Reflections on JU's Online PhD in Leadership Studies Being Named as one of the Top 10 in the US

Johnson University's online PhD in Leadership Studies was recently named as one of the Top 10 online PhDs in Leadership.   See List.   This week I had the privilege of interviewing potential students and then working with my colleagues to select and accept the program's Cohort 10.  As I interviewed these men and women and read their admission essays I was filled up with a sense of awe and responsibility for those of us called to coach and guide working adults - people who are already immersed in a full life of family and career.  All of our students are working adults seeking a PhD in Leadership often because they feel 'called' to do doctoral work, have questions that they want to explore, or because they want to enhance their leadership within their sphere of influence.  Today, I find myself quite reflective at the journey to this moment.  

Johnson University Campus, April 2016

Johnson University Campus, April 2016

I am humbled and honored to be named to a list of 'Top' - sitting with the esteemed universities who are listed, particularly given the youth of our program and our university in offering doctoral education.  Thinking back to 2010 when I was asked to design the program, I remember distinctly that my intuition alerted that something beyond my imagination was going to happen.  You see, our PhD program began operations in January 2012.  We are a young program, seeing our first graduates in April 2016, so to be in the company of such long standing and esteemed programs is quite an honor.  In some respects, launching a PhD, JU's first, was a BHAG - big hairy audacious goal (smile).   We submitted our design package for accreditation in April 2011 and then waited and prayed, prayed and waited.  In June 2011, we learned that our university was approved by SACSCOC to offer the PhD.   When I learned that there were zero findings or recommendations, I was so moved.  I knew I had put my heart and soul into the design but hey, I'm not an academic.  I'm a business person and consultant who knew, at the time, very little about university accreditation.  I remember the day President Weedman called to communicate our approved status.  I felt giddy and a sense of OMG - in the way one feels when they realize they now have to produce that which they said they would.   

What is it about this program?

Today we have over 70 active students with a healthy applicant pipeline.  I've been asked recently what and why questions.  What are you doing and why do you think you're seeing the growth.  I'll offer some thoughts:

  • Clear organizational vision and design criteria drove the design process.  Criteria included:    
    • Applicable.  The content and degree must be applicable and relevant to leaders serving nationally and internationally within a variety of contexts (profit, nonprofit, and public sectors).  Leadership Studies was chosen as an interdisciplinary topic pertinent to the widest array of people.  
    • Achievable.  Mid-career working adults should not have to leave their context or career for 4 to 5 years to study.   The leave and study approach is costly and inefficient in terms of human and social capital, strategy, and efficacy.  Structure this program in such a way to take the education to students and in such a format that best supports their doctoral journey.  This program is offered 100% online, with no residency requirement so that students may continue living, working, and leading within their sphere of influence.  
    • Affordable.  The program must be affordable.  Part of Ashley and Emma Johnsons' (JU’s founders) vision was to create an affordable learning opportunity because cost should not be a barrier to one’s desire for education.  This is part of our founders' history that we remain committed to.  This program is financially structured in such a way to make it possible for anyone otherwise qualified and accepted to finish the program.
    • Accreditable.  The program must be “accreditable.”  The university including the PhD program are regionally accredited by the SACSCOC.
  • An ethic of care and hospitality undergird our emphasis on creating community.  This translates into a relational approach and commitments to a person first and foremost.  It may seem corny to say we care about people, but we do.  Decisions are made in relation to our ethic of care.  We pray for our students, we acknowledge their accomplishments via social media and privately, we send cards (yes, hardcopy cards!) to honor birthdays, baby births, and anything else we hear about that warrants a card!).  We are intentional about creating a network and a community of scholars and practitioners interested in leadership.  We exist to serve our students, to understand their goals, and to facilitate their journey. 
  • Educational philosophy integrates culture, worldview, and the biblical perspective - not as tack on courses but integrated throughout the curriculum.   This philosophy is a distinctive of JU's educational approach.  I want students to develop the skills to 'see' differently when asking the what is going on here question.  Part of this too is a commitment to faith/learning integration.  We want students who live their faith and who are equipped to model Jesus' example daily.  
  • Fierce commitment to coaching throughout students' journey .  A traditional program can be experienced as a sink or swim approach where the student is left to figure out what to do largely on their own after completing their coursework.  This approach, grounded in an individualism certainly works but I believe a distinctive of Christian higher education is that of relationship.  We are designed as relational beings such that a team approach yields student and faculty benefits that transcend the individualistic approach that can leave people feeling isolated, ill supported, and ill equipped for the task...particularly in an online environment.  We as a faculty early in our first cohort noted the individual approach as potentially inconsistent with our values.  Our program has advisors/coaches throughout:  
    • Years 1 and 2 - an academic advisor + faculty
    • Years 3 - a research coach helps student design a research agenda preparatory to writing a research proposal
    • Year 4 - dissertation chair/committee who work as a team to best support the student in doing their research.  
  • Persistent continuous assessment and improvement.  Our students and faculty communicate what's working, what's not.  Our pioneering Cohort 1 was integral to program adjustments and helping us to understand what aspects of the design needed tweaking, fixing, etc.  We assess every course and have an open door with regard to receiving student feedback.  
  •  Rabid commitment to leadership development.  The doctoral journey certainly is about content mastery and research skills - but more importantly - it is about becoming a "PhDr", about formation and transformation - in my mind, this is the most important thing. I want our graduates to be different people at the end of this journey. And dare I say, this must be a differentiator in Christian higher education - this unyielding commitment to human development or in my world - leadership development. 
  • Leadership conceptual framework facilitates an exploration of individual, organizational and societal leadership with an eye toward moving students beyond 2D thinking (this that; right wrong; black white; public private; etc.).  The issues facing us today are complex and multi faceted - root cause analytic combined with 2D approaches simply don't get us very far.  Instead, we need leaders who can imagine anew, identifying and grappling with the many variables of complex situations including naming those policies, structures, and ways things are that contribute to life challenges, injustice, and oppression.  Further we need leaders who are committed to respect and dignity for all a starting point.  

Why does leadership studies matter?

I could talk all day about the various design elements incorporated into the design of the program.  Certainly the program design and focus attract seekers to our PhD program and serve to bolster their desire to stay.  Dare I say that another aspect, perhaps less tangible, is a collective sense of urgency we feel for the need for leadership....with certain qualities or commitments.  In thinking about what I wanted to write today, I reviewed the conceptual framework that I wrote in 2011 describing the need for leadership studies and a commitment to leadership development:    

"How do we lead within a pluralistic and diverse setting with multiple worldviews and differing cultural contexts?    Leadership studies is grappling with what it means to be an inter-cultural leader, hampered somewhat by historical conceptions of leadership with their strong ties to a specific person, mechanization, efficiency, effectiveness and productivity. Tasks such as visioning, strategizing, goal and objective setting, work performance, productivity, and partnering are valid and necessary within an organization.   However, to bridge cultures requires due consideration for the visible and non-visible culture with positive practices supportive of transitional spaces. Leadership as usual may not be that helpful; instead, we need to re-orient and re-envision leadership toward the following:

  • Commitment to reflect upon and increasing awareness of our own worldview – Commitment to becoming more self aware and increasing our resilience to and capacity for suspending our beliefs and values, for scrutiny is essential.
  • Mutual acknowledgement and respect of Other – People of differing cultures and worldviews do not just eat and dress differently; instead, there may be fundamentally differing orientations to and meanings associated with the world, their place within that world, and the work each performs
  • Seek understanding rather than agreement - Focus on listening, understanding and striving to see the world through another’s eyes. Seeking agreement often means advocacy and attempts to persuade another to a specific point of view. Instead, acknowledge that we have differences and may not agree. But, we can learn to respect another’s views and use the opportunity to understand their and our own worldview better
  • Hold differing worldviews in truth and respect - One of the dangers of categorization, as in categorizing countries by cultural dimension or leadership preferences or even inventorying worldviews, is the tendency toward hierarchical thinking at the expense of mutual respect and regard.
  • Embrace the necessity of relational dialogue – People make sense of their experiences and construct their. . . reality through interaction with others engaged in conversation and story-telling. Our capacity to bridge worldviews is dependent on our capacity to make sense of the world as it presents itself to each involved and create new, shared meanings. This process involves going down into the non-visible, questioning beliefs and assumptions, and remaining committed to illuminating individual and collective wisdom. A goal might be to facilitate sense making and meaning making by using positive practices within transitional space."

It was a long time ago when I penned these words and today as I re-read them I am even more certain that the world needs leaders who embrace these values and who are trained to 'see' beyond 2-dimensions.  Our PhD program's ultimate focus is towards leadership development with a clear vision of the qualities we believe leaders should have.  This belief is infused within our curriculum, pedagogy, and ways of interacting.  The picture below was taken April 2016 on JU's campus at a reception honoring our very first graduates from our Ph.D. in Leadership Studies.  Dr. Weedman, president of JU; Cody Christensen, Jamie Franke, Chris Beard, and me.  Our first cohort of graduates, together we took a program from design to operations.  Sometimes exhilarating and sometimes maddening - we learned together how to do doctoral education virtually.  So why does this matter?  These men are different men today and I have to say I'm different too - even more committed to the vital necessity of developing leaders via doctoral education within a virtual community.  



Leadership Studies Academic Program Design Tips

Newsflash:  I am a faux academic.  Yep, my initial foray into academia was adjunct teaching followed by an investigation into the feasibility of offering a doctoral degree at Johnson University (then Johnson Bible College).  In 2008, JU asked me to explore the possibility of offering a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies.  Part of this analysis included a desktop review of 97 universities who offered a PhD or DMin in Leadership Studies or related degrees.  An outcome of this process include my understanding of a Leadership Studies Academic Program Design Framework depicted in Figure 1 followed by a discussion of each element. 

Figure 1:  Academic Program Design Framework

Figure 1:  Academic Program Design Framework

Leadership studies theoretical framework – Clearly define what you mean by leadership studies.  Few colleges or universities published their definition of leadership studies on their website.  Some underlying biases and assumptions were revealed when examining the program description, organizational placement and the required curriculum.  However, leadership studies as a field of study would benefit from more intentional defining of the term.  Practically, your definition of leadership studies and associated biases and assumptions about the topic influences every facet of your program design including purpose, curriculum, goals, and objectives.  Through conscious and deliberate definition and understanding you lay the baseline from which decisions are made throughout the design and implementation of your program.  Key questions include:  How do we define leadership?  What dimensions of leadership are we most interested in such as leader as self; leader within organizations; leader in society; other factors?  What are our underlying philosophies of teaching and learning and how do those philosophies influence (if they do) our theoretical framework?

Statement of purpose – Create a unified vision and statement of purpose, one that is reflective of your leadership studies theoretical framework.   The key remains a concisely worded statement of purpose:  “The purpose of this program is to XXX.”  Key questions:  What is the purpose of this program?  What are the desired outcomes?  What will a graduate of this program look like upon completion?  

Five programmatic elements are derived directly from the Leadership Studies Theoretical Framework and Statement of Purpose:  organizational placement, target audience, delivery methods, degree requirements, and curriculum.  Key questions:  What is the rationale for design decisions within each element?  How does each design decision align with your Leadership Studies Theoretical Framework and your Statement of Purpose? What criteria will be used to evaluate each element?

Organizational placement – I have no data to support this but I suspect that organizational placement sometimes occurs because a person with the idea is matrixed to a particular School, College, or Division.  This may be okay considering academia’s tendency toward associating with persons of similar interests (said tongue in cheek).   Theoretically, the person or people with the initial idea and who develop the theoretical framework are most likely to develop a theoretical framework in keeping with their particular School, College, or Division.   Warning:  my thoughts that follow, admittedly, are “ideal” rather than how I see things usually working.  Ideally, though, a decision to add a new program is a strategic decision, one undertaken with deliberation toward key questions such as:  Where is a leadership studies program of this type best placed given our theoretical framework and our statement of purpose?  Where in the college or university as a whole can we best meet our goals for this program?  Do we need to create a new school, college, or division? 

Target audience – Defining your target audience is closely coupled with your Statement of Purpose.   Inherent in defining your purpose,  whether overtly or covertly, is a to who question.  Consider two differing purposes such as: (a)  prepare students to teach and do research, or (b)  develop or equip professionals or practitioners to lead.  Two different purposes, two different target audiences, each with potentially differing delivery methods, degree requirements, and curriculum.  Key questions:  What kind of students do you want to participate?  What do you envision students doing with the degree?  Do multiple purposes exist with differing target audiences?  Who do you imagine them being post-degree?  

Delivery method – Devise delivery methods best suited to your Statement of Purpose and target audience.  Consider multiple delivery options (e.g., classroom, online, hybrid) and/or creative scheduling if your target audience includes working adults.  Key questions:  What are the best delivery options given our Statement of Purpose and Target Audience?  What creative alternatives exist for face to face instruction and scheduling?  How much face to face interaction is desired in addition to classroom (e.g., mentoring, residencies, regional meetings, etc.)? 

Degree requirements  - Outline degree requirements best suited to Statement of Purpose and Target Audience.   Consider each element (required core and elective coursework, candidacy or qualification process, dissertation or project) in relation to your Leadership Studies Theoretical Framework and Statement of Purpose.  Key questions:  What is the relationship of course requirements to Leadership Studies Theoretical Framework and Statement of Purpose?  What is the role of and best approach given the role of candidacy or qualification?  What is the role of and best approach for the dissertation or project?  What other requirements are necessary to meet purpose?

Curriculum – Align your curriculum requirements within your Leadership Studies Conceptual Framework and your Statement of Purpose.  A broad concept of leadership studies emerged around the topics or themes of:  (a)  leadership and leadership studies; (b)  organizational studies, (c)  interpersonal behaviors:  team and group dynamics; (d)  communication; (e)  culture, global society, and policy; (f)  ethics, (g)  research, (h)  dissertation; and (i) other special topics.  Within each topic or theme, there was much variation.   Clearly, leadership studies isinterdisciplinary and broadly defined.  This illustrates the importance of your Leadership Studies Theoretical Framework, a clear definition of what you believe becomes the roadmap for developing your curriculum.   Key questions:  What must a student know given our Leadership Studies Theoretical Framework and our statement of purpose for us to meet our goals and objectives?

Be intentional and deliberate in defining your terms and translating that definition throughout all elements of your leadership studies program.  Your clarity and rigor in decision making to always go back to your Leadership Studies Theoretical Framework (what we’re about) and Statement of Purpose (Why we exist)when defining the Organizational Placement, Target Audience, Delivery Methods, Degree Requirements, and Curriculum (how you participate) translate into clarity, coherency and alignment within communication.

Communication – Craft communication that is carefully considered, aligned, clear, and coherent.   I recall one website where a definition of leadership studies was not provided, statement of purpose was “develop professional leaders”, target audience was business professionals, and the core classes were Introduction to Business and Economics.   I experienced a disconnect wondering how I was going to be developed as a leader studying business and economics.  By aligned, I mean all the elements fit together because they have been rigorously designed through intentional validation against the Leadership Studies Conceptual Framework and Statement of Purpose.  Clear simply refers to the overt manner in which you describe each element of your leadership studies program and clarity with which a reader can review your purpose, requirements, delivery methods, etc.  For websites, in particular, pay attention to the ease with which people can find information in a logical manner.  A subject for another day is college or university website design.  It was maddening at times trying to find information on websites!  Finally, coherency is a goal worth striving for.  By coherency, I refer to the human response to reviewing information about your leadership studies program and seeing how the pieces fit together, how they relate, and the ability to visualize themselves within that program.  Key questions:  What might potential students want to know about this program?  What are the messages and methods for communicating our leadership studies program that contributes to alignment, clarity, and coherency?

Continuous improvement – Set goals, objectives, and target measures.  Obtain and assess feedback.  Take action to continually improve your leadership studies programs.  Continuous improvement serves to:  (a)  focuses attention on key issues, (b)  clarify expectations, (c)  facilitate decision making, and (d)  emphasize learning and improving.  A successful continuous improvement framework provides appropriate consideration for improving practices, strategies, and decision making.  Measuring performance provides the means for assessing change and growth in each areas.   Define goals , objectives, and target measures for your leadership studies program so you have key information to:  prioritize and allocate resources; make needed adjustments or changes in policy or program directions to meet goals; to frame actions toward success in meeting performance goals; and to improve quality.  Key questions:  To meet our Statement of Purpose, what do we need to know generally?  What do we need to know programmatically (within each element)?  What do we need to know about our students?  About our alumni?  For each, what are potential goals, objectives, and desired outcomes?  How will we gather information and assess?

JU PhD Program Reflections

To quote Donald Trump, "This is Huuuuuuge!"   Today is a big day at Johnson University because we signed off on our very first dissertation within the Ph.D. in Leadership Studies program.  See program description.  I spent the remainder of the day vacillating between exhilaration and sadness simultaneous filled with a sense of now what?!  

Background:  JU's President Weedman introduced JU to me in 2009 when he asked me to teach Strategic Planning within the BA/BS in Nonprofit Management program.  I still remember that first visit to JU TN located in Knoxville.  I was immediately struck by the physical beauty of the campus and the intense commitment of JU faculty and staff to hospitality.



In 2010, Dr. Weedman called saying JU, in partnership with 7 other universities, wanted to start a PhD in Leadership Studies.  Will you design the program?  Timeline:  5 months.  So a consultant reverse calendars from the due date and does what it takes to meet the client expectations.  Little did I know that within academia - a 5 month design timeline is considered lunacy; however, this is JU - agile, on task, and willing to do what it takes.  

The day we submitted the design package for accreditation review, I remember tears flowing as I contemplated this BHAG (big hairy audacious goal)!  That day, Dr. Weedman asked me to come on board full time to direct the program.  On many levels this was a crazy hire.  I'm not an academic; like strategy, planning and design but grow weary in the midst of implementation; and my professional network, at the time, did not include typical JU alumni or constituents.    Shoot, I wouldn't have hired me for the role!   Yet - I saw an opportunity to build something directly focused on developing leaders and creating opportunities for leadership studies related research and scholarship.  Content mastery and research skills are important but I am more focused on developing leaders who, within their sphere of influence, are equipped to see complexity, focused on human flourishing, and judiciously care, act, and serve.  In Christian-ese, I see our primary purpose as discipling.  

All of these memories came flooding in today.  As a designer, I strive to 'imagine' an if this/then this design anticipating possible hiccups and/or questions in advance.  The reality though is that all implementations are accompanied by a need for thinking, discernment, and adjustment.  So it is with this PhD program rollout.  Bless their hearts - Cohort 1 truly represent canaries sent into the coal mine.  It is a deep honor that the 4 men in cohort 1 entrusted JU with their doctoral education in an untested program and PhD program director.  But they did and today - one of them finished.  We've walked and learned together.  It's with deep satisfaction that I say - Our approach to teaching content and research skills while simultaneously focusing on leadership development works.   I'll get more practical in future posts about what we do.  For now - I want to relish the moment.  It works.  Congratulations Dr. Chris Beard - JU's first to complete their doctoral dissertation.  I am so happy you finished! 

Source: Johnson University, Cliff McCartney

Source: Johnson University, Cliff McCartney