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Leaders of the Pack

Leaders of the Pack

Sample and Bennis teach undergraduate course on leadership

By Kaitlin Solimine
July 2004

As a leader of several major USC campus organizations, including founder and co-president of the USC entrepreneur club, USC College student A.J. Nagaraj knows a lot about leadership. Still, after enrolling in USC President Steven Sample and University Professor Warren Bennis’ spring semester course MDA 365: “The Art and Adventure of Leadership,” he realized he has a lot to learn.

“The course taught me that being a good leader begins with knowing who you are,” says Nagaraj, who graduated in May with a degree in political science and will attend Harvard University’s graduate school of education this fall.

As part of the College’s multidisciplinary activities (MDA) program, the leadership course emphasizes interdisciplinary teaching and research. MDA courses are developed and taught by faculty from more than one program, department or school.

MDA 365 used both classical and practical approaches to leadership study, highlighting the work of Socrates, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., while also offering the personal advice and direct knowledge of its professors, Sample and Bennis, who hosted small dinners with course participants.

The course culminated in an intensive group project with simple guidelines: practice leadership. Accordingly, the projects were as varied as leadership itself.

One project was the creation of a toy library. The 24th Street Theatre, just blocks from USC’s campus, provided the space and once a week children “check out” toys, which they can borrow for one week.

Participant Winter Warner, an English major and College senior, says that the toy library project taught her that with proper leadership skills, six people are capable of accomplishing wonderful things in less than four months. “I also learned how to write a budget—and I’m an English major!” she says.

Another project focused on USC area high school students. Selecting underserved schools, the team worked with school counselors to nominate junior and senior student leaders. The resulting nominees were then taken on a weekend retreat to Sacramento where they participated in lessons, workshops and bonding that covered both professional and personal leadership.

“The kids were so eager for development, attention and mentors,” says project participant Katie Trefz, a College senior and history and political science major. “Many of the students talked about how happy they were to be in an environment where they didn’t have to defend their ambition or explain their success.”

Intending to target the USC student body, another project built an online L.A. travel guide, The site, which considers itself an unconventional travel guide, offers nearly 225 reviews along with 11 categories of listings ranging from bars and clubs to museums and cultural sites.

“We tried to search out unknown yet interesting places that are unique to certain parts of the city,” says project participant and USC senior Christina Thelin.

College student Mariah Martin, who also worked on the website adds, “our vision was to inspire students to see Los Angeles as an urban classroom.”

In the end, all of the MDA 365 students walked away with a much stronger sense of what it takes to be a leader, not only in business, politics or the community, but also within more personal spheres of influence.

And sometimes, being a leader means letting someone else lead.

“This class takes a group of 40 students, who are used to leading multiple student organizations, and puts them into groups with other leaders,” says Nagaraj. “What results is a power dynamic in which egos are bruised, compromises are grudgingly struck and sacrifices are made…. You quickly learn that leaders can’t always be leaders in every endeavor they pursue.”