Business Magazine

The Liberal Arts and “Leadership”

Posted on the 08 July 2011 by Sdelavergne


We hear this over and over:  humanities and social sciences majors are developing what in today’s employment parlance are known as “leadership skills.”  This phrase describes a collection of characteristics and abilities that employers are desperate to find in both candidates and employees.


But the phrase is a little misleading.  That word—“leadership”—suggests being in charge.  Whom do we think of as the leadership people at work?  Quick assumptions might include the boss, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the management team, supervisors, and boards of directors.  That being the case, it seems odd to suggest that liberal arts grads, who aren’t ready to assume any of those jobs right out of college, are prepared for leadership.


So let me to clear this up:  Leadership is ubiquitous.  Leadership isn’t reserved for the executive or even supervisory ranks.  It can be everywhere, and the more people who demonstrate it—no matter what job they’re in—the healthier the work environment and the more successful the business.


Leadership in Action


What does leadership at work look like?  A couple of examples:


1 – People who can visualize what needs to be done next (on a project, for example) and can describe it to others.


2 – People who sign up to do what’s needed, who demonstrate initiative.  They say, “I’ll do that!”—and then they do.


3 – People who are relatively comfortable with ambiguity, e.g., conflicting priorities, changing interpretations of “the facts,” or inconsistent direction given by managers who simply forgot what they said last week.


4 – People who aren’t surprised by their colleagues’ strange behavior or by individuals’ or groups’ emotional reactions to everyday news and events on the job.  They understand something about human motivation.


5 – People who work well with others from different national cultures, not just that they’re pleasant and accepting of all nationalities, but that they understand the differences in communication, conventions, and social interaction and how that all plays out on the job.


These are just a few of many examples of what employers mean when they talk about “leadership skills.”


How the Liberal Arts Prepare Employees


I’m sure it’s obvious to you why liberal arts students are prepared in many of these ways, especially understanding national cultures and communicating well.  But let me elaborate about a couple of the other items on the list.


The first one—visualizing and describing work to be done—calls on imagination and communication.  When a project team gets together to talk, for example, about how a third party vendor isn’t making good on promises to deliver a tricky bit of software they said they’re “sure” they can create, what’s to be done?  Who will talk with whom? What do we think the issues really are? How will we document the conversation and what next steps should we plan for?  It takes imagination and an understanding of human behavior to think through all that, abilities developed in a liberal arts education.  It also calls on the abilities to write and speak clearly, to carry forward on the ideas and plans generated in the meeting.


The third one, about ambiguity, is something liberal arts students are much better prepared for than their counterparts in vocational majors.  Engineers and computer science majors, for example, specialize in determinism.  It’s either right or it’s not.  Somewhere down there it’s a math problem with one right answer.  That’s why they’re good at designing bridges, calculating satellite performance, determining load capacity.


But many situations in business aren’t like that at all.  They’re murky, conflicted, ever-changing.  Students who have studied culture, history, art, and language aren’t uncomfortable with situations where there can be more than one right answer, more than one #1 priority.  The liberal arts aren’t about correctly predicting an outcome—as business likes to and engineering must.


One last explanation about this list of “leadership skills,” the one about taking initiative.  If you’re wondering how liberal arts students are better prepared for that than vocationally-prepared students, it’s a reasonable question.  Here’s an answer you probably don’t expect:  Employees, who don’t have all the answers are more likely to take chances on work assignments than employees who do, or who at least think they’re very well-prepared for business employment.


Think about it:  Employees who can knock down complicated Excel spreadsheet analyses of departmental financials with one hand tied behind their backs, thanks to their business education, aren’t likely to volunteer to contact an under-performing vendor and find out what’s taking them so long.  Too far from their “expertise”!  Yet employees whose education has prepared them broadly as communicators, analysts, researchers, readers, and people who understand something about human behavior are likely to say “yes” to many opportunities—because they’re prepared.


Leaders, Not Bosses


Leaders aren’t bosses, or at least not always.  Leaders are everywhere, and the more of them we release to the workforce, the better.  We need to make sure liberal arts students understand what leadership in action looks like, and why they’re well-prepared to be the kinds of employees who aren’t afraid to tackle challenging work, who aren’t thrown by ambiguity or human motivation.  Because that’s what life on the job is really like.

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