The Leadership Competency: How Interns and Employers View Development

May 1, 2020 | By Troy Nunamaker, Tony W. Cawthon, and Aaron James

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TAGS: career readiness, competencies, Internships, journal, leadership,

NACE Journal, May 2020


National organizations such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), Adecco, and the Council for Industry and Higher Education have published reports claiming a shortage of and demand for career readiness amongst recent college graduates.1, 2, 3

Known as soft skills or career competencies, these career readiness attributes include leadership, communication, critical thinking, collaboration, technology, work ethic, intercultural fluency, and career management.4 According to NACE, the understanding, attainment, and proficient demonstration of these skills are an integral part of the successful transition into the work force. Nonetheless, there remains a gap in how students and employers rate proficiency levels.5

Investigating how students and employers view and explain career readiness by studying the language they use to describe competency development is a first measure in closing that gap. Of the eight soft skills, NACE’s 2018 report revealed leadership as one of the top three competencies with a substantial gap between desired proficiency and actual proficiency amongst recent college graduates.6 Focusing solely on the leadership competency, we can identify the similarities and differences of how students and employers describe leadership and the various proficiency levels accompanying the leadership competency.

Connection to the Literature

College graduate, entry-level job skills studies by a range of researchers supported the claim that soft skills are often desired by employers more than hard skills and that a gap between desired proficiencies and actual proficiencies exists.7 8, 9, 10 James Cappel’s work on the topic even included the insightful statement: “Overall, employers rated nontechnical skills even higher than technical skills, and the gaps between ‘expected’ and ‘actual’ performance tended to be greatest for nontechnical skills.”11

Compounding the issue, employers are seeing as many as five generations in the work force now.12 A 2011 study found that cross-generational relations are one of the top three challenges for employers.13 With a focus on increasing productivity, finding ways to resolve the work force differences and challenges among the generations is a priority for employers. Each generation has unique values, work ethic, and preferred management styles based on the societal factors and critical events that they experienced while growing up.14 As Robert Tanner pointed out, many current workers agree they are confused by other generations’ belief systems associated with professionalism, career readiness, and competency proficiencies.15 This confusion has the potential to hinder productivity.

Problem Statement

A likely first step in responding to the soft skills gap is defining career readiness, but “the data clearly depicts a large variation in assigned definitions” for career readiness competencies.16 Understanding how students and employers describe each of the competencies will be part of assigning definitions. Analogously, there do appear to be discrepancies in the definition of leadership as a competency that is worth exploring. For this study, we chose to see how students and employers describe leadership using the lenses of transactional leadership, transformational leadership, and servant leadership.

Transactional leaders work within their organizational cultures following existing rules, procedures, and norms. Transactional leaders are not known for changing or realigning cultures nor are they known for incorporating new visions, assumptions, values, or norms.17 A transactional leader looks to employ reprimands and rewards, is focused on results and outcomes, and does not typically employ drastic changes in the structure of an organization.18

Conversely, others have defined a transformational leader as an agent of change and characterize transformational leaders as able to “elicit performance beyond expectations by instilling pride, communicating personal respect, facilitating creative thinking, and providing inspiration.”19 Transformational leaders change their culture by first understanding it and then realigning the organization’s culture with a new vision and revision of its shared assumptions, values, and norms.20 The four unique factors of transformational leadership are outlined as a) charisma, b) inspiration, c) intellectual stimulation, and d) individual consideration.21, 22

Lastly, Johnson proposed that the advantages of servant leadership are altruism, simplicity, and self-awareness.23 Greenleaf explained altruism as “foundational in describing the servant leader assuring that followers’ highest priority needs are served. Simplicity can be observed in the servant leader’s willingness to serve first and let go of motivations that can drive leaders toward attaining perks, publicity, power, and prestige.”24

It is important to determine if mentors and students view the competency through a servant-oriented lens, a transformational lens, or a transactional lens when describing leadership development. Even with these three being known as some of the most commonly researched leadership types in higher education,25 we still do not know which leadership lenses students and employers most readily align with.

Overview and Summary of the Study

Data collection

Since the fall 2017 semester, Clemson University’s Center for Career and Professional Development has used the same zero-credit-hour internship course final evaluation.26 Consistent career competency-oriented questions were evident in each of the successive semesters. Open-ended questions about the student interns’ leadership development were a part of the final evaluation of the internship course for student interns and mentors. Other than minor adjustments to the language, student interns and mentors encountered the same competency-focused questions. Student interns and mentors were asked to rate the student interns’ proficiency level in each competency, including leadership. Those proficiency levels consisted of awareness, basic, intermediate, advanced, and expert. After answering the proficiency-level questions, both groups were asked in an open-ended question to describe why they chose the proficiency rating for each competency. The answers to the open-ended, competency question on leadership development is the narrative text analyzed in this study.

Those open-ended responses were exported to an excel spreadsheet and cleansed of student and mentor names or identities before beginning the coding and analysis work with the data. The Excel randomizing function was used to pull a stratified sample of 15 student intern narratives with at least 30 words and 15 mentor narratives with at least 30 words.


The researchers applied first cycle and second cycle coding to the 15 student intern responses and 15 mentor responses using the same leadership codes for both cycles. Adding a second layer of sub-coding based on numerical identifications (such as 1.1, 1.2), helped in searching efficiently for data during the analysis process.

Of the first cycle codes for the 15 student intern responses, there were 16 transactional leadership codes, 13 transformational leadership codes, 18 servant leadership codes, and six unknown leadership codes.

Of the first cycle codes for the 15 mentor responses, there were eight transactional leadership codes, five transformational leadership codes, two servant leadership codes, and nine unknown leadership codes.

The researchers determined an overall sense of leadership style for the second cycle coding of each narrative based on the results of the first cycle coding. In looking at the individual chunks for a narrative from first cycle coding, the researchers then used a second cycle coding process to align each narrative with the transactional, transformational, servant, and unknown leadership types. Of the second cycle codes for the 15 student responses, there were six transactional codes, five transformational codes, two servant codes, and two unknown codes. Of the second cycle codes for the 15 mentor responses, there were three transactional codes, two transformational codes, one servant code, six unknown codes, and three responses that did not relate to leadership.

In this second cycle coding, there is a distinction between student intern narratives and mentor narratives. Keeping in mind that servant leadership is considered by some scholars to be a type of transformational leadership, most of the student comments could be aligned almost equally with transactional leadership and transformational leadership. More than 86 percent of the student narratives could be classified into one of these two leadership types.

However, the mentor narratives trended in a different direction. The highest portion of second cycle codes amongst the mentor narratives was categorized as unknown. Unknown leadership codes included narratives that had text, chunks of data, and phrases that displayed aspects of leadership, but they could not be categorized as transactional leadership, transformational leadership, or servant leadership. Combined with mentor narratives that did not display any leadership coding, unknown and non-leadership codes accounted for more than half of all the mentor narratives. Stated differently, more than 53 percent of mentor narratives could not be classified as transactional leadership, transformational leadership, or servant leadership.

Implications for Higher Education

As noted by NACE, competencies are key to a successful transition into the work force, but there remains a gap in how students and employers rate proficiency levels.27 Adecco confirmed that more young professionals are unsuccessful in the workplace because of career competencies issues than due to issues with their hard skills.28

The findings in this study support the belief that there is a gap between what the work force expects and sees in new hires and what competencies are being promised and delivered by higher education institutions and their students. Adding to some of the quantitative data already available, the findings begin to look at how employers and students explain competencies and career readiness. As Denise Jackson pointed out, “Only tentative conclusions on the relative importance and extent of skills gaps within and across developed countries can be drawn due to the ambiguity of skills definitions.”29 This research helps to confirm the idea that there is ambiguity in the skills definitions.

Students are confident that they are ready to enter the work force,30 but employers disagree and state that students need more competency development during college.31 In an earlier article, one of the co-authors pointed out that “each new generation that enters the work force is believed to be less qualified and less motivated than the previous. However, even though business leaders, supervisors, educators, and politicians hold a bleak view of how well-prepared college students are for entering the workplace, the [college students] themselves are very optimistic in their abilities to join the workforce and bring the desired employment skills with them.”32

The miscommunications about how each group defines and explains the leadership competency become apparent in this study, and previous scholarly writings tell us that frameworks like the social change model are not the right leadership theories to bridge the communication gap.33 As Peck stated, “very few [students] indicate that they are not gaining these skills in college.”34 Rather, this study supports Jackson’s statement that employers and students are “comparing and rating skills based on their own interpretation of the assigned skills.”35

A 2017 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation claimed, “somewhere along the road from education to employment, the system is not routinely equipping all students with all the skills they will need to succeed.”36 Jackson was critical of this sentiment and noted that the ambiguity around definitions afforded only “tentative conclusions…[about] the relative importance and extent of skills gaps.””37

The findings in this study help to discredit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s statement and support Jackson’s work. Mirroring Jackson’s statement that “participants are left to derive their own meaning of termed skills,”38 this study reveals a disconnect in how students and employers describe leadership traits.

Implications for Policy

The American Association of Colleges and Universities reported that more than 70 percent of employers wanted higher education to place more attention on soft skills and competency development.39 Yet, higher education has been slow to make any significant adjustments to the way the curriculum is organized and delivered to students.40 Mason, Williams, and Cranmer found that “structured work experience and employer involvement in degree course design and delivery have clear positive effects on the ability of graduates to secure employment,” but acknowledged in the same study that those experiential education teaching efforts had significant impact on labor market performance.41  This study helps to explain this phenomenon by revealing a disconnect in how students and employers define career readiness and competency performance.

Administrators and policymakers have an opportunity to implement high-impact practicerequirements that have been known to move the competency needle. Leveraging employer-centric language in the curriculum and incorporating experiences such as internships and co-ops into every discipline could have powerful effects on reducing the skills gap. Based on research investigating employer opinions on the significance of internships and co-ops, implementing such requirements would also go a long way toward strengthening the relationship between higher education and employers.42 Doing so would also be a step at diminishing the articulation gap seen in this study.

Administrators, accrediting agencies, and policymakers should also look at the option of verifying and certifying competency attainment during the education process. Better defining competencies through a verification and certification process might help to reduce the variance in student and employer language found in this study, but these types of activities require significant staff and financial resource investments by higher education institutions.

Scalability also continues to be a challenge for this initiative, but successful integration could be a victory for hiring practices in the United States and beyond. More than 600 million hires occur in the United States each year, and all of them fall under the purview of the U.S. Department of Labor’s discrimination laws.43 Nonetheless, studies find systematic evidence of gender and race discrimination in the hiring process.44  Building frameworks that tie candidates’ application materials to proficiency levels instead of some of the other biased employment qualifiers currently used has the potential to reduce discriminatory practices while also further protecting applicants and employers. A universal and verifiable competency framework and proficiency scale could help with hiring and promotion inequities.

Conclusion and Suggestions for Future Research

Earlier, we discussed the implications of this study and noted that desired leadership traits outside of the transactional and transformational approaches can be introduced into either the educational curriculum or employer onboarding process. Before that process occurs, educators need first to determine what leadership types best align with employers’ comments. Now knowing that transactional and transformational leadership approaches do not resonate with the majority of mentors and employers, further research should be conducted on analyzing leadership types that might align with mentor narratives. Since themes like confidence, self-awareness, and initiative were present in the mentor coding for this study, the leadership identity development theory45  is one model that might align with employers’ view of leadership.

Moreover, exploring other facets of leadership dynamics in the workplace will also help better explain how mentors and student interns explain leadership differently. Dulewicz and Higgs stated that the three dimensions used to measure the relationship between leadership style and work production show equal allocation among the dimensions. Dimensions, including “organizational context, follower commitment and leader performance, and the relationship between the personality and the leadership,”46 remain consistent regardless of personality factor variances in leadership styles. Thus, educators and employers need to look to other aspects of leadership outside of personality and style when discussing career readiness. Through additional qualitative research methods, such as focus groups and ethnographic studies, educators and employers might more effectively communicate with each other through improved frameworks and definitions that ultimately close the competency gap.

Lastly, exploring the remaining seven career competencies in a similar historical narrative analysis fashion might further reduce all the gaps associated with career readiness. By first conducting individual qualitative research studies on communication skills, critical thinking, collaboration, technology, work ethic, career management, and intercultural fluency, current scholars interested in these individual competencies can pave the way for a meta-analysis by future scholars interested in overall career readiness.

This discrepancy in the way students and employers talk about leadership development during the internship could be part of incongruent leadership proficiency rating problem for these two groups. Likewise, looking at the subject matter through an interpretivist's lens, the incongruent language that students and employers use could be attributed to how these two groups view and interact with the world. Again, there is more generational diversity in the current work force than ever before.

In launching its career readiness initiative, NACE notes that "career readiness has been undefined, making it difficult for leaders in higher education, workforce development, and public policy to work together effectively to ensure the career readiness of today’s graduates.”47 Continued exploration of how students and employers view, explain, and discuss their understanding of each of the eight competencies has the potential to reduce the career readiness gap.


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17 Bass, B., & Avolio, B. (1993). Transformational leadership and organizational culture. Public Administration Quarterly, 112-121.

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29 Jackson, 53.

30 Crebert, G., Bates, M., Bell, B., Patrick, C. J., & Cragnolini, V. (2004). Developing generic skills at university, during work placement and in employment: Graduates' perceptions. Higher Education Research & Development, 23(2), 147-165.

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32 Nunamaker, T., Walker, K., & Burton, O. (2017). Career readiness competencies: The not-so-uncharted frontier and a call to learn from employers. NACE Journal, November 2017, 29-35.

33 Dugan, J., & Komives, S. (2010). Influences on college students’ capacities for socially responsible leadership. Journal of College Student Development 51(5), 525-549. doi: 10.1353/csd.2010.0009.

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Additional Resources

Adamsky, H. (2016). The soft skills gap is growing. Aberdeen. Retrieved from

Bass, B. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share
the vision. Organizational dynamics, 18(3), 19-31.

DeFina, A., & Georgakopoulou, A. (2015). The handbook of narrative analysis. West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Saldaña, J. (2010). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Ltd.

Schwan, M. (2018). Generations worksheet. 5 Gen. Retrieved from

Aaron James is a student assistant at Clemson’s Center for Career and Professional Development. He is currently pursuing a B.A. in history and serving as an intern researching career competencies among students. After graduating, he plans to continue his education and pursue a career where he can continue to serve in higher education.

Tony W. Cawthon is an alumni distinguished professor of student affairs and higher education at Clemson University in the department of educational and organizational leadership development. Previously, he served as department head and program coordinator for the counselor education/student affairs graduate preparation program at Clemson. Prior to beginning his faculty career, he worked as a student affairs administrator for more than 15 years at Clemson University, Mississippi State University, and the University of Tennessee - Knoxville. Cawthon has a master’s in sociology and a B.A. in honors psychology/sociology. He has written extensively and is a frequent presenter in the areas of inclusion, career/professional development, and student affairs administrative issues.

Troy Nunamaker is the chief solutions officer for Clemson University’s Center for Career and Professional Development. His path to Clemson from his undergraduate studies at Wittenburg University (Springfield, Ohio) began with a master’s degree in guidance and counseling – student affairs. Since joining Clemson, Nunamaker has earned a second master’s degree (human resource development) and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in educational leadership – higher education, with a focus on experiential education. He has served Clemson since 2000 in a variety of professional roles, with duties ranging from cultivating corporate partnerships and managing the center’s various internship offerings to developing new strategies and blueprints for keeping career services effective and relevant for all current and future constituents.