Wise leadership course has students on the run

7 Oct 2016
UQ Business School students sing to passers by as part of their course on wise leadership

Students enrolling in an innovative leadership course at UQ Business School are being urged to pack their gym gear along with their books.

Running or another physical activity is an integral part of the new Leadership program within the Master of Business degree, along with singing in a choir. The program, which draws on the principles of wise leadership and ancient Stoic philosophy, has received a positive reception from students and is starting to attract global attention.

Associate Professor Bernard McKenna and Dr Ali Intezari who developed the course say that book study alone trains just one-third of the person - the brain's cognitive processes.

"Wise leadership is the practice of harmony," they say. "In this program students learn how they can allow their mind, emotion and body to be harmonized to their full potential when practising leadership."

They emphasise that contemporary leadership theory is no longer based on charismatic leaders or transactional carrot-and-stick methods. It is vital that leaders enact their values – or 'walk the talk'. Consequently, students are encouraged to uncover and implement their core values and reflect on the process.

Two of the five core principles of wise leadership are a commitment to values that promote the social good and also practicality. "If you can’t enact a decision you've made then you are not wise," says Associate Professor McKenna. "To enact decisions requires firstly the willpower to choose to do the action and secondly to go into a zone that may intellectually, physically or emotionally hurt."

"We provide a safe space for people to push their personal boundaries, in order to be able to look at their leadership capacity reflectively rather than just regurgitating accumulated leadership knowledge."

After determining and enacting their core values, students must complete a physically demanding activity over a two-week period, then write an essay about their experience. One student trained for their first marathon, but equally impressive are those who choose to run two kilometres per day when they have never run before.

The third activity is the choir – students are allocated to a choral section between bass and soprano, then must learn a song in a two-part harmony and stand in the middle of the university singing to passers by.

While the academics were initially apprehensive about the students' response, it was clear from their essays that the exercises had had a very positive impact. "Many students state that they understood the discipline required to be a true leader, and how they intend to improve these capabilities in the future," says Dr Intezari. 

The principles are based on the ancient philosophy of the Stoics and Aristotle – which teach that the actions of our body inescapably relate us to nature and to other humans – and on modern phenomenology.

"Students develop a deep understanding that their individual actions occur in a dynamic ecosystem. A leader's actions impact even more strongly on this social ecosystem," says Associate Professor McKenna. "If we become deeply aware of our values and our impact on others then we are much more likely to make decisions for the social good."

Students on the initial course included two project managers who'd worked in some of the world's toughest regions. They said they had become deeply aware of their commitment to enacting their values at work, and that the physical exertion had enabled them to be more courageous in doing so.

Another student with extensive leadership experience said: "One thing that has been concretised for me this semester is that great leaders are much more than a collection of personality traits".