GSIs Help Students Excel in Leadership Communications

Graduate student instructors (GSIs) often play supporting roles next to the professors they work for, but in the Leadership Communications course they are encouraged to depart from the script, guiding fellow students in discovering their authentic voices as leaders.

The unconventional course, part of the core Berkeley Innovative Leader Development (BILD) curriculum, asks MBA students to leave their comfort zones behind as they use improvisation and even theatrical techniques that go far beyond conventional public speaking training. The class has not only drawn rave reviews from students, but also provided unique leadership training for the student instructors.

"The GSIs are leading their group of students in lab for two hours every week, and they have to really own the room," says Lecturer Cort Worthington, who taught the course in the Full-time MBA Program in the fall. "There is a bit of a squirm factor for some of the students in this class, since we are asking them to take risks. The GSIs have to create a safe environment with direct, kind feedback—and in doing that, they learn coaching skills they'll use for the rest of their lives."

Lecturer Mark Rittenberg, who has taught the class in the Evening & Weekend MBA Program for the past two years, uses a methodology inspired by his acting training—working on voice, movement, physical presence, and storytelling. The class also involves introspective work, with students reflecting on their personal leadership styles and using stories to express themselves.

"In my corporate consulting, I hear all the time that MBA students all look the same and talk the same," Rittenberg says. "Why are people so afraid to be themselves, to use their voice, to speak out? I tell them that they are the subject of the course, and this is their chance to find out if they can be an authentic leader."

Adds Worthington, "Our sweet spot is training one's mind to be very present, and then letting one's expressions be as open as possible."

Students audition to be GSIs after taking the class in their first semester. Both Rittenberg and Worthington put their GSIs through intensive training to be co-leaders. It's a big time commitment, yet those who have done it rate it as a high point of their Berkeley-Haas career.

"I felt extremely lucky to be learning from Professor Worthington, and can honestly say that I grew into a much better communicator as a result of our trainings and labs throughout the semester," says Lauren Gellman, who was one of 12 GSIs who worked with Worthington in the fall.

Thomas Fitzpatrick, EWMBA 11, was equally positive about his experience working with Rittenberg as a GSI in several classes. "Mark is a mentor, but he also approaches us as colleagues, encouraging us to be actively engaged in the work and bring our own ideas to the table," says Fitzpatrick. "To have him give us that trust has been an amazing experience."

The Berkeley Columbia Executive MBA Program also offered Leadership Communications as week-long course last fall.

"The class was a huge hit with the Berkeley-Columbia students, and I expect it will be very popular next year," says Executive Director Kathy Lilygren.

Watch a video interview with Lecturer Cort Worthington.