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Online Mountaineer: Inside the Online Classroom

The Benefits of an Online Leadership Education

April 8, 2022

Jason Kapcala standing in front of a brown wall.

By Jason Kapcala, WVU Online Ambassador

Leadership is a fashionable term. We all have our own definitions of what a makes someone a “leader.” We often find ourselves admiring great men and women who inspire and influence others. From the time we are young, we are instructed to be a leader, not a follower.

At the end of the day, there isn’t anyone who believes that leadership is trivial or unimportant.

But What is Leadership?

But there’s a lot more to leadership than authority, power, and influence. For instance, there are issues of ethics and representation, culture and ideology, and the whole topic of Followership, a natural counterpart to leadership that most people never even consider.

And while we all have anecdotal thoughts about the traits or characteristics that make someone an effective leader, there is a whole field of scholarship dedicated to the many formal theories of leadership that have been developed over the past 150 years.

Formal education in Leadership is still relatively new, but this thoughtful and intentional approach to leadership—a phenomenon we are all familiar with—was precisely what I found most useful as a student in WVU’s Online Leadership Studies Graduate Certification Program.

WVU’s Online Leadership Program

When I started this program, I already held a leadership position as the assistant director of WVU’s Captioning and Interpreting Team, overseeing a staff of professional service providers.

In that role, I was familiar with many elements common to leadership, including personnel management and the continual need to direct and oversee organizational growth and change.

However, I didn’t, at that time, have a language to articulate my leadership philosophy or a theoretical framework through which I could evaluate and understand my intuitive approaches to leadership and my experiences as a leader.

It is no exaggeration to say that, as I studied formal leadership approaches in the classroom, gaining a more complex and contemporary understanding of leadership, I became a more introspective leader in the office.

Translating Knowledge Into Action

That’s the beauty of a program such as this one: it connects directly to your lived experience. It challenges you to interrogate your own approaches and the approaches of others, and it encourages you to translate that knowledge into action. In this way, the lessons learned are not merely academic, but imminently practical.

Take for instance, the recent pandemic and the sudden pivot to online education.

For students and educators in the classroom, this may have meant learning to use new technologies for remote education—no small feat. But for an accessibility services office I work for, it meant a wave of unexpected challenges, the likes of which we had never before seen or experienced.

This was especially true for the captioners and interpreters. During a typical pre-pandemic semester, we would receive, on average, 74 videos in need of captioning.

In our first full semester of online learning, with instructors relying heavily on recorded media, that number shot up to an unprecedented 749 closed-captioning requests.

Not to spoil the ending, but our team handled this increased demand superbly, with the biggest credit going to the outstanding professional interpreters and captioners who tirelessly committed themselves to the task of making sure students had access to their class materials.

They provided these services at a rate that seems, even to this day, miraculous. As a result, students retained access to their classes in the new digital environment without delay or a drop in quality.

As team leader, I had to manage a variety of responsibilities:

  • coordinate the service delivery for online learning;
  • ensure that resources were reallocated properly;
  • solicit and protect other voices on my team (especially those voices that challenged our normal way of doing business);
  • identify and remove roadblocks that might stand between the team and success; and
  • regulate the heat that individual service providers were feeling as a result of this increased demand.

Lessons from Leadership Studies

During this period of extraordinary productivity, I found myself returning time and again to the lessons from my Leadership Studies education, particularly the foundational tenets of Adaptive Leadership, a contemporary leadership theory I had learned, which argues—somewhat radically— that leaders are generally not problem solvers who resolve challenges by edict. Rather, they are often agents who clear the path for the problem solvers.

I couldn’t snap my fingers and make the video captioning queue suddenly shrink. And I couldn’t caption 750 videos on my own. A challenge such as this required a group effort, not only in labor, but in strategy.

Ultimately, if we were to be successful, it would be because of the team members I supervised and the work they performed to address this challenge.

I understood that my job was to create and maintain an environment where creative problem solving and strategic risk taking was not only supported, but encouraged, and where service providers could be successful in achieving our shared goal.

This approach to leadership was a direct result of the lessons I had learned in my Leadership Studies classes over the past two years.

Jason Kapcala wearing a suit and sitting at a desk.

There’s Always a Need for Leadership

Some academic programs are quite narrow in scope, teaching specific skills and imparting knowledge that will be applied in a direct manner, later on the job.

Other programs are broad, providing intellectual stimulation and sharpening those “soft” skills that make a person a stronger thinker or a better communicator in whatever field they pursue.

Leadership Studies exists somewhere in between. There is no “one right way” to be a leader—that’s something we’re taught on day one—but the leadership curriculum is such that it can be synthesized easily with nearly every other field of study and every occupation. There’s always a need for leadership.

Bright Minds at WVU

West Virginia University is fortunate to have a Leadership Studies program such as this one, with flexible classes that fit around even the busiest of professional schedules. It is also fortunate to have some of the brightest minds in the field teaching these classes.

The faculty in the Leadership Studies program not only publish widely in the field, but also take the time to interact individually with each student as well.

Take it from me: what you learn in the Leadership Studies classroom may not only make you a better leader; it may also be the lesson you lean on when life throws an unexpected challenge in your path to professional success.

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