Learning Leadership, Spreading Stress


How can a school teach leadership?

“Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change,” arguably one of the Harvard Kennedy School’s most famous classes, believes it holds an answer to this question. But a recent Crimson investigation revealed the taxing toll that the nearly 40-year-old course has wrought on some students through its controversial teaching method.

The course’s pioneering pedagogy centers around the “case-in-point” instruction method, which allows students to scrutinize their own and each other’s past failures. While many participants have called this approach highly transformative and overwhelmingly positive, several students recalled an immense amount of stress and anxiety that began in the course and persisted long after submitting the final.

These testimonies from students reveal that the same academics-related mental health crisis occurring within our undergraduate population extends to our peers at Harvard’s graduate schools too.


Though the “Exercising Leadership” syllabus and teaching staff caution students about the potential emotional cost of the course, it seems that this and other cautionary signs have not sufficiently warned vulnerable students about enrolling in the class and facing long-term emotional consequences.

Harvard students — often high-achieving and ambitious — may be prone to overlook the cautions provided on this course’s syllabus in favor of enrolling in a famous class they believe might help their career. For this reason, it is imperative that we foster a culture in which asking for help and dropping courses is viewed as acceptable.

Dropping out of courses like this one, choosing not to enroll in the first place, and seeking support are not signs of weakness or failure; extra administrative support should make these options more accessible.

Given the uniquely challenging emotional harms associated with this HKS course, the class might consider an extended add-drop period, allowing more absences before a grade penalty, and building intentional student check-ins into the course structure. And when students do ask for help, course staff must be equipped with concrete solutions.

Beyond implementing small administrative measures, course staff and students alike should consider the active roles they play in creating — or mitigating — a stressful learning environment. There should be special consideration given to the unique classroom experience of those from underrepresented backgrounds, and students should be extra sensitive to each other’s needs during classroom discussions about identities, issues, and cultures with which they are not familiar.

Though this is just one course, the Kennedy School should understand these testimonies as a call for stronger mental health support and faculty training throughout the entire school. This course is certainly not alone in contributing to stressful and potentially traumatic environments for graduate students. While there must be solutions to address course-specific issues, we cannot stop there.

The Kennedy School may have pioneered an effective way to teach leadership; it is time for administrators to wield their own leadership abilities to tackle mental health concerns at HKS.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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