It all started with Delores Umbridge.
The erstwhile High Inquisitor with a penchant for pink and punishment may have tormented students as Hogwarts’ temporarily imposed headmistress. But at Richmond, her example helped conjure up a new way of looking at bad leadership.
“When you have opportunities to look at literature, it’s not exactly the world in which we operate,” explains Kerstin Soderlund, associate dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. “We let go of biases and preconceived notions. That’s definitely an advantage.”
Soderlund taught a Roadmap short course challenging students to use that advantage. She tasked students with reading Barbara Kellerman’s Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters, and then asked them to send in their analyses of characters from the literary world of Harry Potter who exemplify models presented in the Kellerman text. She also had them develop their own definition of leadership and to reflect on positive concepts of leadership before arriving.
The class met in person during Roadmap to view film clips highlighting moments when particular types — ranging from cruel, incompetent, or callous — are on display. They debated the finer points of whether the bullies, bureaucrats, and Voldemort’s army of Death Eaters were merely followers or in their own right an example of Kellerman’s typology.
Soderlund had taught about bad leadership before using the Kellerman text and its examples of real-life case studies. But last year, Delores Umbridge apparated into the discussion. Seemingly out of nowhere, one student offered her up as the perfect example of callous leadership. That got Soderlund thinking about ways she could incorporate the popular J.K. Rowling series into a class designed to help students think critically and analyze texts.
It’s not the first time that the liberal arts have led to students drawing connections between unusual things. And it’s also not the first time Jepson faculty have used a well-known text like the Harry Potter series as a vehicle for introducing deeper concepts.
“We have faculty who regularly use Shakespeare and ask students to read, view, and talk about what kinds of leadership-related lessons you can draw from the texts,” Soderlund says. “Throughout our curriculum there are all sorts of examples where students are not necessarily reading a book that’s specifically about leadership but where there are all sorts of implications.”
Soderlund thinks the combination of a topic like bad leadership — which she describes as "kind of sexy" — and the popular literature of Harry Potter brought in the eager students, who filled the course to capacity. But the course wasn’t all about the bad. She also asked them to read about and discuss what leadership means. It wasn’t covered in Kellerman’s text, but Soderlund challenged the students to think about what good leadership would look like based off what they had read, observed, and analyzed.
Her class — Lessons Learned from the Dark Side: From Harvard to Hogwarts — was one of several organized for the 143 entering first-years who chose to move in early, take extra classes, and explore the city of Richmond on excursions as part of the Roadmap to Success program. The program continues throughout the academic year, with monthly dinners and events planned.
The goal is to help these students hit the ground running academically and also begin to build community among first-years before classes begin.
“For these 12 students that I’m going to advise for two years, we all have some weird connection in that we’re all Harry Potter fans,” Soderlund explains. “Some more than others, obviously. But to be able to have that connection and to joke about that in the context of Harry Potter is just another unique niche.”