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A GROUNDED THEORY OF HIGH QUALITY LEADERSHIP PROGRAMS:
PERSPECTIVES FROM STUDENT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMS IN HIGHER EDUCATION
Darin J. Eich, Ph.D.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison
This study investigated four high-quality leadership programs to illuminate the “black box” of what contributes to learning in leadership development programs. Drawing on the experiences and perspectives of multiple stakeholders closely associated with diverse types of student leadership programs, the purpose of this study was to identify the attributes of leadership programs — including the specific actions associated with these attributes — that contribute significantly to undergraduate student leadership development.
For the purposes of this research, program sites were selected based upon their long-term record and reputation from other leadership educators for creating significantly positive student learning and development outcomes. Theoretical sampling was utilized as a strategy to conduct 62 one-on-one interviews with individuals (students, teachers, administrators, student staff, and alumni) across the four programs in the sample. While primary data source for this research was interviews, documentary evidence and observation were utilized as secondary data sources. The researcher employed the constant comparative method, an analytic induction grounded theory data analysis technique, to explore the data and construct a theory.
The theory of high quality leadership programs developed in this study is grounded in those programmatic attributes that, when enacted, contribute significantly to enhancing student learning and leadership development. The data analysis revealed 16 attributes of high quality leadership programs organized into three clusters: a) participants engaged in building and sustaining a learning community; b) student-centered experiential learning experiences; and c) research grounded continuous program development. Through the program attributes, students learn about leadership and themselves in the course of engaging in the leadership process while reflecting on and applying their new learning and skills in collaborative action with others.
The results of this multi-case grounded theory study of high quality leadership programs could be applied and adapted to enhance leadership development in colleges and universities. This theory will allow institutions to enhance their programs and participants’ leadership development by helping participants improve themselves through self-discovery, personal development, reflective practice and collaborative leadership action with others.