It’s All in the Name: Leadership and Civic Engagement

University of North Carolina, Greensboro

February 15, 2019

In the past 5 years we’ve noticed several of our fellow North Carolina institutions, and for that matter, colleges and universities across the country, link civic engagement and leadership in the renaming or creation of centers or offices. We know this reality well, as staff in the newly renamed Office of Leadership & Civic Engagement at UNC Greensboro. In the state, this name is shared with our colleagues at a minimum of three other institutions.

A Leadership Challenge participant shares her Silver experience.

Avoiding a dive into the various definitions of civic engagement or terminology trends, we want to make the case for integrated leadership development and civic engagement. Having attended dozens of leadership, civic learning and democratic engagement, community engagement, and service-learning conferences between the three of us, we hope to see more conversation about this among student affairs practitioners.

As believers in higher education’s public purpose, we think that leadership education should look different at a university level and reflect a public purpose. While traditional leadership development is often sold as a way to strengthen employable skills or enhance success in a career, it does not have to be at odds with public purposes. A Crucible Moment (2012) provided us with a powerful argument for a path that prepares students for both citizenship and career readiness by demonstrating employers’ desire and democracy’s need for employees with twenty-first-century skills. These twenty-first-century skills include things like effective listening, critical thinking, ability to work effectively in diverse groups, intercultural understanding, and collaborate decision making. The authors of A Crucible Moment imagined that a civic-minded campus, whose graduates have these skills and are prepared to engage as active citizens, would have a civic ethos governing campus life, civic literacy as a goal for every student, civic inquiry integrated within the majors and general education, and civic action as lifelong practice. Many in the field will recognize this as the foundation of AASCU's and NASPA’s CLDE Theory of Change.

A UNCG student participates in MLK Day of Service at the on-campus food pantry.

What ways has this call for civic-minded campuses impacted leadership development? Are centers simply co-existing leadership with service-learning and election engagement or has it adapted its aims to better prepare students for lives of public purpose as well as employment? In UNCG’s Office of Leadership and Civic Engagement we are excited by the challenge of continuing to intentionally integrate our leadership development and civic engagement work and are happy to share some of the steps we’ve considered and/or taken to generate more conversation and ideas. Please share your ideas in the comments or connect with us.

Ideas to infuse leadership education with civic-learning and democratic engagement:

  1. Pick the Right Model - Identifying and incorporating theories in which there is a connection between leadership and CLDE is one way to think through this integration.  The Social Change Model of Leadership Development is one of many where the link is clear.  This model posits that leadership development infuses a common purpose, creates collaboration, is steeped in values, and works toward positive social change (Komives and Wagner, 2009). The model’s 7 C’s encourages us to think beyond the individual student and provide experiences and skill sets that enable students to enhance their citizenship and contribute positively to the community around them.  The model highlights democratic practices such as collaboration, common purpose, and controversy with civility. Practitioners can create activities surrounding these model elements in short/long-term leadership programming.
  2. Adjust your Mission Statement – Several years ago, we started a conversation around essential skills and mindsets we wanted graduates of our leadership, civic engagement, and community service programs to have.  To that end, we discovered that a definition of what it meant to be a ‘citizen leader’ was absent from our mission/vision statement. Our statement, which is found on our website, now reads: “Citizen Leaders are active participants in society accountable to and responsible for the common good.  Their willingness to act and ability to lead transforms visions into reality.  In doing so, they are able to negotiate diverse views and adapt behaviors to work with others as agents of positive and ethical change.” This definition helps us in creating learning outcomes and programming components, while also giving us language to speak with students, staff, faculty, and community partners about the importance of our work.
  3. Develop Student Learning Outcomes - Revising learning outcomes to reflect civic learning and democratic engagement in leadership development programming is another means of integration.  By stepping back and looking at the theory, models, and frameworks that inform leadership programming through a CLDE lens, you will often find that leadership development on your campus is already tied to the knowledge, skills and dispositions of the CLDE movement.  By intentionally drilling down into students’ individual and collective capacities (civic literacy and skill building, civic inquiry, civic action, and civic agency) you can make the connection between leadership development and one’s civic responsibility to help create and contribute to a thriving democracy clear for students. We revised our learning outcomes relying heavily on the CLDE Theory of Change and AAC&U’s Civic Engagement Value Rubric.
  4. Add Community-Based Experiences or Service – Our Leadership Challenge program serves about 600 students annually. A student in the Bronze level attends a series of interactive leadership workshops with peers and completes 15 hours of service while exploring volunteer opportunities that are a good fit for them. A student in the Silver level of the program is matched with a staff, faculty, or community partner leadership coach for six one-on-one meetings to develop and work on individual goals, attends a group process called Silver Experience, completes 15 hours of personal/professional development related to their career or interests, and completes 30 hours of service with one community organization. The Gold level of the program becomes even more developmentally challenging and requires 60 hours of community-based work. Students are sorted into small teams and paired with a community organization. Their goal is to work collaboratively on a project identified by the community organization that improves a community service, program, or event. The culmination of the Gold level involves each group making and sharing a digital story about their project and reflecting on their civic identity development throughout the entire Leadership Challenge journey.


  • Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). (n.d.). Civic engagement VALUE rubric. Retrieved from
  • Komives, S. R., Wagner, W., & Associates. (2009). Leadership for a better world: Understanding the social change model of leadership development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. (2012). A crucible moment: College learning and democracy’s future. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities. 


  • Kristina Gage, Assistant Director for Community Engagement, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
  • Lindsey Woelker, Associate Director for Leadership, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
  • April Marshall, Assistant Director for Leadership, University of North Carolina, Greensboro

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