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Psychology of Leadership class delves into what makes a good leader

Tom Coyne

Master instructor Susan Freymiller deVillier talks with students in her Psychology of Leadership class. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Culver Academies students taking the inaugural Psychology of Leadership class spent two terms studying leadership scholarship and basic neuroscience to consider what makes a good leader.

The class of eight students looked at questions such as: What makes a leader? Why do people do what they do? How do national leaders make decisions? What’s the difference between “everyday” people and leaders?

“We have solid academic resources to help us understand each of those questions. There’s no simple answer to any of them,” said master instructor Susan Freymiller deVillier, chairperson of Leadership Education.

She notes that the process of thinking about them is essential for our developing leaders. Even a question such as ‘How do I know I’m a leader?’ is a powerful one for students to wrestle with.

Ariel Hornek ’24 said she liked that the students came up with the questions they examined in the class.

“These are questions the whole class came up with in the beginning of the year and we got to shape the class around those questions,” she said. “We’ve been able to question what we’re learning and decide what we want to learn.”

Norah Mahmood ’24 said the class not only looks at what it takes to become a leader but what it means to be a leader.

“This class taught us what you need to be a leader but also how to be a leader in different ways. You don’t need to have a title to be a leader,” she said.

Culver Academies, a boarding school in northern Indiana, places an emphasis on leadership in how students lead their daily lives. Culver Military Academy, established in 1894, and Culver Girls Academy, created in 1971, are distinct leadership laboratories.

The cadets learn under the military system, starting by learning the basics of what they need to know and do to pass personal and room inspections and managing their time and eventually earning greater levels of responsibility, including supervisory responsibility for the performance and training of younger cadets.

The girls learn a proven method of teaching leadership through the prefect system. That starts with freshmen learning who to follow and then being given increasing opportunities to exercise their voices. The girls identify their leaders, and by the time they are seniors, they are ready to build on the foundations of those who came before them and to motivate other girls to follow their vision.


Sloan Littleton '24 presents her research in Psychology of Leadership class. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


By the time four-year students graduate from Culver they could have held at least eight leadership positions, experienced more than 1,500 hours of hands-on leadership experience and received more than 200 hours of leadership instruction in the academic coursework of the Department of Leadership Education.  In the required curriculum, students from both CGA and CMA learn together as they reflect on their roles, structures and systems, their individual character strengths and leadership behaviors/experiences so far. 

The Psychology of Leadership class was created to give students an elective in leadership “that finds the sweet spot between leadership and psychology,” according to Freymiller deVillier. Psychology of Leadership is a challenging class aimed to be a freshman college-level course so not as rigorous as Honors in Leadership, which is intended to be a sophomore college-level class.

While this year’s class was primarily seniors, Freymiller deVillier said the class in the future will be mostly juniors with the idea of preparing and supporting students for the roles they will serve in at Culver as seniors. The class also could be an option for seniors who are not pursuing Honors in Leadership but still want to take a challenging class to delve deeper into leadership studies and to challenge their understanding of the human psychology behind it.

“It’s always good to refresh your leadership knowledge while you’re an active leader, especially in a big role,” said Sloan Littleton ’24, who was second rotation senior prefect.

Students must apply for the class and submit writing samples that show they are ready to do the research. Students in the class must write an eight- to 10-page research paper on leadership that cites at least eight sources and give a seven- to nine-minute talk on the subject.

Freymiller deVillier said the class differs from AP Psychology in that it seeks to ask students to focus on the neuroscience and psychology as it relates to leading and working with others and to apply it to their experience as leaders. Freymiller deVillier said the class is aimed at anyone thinking about leading in any field.

“The class tries to peel back the layer of the psychology of how we think as humans. That’s what I love about the class. We look at some foundational leadership scholarship from Northouse and Avolio and then work through Feldman Barrett’s book “7 ½ Lessons about the Brain.”  Students are especially challenged to consider how their brains work in tandem with other brains.  Students then get to dig into peer-reviewed social science research that will help them understand their topic,” Freymiller deVillier said.

Hornek said she believes she’s a better leader after taking the class.

“I think I’m more aware of how leaders act and what they do and the intent behind what they do,” she said.

Mahmood said she decided to take the class because she plans to major in psychology at Miami University in Ohio and minor in neuroscience.

“I thought it would be helpful preparing me for my major,” she said. “I think when I get to Miami in the fall, I’ll be a bit more prepared because it gave me a foundation.”

Littleton said one of the important lessons she takes from the class is that people come from a lot of different backgrounds and have a lot of different perspectives and they don’t have to have the same work styles to work together.

“You just have to work with each other's abilities. If you try to force someone to become like you are, that leads to resentment and conflict. You have to learn to adapt to each other,” she said. “Understanding where people come from and why they might do what they do from their experiences and try to overcome that to work best.”

Freymiller deVillier said the class encourages students to learn about how different leadership styles work in different situations.

“There is a range of leadership styles and they have different benefits depending on the goals you want to accomplish. I love that students are learning about that whole range to see, ‘What do I need to better support and lead my team?’ ”


Master instructor Susan Freymiller deVillier leads the discussion in Psychology of Leadership. (Photo by Tom Coyne)



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