Leadership Development Beyond Projects

Originally published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review


In 2017, as part of her participation in the youth leadership program Global Citizen Year Fellowship, Dora—an 18-year-old from Huntington Beach, California—spent seven months in Thiadiaye, Senegal. One requirement of the program was the completion of a community project designed to address a local need. Based on conversations with local youth, Dora decided to create a guidebook for Senegalese high school and university students that provided details on scholarship opportunities.


Though she finished the project, completing a guidebook in both English and French, she was left with questions about how useful it would prove: Once she left, what would happen to it? Would her mentor or another community member print it out and distribute it? Would anyone update it or make it more accessible by translating it into the national language of Senegal, Wolof? Who or what would pay for any of this? If a student had questions about the guidebook, or applied for an opportunity and got accepted but faced obstacles in pursuing it, who would be there for them?


The Problem With Projects

Individual projects like the one Dora completed have long been a central feature of leadership development programs. These projects—designed and implemented as part of the program experience for the purpose of applying learning—provide participants with learning opportunities based on adult learning and action learning principles, can yield tangible benefits for communities, and often foster collaboration. Yet they have significant shortcomings, including:


  • Program and funder orientation. Making a project the culminating requirement of a program is a choice that defines success in terms that suit the program and its funders. This creates a specific set of performative expectations that participants must work to fulfill. One result is that participants may learn only the skills necessary to complete their specific project.
  • Short-term impact. Leadership program projects are not typically designed with the long term in mind. Usually, they must fit within the program’s time constraints, and receive no ongoing funding or other support once the individual completes the program. As a result, they are rarely sustained, leaving the effort and its focal community without ongoing support.
  • Lack of attention to relationships and identity. Social change leadership is inherently relational. It requires the capacity to build authentic relationships and partnerships by engaging in the kind of deep listening and learning that yields insight into people’s identities, stories, and values, and into communities’ true strengths and needs. It also requires understanding one’s own identity, stories, and values. A focus on project design and completion does not encourage participants to devote time and attention to developing these capacities and understandings.
  • Reinforcement of assumptions about power. The project model usually involves assigning a program participant to complete a project, and even solve a problem, for the benefit of a community. But this often presumes that the participant has power that the community lacks. In any given community, leadership and power already exist, and people are already doing work. Yet programs often direct participants to play harmful roles as individual hero leaders who design and implement projects without understanding what local leadership and power look like, or what efforts are already underway.
  • Failure to build on participants’ existing work and leadership. When participants enter a leadership program, they are often already engaged in community-based work. Rather than building on that work, programs often pull participants’ attention in other directions by requiring them to develop new, unrelated, short-term projects.
  • Inefficient, unnecessary time burdens. To fulfill program requirements, participants often spend significant time and energy coming up with individual project ideas and completing their projects. If the participant cannot take on the project as part of their regular work, it can become a heavy burden. Team projects often have similar impacts, demanding significant planning and coordination and requiring participants to devote a great deal of attention to building a team with which they may never collaborate again.

Shifting Away From Projects

For more than a decade, Global Citizen Year has aimed to help young adults develop resilience, empathy, and agency, and become well-rounded citizens of the world. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the organization created a virtual-only program. Two years later, it decided to return to in-person immersion and, in keeping with its culture of learning and innovation, took the opportunity to step back and reassess its model. It began by assembling a global design team, then, using an online survey, asked young adults to share what they most needed in a leadership program. The global perspectives of both the design team and the 1,000 young adults surveyed led to a reexamination of longstanding program components and a shift in core design principles.


As they reimagined the program with a renewed commitment to respecting local voices and promoting sustainable, locally driven solutions, the design team grappled with questions like these: How could the program ensure that local communities would have the opportunity to define their own challenges and needs, and that solutions would be locally driven and sustainable over the long term? How could it foster collaborative efforts that would honor what communities were already doing, including local ways of leading? How could the program place relationship and community-building at its center?


This year, the organization is launching a redesigned program that does not ask participants to design, declare, and complete a project. In its new form, the program pairs participants with local community members and asks them to focus on learning and building relationships, rather than on identifying and solving a problem as a summative work product.


An important part of the redesigned program is community-based asset mapping, a process that encourages participants to understand what assets and solutions already exist in the community, and occupy a place of learning and humility—important ingredients for relationship building.


The curriculum is designed to foster self-discovery and global orientation as part of each participant’s leadership journey, and is built around four principles: meaning-making, reflection, collaborative learning in and with the community, and experiential learning-by-doing in real-life situations where participants learn from local leaders.


In the new iteration of Global Citizen Year, participants like Dora will focus all their time on learning from people in the community. They will focus on building empathy, and a fuller and truer understanding of the community in which they are immersed. They will make sense of their experience instead of devoting countless hours to, for example, researching scholarships and creating a guidebook that no one may use after the program.


Centering Learning Alongside Projects

Leadership programming can also support people who have outside projects already underway. Health Policy Research Scholars, a four-year leadership program for doctoral students, helps scholars cultivate their leadership identities and foster a collaborative leadership approach. Program scholars are either from historically marginalized backgrounds or populations underrepresented in specific doctoral disciplines, or both. Their lived experiences not only fuel their passion for health equity, but also inform their understanding of it and the ways they work to achieve it through policy and systems change and leadership.


As full-time doctoral students, most participants already have a major project at hand: their dissertations. Dissertations require that students collaborate, produce knowledge, develop strategies, and manage conflict, all of which help prepare them for project-based leadership roles they will take on in their careers.


To complement this project-centric work, Health Policy Research Scholars focuses on people. In addition to training and curriculum centered on health equity, it aims to help scholars explore and express their personal and professional values, recognize and develop their strengths, and share their visions for change and narratives about their own leadership. The program also offers participants career mentoring and one-on-one leadership coaching that help them practice leadership concepts, and customize them to their unique academic and professional contexts.


These program elements are designed to contribute to participants’ leadership identities, increasing their capacity to understand and see themselves as leaders, and enabling them to welcome and work across differences because they are secure in their own identities. That vision, which draws on the Social Change Model of Leadership and the Social Action Leadership and Transformation Model, defines leadership as “a dynamic, transformative, relational process of change” that confronts injustice while promoting equity. The program’s ultimate goal is for participants to develop the capacity to help others find the shared purpose, shared vision, and shared values necessary to motivate sustained collaboration.


Health Policy Research Scholars sees these elements as applicable both to fostering collective social change and to navigating the project-focused environment of academia. Recent qualitative survey data and interviews with participants indicate that scholars complete the program with greater recognition of themselves as leaders, increased confidence in their roles as leaders, and a deeper understanding of the importance of collaboration and community inclusion in leadership to advance health equity.



Cultivating Deeper Ground

We don’t recommend that all leadership programs jettison projects completely. As Health Policy Research Scholars illustrates, projects can be integrated into meaningful, effective leadership development. The key is this: Participant growth and learning must be deeply rooted in discovering and naming their strengths, valuing who they are (and who they are becoming), and increasing their capacity to work with and learn from others, whether or not projects are involved.


Based on what we have learned from successes and challenges in our work—and echoing the potential drawbacks of a narrow focus on projects—we offer these suggestions for leadership programs and funders who want to root participants’ experiences in deeper ground.


  • Orient to participants and communities. Design the leadership program experience with participants and communities in mind. What are their strengths? What are their needs? What suite of skills is most vital for participants to develop? Given that there is no single right way to lead—and no single approach to leadership learning that will suit every individual, their unique context, and the change they want to create in the world—seek out, adapt, and create more-flexible models. Explore ways to work with and provide new, collaborative tools to people who are engaged in social change work but may not be recognized as leaders or hold leadership titles. Design the program to support experiential learning and real-time application of lessons and insights in alignment with participants’ and communities’ unique contexts.
  • Design for long-term impact. Over the long haul, a program’s positive effects hinge on what participants and community members experience and learn. Prioritize opportunities for participants to deepen their understanding of themselves, strengthen their leadership identities, and develop their capacity for listening to, learning from, and collaborating with others. Explore ways to help participants invest in their long-term community relationships as an investment in communities themselves.
  • Rebalance and rethink power. When focusing on people and relationships, create opportunities for people to expand their capacity to reflect on power dynamics and reconsider who leads and how. Design the program to illuminate the power and leadership strengths that communities already have, and to place participants in a learning role. Rather than encouraging participants to see themselves as individual hero leaders doing something for—or even to—communities, create opportunities for them to experience doing with.
  • Build on participants’ existing work and leadership. Rather than pulling participants away from work they are already doing, explore ways of bringing resources and learning opportunities to them. As part of its Results Count approach, for example, the Annie E. Casey Foundation brings together people who are already working on issues like school readiness or access to health care and provides them with a set of skills and frameworks that are important to results-driven leadership.
  • Focus time on relevant work and learning. Design and evaluate each program element in terms of how relevant it is to the broader work participants want to do in the world and what they most need to learn to achieve those ends. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, for example, has developed leadership programs focused on building the capacity of domestic workers to advocate for their common interests and advance equitable policies.

We encourage leadership programs and other social sector organizations to apply these principles to their own work, as well as consider them more broadly. What could educational institutions achieve if they designed courses of study with these ideas in mind? What could local, national, and international programs, organizations, campaigns, and networks achieve if these understandings served as their foundational building blocks? We believe leadership programs can serve as microcosms that push everyone in the social sector to see and create new, more just, more equitable possibilities for ourselves, our communities, and our world.

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