Evaluating Leaders as Change Agents

Students at the University of Indianapolis study the first 100 days of the U.S. presidents.

WHAT BETTER WAY to show business students change management in action than to have them evaluate the performance of a recently elected national leader? Any new administration brings a wave of change, along with new priorities for the country. In the U.S., this shift is accompanied by intense media attention, as the first 100 days of an administration now are recognized as a benchmark for how well—or how badly—a president is doing as a change agent.

Twice in the past eight years, I have asked MBA students in my Leading Organizational Change course to evaluate the real-life leadership of a new U.S. president in what I call the First 100 Days assignment. First, I have students study classic leadership theories from John Kotter, William Bridges, and W. Warner Burke. Then I ask them to focus on the transition through the lenses of organizational change theory as well as public response to the new president.

Students discuss theories both in small groups and with the entire class. They also are required to bring to class accounts of real-world events from literature, media, and their own workplaces. In written papers and in class presentations, they must identify the course-related theory or model that each event illustrates, as well as identify three key points of learning they have derived from it. Most of these events focus on the political realm.

This year’s class consisted of 23 students in two cohorts. Many described Donald Trump’s administration as being in what Bridges refers to as the Neutral Zone—a period of chaos and re-patterning. In this climate, members of the “neutral” public are deciding where they stand and how they want to respond to the change. President Trump ultimately will adjust his leadership tactics based on this feedback—which, according to Neutral Zone theory, could impact views of him as a change agent.

Students also evaluated Trump’s performance using Kotter’s “8-Step Process for Leading Organizational Change.” (See the graphic above.)

When I asked students to evaluate how effectively Trump has served as a change agent, the responses were markedly different for men and women. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being high, the 15 male students gave him an average score of 6.55; the eight female students ranked him at 3.38. This was in line with current polls that showed women’s approval rating of Trump hovering around 40 percent.

Trump’s rankings also differed among the two cohorts. The ten students in a specialized cohort working at a manufacturing facility gave Trump an overall score of 6.4, while the 13 students enrolled in an on-campus class rated him at 4.71. Those in the industry group might have been more likely than university students to be influenced by recent debates about trade and economic issues.

I require all students to make their analyses with objectivity, tossing aside their own political leanings and personal views as they grade the president’s performance. The public furor both for and against Trump made this a tall order. However, because students were forced to take ideology out of the discussion, they had productive conversations about his leadership style and tactics.

I believe the First 100 Days assignment provides the ultimate case study of large organizational change. Even if a president faces a particularly intense crisis during this period—such as the events of 9/11—I would continue to teach the class the same way, focusing on the crisis as a “triggering event” for the presidency.

Watching new national leaders in action allows business students develop the skills they will need when they are in the workplace—attempting to navigate organizational change, influence corporate culture, and carry out strategic planning efforts. In short, they learn to think like organizational change agents who must navigate the complex challenges of our ever-changing world, which needs effective leadership more than ever before.

See more about the students’ analysis of Trump’s presidency. See how students evaluated Barack Obama’s first three months in office.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's September/October 2017 print issue. If you have comments or feedback on its content, please contact us at [email protected].

Terry J. Schindler is an assistant professor of management at the School of Business at the University of Indianapolis in Indiana.