Leadership is a famously difficult quality to pin down. It can be even more difficult to teach. What makes someone a great leader? What are the actions and processes through which great leadership occurs? And how can you take any typical student and give them those elusive qualities?
Organizational leadership degrees explore the dynamic questions of leadership excellence and present real, actionable answers for future managers and executives who earn them.
In an era where big companies, non-profits, and government agencies have taken on enormous social responsibility and influence, it’s more important than ever that they have empathetic, adaptable, visionary leaders.
With the specialization that has developed in modern industry, there are roles for those leaders throughout these organizations. They head departments, lead strategic planning teams, or serve as advisors and troubleshooters at the highest levels.
All of them can benefit from the insights and techniques taught in degree programs in organizational leadership.
What Is an Organizational Leadership Degree?
Organizational leadership degrees take the basic qualities of executive management and thrusts them onto an even higher plane. Organization leaders combine broad business understanding and managerial skills with extraordinary vision and domain expertise.
That makes organizational leadership a very diverse field. Every industry needs great organizational leaders. They can be found in every niche and division of a corporation, governments, or non-profits.
If there is an embodiment of the principles of organizational leadership, it might be the photo of President Harry Truman sitting at his desk behind the sign he made famous: “The Buck Stops Here.”
It means accepting ultimate responsibility for everything that happens on your watch, in every corner of your organization. And it means being proactive in organizing and guiding all of those individuals and details to ensure that what’s happening is what you plan to have happen.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
Organizational leadership is an outgrowth of that famous observation. It’s often attributed to Peter Drucker, one of the most famous analysts and advocates for corporate management. Although it’s unlikely that he actually said it, it’s probably laid at his doorstep so often because it lines up well with his other observations—a need for community and a respect for the average worker.
Drucker wasn’t alone in recognizing that high-handed strategies delivered distantly from atop ivory towers of corporate management were lacking an important quality: concept of execution. Without both a strong connection to the workers needed to turn strategy into reality, and a means of motivating them, strategic planning became pointless.
Leadership qualities are what connect vision to execution.
Drawing Lessons From Leaders Through History
Organizational leadership is a pretty modern kind of degree program, but it’s an ancient process. Great leaders throughout history have embraced the kind of skills and methods that OL degrees will teach you. Moses was an awesome organizational leader; Eisenhower and Grant proved their abilities first in the realm of military conflict, and then went on to lead the United States as a country.
Motivating people has been a key element of great accomplishment for as long as there have been people. And if you look back at the leaders who have done it well, many share the same qualities that OL degrees teach today.
Genghis Khan was a tremendous people person on top of being a bloodthirsty warlord. He wanted to know what made people tick. When he found traits that were valuable to his world-conquering project, he didn’t hesitate to bring in one-time enemies if they could advance his goal.
Eisenhower delegated authority broadly. He was good at remaining hands-off as subordinates executed broader plans. At the same time, he could make the hard decisions that no one else could make—such as the gamble of making the D-Day landings with an uncertain weather forecast. His pre-written note to be released in the event the landings failed is still a model of accepting full responsibility.
Grant was unfailingly supportive of his team. General Sherman once wrote to him “I knew that wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place, you would come.” That kind of inspiration won the Civil War.
What Does a Degree in Organizational Leadership Teach?
Organizational leadership degrees recognize that the exact tasks a leader must execute will differ widely from industry to industry or even organization to organization. A nurse leader manages and inspires a culture very different from what a sales organization leader must develop, for example. They’ll both need different, but advanced, professional skills to fill those roles.
So, OL studies focus on teaching the common attributes of great leaders:
That comes through coursework in areas that include:
The basic nuts and bolts job of any manager is to smooth out the inevitable hiccups that come in any human organization. Developing a system of planning out and coordinating execution is the science of project management. Most OL degrees will dive into this area to a greater or lesser degree.
Back to the importance of culture, OL degrees offer students coursework on how to assess group dynamics, diverse workplace environments, and social strata that develop in the workplace. You’ll learn how to set and reinforce workplace values and create conditions where perspective, tolerance, empathy, and a shared sense of purpose create a workforce capable of great things.
Few things torpedo an executive’s leadership authority faster than a breach of business ethics. Coursework in ethics standards and enforcement is common in OL degree programs.
Social and Cultural Psychology
Getting into the minds of your workforce may be the most difficult part of organizational leadership. So you’ll study classes in the scientific elements of psychology as they apply in both social and cultural contexts. These courses will teach you how to empathize with staff and analyze the behaviors that make up a greater culture.
Resource Allocation and Economics
Leaders are responsible for making hard choices. Developing an economically rational way to assess, evaluate, and select resource allocation patterns comes through understanding tangible and intangible values, profit and loss, and other accounting concepts.
Leadership Theory and Practice
Studies of the theories of leadership and example case studies of historical examples of great leadership help students develop an appreciation for how leaders cultivate qualities that allow them to succeed in different environments and situations.
Finally, classes in organizational leadership itself helps you tie together all the pieces of knowledge you find in other courses and develop your own traits of leadership and vision.
Exploring the Broad Field of Organizational Leadership Degrees
Organizational leadership is a hot field and there are no shortage of different schools and programs available in the field. You can pick a degree or a certificate in organizational leadership; you can pick a concentration in organizational leadership in a wide range of other business and professional degree programs.
Why You Might Choose an Organizational Leadership Degree Over a Traditional Business Degree
The organizational leadership degree field is a relatively new one. Various academic programs in leadership studies began to emerge in the United States in the 1940s. But degree programs specific to organizational leadership haven’t become common until recently.
It’s not like no one was looking at and trying to solve problems of leadership before it emerged as a formal academic field, though. So you will find that there are many traditional business degree programs that either focus on management and leadership or offer concentrations in those areas.
But there are real differences between leadership studies in a traditional business administration degree and a specific organizational leadership degree.
Business degrees encompass the entire spectrum of business management. They’ll include coursework in finance, marketing, and operations. They are designed to give you the technical knowledge and skills to manage a business… not necessarily the people within it.
Organizational leadership degrees focus on the social and psychological elements of leadership. These are soft skills that are applicable in any kind of organization, not just for-profit businesses.
These skills are often complementary. Leaders in certain management and executive positions will have to master all of them. But the degree you choose will reflect the emphasis you place on leadership versus administration.
OL is a serious field designed for folks with real management potential, however. You will find that most schools aim their OL studies at students who are on a path toward management already. While there are a handful of two-year associate degree programs in the field, most studies are aimed at students who are going to earn at least a bachelor’s degree, and probably go on to graduate studies.
Certificates in Organizational Leadership
It’s often the case that professionals only realize they would benefit from formal organizational leadership training after they are already in a position of responsibility and management. The arc of your career path in those situations may very well not allow you the kind of time you need to dedicate to a complete degree program in the field. Or you may find you only need a little bit of polish to skills you have developed organically through your business experience.
Certificate programs are made to order for executives in those situations. They consist of only a handful of classes and can be completed in just a few months.
You will find certificate programs aimed at different levels of education.
With lower costs and less time commitment, these are an easy choice for busy executives in the thick of personal and professional obligations. But they don’t come with the full range of training that a real degree in the field can offer.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Organizational Leadership
A bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete and includes far more than just coursework on organizational leadership. Although you will have the full range of courses outlined above, you’ll also receive a classic liberal arts education. That means courses in a wide range of fields such as:
This breadth of fields is all part of educating future leaders with the kind of general knowledge and critical thinking skills that are required to manage a modern organization. It’s the sort of preparation that pretty much every industry has settled on as the core requirements for an educated workforce. A bachelor’s is often the entry-level degree for key positions in any organization.
You’ll also have the time and option to take many different electives that can hone your organizational leadership skills. These can be specific to your career field or more general coursework in psychology or cultural studies.
You may also have the opportunity to participate in internships and network with potential employers and contacts. With four years to develop your network, a bachelor’s offers a powerful introduction to organizational leadership careers.
Master’s Degrees in Organizational Leadership
A master’s degree is widely recognized as a way to hone expertise to the highest levels in the business community. In OL, that means devoting one to two years of focused studies on the most advanced principles of management and leadership.
Going far beyond the undergraduate level of study, master’s programs skip the general knowledge and liberal studies coursework for complete dedication to strategic and leadership studies.
All the advanced studies are there for a reason. There are also high bars to clear to graduate from these programs. While a thesis is the traditional culmination of master’s studies, many business-oriented fields, including OL, are moving more toward requiring students to complete an integrated capstone project to graduate. These involve the full spectrum of skills you will absorb over the course of the program. You’ll have to research, write, and develop your own expressions of leadership abilities to succeed.
Master’s programs typically have fewer elective options than bachelor’s degrees, but there are more specialized tracks available:
Should You Pick an Organizational Leadership Degree in Arts or in Sciences?
You’ve probably already noticed that there are degrees in organizational leadership at all levels that are available in either the Arts or the Sciences. In some cases, you can even find both available from the same university! Both teach organizational leadership principles and techniques and prepare you to take on visionary leadership roles in a wide range of industries.
So what is the difference between an arts and a sciences degree in organizational leadership?
Organizational leadership degrees in the sciences tend to emphasize the processes, patterns, and mechanics of organizational leadership. They are intended specifically to prepare you for professional positions in management, and include fewer courses in the humanities or liberal studies. You’ll find more business-oriented classes in these programs, with a focus on economics or social sciences.
Organizational leadership degrees in the arts take a more humanistic approach to OL organization. You’ll get more traditional liberal arts classes, investigating some of the soft skills integral to effective organizational leadership like communication, team-building, and other interpersonal skills.
You can put together effective organizational leadership styles through either type of program, but you might find one or the other aligns better with your own strengths and goals. Or you might take the opposite tack, pursuing the type of degree that can better complement your current skills.
Doctoral Degrees in Organizational Leadership
A PhD, or Doctor of Philosophy, degree in organizational leadership represents the pinnacle of scholarship and academic interest in OL studies.
These programs aren’t easy to complete or to get into. You may need to hold a master’s degree already, and will certainly have to compete against other highly qualified candidates through interviews or essays submitted to the admissions committee.
Once you do get in, you’re looking at three years or more of intensive studies and in-depth research requirements. You’ll get much more individualized attention from instructors, working in some cases almost in partnership with professors. But you’ll also have to complete a dissertation that involves your own analysis, research, and reasoning in an organizational leadership topic. The writing and reasoning have to be of the highest quality. You’ll have to defend your work in front of a review committee of professors and professionals, so it will need to be good.
Graduates from OL PhD programs are destined for roles in academia, teaching other students how to develop organizational leadership skills, or for advanced positions at think-tanks or in corporate leadership.
Concentrations Give Organizational Leadership Degrees Even More Focus
A lot of what you learn in an organizational leadership degree will have to do with culture and strategy. Those are qualities and values that can vary a lot from industry to industry. So to make the most out of your OL studies, you’ll want to find a degree that offers a concentration area that lines up with your profession.
Dual Degrees With Organizational Leadership Versus Concentrations
Since most organizational leaders also need to get a very domain-specific education in the field they will be working in, it’s extremely common for them to earn multiple degrees along the way: one in their professional field, and another in organizational leadership.
This is most common in highly regulated fields where a professional degree is required for licensing, such as law and medicine. But you’ll find examples in any area where individual executives want to excel at both their particular job duties and also as a manager and leader.
Conceptually, this isn’t different from degree programs that offer a concentration in OL, or OL degrees with a concentration in other fields. The big difference is in the depth of training. With more credit hours devoted to both subjects, there is no chance of missing out on important coursework.
Of course, it’s not easy to earn multiple degrees at any level, but no one ever said that leadership was easy.
A dedicated degree in organizational leadership isn’t the only place to learn OL skills. You can also come at your OL education from the other direction, picking a major in your own field and selecting an organizational leadership concentration in that program. In fact, it might be just as common to learn organizational leadership as part of a different major than it is to get a full OL degree.
There’s no one right answer for which direction you should pick. But it’s great to have both options available.
Common Career Tracks in Organizational Leadership
Some of the most common and popular organizational leadership degree concentration combinations are found in areas including business management, HR management, education, public health, nursing and health administration, IT, public administration, and non-profit management:
Business and business management generally are some of the most widely studied fields in the United States. Since OL is most commonly applied in business settings, it’s a natural fit to find degrees and concentrations with business administration as the focus.
The educational system at all levels requires strong cohesion and cultural leadership. Administrators of public and private school systems and colleges pursue OL studies to develop stewardship and strategies for leading diverse, well-trained workforces.
Human Resource Management
HR professionals are the people in any organization who have the most investment in shaping and managing culture. An OL focus in HRM gives them the tools to both lead major HR organizations and to offer insight and guidance to other executives to create more effective, better aligned corporate workforces.
A public health leader is often in the unique position of only being able to exercise authority through inspiration and leadership. With a responsibility to a broad range of agencies and organizations, coalition-building and persuasion are absolute necessities for public health professionals. An OL concentration in this area helps develop the respect and trust a public health authority must have to protect the common good.
Organizational leadership focus areas in nursing are commonly available with MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) and DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) nursing programs. They teach future nurse administrators not only how to get the most done with nursing staff, but also to go on to create real differences and inspirational leadership in healthcare organizations as a whole.
The American healthcare system is more than just nursing. There are also OL specializations that take the big picture perspective on healthcare leadership, going into detail on the challenges of modern healthcare management and bringing the principles of effective organizational leadership to bear in meeting them.
In a similar fashion as public health, public administration presents a unique challenge in leadership. Public administrators have to manage both up and down, dealing with elected officials as well as civic departments and agencies. It’s a real leadership challenge, but an OL concentration in public administration offers to tools to both persuade and inspire.
Technology organizations and companies can be a poster child for effective organizational leadership… groundbreaking new products and tools emerge from them all the time. From Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, inspirational leaders have literally changed the world. Managers and executives are constantly looking to re-create the kind of magic that led teams to create the iPhone or Tesla, and studies in organizational leadership in technology settings is the best path to get there.
Non-profit organizations come with a built-in mission that staff sign on to, but also with financial and other constraints that managers have to deal with. Organizational leadership in the non-profit context gives you the skills of innovation, creativity, and motivation needed to overcome obstacles to accomplish your mission.
MAOL, MSOL and other degrees in OL also prove their worth fiscal year and fiscal year for entrepreneurs and in critical areas of business, including finance and marketing, even though specific concentrations in these areas aren’t widely available:
Nothing in business succeeds without successful marketing behind it. But marketing is a creative area where conventional business strategy and linear thinking won’t get you very far. Organizational leadership training helps hone your ability to cultivate problem-solving, creativity, and inspiration in your company or department.
Running accounting and finance organizations can be a by-the-numbers affair for many managers. But for finance leaders who want to excel in taking their teams to a higher level, organizational leadership studies can help crack the tough culture of accounting. Learning how to inspire and execute high-level strategy can bring finance into its own as a key business differentiator.
Entrepreneurs have opportunities in establishing organizational culture that are available to few other professionals. Learning to set the standards for a brand new business and to develop the vision and execution needed for success is a clear benefit to an OL focus in entrepreneurship.
Earning an Organizational Leadership Degree Online Lets You Advance Your Career From Anywhere
Online studies aren’t a new innovation at this point, but they are a massive gift for business professionals working on their education today.
In the past, night classes, correspondence courses, or even taking a hiatus from your job were the only way to fit college into your professional life. And even those could have a big impact on your personal and family obligations.
Today, remote studies allow you to earn a degree that is qualitatively just as good as any kind of traditional on-campus program, but without sacrificing your personal or professional goals.
Through online tools like video conferencing, real-time chatrooms, course management software, and collaborative document systems, you can have just as much interaction and feedback from professors and fellow students as you would in a classroom.
Because it’s all available anywhere you can get an internet connection, you can do your work from half a country away attending a college in any state that offers the best fit. You can even keep up with class while you are on the road.
And the partially asynchronous model that most of these programs use also allows you to time-shift your studies to whenever is most convenient. If you have some time after your morning work-out but before you have to be in the office, that’s now study time. A half-hour to kill before picking the kids up after school? You can knock out a reading assignment, no problem.
It’s the kind of flexibility that great leaders have always used to accomplish their goals. Now it’s a tool for you to adopt as well.