Today we bring you a guest post from two MSL affiliated researchers and student affairs professionals Christian Hightower and Patrick Randolph.  This is longer than a usual Leadership Thoughts post, but we believe that it will be well worth the read.  Enjoy...


Leadership education on college campuses is a core curricular and co-curricular experience that enhances student learning and development. As student affairs professionals, it is important to remain engaged in new insights and research findings related to effective leadership education practice. Thus, our purpose here is to highlight best practices and present actionable steps to incorporate critical perspectives and high-impact practices into our work with students.

We will address the role of dialogue and its practical implications, but ultimately we hope this blog post will spark meaningful dialogue and reflection on how leadership programming is delivered at your institution.

Socio-Cultural Conversations with Peers

Empirical evidence from the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership (MSL) examining leadership program delivery found that, “how educational content is delivered (i.e. pedagogy) is infinitely more important in leveraging leadership development than the platform of delivery” (Dugan, Kodama, Correia, & Associates, 2013, p. 6). Therefore, it is imperative that leadership educators shift their focus from program type and length, and be intentional about design components such as content and process. The MSL identified four high-impact practices for building leadership capacity: sociocultural conversations with peers, mentoring relationships, community service, and membership in off-campus organizations. In this post we will address the role of dialogue and its practical implications, but ultimately we hope this blog post will spark meaningful dialogue and reflection on how leadership programming is delivered at your institution.

What precisely are sociocultural conversations or dialogues?

Engaging difference requires students to identify their personal values and beliefs and clearly articulate their perspectives. They are encouraged to actively listen to and grapple with conflicting viewpoints. Students’ lived experiences become a wealth of knowledge that challenges and enriches the learning experience. With proper scaffolding, students are empowered to further explore self, group, and societal values that contribute to positive change.

Why is dialogue important?

The need for high-quality, effective sociocultural conversations about and across difference has never been more essential than in this period of deep division and ideological differences in the United States. Not only is dialogue immensely important to how we come to understand and enact leadership, it also promotes significant social and cognitive gains and may provide an antidote to the deepening cultural divide. “Sociocultural conversations are the single strongest predictor of socially responsible leadership capacity for students across demographic groups” (Dugan et. al., 2013, p.9). Leadership education curriculums that lack this form of engagement for and with students are not maximizing the developmental outcomes that can be achieved. Put simply, dialogue should be the primary vehicle for leadership development not an add-on pedagogy or episodic tool used sporadically in leadership education.

What are the difficulties of dialogue?

Dialogue and sociocultural conversations are difficult for a variety of reasons. From the perspective of students, there is an immense cognitive challenge as well as the potential for uncomfortability when engaging in the dialogue. True dialogue centered around leadership asks a person to suspend their own beliefs and realities about the society we live in, while continually and critically reflecting on their own role within the system (Dugan, 2017). This type of critical thinking can be extremely challenging, and may become even harder if one must learn new skills to engage effectively. Not only can this be extremely mentally taxing, this new education about societal systems and our role in them often leads to resistance from students. All too frequently when people actively resist information that draws into question their assumptions about the world or their perception of self as a good person (Jones, 2008). Dialogue provides a pedagogical platform for exploring these precise dynamics.

From the side of an educator, creating spaces for meaningful engagement of difference is an intentional process. Being intentional about creating educationally meaningful cultural/leadership dialogue is extremely hard to do, especially if the Student Affairs professional does not have extensive training as a traditional teacher or in curriculum development. It requires considering all identities within the space, providing opportunities for dialogue spanning multiple dimensions of leadership, creating a space where students can feel brave in sharing their experiences, giving students agency in creating their own knowledge, and finally creating learning outcomes that can be measured for success. While professionals can do this, on top of all of the other administrative responsibilities and an obligation to our own personal well being, the task can be extremely difficult.   

What should we be doing?

While there are many challenges to engaging in sociocultural conversations across difference, as laid out above, it is essential to the leadership development of our students and campuses. We as professional educators need to be giving the tools for engaging in dialogue to our students, giving them intentionally crafted spaces to hone their abilities, and normalizing the difficulty and uncomfortability that accompanies dialogue. It is important to note, these are not in a successive or linear order. They can all happen at different times or even while a dialogue is taking place.

While the tools for dialogue can be described many ways, Hosking (2011) may have said it best when she theorized engaging in dialogue as “characterized: (a) by a very special sort of listening, questioning, and being present; (b) by willingness to suspend one’s assumptions and certainties; and (c) by reflexive attention to the ongoing process and one’s own part in it” (as cited in Dugan, 2017, p. 247). If a couple of those characteristics sounded like the difficulties mentioned above, you would be right. The difficulties and tools are very similar to each other and this must be named to our students. If we normalize the struggles the students have during the learning process, than they will be less likely to feel discouraged when hurdles arise.

The first characterization, (a), calls upon students to actively listen to understand (not just to respond), ask questions to gain understanding of multiple viewpoints (not to disprove or invalidate), and be conscious and cultivate relational trust within the dialogue taking place. Teaching students these skills can be as simple as naming them and making the concepts explicitly conscious. Once named, students can take ownership over the process, and become meaning makers of their own dialogue experience. We can also give the students places to practice these skills in less high pressure situations than dialogues centered around identity and leadership. This involves considering other forms of social stratification or topics that allow students to “grow into” increasingly complex dialogues.

The second and third characterizations require professionals to normalize the discomfort that accompanies critical self-reflection and the suspension of one’s understanding of society. We must tell students it is okay to be confused, angry, guilty, shameful, empowered, and any other emotion that can occur during an in-depth dialogue across difference. It is okay to make a mistake, if you understand and own the impact your mistake can have on a person. Finally, allowing students to understand learning is a process. Giving them the agency to not allow other’s judgment of their own development to get in the way of learning will actively fight against students cognitive growth being stunted by others. We should never punish a student for attempting to learn. Instilling this ideal in your students will allow more people to stay in the process of dialogue and in turn bridge differences.

How do we incorporate sociocultural conversations into current practices?

The adoption of new strategies is challenging and requires us to flex new muscles, yet the rewards for students and institutions in the pursuit of developing highly competent leaders far outweigh the work required to evolve leadership education practice and culture. Whether dialogue is a central component of your current programming or you would like to understand where to begin, here are a few strategies to help improve your understanding and implementation of sociocultural conversations.

Sociocultural conversations are the single strongest predictor of socially responsible leadership capacity, and therefore should be a foundational tool of leadership education not a singular, siloed experience. The integration of dialogue as a primary tool for leadership development requires educators to consider the social systems that influence leadership development, and cultivate the skills and tools necessary to create intentional spaces for meaningful engagement across difference.

As a facilitator, we are not removed from the experience, yet we also bring a wealth of experiences and perspectives that contribute to the co-construction of knowledge with students. Educators must be prepared to apply critical perspectives to their conceptualization of leadership, acknowledging their positionality and understanding how power influences leadership development. We cannot aid students in this developmental process if we have yet to engage in critical self-reflection, questioning personal and societal assumptions about leadership. Educators should invest time and energy into developing teams that can support these experiences. Staff, facilitators, and student leaders should be trained on how to facilitate challenging sociocultural conversations for and with students. A commitment to cultivating facilitation skills with an increase in opportunities for students to engage in dialogue will maximize student learning and growth.

We present these strategies for incorporating sociocultural conversations into current practices with the recognition that we must always meet students where they are. These conversations can be daunting, overwhelming, and even have negative outcomes if the developmental needs and readiness of students are not given proper consideration.  This requires additional reflection to assess how programs are sequenced. Leadership educators should provide a range of programs with increasingly greater complexity that allows students to receive the proper level of challenge and support. Through properly sequenced programming, students will be empowered to build their leadership capacity and develop more complex approaches to leadership.

Guiding Questions to Consider:

  • How are sociocultural conversations about and across difference embedded in current practices on your campus?
  • Based on your current practices, what area is given greatest consideration in the development of leadership education programming (program type, length, content, process)?
  • What would it look like to incorporate dialogue as a primary tool for leadership development?

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