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Culver Academies honors students delve into leadership styles, strategies

Tom Coyne

Johnny Jimenez presents his honors project on servant leadership. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Leadership isn’t a position or a title at Culver Academies. It is a constant practice in how students interact with classmates in their barracks and dorms, on their teams and clubs and other organizations and in classrooms.

Students are required to take a leadership course every year they are at Culver Academies, so they are constantly reflecting on what it means to support their peers and to be responsible citizens. Students are expected to continually think about what it means to be a good leader, to look for ways to better lead others and to realize that you don’t need a title to be a leader and have an impact.

“Culver gives students this absolutely remarkable chance to experiment and practice and engage in all sorts of different leadership experiences,” said Evan Dutmer, Ph.D., senior instructor in ethics and curriculum leader in the department of leadership education who teaches “Honors Seminar in the Theory and Practice in Leadership.”

The class takes a comprehensive look at research on leadership theories and styles, with many of the students examining how those theories and styles are put into practice at Culver Academies. The class, like all honors classes at Culver, is meant to be more challenging than an AP class. It is intended to be a sophomore college-level course taught in a seminar style where students must write in-depth papers and defend their theses before their peers, faculty experts and school leaders. It is a capstone to their academic experience in leadership at Culver.

“I teach this just as though I was teaching classes when I was at Northwestern University when I was getting my Ph.D.,” Dutmer said. “It is an introduction to contemporary leadership studies. They’re drawing from political science. They’re drawing from organizational psychology. They’re drawing from sociology.”

The fact that the boarding school in northern Indiana not only has a department dedicated to leadership but also a building, the Schrage Leadership Center, and a Leadership Plaza in the center of campus demonstrates the value and importance Culver places on that character strength. By the time a student graduates from Culver they will have more than 1,500 hours of hands-on leadership experience.

“So they come into the class as practitioners of leadership,” Dutmer said.

Seven of the eight students who qualified for the honors standard this year studied how leadership works at Culver. The students said the class was demanding and enlightening and gave them a new perspective on leadership.

“I’ve never completed anything this intense. I learned a lot through it. I learned I can do hard things,” said Paityn Thomas, who studied leader-member exchange in Culver Girls Academy athletics.

Ariel Hornek, who examined whether transformational leadership leads to burnout at CGA, said she loved the class.

“Because everyone in the class is so passionate about leadership and there are so many different leadership styles,” she said.

Johnny Jimenez, who studied servant leadership at Culver Military Academy, said the class won’t necessarily make someone a great leader, but it helps students reflect on their leadership styles.

“What changed me and changed a lot of people in my class as well is that we didn’t know originally about our leadership styles,” said Jimenez, who was first make regimental commander. “I learned I may not be expressing what I want to be seeing. So now I’m going to go express that.”

Megan Gifford presents her honors project on resonant leadership. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Thomas said she changed how she leads because of what she learned in the class, especially as a captain on the fencing team. Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory suggests that leaders and followers develop unique relationships based on their social exchanges.

“I've really focused on talking to everyone at every practice, each one of those girls in my squad and just making those relationships and making sure no one is feeling excluded,” she said.

Thomas recalled how disillusioned she felt at a summer job when she didn’t think her boss even knew her name, which is one reason she focuses on making teams better and more inclusive.

Her study found there is a correlation in the quality of relationship between team captains and teammates and how those teams perform.

Megan Gifford looked at resonant leadership in Culver athletics and how captains can impact their teams. Resonant leadership focuses on creating positive and mutually beneficial relationships between leaders and followers.

Gifford studied two CGA teams and a CMA team to see if team captains practiced resonant leadership, and the culture of those teams to see if team members were happy in their sports and if they feel positive when competing.

She found that evidence appeared to suggest that resonant leadership does produce better team culture. She said she couldn’t be more definitive because of the small sample size.

Gifford said the study showed her how much of an impact she can have on teammates.

“I learned that leadership has to be individualized. Not everyone responds to the same leadership. Not everyone responds to the same feedback or criticism,” she said. “It’s about having those one-on-one relationships. I learned that whether it’s in the dorm, or on a sports team or in a class, those one-on-one connections help build the leader and follower to that higher level.”

Jimenez said when he learned about servant leadership as a junior he knew that was the leadership style for him. Servant leaders put the needs of their followers first, working to make sure they are growing and developing.

“I remember thinking, ‘I want to be that type of person.’ I want to practice it myself, so I have to first learn what it is, learn how other people do it,” he said.

Hornek said she decided to study whether transformational leadership causes burnout after she saw a friend lose some of her energy because of the pressure she put on herself to be a great leader.

Transformational leadership occurs when leaders and followers push each other toward upholding high moral standards. Hornek said transformational leaders may be more susceptible to burnout because they tend to focus too much on their failures.

“They tend to forget their past successes, so when a failure occurs, they’ll focus a lot of their attention on that failure. That can send them into a downward spiral,” Hornek said. “They don’t remember those past successes and how great they are.”

Gifford said she learned that the key to being a great leader is the need to be able to use different leadership styles.

 “No one way is correct. It has to be individualized,” Gifford said. “Maybe servant leadership works better with one person and resonant leadership works better with another and transformational leadership works better with someone else. You have to constantly be adapting and changing.”

Thomas said the class teaches lifelong lessons.

“You're going to take what you learned in this class and apply it to the workplace, college, whatever, so I don't think it ever stops,” Thomas said. “It’s been a great experience.”

School leaders often sit in on the presentations, so it gives them a chance to reflect on whether any changes are needed, Dutmer said. Several years ago, a student researched authentic leadership and created a workshop for young women on the pressures of social media. That workshop has been added to CGA programming.

“It shows that we’re always transforming to be more aligned to our values and to live out better what it says on Leadership Plaza,” Dutmer said.




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