October 21, 2014

Classified: UGBA 155 Leadership

Dan Mulhern with students
Lecturer Dan Mulhern (right) with students

This article kicks off a new series called "Classified," in which we spotlight some of the more powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas. If you have a suggestion for a class to feature, please email Haas Newsroom editor rkelly@haas.berkeley.edu.

It's 1 o'clock in UGBA 155, Lecturer Daniel Mulhern's Leadership course, and Mulhern and two of his students are standing at the front of the tiered classroom. Simply…standing.

The previous 30 minutes in class seemed perfectly normal, warm even, as Mulhern ran through routine check-ins, but also made a point of walking around the room to greet students individually. The class got off to an upbeat start with a round of kudos for contributions in the last meeting.

But at 1 p.m., Mulhern and the two students at the front of the room wear neutral expressions and say nothing. At first there is expectant silence, then the occasional nervous laugh erupts from different quarters of the room. Someone cracks wise and everyone bursts out laughing, grateful for the chance to turn individual discomfort into a shared experience.

“Maybe we all need to stand up like they're doing,” suggests one student. So most in the room stand, hoping this may be “the answer.” When that changes nothing, the students sit down and continue to discuss options.

“He’s taking himself out of the equation so there’s no leadership in the room,” observes one student. “Try advancing the slide deck, finally suggests another.” Someone close to the lectern does so and the slide comes up: “How did that feel?” it asks.

Mulhern breaks the five minutes of tension and begins a class discussion on how it felt when an authority figure failed to lead as expected, a launching point for a semester-long exploration of leadership—and how it differs from authority.

"The demonstration teaches how tremendously dependent people are on authority, and how their expectations of an authority proscribe how much room the authority figure has to lead," Mulhern explains later. "I never know exactly what will happen, but students almost certainly 'get' the lesson."

While the experiment provoked some feelings of awkwardness, the students largely took things in stride, given that the course is a leadership laboratory. Observed one student: “This would have been really weird had it happened in a math class."

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