Preparing Public Affairs Graduates to Lead


Public affairs and public policy graduate programs prepare their students for professional careers in public service. Many graduates eventually become managers or executives; a few of these lead organizations. Yet some programs such as the one at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs do not require core courses in ethics or in leadership. If we define leadership as the ethical process of empowering and motivating followers to accomplish a shared goal, then ideally all public affairs schools would require at least one course on this matter.

Graduate programs that prepare their students for management should also prepare them for leadership. What distinguishes leaders and leaders who also manage from managers is that while managers are mainly concerned with esoteric operative decisions, leaders must be visionaries. John Gardner, who has written extensively on leadership, stresses that leaders motivate, inspire and encourage the process of renewal within organizations. They are always thinking long-term and possess the interpersonal skills needed to sustain a cohesive group of followers. Leaders can be managers, but not all managers can lead.

Why incorporate ethical leadership training into the core curriculum at public affairs and public policy schools? The goal of ethical leadership training would be to equip students with tools to successfully lead others – even the bureaucrat benefits from such training. The benefits and reasons for this training are numerous.

First, effective leaders have an acute sense of self-awareness, including knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. The best are prepared at some level to make difficult choices when faced with ethical dilemmas.

Second, due to the dynamic nature of many work environments, the managers and executives of today face the difficult task of harnessing all the increasingly mobile, complex and disperse resources available to them.  The fact that public opinion of government bureaucracy is low points to failures of leadership among government workers.

A weaker, but equally valid reason for schools to require ethical leadership training is risk management. It could reflect poorly on a school to have one of its graduates enmeshed in an unsavory public debacle.

The importance of ethics and leadership has not been missed by many of the top public affairs and public policy schools in the United States. Six out of the top 10 schools, as ranked by US News and World Report, require students to take a core class based on ethics or leadership or both.

Many students who have taken such courses as electives believe that their coursework was indispensable. These students’ voices are not the only ones clamoring for the inclusion of leadership and ethics in their core curriculum. The University of Texas at Austin authorized a group of citizens, the Commission of 125, to create a strategic vision for the school 125 years after its founding. When the group released its report in 2004, one of the recommendations was for the university to “emphasize the study of leadership and ethics.” The Commission went further in advising the University of Texas to include this study in the core curriculum.

Arguments against an institutional ethical leadership course vary from citing the lack of academic bodies of work on the topic to claims that student receive instruction in this area through other courses. It is certainly true that many of the popular texts on leadership are lacking in empirical grounding. However, critics must remember that leadership and ethics themes are multi-disciplinary. Philosophers and social scientists, among others, have contributed to the existing ideas we have. Deriving a rigorous curriculum on leadership that presents varied perspectives, theories of followership, team-building, personality analyses, training on interpersonal communication, and ethics-related philosophies is achievable and has been done. At the very least, there is ample opportunity to develop a more robust body of work on ethical leadership.

It is crucial for professional schools to adequately prepare the leaders of the future. Requiring students to take courses that focus on ethics and leadership is essential. I urge schools such as the LBJ School of Public Affairs that do not already do so, to consider mandating all students to complete a course that fulfills this requirement.


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