There are few things that Jonathan Damiani, Ph.D., loves more than engaging with young people on the topic of leadership. This is, after all, the generation that will take the lead in addressing some of the world’s most pressing issues, from climate change to income inequality. Damiani is a teacher in the College’s Doctorate in Executive Leadership Program. One strand of his research examines how 17- to 23-year-olds perceive leadership, aspire to leadership positions, and whether or not they believe they can achieve leadership roles. Damiani encourages young people to ask themselves thoughtful, probing questions about leadership, including: What do you believe makes a good leader? When did you first take on a leadership role? And what are some of the assumptions you might hold about leadership based on its portrayal in media and popular culture? He hopes that their answers to these questions will enable them to better understand who they are in relation to others, which is critical to developing their capacity to lead.
Damiani’s work is motivated in part by his desire to help local leaders interested in improving the work they are already doing in the Central New York community where he grew up and to which he recently returned with his family. Damiani has taught and conducted research at schools in the U.S. and overseas, and has witnessed firsthand the ways in which the environments school leaders seek to create are not always the same as those the students are experiencing simply because students’ perspectives of leadership are rarely considered in the agendas set by leadership in their schools. That realization led Damiani to begin studying how experiences shape leadership identity and aspirations.
Over the course of his life, Damiani has come to believe that “leadership is a much more dynamic process” than people often understand and that “the best leaders work extremely hard for and with others.” They undertake important emotional labor and know that leadership cannot be understood without considering the thoughts, feelings and attitudes of the people around them. Great leaders, he has found, are passionate and authentic, persuasive rather than coercive.
As for what it will take to nurture future leaders, Damiani believes that the first step is to start early, to teach young people that being a leader is not contingent upon traits such as socioeconomic status, but on an individual’s understanding of various backgrounds, experiences and ideas about leadership. That way, the members of the next generation won’t have to wait for someone to tell them to be leaders. They can enter the world as leaders.
“Leadership isn’t swapping your ‘old self’ out for a better one,” Damiani says. “It is acknowledging your own strengths and weaknesses and building on what is already there.”
The Doctorate in Executive Leadership prepares professionals in education, business and healthcare to become dynamic, transformative leaders. Students in the program learn to design and implement socially responsible change, and to create solutions that will positively impact their organizations. Through their work, they reflect the Jesuit ideals of promoting a just society and serving their communities as men and women for others.