Our students have grown up in a world of incongruent families, policies, science, educational systems, and governments. Most approaches to leadership education assert that we must not save our students from these incongruencies. Some even go so far as to cause extreme disequilibrium within the classroom in order to teach people how to lead in such a disorienting world. I question extreme disequilibrium as pedagogy. While I am not advocating that we save people from the reality of incongruencies, I do believe that sustainable leadership education should be both challenging and supportive.
Teaching leadership is about two fundamental things for me: 1) Sound teaching practices, which place more emphasis on the students and content than the instructor, and 2) modeling effective leadership, not ineffective authority. A pedagogy of extreme disequilibrium is one of incongruence, which is often less about the education of the student and more about the instructor as clever observer in a hostile and chaotic environment. One reason for this is that within a congruent pedagogy, the teacher, students, and content are separate, yet interdependent. In contrast, an incongruent pedagogy treats the content and student as one and the same, which places undue emphasis on the instructor as the engineer of the experience and makes it difficult to answer the question: To what end? Incongruent pedagogies often leave sense-making to students after the fact and in isolation.
Teaching leadership is about teaching. What our students need are lived, messy, authentic, and positive examples of ways to wield both formal and informal authority effectively. This means we need to see teaching as an act of leadership, not as a hall of smoke and mirrors. Within congruent leadership pedagogy, the instructor is the living example of leadership, not an example of ineffective authority for students to battle against. Instead, congruent classrooms based on challenge and support not only surface participants’ deeply-held unconscious issues, but are led by effective teachers who can model how to approach them.
Heifetz and Linsky, in Leadership on the Line , assert that “Exercising leadership is an expression of your aliveness… when you cover yourself up, you risk losing something… In the struggle to save yourself, you can give up too many of those qualities that are the essence of being alive, like innocence, curiosity, and compassion” (p. 225). Teaching congruently (curiously, compassionately, courageously, while building a healthy learning community) means there are no outs, no roles, and no complicit comrades – instead the instructor courageously tries to teach well as an act of compassionate leadership. Where pedagogies of disequilibrium often protect the instructor’s incompetence because s/he does not have to work toward a sustainable community, congruent pedagogies open the instructor to more vulnerability and authentic public failure as a living model of leadership.