Trip to India Highlights Civic Leadership Academy’s Evolution

For the past two years, William Howell has served as the faculty director for the Civic Leadership Academy, UChicago’s interdisciplinary leadership development program for emerging leaders in nonprofit organizations and local government agencies in Chicago and Cook County. In that role he shapes the program’s curriculum, determines the featured faculty from across the five professional schools and the University humanities and social science divisions, selects speakers from local nonprofits, and interacts with the fellows as the six-month program unfolds.

We spoke with Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the Harris School of Public Policy and the incoming chair in the Political Science Department, in April, a few weeks after he and the cohort of 30 fellows returned from their week-long trip to Delhi, India for CLA’s global practicum, organized by Common Purpose. He talked about how the program discusses the concept of leadership, what the fellows experienced in India, and why the academy emphasizes process as much as results on the trip. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What does the overall experience of going through the Civil Leadership Academy look like? 

Early in the curriculum we lay out the foundations. We try to break down what leadership is, what civic leadership is. We explore the humanitarian dimensions, how data play an important role. I think many people in this domain don’t think of themselves as leaders per se. They care about a cause and they want to work on its behalf. Encouraging them to think of themselves as leaders requires a little bit of work, and then realizing that you can work at leadership—and that they are someone whose leadership can be nurtured—requires a bit of work, too.

And then we go abroad, which is simultaneously disruptive and generative. We interact with counterparts in another major urban setting and learn from them and from others in Delhi’s government and nonprofit sectors. 

When we come back, we ask the fellows to be much more directed and applied in their own learning and to focus on a set of challenges they’ll be faced with in their leadership. How do you make the most of limited resources? What specific kinds of communications problems will you face? How do you attend to moments of crisis?

Fellows from earlier cohorts have said about their time abroad that it was very powerful to see intense poverty and learn about very different systems. How do you help them get the most of the experience?

Some of our fellows have never been out of the country. Almost none have been to India. And so we’ve put a lot of thought to curating events in a way that is manageable and stimulating: which communities we visit, what restaurants we eat at, the time for fellows to explore on their own. 

When we take our 30 civic leaders and we ask them to make sense of this incredibly turbulent and dynamic and massive city of Delhi. It’s destabilizing in some ways which can be very productive. I think a lot of the fellows, their first orientation is, “How can I solve the problem?” But they can’t begin to solve the problems in Delhi, certainly not in a week. That encourages them to be reflective in ways that would not happen here in Chicago.

Did you change aspects of how the Civic Leadership Academy approached this year’s time in Delhi, as well?

The biggest change is moving the “what” of leadership—the things that nonprofit and government leaders are doing to solve problems like poverty or dislocation or the caste system—into the background. Instead, we want at the forefront the “how” of leadership—the personal challenges that leaders in Delhi face and the strategies they employ. 

So, for example, environmental degradation in India can be just staggering, and with a population of 1.3 billion people, it’s overwhelming to think about how to advance meaningful change. One civic leader we met with talked about how he focuses on a very specific problem, like the disposal of mercury thermometers at hospitals. He’ll figure out a technology that provides a solution and a set of protocols. 

The fellows learned about the work. But also about the leadership challenges: How do you convince hospital workers to use the protocols? How do you deal with the industries that create these thermometers? Our fellows can’t just imagine an ideal solution, announce it and expect it to take. They’ve got to work with lots of others individuals with power of their own, and that’s where leadership comes into play.

This year, we worked really hard to curate the leaders who we put before our fellows. Sometimes that’s about issue domains that are going to resonate with our fellows. Just as importantly, it’s about how thoughtful and reflective those leaders are. 

How does the time in India set up that second half of the session?

There are three categories. The first is that the fellows bond and connect with each other through this incredible shared experience. CLA is not just trying to build individual leaders. We’re trying to build a community of civic leaders who will work with one another and be a network that will work on behalf of our city.

Another is that the fellows start thinking more conceptually and analytically. They see specific strategies in this other context that they hadn’t conceived of before, some of which would work and some of which wouldn’t if we bring them here. So there’s a kind of grab bag of insights and opportunities.

Last is a matter less of head and more of heart: To see the kind of dedication and commitment that the civic leaders in Delhi exhibit. The challenges are vast and overwhelming, and yet they see a productive way forward. That can be deeply moving, and I think for a number of our fellows this experience can foster a rededication and a greater clarity about why they do the kind of work that they do.

Originally posted June 12, 2017.

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