The Power of 51!

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This semester I have been teaching an undergraduate course on Leadership.  My students are primarily freshmen and this is their first real study of this topic. Aside from the fact that they are not always ready to learn at 8:00 a.m., it has been a great experience.  I have learned from them, and hopefully, they have learned a few things from me.

As we move towards the end of the semester, I asked them to write about the most important things they have learned in this class. I told them to reflect on what they have read in the textbooks, the discussions in class, their observations of leadership in the world, and the in-class material.  I found their responses interesting.

A common response was their growing appreciation that there is not one right way to lead, although a follower (and a leader) may have a preferred style.  I have tried to help them to better understand the complicated and delicate balance between leaders and followers.  We have studied a number of motivational and leadership theories and approaches.  They seem to better understand that there are all types of successful (and unsuccessful) leaders.  Leadership is neither simple nor uniform.

They also have come to understand that leadership should be the result of thought and reflection and that it should be intentional in nature.  Good leaders think about their organizations, their followers, their goals and objectives, etc., and determine how best to lead. At the beginning of the semester many of these students confused leadership with personality.  They have come to appreciate that good leaders use different strategies and approaches that are consistent with their values and skills.  Leadership is and should be a conscious decision.

But I was most surprised that so many students identified “the power of 51” as an important lesson.  Whenever I teach leadership, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, during the first class I write on the board the number “51.”  My goal is to help them understand that if effective leadership is measured by the accomplishment of goals, you have to be realistic about what is necessary to bring about action or change.  The ideal may be consensus, but this is not realistic.  Having a vast majority in support makes things easier, but it may not be achievable.

The fact is that 51% is a majority … and with a majority … even a slim majority … you can lead.  Needless to say, our discussions and observations of political leadership and elections helped to demonstrate the power of 51.  These students are becoming more realistic about leadership, the challenges of leadership and their own potential to lead.  That’s an important part of their college experience. After all, these are our future leaders!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Wednesday, 23 July 2014