Start’Em Early: Confessional Culture in US Undergraduate Leadership Development

Eric Guthey, Nicole Ferry

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference abstract for conferenceResearchpeer-review


Undergraduate leadership programs at US universities often stress the importance of selfreflection, self-assessment, and self-discovery for developing individual student capabilities. Such programs employ ice breakers, group exercises, coaching, reflective journals and other techniques, often loosely grounded in positive and pop-psychology, to encourage young people to share personal and emotional insights as the necessary prerequisite for becoming leaders. We explore the extent to which these quasi-therapeutic practices, often the intellectual property of commercial vendors, normalize a confessional culture of leadership development, a system of neoliberal governmentality that positions the self as an object in need of scrutiny, assessment, quantification, and improvement. Such an insistently individual and internal focus can function to limit students’ understanding of themselves as social agents, we argue, and ultimately to prepare students to submit themselves to workplace regimes that employ even more intense forms of pseudo-psychological quantification and neoliberal surveillance. We conclude by highlighting alternative approaches to leadership development that can better engage students as co-designers of their own development experiences, and as collaborators in multi-stakeholder processes of collective action and of group, shared, or distributed leadership.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2018
Number of pages2
Publication statusPublished - 2018
EventThe 17th International Studying Leadership Conference. ISLC 2018 - Lancaster House Hotel, Lancaster, United Kingdom
Duration: 16 Dec 201818 Dec 2018
Conference number: 17


ConferenceThe 17th International Studying Leadership Conference. ISLC 2018
LocationLancaster House Hotel
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address

Cite this