My Leadership Development Journey and Story

When you write your life story, what stands out?  For me it was leadership conferences and retreats.  I realized that the greatest experiences of my life were often times at leadership conferences.  I guess this is why I’ve been doing this.  I want others to also experience some “greatest experiences of their life.”  My name is Darin Eich.  I’ve recently finished my Ph.D. in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis (Higher Education) at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  I’ve spent nearly the past seven years devoted to the study, research, development, and teaching of leadership and leadership programs.  I’m most interested in how programs can be created or improved to help people develop as better leaders and contributors to all sorts of leadership processes.  How an individual’s life can become better because of participating in a leadership program.  What I’m presenting here is my life’s work.  Since it is my life’s work I thought it would be appropriate to also tell you my story and my leadership development journey.

I began my journey at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse as a student profoundly changed by involvement in leadership programs. Most notable to my development as a leader and passion for this research was my participation in the NACURH conference and also involvement in Residence Life.  The Residence Life program at UWL was incredible and had elements of high quality leadership programs embedded within it.  I was able to participate in multiple day staff retreats, trainings, leadership workshops, delegations that traveled to Virginia for the NACURH conference and Canada for the GLACURH conference, as well as weekly development meetings as an RA and desk manager.  I see now that this profoundly affected me, my career choices, and development as a leader.  Though I went to work full time in business for three years I knew I would be back at some point devoting myself to the kinds of activities that impacted me as an undergraduate student.
            Later, after working in business for a few years I decided to go back to graduate school full time to pursue what I was really interested in, leadership development and leadership programs.  While as an undergrad I was given many opportunities to do some speaking on campus.  So as a senior in college I started a small organization which is now CollegeMotivation.com and started to do some motivational speaking professionally.   It was tremendous and I wanted to focus in on doing this with my life.  This has been very enriching work for me because I was able to visit many other institutions and introduce myself and my ideas at many different places.  While as a graduate student I was able to help develop leadership conferences or speak at many different Universities.  Some of my favorites have been University leadership conferences at USC, Colorado, Central Michigan, Florida International, Cal Lutheran, Central Florida, Dayton, and Towson to name a handful.  I’ve also enjoyed speaking to athletes at Notre Dame and high school students at WILS and in the Key Club. 

I remember the precise moment when I decided to leave the business world and go to graduate school to focus in on being a leadership educator, entrepreneur, and speaker.  One of my life dreams I had identified was that I wanted to speak at the NACURH conference that had changed my life as a sophomore in college.  This is a very big conference with about 3,000 students who attend from all around the country and Canada.  With a bit of serendipity I was able to be the speaker and MC of the conference two years after I had graduated from college.  I remember sitting in a pizza place during the conference and looking out the window at the students and advisors who formed delegations from each school. They were together, energized, and doing cheers.  They were dressed a little crazy and acted more than crazy.  They had so much enthusiasm and life.  The professional advisors stayed young like nobody I had ever seen.  I felt this was how I wanted to be. It was living life like it was meant to be lived. So there and then in that pizza place I opted to go down this path, to get back into the University and engage myself in crafting my own life.  This involved jumping headfirst into leadership development. 

So, I moved from Wisconsin to Williamsburg, VA to complete my Masters degree in Educational Leadership (Higher Education) at the College of William and Mary.  It was at this wonderful place that I not only got to grow my CollegeMotivation.com and speaking endeavor, but I also got to develop a leadership program at the College.  This was an amazing experience.  Researching, developing, and facilitating were all tasks I loved within leadership programs.  While a student I dedicated all of my projects, papers, and literature reviews to exploring leadership, leadership development, and leadership programs.  After I finished my Masters degree I decided to keep studying this and to keep speaking and facilitating.  I applied to get my Phd and was excited to be accepted at the University of Maryland, which I felt was the best place to study leadership development programs.  I also was so fortunate to get an assistantship at the University where I was able to develop another leadership program, facilitate leadership sessions, and teach leadership courses.  It was amazing.  I also was able to learn from some remarkable people at the University who had such a vast amount of knowledge and experience in leadership development.  Craig Slack and Susan Komives in particular were two people that provided me with great learning.  Also, I was able to serve as an Associate with the National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs and help with the National Leadership Symposium. 

After one year at Maryland I felt called back to Wisconsin.  So, I sadly said goodbye to some great people at Maryland and moved to Madison, Wisconsin to continue my Phd in Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis.  This was also an exciting move because the department was ranked #1 in the country and who doesn’t love Madison, the #1 college town?  I’m not a numbers guy but the numbers looked good and I had a lot of friends in the area.  I also looked forward to working with my advisor who had great experience and knowledge and taught some interesting classes about qualitative research and also curriculum and learning.  It was these areas that I needed to intersect with my knowledge about leadership development.  So the fit was also good for my learning.  Truth be told, I don’t like to stay in one place for too long, love Universities, and looking back on it my experience has been more valuable and the memories better going to three different amazing graduate schools rather than two.  Maryland was also a special place for me and I didn’t want to lose some of the roots I had buried there…even if it was only for one year.  Honestly, the year I was at Maryland was the year that I had learned the most in my life…by far.  With great appreciation I was still able to serve as an Associate with the National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs and help with the National Leadership Symposium for 4 years in a row.   I also started to publish some monographs for leadership educators through this organization.  I did one on Leadership Courses and another on Leadership Retreats.  These were great ways for me to integrate what I was researching in the literature and to try to help others bring the knowledge into practice.

During this time after Maryland and before Wisconsin I was able to become a part of another great program called LeaderShape.  One Fall I spoke at a leadership event at the University of Illinois.  Someone was at my speech who recommended I help to facilitate this program called LeaderShape.  I had heard so many wonderful things about this program.  I took the advice and ended up helping at the National Session of LeaderShape that summer.  This was an important event for me.  Not only was it an incredible program but I made a lot of friends!  Most importantly, it led me to my favorite involvement while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.  Not only was there a national session of LeaderShape but there were also campus based sessions.  It so happened that the University of Wisconsin had a session each summer and I was able to help facilitate that for a couple years in a row.  I had also worked at the University developing and facilitating leadership programs for graduate students, but the actual weeks of LeaderShape were the most special because I made so many friends and learned so much about others.  I was also receiving.

It was at the first LeaderShape that I helped to facilitate that I met a student at the session named Anand Chhatpar.  Anand and I became friends and ultimately business partners.  We operate a company called BrainReactions which stemmed from Anand’s vision at LeaderShape to connect creative college student idea generators with those organizations that have a great need for ideas.  Anand had a great capacity for both leadership and development as a leader.  Less than a couple years later Anand was named by Business Week as one of the top 5 entrepreneurs under 25 and the vision had become a reality doing projects for the United Nations and other important organizations.  Sharing leadership in BrainReactions now is my full time endeavor.  I really enjoy facilitating the brainstorms, teaching people how to be more creative, innovative, and generate hundreds of ideas.  I hope to always continue to do a bit of speaking, teaching, and program development consulting each month since that is my original passion.  Through BrainReactions we also developed and launched Innovation Trip, which was one heck of a leadership program.  We brought together executives from around the globe to the United States for a one week tour and learning experience about leadership and innovation.  We were in Boston, Palo Alto, and San Francisco and visiting Harvard, MIT, and Stanford brining together some of the best innovation consultants in the country.  It was pretty cool and the program was developed grounded in my research on high quality leadership programs. 

That brings me to this.  After about 7 years of studying leadership development, I am nearing finish of my dissertation.  I interviewed over 60 teachers, educators, and students from 4 high quality leadership programs around the country to develop a theory of high quality leadership programs. This theory will hopefully help organizations and institutions develop new programs or innovate their current activities to be of greater quality and have a more positive impact on learning and leadership development.  With some luck, this theory will be put into practice to help institutions and organizations create new and better leadership programs and opportunities for participants of the programs to have some “greatest experiences of their life.”  I owe a lot of the meaning and memories of my life to leadership programs and I hope this research will have ripple effects on others.  If you would like to get in touch, just email me at darin@programinnovation.com 



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