Boats on water

IMI's new course inspires a different type of leadership

Claire Westgate

In 2023, it’s clear that solving climate change, social inequities, justice, and the needs of communities around the world need a different type of thinking, and a different type of leadership.  At IMI, three Faculty members teamed up to tackle this challenge through the creation of a new graduate course, designed to challenge our traditional ways of thinking about leadership.

Professor Shashi Kant, in the creation of IMI 2002 Leadership for a Sustainable World, had this to say: “the current state of the world demands exploring new models of leadership. The prevalent dominant models of leadership are driven by mechanistic worldview, short-term gains, outer-self and extrinsic motivations. Leadership for a sustainable future must be rooted in the paradigm of living systems, living in harmony with the planet earth, long-term vision, inner-self, and intrinsic motivations.”  Professor Soo Min Toh, who worked to set the course up, identified Professor Ann Armstrong as someone uniquely positioned to teach it.  “Ann’s deep knowledge and experience in social enterprises, change management and team dynamics, made her most capable for teaching this course that critiques dominant leadership paradigms while generating evidence-based, reflective and constructive alternatives that will provoke true leadership development among students.”

These views are matched by the students who took the inaugural course offering.  Hannah MacRae, a second year student in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management Program, agrees: “I have taken leadership courses before, and felt that they taught a narrow, theory-based curriculum that was very focused on the Western world.  IMI 2002 taught me about leadership theories and styles from around the world."  Of traditional leadership, says Tian Yang, a Master of Urban Innovation student in the course, “this approach can be useful, but it can be limiting, since it focuses solely on the individual rather than the context in which leadership occurs.”  Yang was drawn to the course’s value in training future leaders to take adaptable approaches.

Ann Armstrong
Professor Ann Armstrong

Professor Ann Armstrong, who developed the course and taught the first cohort, built the content in a way to challenge the students at a meaningful level.  The course looks at traditional, neo-liberal leadership theories, but quickly moves into studying Indigenous, African and Ecological theories.  “The readings”, Armstrong says, “provided insights that were unfamiliar and uncomfortable.  The discussions in class were thoughtful as we all grappled with our own assumptions being upended.”  Says MacRae “one of my most important takeaways related to our lessons on North American Indigenous leadership. I learned that colonization disrupted and damaged many of the most important leadership avenues and concepts in Indigenous cultures, such as the concept of the Earth as a leader, and storytelling as an avenue for leadership. This realization was a lightbulb moment for me, as it helped me recognize another important layer of the damage caused by Residential Schools and other anti-Indigenous policies in Canada through their lasting impact on leadership in Indigenous communities.”  Yang's biggest takeaways were on the importance of situational leadership, emphasizing sustainability and responsible leadership, and change management.  “Such skills”, he says “are crucial for addressing global challenges such as climate change, social inequality, economic instability and geopolitical tensions.”

The hope is for IMI 2002 to grow, and contribute to the well-rounded, inclusive leaders that IMI is developing each year, who will subsequently bring those lenses to the workforce.  “I think the real value of IMI 2002 for future leaders is that it teaches students to think outside of themselves and their own experiences. Collaboration is extremely important in facing many of the pressing issues of the 21st century, so I think we need future leaders who lead with compassion and who can empathize with diverse perspectives”, says MacRae.  The course has “better equipped us as future leaders to work with others on the global issues before us”.