Lessons on leadership and life from Professor Tolani Olagundoye
First, Professor Tolani Olagundoye smashes a few leadership myths.
Leadership is not something only certain people are born to. It’s not exclusive to extroverts. And it isn’t about being the loudest, the most confident, or the bravest in the room. Aspiring leaders would be better served concentrating on being authentic, service-minded, and selfless, says Olagundoye, Pharm.D. ’17.
Olagundoye is a clinical assistant professor of leadership in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences and a Coastal Institute Fellow. She teaches leadership through URI 101, a course for first-year and transfer students designed to ensure their successful transition to college. A one-credit seminar, URI 101 sets the foundation for a student’s academic life. The University runs about 150 sections of URI 101 each fall.
Most URI 101 sections group students according to their majors and are taught by faculty and staff who work within that discipline. The primary goal is to plan, define, and develop the skills that contribute to students’ academic success, but URI 101 takes a holistic approach to educating students, covering a broad range of topics, including self-care, campus life, technology tools, and leadership.
Olagundoye tells her students the key to finding your leadership style is first to know yourself.
THE FOUR ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS
“I have a set of questions I ask my students,” says Olagundoye. “The first I ask is, ‘Who am I?’”
Typically, students answer with an inventory, sharing how many dogs they have or if their grandparents are still living.
“I say, ‘No, that’s not what I’m asking. I want to know—when you’re alone in a room or a car, and the radio has stopped working, and you ask yourself, ‘Who am I?’—how would you answer that?” Olagundoye says.
“Then I ask, ‘Why are you here?’ and they’ll say they’re here to get a degree to get a good job,” Olagundoye says. “And I say, ‘No, that’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking about your purpose on Earth.’”
Olagundoye’s students nail the third question: What do you believe is wrong with the world?
“Who am I? Why am I here? What do you believe is wrong with the world? How can we make what is wrong right?”
“They have so much to say: climate change, food insecurity, technology, social media, and the resulting identity crises we’re all going through right now.”
Olagundoye saves the hardest for last: How can we make what is wrong right?
But this question speaks to students’ agency—and hope, Olagundoye explains.
“Humanity is the cause of many of the global issues we face now,” she says, “but humanity is also one of the solutions to it.”
Self-assessment completed, students examine leadership theories. Olagundoye leans toward authentic and transformational leadership approaches. Authentic leaders favor genuineness, serving alongside the people they work with. Transformational leaders create change by setting an example, Olagundoye says, riffing off New York Times bestselling author Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t.
“The qualities of selflessness and integrity are lacking right now in society,” Olagundoye notes. “The way I approach leadership is selflessness; that is, the leader eats last.”
The Right Stuff: A Leadership Study Guide
LEADERS EAT LAST: WHY SOME TEAMS PULL TOGETHER AND OTHERS DON’T
BY SIMON SINEK
In his second book, motivational speaker Sinek, who once worked for the global advertising, marketing, and public relations company Ogilvy, outlines the full complement of challenges an organization might face and recommends a purpose-driven leadership model for dealing with them. The newest edition of his bestselling book includes a bonus chapter on leading millennials.
LEADERSHIP THEORY AND PRACTICE
BY PETER NORTHOUSE
This textbook on leadership theory is used by more than 1,000 colleges and universities across the world. In addition to outlining the major theories and models of leadership, Northouse includes case studies of companies’ theories in practice. Northouse is a professor emeritus of communication at Western Michigan University.
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE 2.0
BY TRAVIS BRADBERRY AND JEAN GREAVES
Bradberry and Greaves outline four pillars of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management as a guide to increasing emotional intelligence, which, they contend, is the key to achieving personal goals and fulfilling one’s potential.
In this short TED Talk (under 20 minutes), Simon Sinek draws upon the examples of Martin Luther King Jr., the Wright brothers, and Apple to illustrate how innovation emanates from a life defined by purpose.