Re-thinking Leadership and Management in Construction – Development of a Holistic Leadership Balancer Training

Teksti | Anu Nordlund , Jari Komsi , Helena Launiainen

Leadership positions do not often appear appealing to engineering students. They often experience, that leadership is hierarchical and too excluded from technological problem-solving, which they find as the core task of the engineering industry. Therefore, we need more engineering leadership education, which connects human leadership skills as teamwork and interaction to technical mastery and problem solving (Rottman, 2015; Klassen et al., 2020; Schell & Hughes, 2017&2020).

stock photo.
Photo: Thirdman / Pexels

Background – need for new leadership training

New student-centered pedagogical approaches provide ways that make leadership more interesting among students. Even though the pedagogy in higher education is gradually transforming from teacher-centered to student-centered approaches, conventional teaching methods focusing on transmitting information from teachers to students are commonly used in the construction industry.

The application of learner-centered approaches requires a pedagogical framework, that guides the teacher in creating and facilitating a learning experience. Hence, a student-centered methodological framework was co-developed in the Wood in Circle project, which was implemented by five higher education institutions from Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, and Italy. The two-year project aimed at delivering innovative student-centered transdisciplinary education in circular economy-based wooden construction to postgraduate students across European countries.

This article describes the theoretical and pedagogical basis of a holistic Leadership Balancer training (LB training) created in Wood in Circle-project. LB training combines management and leadership content and allows students to examine themselves simultaneously as leaders of people and managers of technical processes. LB training provides knowledge on leadership and management on general level and demonstrates the essence of these through concrete themes important in the field of construction engineering. The aim is to help the students to form their own conception of leadership, in which both leadership and management are integrated. For the purposes of LB training, we created a pedagogical framework combining phenomenon-based, research-based and blended learning. LB training was piloted with construction engineering students from Häme University of Applied Sciences November 2022.

Picture of the process, where there is the need for training described in the left, process description regarding technical content and pedagogical choices in the middle and learning result of integrated leadership identity on the right.
Figure 1: The development process of “leadership balancer”- training. Picture: Anu Nordlund

Content choices in LB training

According to substance content in LB training, distinction between leadership and management was considered first. We also approached the question of leadership and management on a more precise level in the context of construction management through literature reviews and expert interviews with professionals.

The distinction between management and leadership is not new at all. Shortly put, people are lead whereas things and processes are managed. Many authors as Nienaber (2010), have concluded that there is no clear line between these concepts.

Leadership in its’ general context has been described in numerous ways. We have used Northouse’s (2016) definition, by which “leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”. In LB training examining and reflecting own leadership identity begun with learning leadership approaches and relating oneself to these.

We wanted to find out, what is important in engineering leadership particularly in the construction field.  Several sources discussed importance of dialogue and trust in the context of construction management and leadership (Yli-viilamo, 2013; Ristola, 2016; Kumar & Hsiao, 2007: Khaflan et al. 2007). Our empirical interview results pointed out to similar direction. Therefore, alongside of general leadership approaches trust, dialogue and cooperation were lifted to center of attention according to choices of content in LB training.

Management as leadership has numerous definitions in literature. On classic way of defining management is one from Henry Fayol’s: Management is seen as a process consisting of activities to plan, organize, mobilize human resources (HR), and carry out control to achieve goals. It can be said that management is all management processes, from planning to supervision, to achieve certain goals (Mullins, 2016). In practice, technical management on general level was approached through themes of execution of construction plans, construction schedule, methods, safety, and quality. These are crucial key components essential to master in construction management (e.g. Fellows et a. 2009).   Examples based on these technical themes were used to tie management challenges to real life cases.

Pedagogical solutions developed

How should the leadership and management content be delivered to students in LB training? What are the sound student-centered pedagogical approaches in creating new engineering leadership education? It is common knowledge that conventional teaching methods do not enhance students’ active learning, problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity needed in complex transdisciplinary situations.

Whereas the teacher-centered approaches focus on the transmission of information from teachers to students through various teaching activities such as lectures and examinations, the student-centered philosophy emphasizes the student’s learning experience and permanent learning. The students are actively involved in their learning process. They create their knowledge through real-world experiences instead of being passive and gaining knowledge and information only from their teachers. (Muganga & Ssenkusu, 2019; Brown, 2003; de Boer Garbin et al; 2020; Bhosale, 2020; Borda et al. 2020).

The constructivist learning theory can be seen as a pedagogical umbrella for student-centered approaches (De Boer Garbin et al., 2020). Elander and Cronje (2020) state that teaching based on constructivist approach promote essential skills for professional performance in engineering. Christie and Graaf (2017) discuss the meaning of active learning in engineering education. They define active learning as an approach to instruction, where the student participates in the learning process. Despite the growing awareness of student participation, passive ways of learning still dominate engineering education (Byers et al. 2018).

The new leadership training should connect students’ experiences to their learning process. Thus, we chose constructivism as the cross-cutting pedagogical theory in LB training. As constructivism is a general theory of learning, we selected three pedagogical models to guide the implementation of student-centered learning in LB training. These models are research-based, phenomenon-based, and blended learning.

Research-based learning invited us to see that used knowledge is based on scientific knowledge. Dialogue as a method also encourages students to research their perspectives both on their human leadership skills and technical mastery. Blended learning in LB training appeared mostly as flipped classroom approach. We provided the most lectures, podcast stories, and other study materials online before the contact lessons. This gave more time for reflection and discussion in face-to-face meetings. It also made it possible to reflect on previous experiences. Following principles of phenomenon-based learning, traditional subject lines were crossed, when personal skills as dialogue were connected to technical skills. Narratives in form of fictive stories were used as an assisting approach to invoke experiences related to themes.

Leadership balancer training

LB training answers the above-described training need. To test the training and receive feedback for its’ development it was piloted with Häme UAS students. Training consisted of three modules, which delivered leadership and management contexts through pedagogical approaches described in the pedagogical framework. First two modules were taught online. These helped the students to construct own leadership identity.

In practice theoretical sections offered food for thought on leadership and management in the context of construction. Concerning trust students learned to look at trust as a dynamic phenomenon (Harisalo & Miettinen, 2010) and acknowledge their role in facilitating trusting atmosphere in the work community. Dialogical skills (Isaacs, 2001) were analysed and examined personally: What were own dialogical strengths and developmental areas and how they related to leadership? Theoretical management exercises concerned mainly themes connected to occupational safety (Sanchez et al. 2017).

Empirical sections in the first two modules included narratives in form of podcast stories, which described leadership and management challenges in authentic construction site environment. Here elements of trust, mistrust, interaction problems (leadership) and challenges concerning occupational safety (management) were presented in a fictive story easy to relate to through feelings.

Third module was an integrative part, which integrated learning from previous two modules and combined the group level to the learning alongside individual level. Here individual leadership understanding meets group level understanding. Through group exercises, leadership was integrated to management. Third module was conducted with teachers and students outdoors. According to Volpe et al. (2022) there are good experiences of engineering leadership training conducted outside class room environment. Students rely less on formal classroom instruction for their leadership development and more on their involvement when describing their leadership development. Our own experiences and pilot course feedback also strongly support the idea of outdoor exercises to support use of experience in group activities.

The feedback from students who participated to the pilot training was mainly positive. Students appreciated particularly the chance to discuss leadership and management challenges outside away from the classroom context. Few respondents specifically appreciated the opportunity to learn to discuss, how to handle conflicts. Based on the student feedback blended learning approaches will be strengthened in further development of LB training. This allows even more contact teaching time to be used for dialogue and reflection.  Group tasks will be developed to even more integrative direction, where both interaction and technical skills are needed in authentic working life context.

This work was supported by the EU Erasmus+ project ”Circular Economy in Wooden Construction” (WOOD in CIRCLE). Project No: KA203-8443DA0D. Project code: 2020-1-LT01-KA203-077939.


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