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The Loop

Staley School faculty updates

As the spring semester came to a close, the Staley School of Leadership Studies had an opportunity to reflect on our only sure constant – change. As we enter the summer months, we celebrate some of life’s milestones with our faculty and staff – new jobs, new babies, and new adventures.

First – welcome! During the 2019-2020 academic year we welcomed many new faces to our team and learning community. With the second cohort of our Ph.D. program in leadership communication came several graduate assistantships and with some reorganization, came additional staff.

  • Mac Benavides, graduate teaching assistant
  • Tess Hobson, graduate teaching assistant
  • Tamas Kowalik, graduate research assistant
  • Aliah Mestrovich-Seay, instructor
  • Mafule Moswane, graduate teaching assistant
  • Kim Ralston, communications administrator
  • Natasha Taylor, office specialist

Second – congratulations! We extend our joy with our faculty who have brought new lives into this world!

  • Daniel Edward Lee, Chance and Tracey Lee
  • Macario “Rio” Thomas Benavides Yanez, Mac Benavides and Ruddy Yanez Benavides
  • Aizik Stanley Cebula, Amanda and Alan Cebula
  • Mateo Clark Seay-Kang, Aliah Mestrovich Seay andDon Sae KangBaby photos

Finally – farewell, and best wishes! At the end of spring semester, the Staley School and our Snyder Leadership Legacy Fellows program said goodbye to our resident fellow, Tori Burkhart. We can’t wait to hear about all the ways she exercises leadership at Indiana University in the Higher Education and Student Affairs master’s program.

Summer 2020 director’s note

Mary TolarNow more than ever, our diverse and changing world requires leadership that is knowledgeable, ethical, caring and inclusive. The disruption and uncertainty of a global pandemic and the pain of persistent systemic racism challenge our health, economic well-being and understanding of community. We all are being called to learn, listen and act with compassion and purpose.  

To our students, colleagues and all in our communities: While we may be physically separated, we stand with you in solidarity against racial injustice. Every human deserves dignity, respect and the basic right to justice and equity. Black lives matter. 

Healing the wounds we’ve created in our country and communities takes leadership. We are inspired by the protests and activism locally and across the country. We commit to learning and taking action that our institutions and communities require for progress. Leading change has long been the hallmark of the Staley School. It is clear that these extraordinary times require individual, collective and systemic work. We will continue to push the edges of the field and our communities toward centering that work – the work required of and for justice.  

Through it all, we persist. Just as the season has persisted from spring to summer, so has our work at the Staley School. I am eager to share what’s been happening this spring and summer at the socially distant, yet fully engaged Staley School, as we adapt and respond to changes and challenges, and prepare for a bright future 

Mandela Washington Fellowship/Leading Change
At this time of year, I would typically write an update on the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders*, as part of the Leading Change Institutes, introducing you to a new group of professionals from throughout sub-Saharan Africa who are leading change. This year, in light of the global pandemic, the U.S. Department of State and IREX made the decision to post-pone the 2020 Mandela Washington Fellowship until summer 2021.  

While we were not able to welcome a 2020 Fellowship cohort, we continue to find ways to partner to engage, educate, and learn from FellowsFellowship Alumni in graduate study here at K-State, and Fellows engaging virtually to advance the practice of leadership.  

Kachi Ekwerike, 2017 Fellowship Alumnus and doctoral student in leadership communication, is actively working to advance the research agenda of Third Floor Research, an applied research center at the Kansas Leadership Center. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenge of re-opening businesses and communities, Kachi is part of a team that is analyzing instances when organizations, companies and communities were forced to adapt quickly. Mafule Moswane, 2018 Fellowship and doctoral student in leadership communication, is teaching LEAD 212: Introduction to Leadership Concepts online and facilitating learning for our Edgerley-Franklin Scholars.  We have been glad to partner with 2019 Fellowship Alumnus Olalekan Ayodele Sipasi, also known as “The Hunger Fighter,” as he joined our K-State community as a doctoral student in horticulture and has volunteered at spring and summer Mobile Food Distributions. 

Additionally, faculty, students, Fellowship Alumni and community partners worked together to author a series for The Loop, the Staley School’s blog. Organized by Dr. Brandon Kliewer with support from Dr. Trish Gott, in this special blog series, guest writers considered how the academic framework, research agenda and the associated leadership studies literature introduced through the Staley School’s academic work and programming contribute understanding to and support for the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak. The blogs include local and global focuses, two authored by Fellowship Alumni, Mafule Moswane, South Africa, and Zaharah Namanda, Uganda. 

Community response
HandsOn Kansas State has hosted record Mobile Food Distributions this spring and now summer. The sharp increase in our community of households coming to the distributions shines a painful light on the current social and economic inequities we face today. We do not delight in this work, but we hold to the opportunity to serve, and ultimately to leverage programs like the global food systems leadership secondary major and the nonprofit leadership certificate to prepare a generation of people committed to leading change in the food system.   

In response to growing needs in our communities for nonprofit leadership and civic engagement, we continue to make our coursework more accessible and meet the needs of learners where they are. This spring we converted our nonprofit leadership curriculum to a stand-alone certificate. This certificate, also available online through K-State Global Campus, makes it possible for students, alumni, professionals and community-members located anywhere to engage in learning about the nonprofit sector 

Virtual opportunities
We continue to surprise ourselves with the ability to adapt to this rapidly changing world. To meet students and families where they are, we have joined K-State in creating virtual opportunities for prospective and current students to meet with our team. Our faculty, staff, and Staley School Ambassadors have leaned-in to create online experiences that still reveal who we are as a team and how we can help students achieve their goals. These virtual sessions have proven themselves invaluable and will continue even when in-person visits resume. If you know a student considering K-State, encourage them to include the Staley School when they schedule their virtual visit 

Student academics and programs
Our classrooms this summer are empty – but our classes are full. While the COVID-19 pandemic required face-to-face classes to move online mid-semester, we had already been working toward making all four core classes, in addition to the nonprofit leadership courses, available in an online format. This became a question of access, and the faculty and staff of the Staley School took on the challenge of creating dynamic and meaningful online learning experiences. That challenge also extends to our student programs outside the classroomread more 

We are making choices on lesson planning, programming, physical space and adhering to health and safety guidelines all at the same time – a delicate balance of intentions. We don’t pretend to know it all, but we are moving forward together and adjusting as needed, all the while listening and learning from students and each other. The work we do to drive our mission forward will always align with Kansas State University and our progress towards well-being for students, faculty and staff. This means that despite the adversity we face, we find a way to ensure our students have the best experience possible.  

While we are experiencing upheaval and frustration in these disruptive times, we are also experiencing extraordinary innovation, care, and resilience. We are grateful for your partnership and support as we meet the evolving challenges of leading change in our classrooms and in our communities. Thank you! 


*The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. Kansas State University is a sub-grantee of IREX and has implemented U.S.-based Leadership Institutes as a part of the Fellowship. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit the Fellowship’s website at www.mandelawashingtonfellowship.org. 

Reflecting on our student programs

There is a seasonality to higher education and the American education system that is reliable and consistent. We have a fall and a spring semester, with a month-long break between, and a week-long break during each term. The summer brings its own set of programming and enrollment, and we have a moment to breathe before starting again in August.  

This year, the reliable pattern has been interrupted for students and faculty alike. While there is much planning, pondering and considering in anticipation for what the fall will bring, it’s also necessary to take a beat and recognize the ways the Staley School has engaged through our co-curricular programs, focused on leadership development and servicewhat happened this past spring and changes to our typical summer 

During the 2020 spring semester, 17 first-year students traveled to Puebla, Mexico, as part of the Global Citizenship CAT Community. Our partners at Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP) were fabulous – organizing meaningful tours of downtown Puebla, a neighboring town of Cholula with a powerful history of diverse groups working together and the impact of Spanish colonizers, and a visit to La Preciosita to cook with and learn from women whose families have been impacted by immigration to the U.S., and capped off with a mole cooking class. The study tour was full of powerful learning moments for students and faculty leaders alike. Leadership Studies is glad to partner with Education Abroad on this program 

Spring break was a busy time as we also had Alternative Breaks teams in Dallas, Texas; Springfield, Missouri; Denver, Colorado; and Garden City, Kansas. The teams worked alongside nonprofit organizations, schools, K-State alumni and community members to better understand issues of public education, environmental sustainability, food systems, vulnerable populations and public health. We are grateful to have such wonderful partners to work with, especially as changes were made to several breaks when COVID-19 concerns rapidly shifted in our country.  

Additionally, our Snyder Leadership Legacy Fellows, Academic Mentors, and Cargill Fellows wrapped up a great year. While not in the same way as being together in person, we were able to virtually celebrate a year of mentoring youth in Manhattan, developing capacity for leadership, and creating professional connections. We wish our graduates of these programs all the best as the move into our world, making it a better place. As we bid adieu to our outgoing classes, we welcomed new ones as well – the new cohorts of Snyder Leadership Legacy Fellows and Cargill Fellows were selected last spring. We’re looking forward to learning with these groups in the 2020-2021 year.  

This time of year would usually see student coordinators making trips to the Kansas City airport to pick up 25 Mandela Washington Fellows who arrive from Sub-Saharan Africa. Due to the current global health situation, and with the safety and well-being of Fellows and partners as the highest priority, the U.S. Department of State has postponed the 2020 Mandela Washington Fellowship until summer 2021. Applicants for the 2020 Fellowship who were selected as finalists and alternates have been notified that they are eligible to defer their participation until summer 2021. 

And, with international travel not possible right now, our International Service Teams are unfortunately not traveling to our host partners this summer. The students who were intending to participate this summer finished the preparatory course exceptionally well this spring. We value our partners in Kenya, South Africa, Paraguay, Dominican Republic and The Gambia, and are hopeful for continued and new ways of collaborating in 2021. 

While the ‘standard’ reliability of the academic season looks different, we look forward to having students back on campus and having meaningful conversations of creating change. Our world needs knowledgeable, ethical, caring, inclusive leaders now more than ever. 


The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. Kansas State University is a sub-grantee of IREX and has implemented U.S.-based Leadership Institutes as a part of the Fellowship. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit the Fellowship’s website at www.mandelawashingtonfellowship.org. 


COVID-19 and the biopolitical moment for leadership

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies professor Brandon W. Kliewer considers an approach to teaching leadership that can further develop our capacity to exercise leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.


The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all of the fragility of human life. As the world assesses the damage and begins to consider appropriate paths forward, leadership scholars, developers, and practitioners are increasingly confronted with a series of biopolitical questions. The objective of this short essay is to introduce the biopolitical as a concept relevant to the interdisciplinary field of leadership studies and leadership in practice.

Biopolitics, as a clearly delineated idea, finds its origins in the writing of Michel Foucault[i]. Since its inception, the biopolitical turn has been taken up by a range of scholars in a variety of disciplinary contexts.[ii] Giorgio Agamben[iii], established biopolitical questions as a stable concept for study and consideration in practice. His argument suggested totalitarian regimes and the degree to which mass genocide was operationalized using principles of 20th century industrialization fundamentally re-shaped the relationship between life and political contestation.

The inherent value of sustaining one’s life was now subject to a type of politicization that had not previously been possible.  Matters of basic human existence became subject to political contestation due to modern technological advancement, bureaucratic processes associated with industrialization, and a recognition that evil was not the result of some extreme circumstance but instead a banal[iv] existence that fails to acknowledge the conditions that allows evil actions to exist. The ways in which power was experienced and the range and quality of choice available to people become contested as it related to matters of basic human existence.


Biopolitics = Life (Recognizing the Intrinsic Value of Life) + Politics (Power and Choice)

            Biopolitics has since become a lens to analyze claims to human rights, reproductive rights, transgender rights, issues of immigration/migration (particularly the US-border crisis) and the legitimacy of the use of force by the state (particularly state-sanctioned violence disproportionately focused on black and brown bodies) – among others. The COVID-19 global pandemic and considerations associated with re-opening society have exposed leadership studies and leadership in practice to questions of the biopolitical. The purpose of this introduction is to highlight ways biopolitical considerations intersect people exercising leadership from positions of formal authority, people exercising leadership from positions of informal authority, and how leadership scholars theorize leadership.


Leadership in practice

Approaches to the process and rate at which communities, businesses, and civic institutions return to “normal” activities unfortunately seems to track ideological divisions in the U.S. An account of biopolitical questions, provides a framework for people trying to exercise leadership, from both a position of formal and informal authority, to navigate this contestation.

Leadership from Formal Authority

Elon Musk provides an interesting case study for how biopolitical questions might be addressed when leadership activity extends from formal position. Musk made the national news when he defied government orders and re-started operations at his Alameda county Telsa factory. Considered by most a decision outside his formal role and the limits of legal authority, Musk’s decision to open his factory raises a series of biopolitical questions. I will highlight how analysis of biopolitical questions helps make sense of the relationship between Musk’s decision to re-open his factory and the employees that fill that factory.

Musk announced on Twitter that he would be on the line with workers when his factory re-opened outside the government’s public health safety order. If workers chose to return to work, knowing the risks to themselves and others, then it seems appropriate to say Musk exercised leadership at the edges of his authority. This assessment brackets any considerations of the ethics of such leadership activity. However, it is not clear the range or the quality of the choice available to the average line worker at the Tesla factory. If the choice was to return to work or be fired, lose unemployment benefits, the ability to eat, to pay rent, and meet basic material needs for survival, the “choice” seem less than free. In fact, if the choice was less than free Musk’s actions would not be considered leadership activity but instead a form of soft coercion. Individuals trying to exercise leadership from a position of formal authority might consider the following questions when trying to take account of the intersection of their leadership activity and biopolitical questions:

What are the circumstances of a choice to return to work? Is there a meaningful possibility to choose not to return to work without significant hardship that threatens essential survival? What were the circumstances of how the choice was made? Is one person, likely the owner of a firm, making the decision for others. Or, are workers organized in a way that helps determine their collective level of exposure, safety conditions in the work environment, and determining when a threat of exposure becomes too high? If power to decide was distributed more evenly between workers and the owner, we might decide that the collective agency or “popular will” of the workers was an appropriate act of civil disobedience. Again, this does not consider the potential health impact beyond the owners and workers of the firm in question.

Leadership from Informal Authority

If you are attempting to influence the way society re-opens from a place of informal authority, the biopolitical lens might provide a different perspective. Our baser instincts might want to coerce pro-social behaviors intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through public shaming. Efforts to public shame others does not align with an understanding of leadership activity that values choice or even evidence-based public health strategies.

A more practical approach might be to educate others on the risks to themselves and others when social distancing and appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) guidelines are not followed. The individual right of choice, to accept exposure and potentially to expose others to COVID-19, is tempered by our civic obligations to those more vulnerable in society – the elderly and those with a compromised immune system. Wearing a face covering, practicing physical distancing, and avoiding large crowds represents a burden on your range of choice, but when understood within a larger context of a global crisis, these temporary limits are reasonable civic obligations that we owe to each other. Consider the following: What obligations do we owe others when trying to exercise leadership? What level of burden should an individual accept when recognizing obligations to others during a global crisis?


Leadership studies

Leadership studies has increasingly created space for scholarship that has taken a critical, collective, and constructivist lens.[v] This stream of scholarship considers how dialogical, relational, and socio-material interactions produce leadership.[vi] From this paradigm and lens a gap in leadership theory has emerged. Existing Leadership-as-Practice (LaP) theory is not currently equipped to account for the intersections of leadership and the biopolitical. LaP is “…concerned with how leadership emerges and unfolds through day-to-day experience.”[vii] Opportunities to better account for the biopolitical in LaP theory is seen in two areas of the literature.

First, from the perspective of LaP, the biopolitical foregrounds the practice of everyday life. If leadership emerges from the interactions of groups and systems, there must be a way to account for biopolitical questions. Determining who, how, and under what circumstance people and systems are exposed to COVID-19 shapes the possibility of leadership activity. LaP theory must account for how biopolitical questions are accounted for in dialogical, relational, and socio-material interactions. The perceived presence or absence of a viral threat to life impacts the ways groups and systems interact to emerge leadership. Demographic information suggests a wide racial and class disparity in who has contracted and died from the virus in the US. Racial and class disparities highlight patterns in groups and systems that impact how and under what circumstances interactions are recognized as leadership activity.

Second, it is well-established that LaP has a socio-material dimension.[viii] However most spatial accounts of leadership limit the operationalization of space to what can be physically seen by the eye and experienced in relation to each other. The COVID-19 outbreak requires leadership scholars to reconsider how space and socio-materiality is theorized in leadership. Spatial dimensions of leadership need to move beyond accounting for the relation between bodies, language, and physical objects to a conceptual level that provides frameworks for how groups and systems make sense of associated interactions. COVID-19 and associated global crisis has shown the upper limits to how space and socio-materiality is currently theorized in Leadership.

One thing that is quickly becoming apparent is that the biopolitical questions of leadership and space are approached differently depending on whether they are situated within rural or urban environments. LaP theory development ought to make more of an effort to not only account for a wider range of conceptual space, but consider spatial dimensions of leadership through the lens of ideology, culture, and context. This theoretical concern quickly bumps up against questions of practice as fundamental assumptions of our global system and society are reconsidered following a pandemic.


[i] Foucault, M “Society must be defended,” Lecture at the Collège de France; Right of Death and Power over Life

[ii] Campbell, T & Sitze, A, Biopolitcs: A reader

[iii] Agamben G, Homor sacer: Sovereign power and bare life; The pollicization of life

[iv] Arendt H, The origins of totalitarianism; Arendt considers how evil is not the result of extreme circumstance, but the banal existence in bureaucratic process and administrative efficacy is what creates the conditions for evil to exist.

[v] Ospina SM, Foldy EG, Fairhurst GT, & Jackson B (2020) Collective dimensions of leadership: Connecting theory and method, Human Relations 73(4): 441-463; Raelin JA (2016a) Imagine there are no leaders: Reframing leadership as collaborative agency. Leadership 12(2): 131-158; Raelin JA (2016b) Introduction to Leadership-As-Practice. In: Joeseph A. Raelin (ed.), Leadership-As-Practice: Theory and Practice. New York, NY: Routledge, pp. 1-17.

[vi] Isaacs W (1993) Dialogue: The power of collective thinking, Leadership 4(3):1-4; Crevani L (2015) Relational leadership: In: Carroll, B, Ford, J, Taylor, S (eds) Leadership: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, London, UK: SAGE, pp. 188-211; Simpson, B., Buchan, L., and Sillince, J. (2018) The performativity of leadership talk, Leadership, 14(6), 644-661.

[vii] Raelin, JA (2016) Leadership-as-Practice: Theory and Application. New York, NY: Routledge; 3.

[viii] Salovaara A, Sauer E, and Ropo P (2013) Embodiment of leadership through material place, Leadership. 9(3): 378-395.


Third Floor Research: Measuring the impact of leadership development

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies professor Tim Steffensmeier and leadership communication doctoral student, Tamas Kowalik, consider an approach to teaching leadership that can further develop our capacity to exercise leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The impact of leadership development programs oftentimes seems obvious as principles and skills acquired are put into practice in the daily operation of organizations. Anecdotal evidence and testimonies abound regarding the positive impact of leadership trainings. Moreover, it is common practice to evaluate leadership trainings to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Third Floor Research was developed to test and expand upon the ways we measure leadership development. We are curious about how leadership development affects individuals and organizations that are working to make progress on difficult challenges.

Third Floor Research, a partnership with the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and the Staley School of Leadership Studies, was launched in 2017 to foster innovation on how leadership is exercised and to advance the field of leadership development. The applied research center focuses primarily on the leadership that is needed to make progress on adaptive challenges. The work is to collect and analyze data that produces useful findings on how to exercise leadership.

Despite a multi-billion-dollar leadership industry, there is a paucity of research focused on the impact of leadership development, particularly outside of formal education settings. We lack enough evidence and understanding about the degree to which leadership development improves outcomes. Third Floor Research aims to narrow that gap with a large-scale, multi-partner research center housed at KLC that studies leadership development initiatives. Two primary strategies to attain that goal are research projects and a global database.

Global database
A key solution to understanding the impact of leadership development is the creation of a global database. The database will house participant data from leadership development programs operating in various places in the United States and abroad.

The collected data will include: participant demographics, dosage of leadership content, program support level and participant leadership progress. The database uses a uniform set of data points to offer funders, teachers and curriculum designers a way to measure the impact of their leadership program in relation to other initiatives. The hope is that it will offer programs a way to assess the long-term impacts of their trainings while offering a way to compare and contrast various programs.

Research projects
Third Floor Research is also conducting research projects on an annual basis. From 2019 to 2020, three research projects were completed:

  • Developing leadership capacities in high-tech industry
  • Leadership development and employee engagement in nonprofits
  • Impact of Community leadership programs on work and community engagement

These studies focus on different contexts that use the Kansas Leadership Center’s competency-based approach to leadership. The KLC framework is built on the idea that leadership is an activity available to anyone (O’Malley and Cebula, 2015). As Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) highlights: “We find it extremely useful to see leadership as a practice, an activity that some people do some of the time” (p. 24). Moreover, exercising leadership is about mobilizing people to address difficult, adaptive challenges. These studies found significant findings that correlate KLC’s leadership development training to individual and organizational change. The selected key findings from each study noted below demonstrate our research projects capturing the impact of leadership development.

Study 1: Developing leadership capacities in high-tech industry

Employees are thinking about and doing their work differently

After two years of leadership development trainings for employees at various levels at a site of a fortune 500 high tech company, employees were more confident and prepared to engage in leadership interventions. These include: employees use a shared language to overcome conflict and engage more collaboratively to break down silos across units in the company; employees are more prepared to experiment and try new things; and employees are paying attention to the adaptive challenges in their work.

Study 2: Leadership development and employee engagement in nonprofits

Leadership development = enhanced employee engagement

Employees who are likely to use leadership concepts in their daily work are more committed to their organization, more hopeful about the organization’s future and more satisfied with their job.

Study 3: Impact of Community leadership programs on work and community engagement

Twice as likely to serve in a civic role

After participating in a KLC skills-based leadership training, participants are twice as likely to serve in a civic role (e.g. board member, elected official, advisory group, committee member) compared to generalist leadership programs and the general population.

These findings, alongside the global database, represent attempts to measure the impact of leadership development. Ultimately, we are testing the hypothesis that developing the capacity of many people to exercise leadership on adaptive challenges leads to faster and more progress. While that prediction involves a complex set of interactions, Third Floor Research represents a growing group of scholars and practitioners that are working to understand the collective impact of leadership as activity.


O’Malley and Cebula (2015). Your Leadership Edge. Kanas Leadership Center Press, Wichita, Kansas.

Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Harvard Business Press, Boston

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