The Art of Getting Things Done


QA with Allan C. Stam

Bruce Vlk   /   04.20.16

No single event, success or failure provoked Allan C. Stam’s deep appreciation for the importance of effective leadership. Instead, his curiosity got the ball rolling and it intensified over time.

“It was an emergent conclusion after years of trying to understand why some groups, organizations and institutions seemed to outperform others,” said Stam, who began his term as dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy in July 2014. “Business, sports and the military understand the importance of leadership,” Stam said. Still, the rigorous study and evidence-based teaching of key leadership skills has been largely ignored by public and private universities. Why? “Attitudes on leadership vary discipline by discipline, but when broken down, there are key components of leadership that have been well-researched and can be effectively taught. That is what we’re doing at the Batten School,” said Stam, “and it’s something that no other policy school in the country is doing.”

Is leadership complex, simple, or some combination?

Leadership can be both complex and simple, depending on the circumstances. At the Batten School, I tell our students that ‘leadership is the art of getting things done.’ I expand upon that by discussing what qualities are necessary for good, ethical leadership. Leadership requires a clarity of vision, which can sometimes seem simple, but requires complex negotiations, conflict resolution, bargaining and persuasion. By thinking through the ethics and rationale behind what you are trying to accomplish, then charting your course in collaboration with others. That requires depth of purpose, knowledge and fortitude to operate in increasingly complex, global environments.

What defines effective leadership?

Effective leadership is defined by how well a leader executes a mission, how they show empathy and inspire those who follow them. In a new book that I wrote with my colleagues Michael Horowitz and Cali Mortensen Ellis, we examine the early experiences and psychological backgrounds of the world’s leaders, both good and bad, that influenced their decision to engage in armed conflict. Contrary to the current received wisdom, leaders and leadership are often the most important factors shaping the outcomes in the world around us.

How much of that is individual character, and how much can be learned or developed?

At the Batten School, we firmly believe that leadership skills can be learned and developed. A lot of what we do at the school focuses on what can be taught through exercises, simulations and other methods of experiential learning. College is a critical time developmentally for building strength of character and finding opportunities for growth, especially in leadership skills.

We’re poised to transform public policy education by giving students hands-on learning with decision-making.

Are young people — students — arriving on campuses today with less mature leadership skills than previous generations?

The students coming to UVA today have experiences under their belt that have made them into mature leaders already. That said, there is a general sense that young people today may be less resilient than their generational counterparts. We encourage our students to practice humility and to be a part of something bigger than yourself. We help them find ways to do that, to take risks in their actions and to learn from those decisions.

You’ve talked about the importance not only of teaching skills fundamental to effective leadership, but of the execution of those skills. How do you teach that?

We’ve already developed leadership curriculum through cutting-edge social psychology. With the launch of our new Leadership Simulation and Gaming Center, we’re poised to transform public policy education by giving students hands-on learning with decision-making. By providing a simulated decision environment, we’re enabling our students to experience both success and failure — both of which are necessary to develop real leadership skills.

We believe that we’re building the public policy school of the future. Our faculty and students are not afraid to embrace technology for integrated learning; they are not afraid to try something different, or to take a stand when necessary. Some colleagues in academia may think of me as a rabble-rouser or disruptor because I believe higher education could do more in leadership studies. Our mission at the Batten School is to develop the next generation of leaders and to generate new knowledge to solve the world’s toughest public policy challenges. Part of that mission also includes serving as a model for transforming public policy education in this country, if not the world.

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