This is an article from the fall 2016 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

“Learning to be a leader,” says Director of the Barger Leadership Institute and Professor of Sociology Jason Owen-Smith, “is a bit like learning to dance. You start out Arthur Murray style, following the footprints on the floor. It’s awkward, but with practice it starts to feel more natural.” Owen-Smith has a few specific moves he wants students to learn when they come through the Barger Leadership Institute (BLI), a student-powered, faculty-guided organization aimed at developing undergraduates’ leadership skills.

Seven times a year, undergraduate students from across campus enter the BLI and learn the same four foundational steps in BLI’s Leadership Lab: developing a vision, crafting a strategy around it, devising an experiment to bring their strategy into the world, and evaluating the outcome. “It’s this basic cycle,” says Owen-Smith, “that gets things done in the world.”

One of the hardest and the most productive points in this cycle is when an innovation flops. 

“The failure points you toward the weakness of your plan or to a new set of possibilities,” says Owen-Smith. “You learn from it and you start again. You’re not trudging in a circle, you’re climbing a spiral staircase.”

The staircase has led students to a number of places. One group started an organization to help Albanian American families navigate the unfamiliar college application process. Another partnered with a nonprofit organization to install solar panels on houses on the La Jolla Indian Reservation. Yet another developed a wheelchair that converts into a bed so nurses can safely move their patients.

Owen-Smith has seen some of the best ideas emerge after a period of doubt and uncertainty. Students who truck in liberal arts disciplines, especially ones like writing poetry or wrestling with philosophical paradoxes, excel in these situations because they’re comfortable dealing with multiple meanings and ambiguous outcomes. 

The BLI uses the lab metaphor, explains Owen-Smith, because “these are crucibles for students to try to fail over and over in a setting where they don’t know the right answer.” 

Having the fortitude and ambition to do something interesting and new means that failure is much more common than success. The failures students experience are real and they hurt, but they won’t result in a permanent disaster. Students aren’t risking the GPAs they need for graduate school, and they won’t get fired for taking a risk. 

“If that’s the cost, they’re not going to try it,” Owen-Smith says. 

“It also teaches students resilience,” says Julia Spears, BLI’s assistant director. “It teaches them what to do differently next time, and it teaches them that there is going to be a next time.”


Photo by Scott C. Soderberg/Michigan Photography