Can we talk about leadership?

Can we talk about leadership?

Can we talk about leadership? Specifically, can we talk about the relationship between leadership and undergraduate degrees?

I have a good deal of anecdotal evidence that the sort of student most likely to be a leader at school is the all-rounder, the student who is strong academically across a range of subjects but also plays sport or music – and frequently both – to a high level. They may not be absolutely the strongest in any one subject at school but typically they will be in the top 10% of the group in any subject and, as I say, their strengths lie in the breadth of their achievements, rather than any one more narrowly defined area.

Increasingly I read, too, that good business and political leaders are also likely to be all-rounders, able to empathise with all members of their teams or organisations. This is kind of obvious. A good leader of a complex organisation must be able to understand a wide range of knowledge and practice, see problems  and opportunities in unexpected places, talk to people from all walks of life, and so on.

So strong all-rounders are valued at school and in the workplace. And yet: where are the undergraduate degrees that play to the strengths of these bright, interested and interesting students?

Are we in academia really to say: Ah well, the sort of person you are, the sort of strong all-round intelligence you possess does not fit with what we value as a higher education. When you come to university, you must put aside your many different strengths and narrow your interests to one area of the curriculum or another – something we define as disciplinary excellence. This is the only way  you can say you have achieved academic excellence and this is the only sort of learning and academic achievement we can assess.

Put like this it seems to me, at least, that it is universities who are in the wrong, not the strong all-rounders who wish to study there. If such thinkers are valued for their many attributes at school and in the workplace, and if they are academically bright (as they invariably are) then it is up to us at universities to think about what we estimate to be valuable knowledge and what options we give such students so that they can progress in higher learning whilst retaining the very attributes we value in them.

Any objections?

Photo under CC license from Wikimedia Commons

4 Responses to “Can we talk about leadership?”

  1. I strongly agree with your opinion about “all-rounders” that they have the strongest potential to become leaders. One great characteristic of an exceptional leader is flexibility and people oriented. Being flexible means being able to adjust to different situations and personalities.If you are able to do this, then you become people oriented with great interpersonal skills.Thus I believe that the success of undergraduate studies should not be based solely on academic achievements, but emphasis must also be given to non-academic activities or what you call those extra curricular activities like joining and heading a school organization, writing for a school paper or joining sports clubs.

    • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:


      Thank you for this positive comment. It is interesting that there appears to be very little serious academic research of the connection between being an all-rounder and leadership qualities. We have just completed a pilot study of this in student school leaders (head boys, head girls) and the results are strongly suggestive. We are now looking to take this to the next level to make the study more statistically rigorous. I’d be happy to talk to you about this if you are interested and would like to discuss further.

  2. Your small article makes big points.
    Academically I always fell into the category you described, my SAT scores a near perfect balance, my grades also in the Top 10% but never quite the best in any one subject, I competed in sports successfully and brought back some results as well and was proud of being a positive team member that made the rest of the team push themselves (even ones better than myself, with more potential than I had.) My mind is a curious one, I want to know as much as I can about as much as I can. I want to know how the human body ticks, how the psychology of the mind works, how the structure of language works and how to string words together to best convey my message; also I want to know how it all adds up, I want to know probability and statistics and hell I want to know what the historical data and story can teach me… I finally wound up studying for a degree in computing. Eventually the subject matter narrowed down, I was bored and dropped out to start my own business with zero capital and not enough of the right education. Education and continued learning keeps the mind sharp, I read and read to learn from others but would love to see an educational system in place that allows for a more open yet equally acknowledged syllabus. A degree and a masters for all-rounders with a wide ranging curiosity an education that truly educates and acknowledges students with varied interests equally as specialists. Think of it this way – if everyone is specialized in narrow fields – who then shall connect the dots? People with varied interests should therefore be multi-disciplined and furthermore thought the skills required to connect those dots. How does IT influence Medicine? How does the economy and finance influence where developments are made in the medical field – how does human psychology empower the workforce to drive technological advances, how does the environment impact socio-politics. I think you get my meaning it is only balanced individuals educates to connect these dots that can provide a cohesiveness to all the fields of study and is that not an education that deserves a few letters behind ones name??

    • Carl Gombrich - Personal Blog says:

      Hi Charles,

      Thanks for your comment. There seem to be many who value breadth in higher education – for a variety of reasons. I haven’t looked recently, but in the past I didn’t come across serious attempts at metrics which attempted to measure how we might credit such breadth of learning.

      Perhaps this is no bad thing – maybe leaving this open is part of the beauty of an education which is inherently more exploratory and which leaves more room for creativity. But it is also interesting to consider how one might credit it. What ‘value add’ would you give to the knowledge of a foreign language? How would you give extra credit to a humanist who could also handle statistics? Can we track longitudinally the value to careers of such an education? And so on.

      I’m in no way fetishising measurement (!) but it remains a fact that in education measurability is important to many stakeholders, so it would be an interesting project to see if we could add some sort of metric to the manifest benefits which are otherwise apparent in a broad higher education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *