In my last post I explored how the concept of social leadership has, despite many different expressions over the past few years, settled on some core themes: operational agility, multidisciplinarity, and global astuteness. All prize mobility, flexibility and a form of network fluency.
Several commentators remarked that the supply of leadership talent of this nature will likely fall well short of demand over the medium term, and there is little indication that there are significant institutional field shifts to enable universities, the primary drivers of likely change, to position themselves to address the social leadership deficit.
It is into this breach that innovative, entrepreneurial solutions are filling the breach. Some are in the form of intensive programmes, such as those offered by the Amani Institute and Balloon Kenya (among others), others in the form of societies based on university campuses, such as the phenomenally popular Enactus. While they’re all different (organisationally, philosophically, operationally) they all offer an experience which pivots around the practice of social entrepreneurship. This practice, in turn, inevitably involves some form of collaborative problem-solving in international and multidisciplinary cohorts.
It is the practice of social entrepreneurship – or more, precisely, of multi-dimensional problem-solving – which is the crucible for the formation of “horizontal” skills thinkers as Brown have cited as central to the attributes of the T-shaped social leader.
There’s a contrast worth noting here. Whereas vertical skills acquisition is often understood to be an incremental process achieved through the progressive assimilation and application of a comprehensive body of knowledge, horizontal skills development is experienced as transformative and intensive – and achievable over a comparatively short period of time. SE programmes may not be cheap, but they’re not unaffordable for middle class students, and they’re often enjoyable in a way that other aspects of a standard higher education experience.
It’s hard not to wonder if the mushrooming short duration SE sector doesn’t make the degree based higher education seem outdated and unfit for purpose. From preliminary research though, it appears that entrepreneurial (horizontal) and degree-based learning (vertical) are consumed – and narrated- a s complimentary rather than alternative experiences.
From preliminary analysis, it seems that SE programmes offer a reflexive narrative frame which enables students to make sense of their disciplinary expertise through the lens of a discrete “event” which coalesces, clarifies and contextualises their vertical skillset.
At one level, the intensive nature of SE is that it helps bring disparate forms of knowledge together (coalesce) in the application of a problem-solving scenario.
At another, it clarifies the value of vertical skills by forcing participants to apply it a concrete problem (and often one which sits outside the conceptual universe of their degree programme.
At a third level it contextualises vertical skills on a highly personal, subjective and reflexive plane. Ironically, such contextualisation seems to occur when people are forced to examine themselves out of context – in new geographies, on unfamiliar ground and in novel interpersonal environment. Subjectivities of leadership are forged not only in the fire of entrepreneurship, but in those entrepreneurial experiences which take people out of their comfort zones.
None of what I’m suggesting means that the university sector is off the hook, of course. It is clearly that what might be complementary is also an unmistakeable challenge. It is specifically a challenge to the complacent assumption that the value of twenty-first education can be solely located in the acquisition of a degree qualification – that vertical skills are all that count.
Instead it points to the stark reality that universities are only currently set up to offer half the skillset today’s top tier labour market demands. It points to the reality that university centric higher education is playing catch up with the skillsets aspirational millennials are seeking to cultivate; skillsets congruent with the form of the T-shaped leader.