It has been said that leadership is a contact sport. Like learning how to drive a car, one can't truly get "good" at leadership by only reading and talking about it. You have to do it.
That is exactly what students in the Buccino Leadership Institute have been experiencing this semester in their interdisciplinary team (IDT) projects. These projects were entirely student-run, with minimal guidance from the Institute's faculty, forcing students to apply many of the leadership principles they learned in the Fall Semester. The overall goals of this initiative were for students to gain valuable experience in peer leadership and in both running and functioning within interdisciplinary teams.
Representing six schools and colleges at the University, the 83 freshmen in the Institute's inaugural cohort split into eight interdisciplinary teams in January. Every team had at least one representative from each of the schools and colleges, giving the students a unique opportunity to collaborate with peers from different disciplines on a real-world project. Teams chose from one of three semester-long projects: produce a recruitment video to be used on the Institute's website; create a comprehensive mentoring program for leadership students in the future; or create an online platform to aid the Institute in becoming a thought leader in the undergraduate leadership development space.
The Process: Learning to Lead Peers
Teams met formally five times during regularly scheduled class time throughout the semester, but the size and scope of the projects required teams to meet outside of class as well. Faculty from the Buccino Leadership Institute served as team mentors, but instead of serving in a traditional faculty capacity, they were given strict instructions to only "observe and report." In other words, faculty sat in the back of the room while the students ran their teams.
This process forced the students to lead their peers — one of the most difficult forms of leadership — and collaborate with those who had different skill sets, opinions and views of the world. To succeed, students had to work on critical skills that are in-demand for today's job market, in every industry, including collaborating with diverse groups, people management, emotional intelligence, creativity and problem solving.
Amy Chin, a freshman leader from the Stillman School of Business, saw an immediate benefit to her interdisciplinary team project. "Because I was put in an environment with those who think differently than me, it was an exciting challenge to adapt to the group dynamics in a room full of leaders. Learning how I fit into the team was valuable preparation for the business world, which has become increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary."
Project leaders had to craft a timeline for project completion, conduct conflict management within their team, and develop strategies to deal with teammates who failed to meet critical deadlines.
Professor Michael Reuter, the director of the Buccino Leadership Center in the Stillman School of Business, believes in the value of this kind of experiential learning. "Immediately students were faced with real challenges, fully responsible to each other for the planning and design of their chosen project. They were exposed to a world of differing opinions and perspectives, conflict resolution opportunities, learning to listen, expressing to be heard, rigid time constraints and committing themselves and to each other in a shared purpose."
In the last two weeks of the term, teams gave formal presentations of their semester-long project to fellow students, faculty, many Deans at the University and even the Interim Provost.
The Feedback: A Pioneering Form of Leadership Training
Team mentors gave each team feedback during the midpoint in the semester, and each student received a one-on-one feedback session after the projects were completed.
Of particular note, each team held at least one of its team sessions in the Market Research Center in Jubilee Hall, an interview room that has the capability to record audio and video and pipe that audio into an adjacent observation room. Thanks to a two-way mirror, attendees in the observation room can see and hear what goes on in the interview room.
Students were then given the recordings of their team session to analyze, and team mentors used this feedback during their team and one-on-one sessions.
Annemarie Ryan, a first-year nursing student in the leadership program, found the video feedback and seeing herself on camera particularly useful. "I have always known that I was soft-spoken, but I never realized to what degree until I watched the IDT video. Having an understanding of my interactions and first impressions will really benefit me in the future and help me challenge myself to become more comfortable and more vocal from the start."
The idea was a novel one and something the Institute plans to use more often in the future. "We use video to improve our performance in athletics and the fine arts – but you rarely hear about using video feedback in leadership development," said Bryan Price, Ph.D., the executive director of the Buccino Leadership Institute. "Given that over 90 percent of communication is nonverbal, and how impactful this kind of feedback was to our students, I think we are onto something big here."
James Kimble, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Communication and the Arts and one of the team mentors, agreed. "The video of the team's first meeting provided a wealth of data that we subsequently pored over, seeking clues to both the verbal content of the meaning and the subtler, easily-overlooked nonverbal cues. I think it's fantastic that the Buccino Leadership Institute is pioneering this form of leadership training."
Overall, the interdisciplinary team projects were a tremendous success, and the Buccino Leadership Institute is excited to make refinements in order to provide even greater value next year.
Professor Marisa Case, from Seton Hall's Freshman Studies team and one of the IDT team mentors, was impressed with the structure of the project as well as the students' performances. "Observing these students take up the challenge in such a proactive, collaborative and cohesive manner was inspirational. But the true accomplishment of the project was the self-confidence, self-authority, self-awareness and accountability owned by each student. This has been a triumph."