Teaching Leadership

In an increasingly complex, diverse and ambiguous world there is a growing need to develop effective leadership capacity in scientists. The scarcity of leadership development for scientists represents a substantive disadvantage for the discipline and its practitioners. It’s a necessity to develop leadership skills in concert with a science education so that our future science leaders have the capacity to meet the challenges of the modern world.

A science degree that teaches leadership

The Bachelor of Science Advanced - Global Challenges (Honours) at Monash University weaves leadership, policy, business, communication and entrepreneurship into a traditional science degree.  Leadership is explored throughout the four year degree within targeted units. The course aims is to develop global citizens who have the capacity to create impact through science by instigating action and affecting change in the broader community.  Underpinning the student's leadership development is the principle that leadership is an action that can be exercised by anybody with the tools to mobilise a group of people to achieve a new reality (e.g Heifetz et al. 2009).

Teaching approaches

Effective leadership development requires teaching activities that represent complex realities of human and organisational dynamics (Parks 2005).  Throughout the course students are given the opportunity to respond adaptively to shifting realities, to manage themselves in challenging situations and help other people tolerate disequilibrium. To teach leadership we use a range of experiential learning approaches within the classroom environment and through outreach with the broader community.  These experiential learning approaches include the following:
  • Case-in-point teaching is an integral part of teaching adaptive leadership.  Case-in-point is an immersive teaching approach where participants use themselves and the dynamics of the group to generate opportunity for reflection and build leadership capacity (Johnston and Fern 2010).
  • The case method approach was developed at the Harvard Business School and is used to develop analytic and decision making strategies using real-life issues.
  • Immersive community outreach presents students with the complexities of leadership challenges.
  • Improvisation exposes students to creative problem solving, flexibility and stepping into the unknown. 
Students improvising during role playing.
Critical self-reflection is an essential leadership tool. Developing this skill allows students to simultaneously remain aware of the present whilst making strategic problem solving decisions encompassing broader social systems and organisational challenges.  Self-reflection provides a pause where the students can analyse what they are seeing, hearing and learning from their experiences (Blount 2007). Students undertake self-reflection after group work activities, leadership workshops and many of their experiential classes.

Sustained group-work activities fosters strong collaborative working relationships, builds the capacity to provide meaningful feedback, strengthens emotional intelligence and encourages interpersonal skills. Group student activities include running seminars, writing policy briefs and undertaking group presentations.

Networked students
Building personal and professional relationships is a major focus through the course and students have a range of opportunities and experiences to foster these networks.
  • Retreat - To kick start the course, students have a 3-day retreat camping undertaking physical activities with a focus on rapid group bonding
  • Mentors -  Students are required to have a mentor from outside the university context to draw strength, courage and support from
  • Peer support - 25 motivated and engaged students who remain as a cohort throughout the course
  • Internships - Providing an immersive opportunity to participate in real world issues
  • Students in conversation with Christine Nixon.  Photo credit: Tim Arch
  • Leadership ‘dialogues’ - Regular intimate conversations with community leaders where students gain practical information through discussions of personal leadership journeys, values and philosophies
  • Digital leadership - Using social media, such as blogging and Twitter to spread ideas, develop a profile and create an online community.
Student +Dale Kurian George tweets his thoughts about science and leadership.

Major leadership themes

There are several major themes explored in the leadership component of the course many of which are from the adaptive leadership framework (Heifetz et al. 2009).
  • Leadership vs. authority
  • Creativity and risk-taking
  • Persuasive communication and leadership presence
  • Connecting to purpose and ethical decision-making
  • Thinking politically and mobilising others


Science undergraduate students can be taught skills to exercise leadership effectively.  This can be accomplished using experiences within and outside the classroom that enables students to negotiate complex real world issues. A research study is currently underway examining the student's perceptions of leadership studies in science education and the teaching approaches used in this course.

This blog supports a poster by Dr Rowan Brookes, Dr Susie Ho and A/Prof. Cristina Varsavsky produced for ACSME 2014.

ACSME2014 poster


Blount, A 2007, ‘Critical reflection for public life: How reflective
practice helps students become politically engaged’, Journal of Political Science
Education, vol. 2, pp. 271 - 283

Heifetz, R, Grashow, A & Linsky, M 2009, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Harvard Business Press: Boston

Johnstone, M & Fern M 2010, ‘Case-in-point. An experiential methodology for leadership education and practice’, The Journal Kansas Leadership Center, vol. Fall pp. 99-117

Parks, S 2005, Leadership Can be Taught.  A Bold Approach for a Complex World, Harvard Business Press: Boston

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