Leadership Development through Conducting Research

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Tiffany J. Cresswell-Yeager, Ph.D.

May 29, 2019

I’ve spent the better part of two decades as a student affairs professional, presenting leadership workshops, teaching leadership courses, and advising student leaders so it was a surprise to me when I recently had the opportunity to think about leadership differently. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at my university’s annual research conference. The keynote speech was to address the benefits of participation in research for students. Immediately, I thought of many reasons why research was important—-- to add to the body of knowledge about a topic, or to discover and explore a phenomenon, or even to innovate or develop a new process or product, but I hadn’t ever put conducting research into the context of leadership development for students. As I researched the information for my address, I quickly realized that participating in research had the potential to be a transformative leadership experience for students. Through participation in research, students gain valuable leadership skills, develop self-awareness, and become problem-solvers.

Research fosters creativity and innovation.

The very nature of research—creativity and innovation-- are at the heart of transformational leadership. Hackman and Johnson (2013) suggest creativity is integral to leadership. They add that transformational leaders are visionary and innovative—always searching for new ways of doing things. Research projects allow students to be creative and look to find innovative solutions to problems impacting society. Students begin their research studies examining and exploring a problem. Then, they must focus on answering a research question. This process allows for students to see the problem from all perspectives.  Students must address the significance and purpose of their studies. This process is similar to establishing a vision in leadership development.

Research fosters self-confidence and self-awareness.

Working on a research project or a research team provides students with experiences that build their self-confidence and self-awareness (Madan & Teitge, 2013; Petralla & Jung, 2008). In the processes of conducting research, students may have been afraid to get started. They may have encountered obstacles, challenges and even failure as they progressed. But through it all, they were curious to find answers. Bonker (2017) said that students conducting research are often surprised by their findings. In addition, she added students were surprised how they were able to use failure to find success. In many instances, research provides a result that surprises the investigators. Through this trial and error, students learn a great deal about themselves, their resilience and their ability to overcome obstacles and try again. This is similar to leadership as we often learn great lessons from our failures, trials, and challenges.

Research develops critical thinking skills necessary for leadership.

Petrella and Jung (2008) found that research builds independent critical thinking skills. These skills are necessary for student leaders who manage multiple projects and must seek solutions for campus issues. Through research, students learn to analyze data and integrate theory into practice which will benefit their development as student leaders and as young professionals. In addition, research participation assists students learning to support their assertions with evidence (Petrella & Jung, 2008).  Leaders need these skills for ethical decision-making, understanding resources, and empowering team members.

The opportunity for students to conduct research is a valuable leadership development practice. I encourage student affairs professionals to seek partnerships and opportunities to implement research into their leadership development practice. While conducting research, students will have opportunities to apply many integral leadership skills and develop strengths that will be valuable as they grow as leaders.


Bonker, T. (2017, May 12). Student researchers discover that surprise can be the prize. Chapman University Newsroom. Retrieved from http://news.chapman.edu

Hackman, & Johnson, C. (2013). Leadership: A communication perspective. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Madan, C. & Teitge, M. (2013, May 1). The benefits of undergraduate research: A student’s perspective. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/

Petrella, & Jung, (2008). Undergraduate research: Importance, benefits, and challenges. International Journal of Exercise Science, 1(3), 91-95.

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