Leader Volume 8, Number 9
Lesson About Vision
Matson is Professor and Dr. Soper is Assistant Professor, College
of Engineering, Pennsylvania State University.
We teach a
course, “Creativity, Innovation, and Change” to senior
students who are completing the requirements for the
Engineering Leadership Development Minor, a six- course curriculum
open to any major at Penn State. The other courses deal with the
principles of leadership, leadership in organizations,
entrepreneurship, and a leadership
We offered the
thirty students an eight-page syllabus delineating what they would
learn, how they would learn it, and the methods of evaluation.
We then offered them the opportunity to reject the syllabus
and develop their own. As
potential hot-shot leaders, they were unanimous in voting to throw
out the syllabus. They
kept the course outline, but wanted teach each other the subject
matter. We were relegated to be students in the class with no
special privileges. Our
mantra in response to their decisions was that three questions had
to be answered: 1) What are you going to do? (the vision thing);
2) How are you going to do it?; and 3) How are your going to know
how well you’ve done it?
divided themselves into groups and developed weekly exercises in
various topics such as brainstorming, fast failure, feedback, etc.
In the third week of class, a group of students requested a
time out to discuss if the class was headed in the right direction
(the vision thing). The majority decision was to carry on as
activities followed. Dissatisfaction
grew. The activities
didn’t flow together, or grow, or lead to anything.
Activity without vision was mostly a waste of time.
Students started dropping out.
We repeated the mantra with no noticeable impact.
Civility was breaking down in the classroom with students
arguing and debating minor points.
Leadership became a ritual of whoever could shout the
these really the leaders of the future?
With one week to
go in the semester, the problem of grades loomed large. How were
letter grades to be allocated?
Some students wanted to punt the decision back to us.
We refused. The
students discussed how the grades should be based on how well each
one of them met the course requirements.
But what were the requirements?
They decided to have each one of them determine his or her
own requirements and give themselves a grade.
The paradoxical result was that eighty percent of the
students gave themselves “A’s,”
yet deemed the course a failure.
Failure to Success
Was there any way
to redeem the course? The
class decided to spend the Saturday before finals at a cabin in
the woods to resolve the issue of grades and the meaning of the
course. We acted as
facilitators and tossed out the three essential questions:
1) What are we going to do here? 2) How are we going to do
it? and 3) How are we to evaluate our progress?
We tackled the vision question by asking each student what
he or she expected to get out of the day.
Almost all expected to learn the processes of creativity,
innovation, and change.
Next, we asked
how we would decide whether the day was a success.
With some creative input, it was agreed that each person at
the end had to state whether or not the goal had been met.
Further, if anyone didn’t agree, his or her concern had to be
worked out before we would disband.
The process question was cleverly addressed be tossing a
cushion around to each person.
The one throwing the cushion had to ask a question about
creativity, innovation and change to the one who caught it. That person then answered the question, asked his or her own,
and threw the cushion to someone else.
The students left
knowing what the course was all about.
We, the faculty, didn’t know in advance if anything would
happen on that Saturday. We
had to have faith in questions posed throughout the course.
The lesson that finally got across to the students was:
If you know where you’re going, and you have some ideas
on how to get there and how to evaluate your progress, the
processes of creativity, innovation, and change will eventually