U.Va. Batten School’s Leadership Focus More Critical Than Ever, Stam Says

November 20, 2014

There’s a growing consensus that America has a leadership gap holding the nation back from living up to its potential.

Addressing that gap may require a new generation of leaders, and the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is uniquely focused on making sure its graduates have the leadership skills America so desperately needs, said Allan Stam, the school’s second dean, who took the reins on July 1.

“For me, leadership is first and foremost the art of getting things done,” said Stam, who sat down recently with UVA Today to lay out his vision for the Batten School. 

“Leadership and teamwork in the real world are about individuals making a difference in how groups of people function,” he said. “Academics refer to that as individual agency: the power of an individual to independently shape outcomes.”

Distinctive among public policy schools, the Batten School has focused on the study and teaching of leadership since its founding in 2007, a focus consciously highlighted in the name of the school.

“This focus on studying and teaching leadership is both unusual and Batten’s greatest strength relative to peer schools across the country,” Stam said. Thanks to inaugural dean Harry Harding’s execution of founder Frank Batten’s vision, “The school already has an extraordinary group of young faculty, including a critical mass of scholars of leadership, many with a psychology background that offers a key perspective to understand leaders’ success or failure.”

The Batten School relies on a three-pronged curriculum to teach leadership as well as public policy. Students learn the historical context of policy, and to analyze the costs and benefits of policy options. “That’s where most public policy schools stop,” Stam said. Batten takes a crucial third step – teaching the skills that all leaders utilize to influence others, including negotiation, conflict resolution, bargaining and group dynamics. “The world of public policy is a perfect context in which to teach those skills,” Stam said. “That piece differentiates our graduates from the graduates of other public policy schools.”

Stam plans to further enhance Batten’s focus on leadership, and he brings a background uniquely suited to doing so, with leadership experience in academia and the military on top of being one of the nation’s leading scholars of leadership.

“I feel like my whole life up to this point has been preparing me for this job,” he said.

Before coming to the Batten School, Stam directed the International Policy Center at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, where he studied leadership, international conflict and global politics as a professor of public policy and political science. His study of leadership was inspired in part, he said, by his three years of service in the U.S. Army Special Forces and 15 years in the Army Reserve as an armor officer, along with his time earning a varsity letter in heavyweight crew while an undergraduate at Cornell University.

“In American society, sports, the military and business often instill an intuitive understanding of how important leadership is,” Stam said. “In sports, you reach a point where losers go home. In business, if you can’t make money and get your team to work together toward that goal, eventually the market drives you out of business. In the military, leadership is a matter of life and death. If you fail as a leader, people die.”

Stam recently completed one of the biggest studies of leadership ever undertaken: a decade-long examination of how political leaders’ formative life experiences impact their willingness as heads of state to take risks and escalate armed conflict. Stam and colleagues created structured biographies of more than 2,400 leaders of all stripes – presidents, dictators, kings, generals and prime ministers, from Fidel Castro and Winston Churchill to Gerald Ford, Nelson Mandela and Ho Chi Minh – who ruled between 1875 and 2006. Each biography notes key formative events, including service in the military, participation in combat or a revolutionary movement, or the death of a parent or sibling.

Stam found strong correlations between the use of violence against neighboring states and certain traumatic experiences earlier in life. The study is the subject of a forthcoming book, “Presidents, Kings, Dictators, and War,” under contract with Cambridge University Press.

In the book, Stam said, “We argue that individual leaders really do make a difference and we can show that they do, using data. Not biography, but aggregate, quantitative data.”

Whenever possible, the Batten School will be guided by data and looking for real-world applications, Stam said. For instance, going forward, the Batten School will prioritize the study of education and health care (along with leadership), because both are major social investments that are “force multipliers,” in military lingo, meaning: “If we get education right, it affects every other part of our economy and society, from workforce participation rates and average lifetime earnings to social services and incarceration costs,” he said.

“The same goes for health care, which now accounts for roughly 17 percent of the total U.S. economy. We spend far more, per person, than any other country on Earth, yet we get mediocre outcomes. We have unequal access, uneven delivery of care, inordinate expenses in the last year of life, and inefficient provision of care. Better health care can impact millions of Americans with longer lives, less sick days, higher quality of life and more productivity in the workforce.”

For the study of education, Batten partnered with the Curry School of Education to create the Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness, led by Batten professor James Wyckoff. “They are already doing fabulous research with real-world applicability,” Stam said.

For health care research, Batten is similarly partnering with the School of Medicine and the Department of Public Health Sciences to sponsor the Center for Health Policy, which is led by Batten professor Eric Patashnik.

Transformative leadership is also a force multiplier, Stam said. “The power of individual leadership lies not in what we can do alone, but lies in how we can influence other people to change their behaviors,” he said. For instance, when speaking to a group, “I can affect people in the room who hear me, but if you then change your behavior after you leave the room, that’s more powerful. That’s a force multiplier. The effect we’re interested in is changing what other people do.”

Just like great leadership, great research, teaching and curriculum, Stam said, can all be force multipliers – inciting ripples of influence that emanate well beyond the walls of the Batten School. “That is the goal moving forward.”

Media Contact

Bruce A. Vlk

Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy