The best leader in the room may be the student

December 17, 2011 § 3 Comments

The role of facilitator is too often confused with the role of leader. By default, the facilitator is made to feel like (and may perceive him/herself) a teacher or giver of wisdom.

Hubris can be damaging to a facilitator’s credibility, and when the subject is leadership development, the stakes are even higher. You have every opportunity to lose your audience if you claim too much ownership of the definition of leadership, or any other complex subject. Take note of the lessons learned by Kurt Lewin.

Kurt Lewin

Research in the 1930s and 40s by Lewin, along with Ron Lippett, Ralph White and others at MIT, established a theory, that a group of followers reacts differently to leaders exhibiting one of three distinct behavioral styles of leadership: autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire. This became known as the Behavior Theory of leadership.

The results of this research suggested that individual leaders are capable of shifting between these different types of leadership behavior, that followers would be more likely to react aggressively or apathetically to the autocratic style of leadership, and that the aggression was less likely to be directed at the autocrat than at other members of the group.

The value of Lewin’s contributions to adult learning, experiential education, organizational development, and leadership theory are immense. It is particularly noteworthy that the discoveries from his initial T-group studies (“T” = training) were later adapted into a template for the experiential learning model that is so often attributed to David Kolb (interestingly, it is cited in his famously popular 1984 book – Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development – as “The Lewinian Experiential Learning Model”).

These studies influenced a whole new concept in research as well: Lewin pursued, until his untimely death in 1947, the concept of interdependent variables in research, leading to the currently accepted practice of action-research, which accepts the integration of researchers’ perspectives and influences with that of the subjects of study.

What does this mean as a tip for educators?

In sum, because experiential education is associated with a more learner-centered method of education, it has gained popularity and credibility worldwide as a tactic for leadership development (Gookin, 2006). Experiential learning provides an examination of complex systems and social situations that are among the driving forces in andragogical, or adult learning, settings.

It may be valuable for the facilitator to take note of the collective wisdom and knowledge in a group of leadership development students, and approach leadership (and any other complex subject) with an air of humility, respect, and collaboration. Because the best leader in the room, or the person with the most to teach, may be one of your students.


Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Lewin, K., & Lippitt, R. (1947). The research center for group dynamics. In Sociometry Monographs No. 17. New York: Beacon House.

Lewin, K., Lippit, R., & White, R. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271-301.

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