A Radical Style of Collaboration

The Pioneer Leadership Program celebrates 25 years of preparing students to tackle ‘wicked problems’

If you ask someone what it takes to be a leader, they might tell you it takes natural drive or the ambition to make a difference. But ask any veteran of the University of Denver Pioneer Leadership Program (PLP), and you are sure to hear that it’s much more than that. Leadership, they’ll tell you, is about understanding ethics and power, adapting to changing situations and working through differences as a team. As longtime director Linda Olson puts it, focusing on these elements is “the richest way to learn” if you want to make an impact. 

One alumna, Erin Robinson, captures it this way: 

“It’s the idea of the ripples, right? It starts in PLP in terms of your leadership foundation and those ripples go really far out,” Robinson explains. “With the leadership development that you start to build and gain at PLP, you have the opportunity to influence the world in pretty significant ways.”

Twenty-five years and more than 1,200 leaders later, PLP is celebrating a solid tradition of equipping students with the knowledge, skills and experience to tackle the world’s big challenges.

The Pioneer Leadership Program started in 1995 when DU faculty were conducting research on what it means to be a leader. It soon became apparent that students were interested in developing those skills with a specialized program. The minor program was founded on the idea that being an exceptional leader requires more than just a natural ability to take initiative; it also demands a deep understanding of leadership theory, social responsibility and global understanding. 

It’s impossible to discuss the success of PLP without mentioning its executive director, Linda Olson. For nearly 20 years, she has guided and shaped the program, building a close bond with each new class—all while keeping in touch with many program graduates and remembering them by name. 

“Seeing students from their first year to their final year in an immersive academic and co-curricular program is amazing. I just can’t imagine teaching any other way,” Olson says. “We have the opportunity to be a part of their growth over the four years and often see them as engaged alumni. It is very satisfying to know them through several stages of their lives and see them lead impactful lives in their communities. They are all so inspiring.”  

That close bond begins forming when PLP students first arrive on the DU campus. Each year, the program selects 88 first-year students to pursue the leadership minor. Participating students live on the same floor of a residence hall and, for the first year at least, take many of the same classes. The second year is all about service in the community, allowing students to get to know an organization that is focusing on an issue that taps into their passions. They wrap up their leadership training in a capstone course on ethics taught by Olson. 

“Certainly, you can learn leadership by trial and error, but I really believe that if you think about it more carefully, with structure, feedback and practice, you can become much better at it,” Olson says. “Many of our students come in with a traditional, transactional and hierarchical view of leadership, but most of what we call [the] ‘wicked problems’ or challenging issues of the day require a completely different style of leadership: people who can practice a radical and inclusive style of collaboration.”

A radical style of collaboration is indeed needed for what may well be the wickedest of wicked problems. The pandemic is completely shifting day-to-day life, and as a result, PLP alumni are going the extra mile to deploy their leadership knowledge for the benefit of their communities and professions. 

Meet three of those alumni, each of whom is putting their PLP training to good use.  


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