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Saint Vincent College Faculty Blog

The Importance of Theory

Posted by Michael Urick on Fri, Nov 9, 2018 @ 17:11 PM

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been working on co-editing a three-book series on leadershipThe first book focuses on leadership theoryThus, I’ve recently been reflecting on the importance of theory in academia 

To define, a theory is an idea – something that can be stated and then tested through data to see if its principles apply (or don’t apply) in a variety of contextsThus, educating students on theory helps show them how a phenomenon can be related to a variety of situations so that they can, I hope, find usefulness and meaning in considering how the idea relates to their own livesSpecifically in leadership (and management) education, it is not enough for instructors to rely solely on examples or cases without relating them to theories 

Research scholar Anne Sigismund Huff (2008) notes that the purpose of theory is to advance the understanding of a phenomenon. The theory should be stated and then tested to see how it best applies (as well as to understand its limitations)Though this approach is widely used in the physical and natural sciences, the scientific method is necessary for other disciplines including leadership and organizational studies in the tradition of the social sciences as wellSome of my favorite theories in my field include social identity theory, servant leadership theory, and transformational leadership theory – many of which I’ve written about and applied in previous blogs. 

For the past four years (since its inception), I have been integrating such academic data-supported leadership theories with Benedictine Principles in the Benedictine Hallmarks Studies program at Saint VincentIn doing so, I first introduce theories of leadership to students, and we discuss how they relate to Benedictine HallmarksThen we examine an example (often through a film that clearly exhibits the theories – ones I have used in the past include “Wonder Woman” and “The Hobbit” as I discussed in previous blogs)In the following discussion, we relate how the theories we previously introduced apply to the film to ensure that students understand the elements of the theoryThen, students (with their newfound understanding of the theory) clearly relate components to their own lives and situations, applying both conceptual ideas and Benedictine Hallmarks to their own unique circumstances 

I am convinced that this approach helps participants to become more successful in their leadership rolesThey are able to internalize those academically supported concepts into their own lives and clearly see how they relate to their own situation rather than just being provided with examples of leaders that may not be able to translate easily to a learner’s own context without the help of theoryAfter all, as Quinnipiac University’s Dr. Therese Sprinkle and I noted in our study of big band leader Glenn Miller’s leadership success, each individual leader’s context is unique (Urick & Sprinkle, 2013)In other words, what makes a leader successful in one situation may not make her or him successful in anotherThus, learning about a leader such as Glenn Miller will do no good unless examples are tied to theory and examined by students under a conceptual lens so that they can glean some usefulness to their own context. 

There are some criticisms of leadership and management programs that state that they are not "practice based" if they aren’t grounded in a case or example and rely more heavily on theoryWhile I understand this to an extent, I do not agree with it. The purpose of a program in these areas should be to create somewhat generalizable knowledge that could apply to many (not just one) situationAn issue with some leadership programs (and publications) in particular is that they lose sight of the concept of generalizability and often rely only on personal experience in their approach which can be a bit more biased or relevant only to a particular situation and therefore limiting to studentsStarting with theory as a basis for leadership education (as well as education in a variety of other disciplines) is a way to consider the generalizability of a concept. 

My belief for any level of higher education (doctoral, master's, or bachelor's) is that it is the facilitator's (i.e., professor's) job to provide students with a variety of academically supported perspectives/theories on certain topics to be used as initial talking points or thought generatorsFrom there, students can take these ideas, work through them on their own with guidance of the instructor, and apply those that they feel are most applicable to their own particular settingPart of the necessary job of faculty is to provide students with experiential portions (such as examples, case studies, visits to notable related sites, etc.) in order to present students with perspectivesHowever, these visits should be framed in the context that they are but "one example" related to course topicsTo illustrate, I've heard about some programs that, instead of using “field trips” to course-related sites as one of several examples balanced with more formalized generalizable classroom knowledge, frame these more localized experiences to students as "the only way" that certain concepts can be used 

So, I guess for me, I agree with a practice-based approach when it is not isolated to one particular example but presented together with supported underlying theories and related to established generalizable knowledgeI think that both a practice-based and generalized knowledge-based approach can be limiting in isolation of each otherReally, practice needs to be tied to accepted theory in academic programs to provide the maximum benefit for students 

Luckily, I think Saint Vincent does this wellExamples that come to mind include our study-abroad trips that visit multiple organizations to see theories applied in different ways as well as our internship program that challenges students to relate their daily tasks to concepts that they've learned about in the classroom.  

Do you agree that theory is important in a liberal arts education? What is a theory (or perspective) that has stuck with you and has been helpful to you? I’m looking forward to your feedback. Email me at michael.urick@stvincent.edu, message me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/urickmj/and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-urick-05b775a3/or leave me a comment here. 


Dr. Mike Urick 


Huff, A. S. (2008). Designing research for publication. Sage. 

Urick, M. J., & Sprinkle, T. A. (2013). 13. Glenn Miller: Leadership lessons from a successful big-band musician. Extreme leadership: Leaders, teams and situations outside the norm, 165-186. 

Topics: professor, saint vincent professor, st. vincent professor, Faculty Blog, Dr. Mike Urick, theory, academia

About the Authors

Michelle Gil-Montero is an associate professor of English and director of creative writing at Saint Vincent College. She runs the visiting writers series on campus, oversees the student literary magazine, and serves as guru to aspiring poets on campus. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2007, and she has been on the Saint Vincent faculty since that year. She is an active poet and literary translator from Spanish. She is spending part of the 2016-17 school year travelling to Argentina on a Howard Foundation fellowship and Fulbright grant. 

Dr. John J. Smetanka has been a member of the full-time faculty since 1997 and currently serves as the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean of Saint Vincent College, a position he has held since January 2008. Dr. Smetanka has taught courses in Physics, Astronomy, Chemistry and Geology as well as interdisciplinary seminars. He has published scientific research articles in physics and astrophysics journals, numerous conference proceedings and also works in science education reform and the interaction between science, technology and theology.

Jim Kellam is an associate professor of biology at Saint Vincent College and our resident ornithologist. He received his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 2003, and is taking this semester as a sabbatical. What does that mean? He'll explain in his blog posts.

Dr. Michael J. Urick is Graduate Director of the Master of Science in Management: Operational Excellence program, and Associate Professor of Management and Operational Excellence at the Alex G. McKenna School of Business, Economics, and Government. Dr. Urick teaches courses related to organizational behavior, human resources, culture, leadership, diversity, conflict, supply chain, operations and research methods. Professionally, Urick serves on the board of the Institute for Supply Management (Pittsburgh) and belongs to the Society for Human Resource Management and APICS. For fun, Urick enjoys music and, since 1998, has led and performed with Neon Swing X-perience, a jazz band that has released multiple albums and toured portions of the US. He enjoys watching movies, is an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, and also likes to fence.

David Safin, C'00, has been a lecturer in the communication department since the Fall of 2003, and has served in a variety of administrative roles since the summer of 2004. Currently, he teaches multimedia in the communication department as an assistant professor. 

Dr. Michael Krom received his Doctorate in philosophy at Emory University in 2007 and is currently the chair of the philosophy department at Saint Vincent. He has authored a book on religion and politics and continues to publish works in Catholic moral and political thought. Dr. Krom also directs the Faith and Reason summer program every summer. 

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