I believe all student affairs professionals are leadership educators. Higher education strives to produce socially responsible leaders, ready to participate in, adapt to, and shape the global economy (Dugan & Komives, 2007). In some form or another, we are in the business of supporting/fostering/guiding/advising student leadership development, even if “leadership” isn’t in our job title. However, many of us became leadership educators in the same way many of us became student affairs professionals – “on accident.”
Seemiller and Priest (2015) recently wrote an article about the process of leadership educator professional identity development. In a field dominated by student leadership development theories and resources, it was refreshing to see something about my own experience. As a leadership educator within higher education, this article prompted me to consider my own development as a leadership educator and think critically about how I influence and guide others’ leadership educator identity development. In this post, I will summarize Seemiller and Priest’s (2015) article and then discuss the relevance of this article for student affairs professionals.
According to Seemiller and Priest (2015), leadership education is about more than doing leadership, it’s about understanding the experience of becoming and serving as a leadership educator. Leadership educator identity development occurs across four spaces: exploration (will it fit for me?), experimentation (does it fit for me?), validation (do others think it fits?), and confirmation (how do I validate others?). Individuals move through the process (forward or backwards) as a result of different influences and critical incidents (Seemiller & Priest, 2015). Critical incidents are positive or negative moments that result in paradigm shifts or behavior changes. Within leadership educator identity development, critical incidents may challenge an individual’s commitment to the identity, credibility or competence, or prompt reflection on congruence between personal values and leadership educator identity (Seemiller & Priest, 2015).
Professional identity development is part personal exploration, part socialization, and part negotiated experience – representing the shift from “I’m interested in leadership education” to “I do leadership education” to “I am a leadership educator.” A variety of factors influence an individual’s movement in the leadership educator identity development process and the ways individuals explore and commit to a leadership educator identity influence a sense of belonging, retention, and success for leadership educators. The validation space provides a unique challenge for identity development, as validation requires self-validation and validation from others. In theory, validation (from others) should come from those who occupy the confirmation space – leadership educators with PhDs, publication and presentation experience, and senior roles in the field. I agree that “confirmed” leadership educators have a responsibility to mentor, empower, and guide other aspiring leadership educators.
I recently transitioned into a role that formally (in title) validated my role as a leadership educator – I am a Coordinator in a Center for Leadership and Service. In my position, I have the responsibility to hire, train, supervise, and evaluate three graduate assistants. In some ways, my successful job search prompted my existence in a space of validation or confirmation; representing a critical incident “proving” my belonging, commitment, and congruence within the leadership education field. However, I am now coming to terms with the fact that I will play a significant role in the leadership educator identity development of three people. It feels different than guiding, advising, and supporting undergraduate student leaders. It’s likely that none of my graduate students identify as leadership educators at this point in their careers. I look forward to providing a space for them to explore, experiment, validate, and confirm their professional identities. I plan to expose my graduate assistant staff to an array of leadership theories, introduce them to Seemiller and Priest’s (2015) article, and provide space and encouragement to help them explore and experiment in ways that fit for them. I plan to carry this theory with me, as a tool and a reference, to support my own learning and to learn with others – something my new position will provide space to do. We are all leadership educators in different ways and I look forward to learning about the different influences and critical incidents (good and bad) that shape the diverse styles of leadership educator identity in the field.