator/lecturers teach what is called “transformational leadership.” This approach is designed to create self-awareness and to help individuals gain a clearer understanding of their own strengths so they can succeed both personally and professionally. Whether you’re in a leadership position or a follower role, McCloskey says, the skills taught by Archer are critical to being able to work with others.

The corporate world long has recognized the value of teamwork and leadership, which is why leadership development training is standard practice in many companies. In fact, Rensselaer’s Key Executive Program, which is designed to foster high-level relationships between corporate participants and Rensselaer, wanted to find a way to better bridge the gap between higher education and the workplace. “Early on the group recognized that the leadership work Linda was doing had the unique ability to provide Rensselaer students with a competitive advantage,” says Key Executive Keith Lawrence ’78, director of human resources at Procter & Gamble. “It wasn’t getting a lot of attention at that point, so several of us Key Executives banded together and went to the administration and got the support.”



Photo by Kris Qua

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About the same time McCloskey was meeting with faculty to learn how she might help advance leadership roles in the classroom. She learned that while Rensselaer students were capable intellectually, they often lacked the ability to function well in teams. Armed with this information, and with recommendations from the Key Executives, the members of the Institute’s core curriculum committee decided to make leadership development a high priority. In the early 1990s it became a requirement for undergraduates in the Lally School of Management and Technology and, soon after, in the School of Engineering, to take two semesters of leadership development. Faculty from the other schools on campus often call on the center for specific leadership training sessions.

While many campuses across the country have leadership programs available through student life offices, this introduction of leadership training into the curriculum is what sets Rensselaer apart, says Gwenn Dungy, executive director of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA). “Typically we see leadership taught in isolation. Students have a difficult time making that transference to other things they are doing because it’s not being reinforced in the classroom. But doing it the way Rensselaer is, it’s fully integrated, and I think that’s the strength of it.”


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Rensselaer Magazine: Spring 2004
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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in March, June, September, and December by the Office of Communications.

 
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