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Developing leadership: exploring childhoods of women university presidents

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Purpose ‐ Researchers argue that much of who we are is developed during childhood. Yet, little exploratory research has been conducted regarding the childhood experiences, activities, personalities, and perceptions of successful leaders. This paper aims to address this issue. Design/methodology/approach ‐ In-depth, qualitative interviews were conducted with ten women university presidents to investigate perceptions and experiences related to the lifetime development of leadership skills, abilities, and competencies. The lived experiences of these women were investigated using the phenomenological research methodology so that "voices" could be heard and unique insights examined. This paper explores a portion of this research focused on childhood personalities, school and other activities, influential individuals, and significant events and challenges. Findings ‐ Results support the growth-task model of human development. As children, the presidents were generally obedient, reflective, observant, smart, self-directed, competitive, and moderately to highly confident. It was important for them to live up to their own expectations and those of significant adults around them. These women were involved in a variety of helpful activities as children and thrived on learning and developing new skills, knowledge, and capabilities. Other than their own parents, influential individuals during childhood included predominantly women (elementary school teachers, aunts, and grandmothers). The most helpful learning experiences involved challenging and difficult situations or events (e.g. illness, relocation, and fear). Practical implications ‐ By understanding these influences, practitioners can design more effective interventions dependent on an individual's background. Originality/value ‐ This paper provides valuable information for those interested in individual leadership development efforts centered on working with individuals interested in obtaining positions at the highest levels in higher education.
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Keywords: Higher education; Leadership; Leadership development; Women

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 6, 2007

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