New master’s in Organizational Leadership provides foundation for tomorrow’s leaders

Group of students and a professor sitting around a cluster of tables

Western Oregon University professor David Foster explained leadership skills can be acquired in one of two ways – the college of hard knocks or preferably in WOU’s new master’s in Organizational Leadership program.

“When people learn leadership skills in the college of hard knocks, they often make mistakes that have severe consequences,” Foster said.

The director, Foster said WOU’s program is designed for working adults who want to build their leadership skills in a safe and supportive environment that makes them more marketable and productive within their organizations.

“The program is for people who want to be effective leaders, thinkers and innovators,” Foster said.

Stating he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that some people are “natural leaders,” Foster said leadership can look like many different things – there isn’t one model.

“We are going to help you discover who you are as a leader and help you become better at being who you are to become a more effective leader,” he said.

Emily Knaus and Wil Fuentes are two of the 21 students enrolled in the program’s first cohort. The students range in age from their mid-20s to their mid-50s, and reside and work in various cities.

Fuentes, 38, is the customer operations manager at Simple Finance in Portland. He received his bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. Knaus, 24, is an executive assistant for the Special Districts Association of Oregon. She received her bachelor’s degree from Western Oregon University.

They both stated that they enrolled in the program so they could develop their leadership skills to be able to thrive and advance in their careers.

Application process

WOU is the first public university in Oregon to offer a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, which includes classes in organizational planning, dynamics of leadership, communication, creativity and innovation, team building, and conflict resolution and mediation.

Foster said the application process is easy, requiring a 3.0 GPA, which is flexible; resume, letter, and an evaluation of the person’s work experience. The application fee is $60 and the program has rolling admissions. Classes are held in the evening at WOU:Salem and online. Students can move through the program at their own pace. The program requires 45 credits to graduate and most students can complete the program in two years if they go full-time taking nine credits a term.

A demand for leadership skills

WOU decided to add the program after meeting with people in businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations, who shared there is a demand for trained leaders. “WOU’s program builds skills employers want in their employees,” Foster said.

Oregon is facing a leadership crisis as many people who are currently occupying leadership positions will be retiring and there are not enough people to fill them, Foster said. “This program was designed to enhance the quality of leadership across the state of Oregon,” Foster said. “When you have better leaders, you have better working conditions and subsequently, you have healthier, more productive and more satisfied workers.”

MBA vs. MA

One question many potential students have is how WOU’s Organizational Leadership program is different from an MBA program.

“The program has some overlap with an MBA program but it focuses more on big-picture strategy and teamwork in an organization, rather than specific departments like human resources or marketing,” Foster said.

Fuentes said he had considered earning an MBA. “After reviewing several programs, I realized the coursework wouldn’t provide the interdisciplinary understanding of leadership and individual and group dynamics I was seeking in order to apply in my current field as a people manager or a leadership role in public service or nonprofit,” he said.

Flexibility key for working adults

Fuentes said balancing work, graduate school and other responsibilities was challenging at first. “Graduate school does demand a bit more time but if we stop to think for a moment of all the unproductive time we use up on a regular basis, we can fill that time with studying and staying productive,” Fuentes said. “I work about 50 hours a week and have time to get in my coursework and a bit of a social life, that has been significant, but it’s all worth it.”

Knaus said she likes the fact she can take as many classes as she needs a term, depending on her work schedule.

“I think that since this program offers online and hybrid courses is also extremely beneficial to work and life in general,” Knaus said. “This program is immensely flexible and the course matter, even taken one at a time will be incredibly beneficial to you as a student and in your work.”

Real-world experiences

Foster said one of the program’s strengths is the faculty has a wide variety of disciplines with tremendous experience in the workforce, business, public policy, administration and political leadership.

“We can give our students a rich and diverse experience in terms of leadership and building the competencies that support their ability to lead,” Foster said.

Knaus shared she and her classmates are learning about topics including leading in teams, cross-cultural leadership, and creating innovation and creativity.

“These kinds of classes and all of the courses in the program focus on helping us be successful in a wide array of settings by acquiring many crucial skills,” Knaus said. “The material aims to help us acquire, finesse and sustain successful leadership, critical thinking, and communication skills that we can apply to any organization.”

To learn more about the program, contact Dr. David Foster at or 503-838-8805 or visit the Organizational Leadership program website.


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