Red Winged Leadership

Red-winged blackbirds inspire a leadership course and recognition project at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business.
Red Winged Leadership

IT CAN BE A POWERFUL EXPERIENCE for business students to meet individuals who represent the kind of leaders they want to be—it can be even more powerful for them to seek out individuals to honor for their leadership and service. That’s the concept behind Leadership Formation, a two-quarter two-course elective that has been offered in the MBA program at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics in Washington since 2010.

Designed and taught by associate professor of management Jennifer Marrone, the Leadership Formation courses ask students to identify and recognize unsung leaders in the Seattle area who are making a positive social impact through their work. The curriculum was inspired by the similar mission of the global Opus Prize, organized by 11 Catholic universities, including Seattle University.

The driving purpose of the two courses is to connect students’ learning experiences to a part of Seattle University’s mission statement that vows “to empower leaders for a just and humane world,” says Marrone. As they fulfill the courses’ objectives, she adds, students themselves embody the very principles of leadership they seek to find in the broader Seattle community.

This year, 12 students enrolled in the first-quarter course, required for those pursuing a Leadership Formation Specialization certificate; six are enrolled in the second-quarter course, which is a general elective. During the first ten-week quarter of Leadership Formation, students meet one evening each week to discuss assigned readings, ranging from books such as Peter Drucker's Managing Oneself to Harvard Business Review articles on topics of leadership, decision making, and authenticity.

However, the majority of students’ work takes place outside the classroom. Students must go out into the community to find and interview local business professionals; then, each must nominate one individual as a “Red Winged Leader.” The term is a reference to a red-winged blackbird with red markings that are initially hard to spot—but once those marks are noticed, they’re hard to miss. Students choose previously unrecognized individuals who they believe exemplify leadership, possess strong business acumen, and demonstrate social responsibility.

At the end of the first quarter, the students give PowerPoint presentations demonstrating why their chosen individuals should be honored as Red Winged Leaders. Marrone evaluates the presentations according to a rubric she has shared with the class, based on the students' ability to communicate their nominees' leadership vision, as well as the extent to which nominees exhibit "Red Winged Leader" characteristics.

Students enrolled in the second-quarter course collectively finalize their list of Red Winged Leaders. The 2014-2015 cohort chose three local CEOs: Sally Bergesen of Oiselle, a women’s athletic apparel company that has set out to change limiting stereotypes about female athletes; Steve Butcher of Brown Paper Tickets, a ticketing service that offers transparent fees for ticket buyers, donates 5 percent of its profits to charity, and provides each of its employees one paid week off to volunteer with charities of their choice; and Todd Dunnington of Skills, a nonprofit aerospace supplier with 620 employees that trains, employs, and serves persons with disabilities.

Students also must decide on and complete a project that will recognize their honorees. This year’s cohort chose to write an academic paper to submit to a scholarly journal and raise funds to attend the Association of Leadership Educators conference in Washington, D.C. Previous cohorts have raised funds for awards presentation ceremonies with 250 guests; they also have made videos about their leaders, which were shown at a banquet ceremony and made available for honorees to distribute to their networks.

                                                                       - JENNIFER MARRONE, SEATTLE UNIVERSITY

The Leadership Formation experience offers students a threefold view of leadership. Assigned readings and class discussions introduce students to different leadership styles. Meetings and interviews with local professionals allow students to hear true stories of leadership styles and development. Finally, the recognition project challenges students to put what they've learned about leadership into action. In the future, Marrone hopes to ask previously honored Red Winged Leaders to participate in the Leadership Formation program, either as guest speakers or student advisors. Marrone believes that courses that allow students to drive their own experience of great leadership would be invaluable for all business students. In this way, the Leadership Formation curriculum “creates new ways for students to learn from and uplift leaders,” she says. “We want our students to remain in the driver’s seat in terms of crafting their own visions for Red Winged Leadership.”

Maria Bauermeister, Jon Greer, Angelina Kalinovich, Megan Pahl, Lauren Rochholz, and Barry Wilson are MBA students who participated in the 2014-2015 Leadership Formation course at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business and Economics in Washington. To read about the course, visit View past cohorts’ videos about their Red Winged Leaders at For information about the Opus Prize, visit