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A Competency-Based Approach for Student Leadership Development

Corey Seemiller

Number 156 • Winter 2017


San Francisco

Editor's Notes

Whether addressing environmental problems, human rights issues, international conflict, or the economy, the world needs leaders who can thrive in a time of uncertainty and complexity. Yet, we continue to see examples of unethical and even incompetent leaders who have either not addressed these issues or are contributing to their continued existence. This has led to what appears to be a crisis of leadership facing the world today. Schools, communities, organizations, and workplaces have a vested interest in ethical, competent leadership; in many ways, our lives depend on it. Thus, it is no surprise that there is an abundance of books, articles, blogs, videos, trainings, speakers, and resources dedicated to the topic—supporting the belief that if we help develop leadership capacity in people early on, we might avoid these scenarios of bad leadership.

Given that the concept of leadership is referenced in many institutional mission statements (Seemiller, 2016) and that 100% of all 97 academic accrediting agencies in the United States require students to obtain proficiency in one or more leadership competencies before graduation (Seemiller, 2013), it is no surprise that there is a focus on developing students as leaders. Many educational institutions offer credit-bearing classes, workshops, co-curricular programs, and developmental experiences focused on leadership, with some colleges and universities even offering entire graduate and undergraduate programs in leadership. These opportunities are often aimed at helping students develop the competencies essential for engaging in leadership in their workplaces and communities.

But the task of developing students’ leadership competencies can be both elusive and challenging. What competencies are the most critical for students to develop? How can we ensure students are ready to develop leadership competencies? What instructional strategies and program design elements can we use to foster development effectively? How do we help students and educators track and measure competency learning and growth? This issue includes insights from a variety of scholars who attempt to tackle these questions, offering their diverse perspectives and nuanced expertise on: (a) the historical development and current use of leadership competencies in the workforce and in developing college student leaders; (b) the optimal levels of self-efficacy for students to maximize their learning and use of leadership competencies; (c) connecting leadership competency development with Gallup strengths in order to help students develop specific competencies to leverage their talents into strengths; (d) instructional strategies for intentional competency development; (e) the connection between emotional and social intelligence competencies and career readiness, including curricular ideas for on-line learning; (f) designing competency-based leadership programs using elements of gamification; (g) strategies and processes for measuring leadership competency development, including practical ideas for implementation; and (h) integrating a campus-wide leadership competency development approach.

Although the use of competencies has a rich history in organizations, the use of leadership competencies with college students is only in its infancy. But, as funding becomes scarcer and students become more discretionary with their time, using a leadership competency approach can offer institutions quantifiable data to prove the value of leadership development to students, parents, employers, alumni, donors, and institutional administrators. And leadership competencies might just provide the roadmap we need to develop the ethical and competent leaders we need in our world today.

Corey Seemiller


  1. Seemiller, C. (2013). The student leadership competencies guidebook. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Seemiller, C. (2016). Leadership competency development: A higher education responsibility. New Directions for Higher Education, 174, 93–104.