Trust, Leadership, and Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

I recently watched the commencement address of an MBA student at Harvard Business School with great interest. In an article that appeared on the Poets & Quants website, the commencement address of Casey Gerald was referred to as the “most stirring speech ever by an MBA.” Two paragraphs in that article captured my attention.

After arriving at Harvard Business School from Yale, Gerald said that HBS “changed who we were; it reminded us who we could be. It reminded us that we didn’t have to wait until we were rich or powerful, or until we actually knew finance, to make a difference. We could act [emphasis added] right now.”


With three classmates, Casey founded a non-profit, MBAs Across America, which is a movement of MBAs and entrepreneurs working together to revitalize America. “We saw the signs for hope in entrepreneurs who were on the front lines of change [emphasis added]. They showed us that the new ‘bottom line’ in business is the impact you have on your community and the world around you — that no amount of profit could make up for purpose.”

In the two paragraphs above, I was interested in the themes of act and change that had appeared in the leadership conversations of Liu (2010) as well as in my own research on leadership conceptualization. (See my TESOL Blog post.) Further, I was focused on how such action and change involved helping others to achieve their dreams (i.e., the achievement of a vision, or leadership) in what was called in Gerald’s speech the “dream depression.”

Gerald’s speech reflected my own conceptualization of leadership as a creative activity. Accordingly, the speech caused me to reflect upon the concept of leadership in the business-related classes and organizational leadership seminars that I teach at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) in Japan. In this connection, it made me think about the discourses of trust (see Candlin & Crichton, 2013).

In my classes, students are often involved in creating and achieving their own visions in collaboration with others. In such project leadership activities, the students need to get the buy in (or support) of stakeholders. The big question becomes: Why should I trust you (or your team) to be able to achieve your vision? In this context, vision refers to the objective or goal.

In order to get others to trust them, the students need to provide sufficient evidence that they will be able to do what they say they will do. In my classes, I have seen such evidence presented in various ways – some successfully.  (By “successfully,” I mean that the trust of others could be gained.)

I like to pass on to my students what I consider to be good ways of doing things. Consider the following in the case of getting the trust of others:

  • Show commitment and persistence: One of my teams had to have numerous meetings with stakeholders (including university administrators, government officials, health officials, legal and business professionals, etc.) before they could get permission to do a project that would involve university students and the local community.
  • Prove that your team has the technical competence required: When students propose business plans, one of the challenges is to explain how their teams have the skills to achieve the vision they have created. Take a look at the website of MBAs Across America (i.e., the NPO start-up that Gerald is leading) and how the student teams are described.

The knowledge and skills of academic debate, persuasive speech, and framing are also helpful for getting the trust of others.

As ESPers, we prepare students and professionals for situations where leadership and trust are important. Getting stakeholder support in business contexts, as above, is one example. In the case of English for medical purposes (EMP), I think of interactions between doctors/nurses and patients.

Good luck in your efforts to enhance the leadership skills of your students!

All the best,


About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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