Summer Reading on Leadership

All honors students who have taken Honors First Year Experience or Introduction to Honors know that effective leaders help a group reach common goals. I’ll bet that whether you are working this summer in a chemistry lab, shadowing a doctor, or earning money in your summer job at the local golf course, you have seen examples of good and poor leadership and have learned from the experience.

How a leader helps a group reach its goals is often misunderstood in American popular culture. Hollywood films and television shows frequently depict effective leadership as strong, powerful, and dominating. Those characteristics are appropriate for a narrative arc that demands tension and a series of conflicts followed by quick resolution. These are the building blocks of popular stories for us, and they fit the time constraints required in a blockbuster film or an award-winning television show.

Unfortunately, as British political scientist Archie Brown recently argued in his book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (Basic Books, 2014), those same leadership characteristics are often seen as desirable in everyday life, particularly in government. Our media feeds off of the same narrative arc as Hollywood; journalists also want to tell a succinct story that has heroes and villains, crises and victories, winners and losers.

Brown argues that these domineering, “strong” leadership characteristics often aren’t the most effective. In a sweeping analysis of modern leadership, mostly in Europe and the United States but with telling examples from South Africa, Mexico, China, and the Arab world, Brown shows that the world’s most effective modern leaders were more likely the ones who sought out others’ opinions and used commonly agreed upon and transparent processes to make decisions. These are usually leadership characteristics often described as “weak” by the media.

To counter this vision of leadership, Brown argues that the most effective leaders consult with others – even those with whom they disagree. They candidly accept criticism and might be willing to change their minds if persuaded by sound arguments. They have a firm grasp of their morals and principles, but they also are open to compromise and use this skill to seek common ground that advances a vision for the future. Once decisions were made, these leaders were able to use their charisma and courage and vision to persuade others to support them. Importantly, these leaders had the foresight to let others take the lead and receive public praise for accomplishments.

Which historic figures are most praised by Brown? He thinks students of American leadership should look toward Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson. Although all of these presidents had their failings (think Vietnam and President Johnson), Brown cites examples of their ability to redefine the terms of popular discussion or perhaps even to transform domestic or international systems. They were leaders who believed in the power of collective consultation and the vetting of contrary perspectives.

Although the book is focused on high politics, it has lessons for everyday forms of leadership on campus and in businesses or other organizations. For example, Brown notes that the increasing speed of communications (texts, emails, etc…) encourages leaders to try to solve problems on their own and therefore limits consultation and debate through open processes where dissenting voices might offer other perspectives on an issue. His study offers real-life lessons related to principles studied by honors students at Minnesota State Mankato – especially the principle that everyone can contribute to a group’s goals in their own way, depending on their previous experiences and skills. Fostering a collective form of leadership works just as well in the office, lab, and maybe even the golf course as it does in the highest echelons of government.

Dr. Chris Corley

Honors Program Director

Associate Professor of History

Learning by Doing

The most effective way to learn about something is to go out into the world and do it. We constantly ask you – our students – to be “active participants in the learning process” or some wording of a similar nature, but how often do we pause and really explain what that means? We tell you to engage academically, to conduct research with a faculty member, to attend conferences, to get involved in the community, but how often do we tell you why? The most important question you can ask of us is, “So what?” In a job market that is arguably more competitive than it has ever been and in a time when you are hearing mixed messages from so many individuals (go to graduate school; no, go to work and pay off your loans and then go to graduate school; major in x because you’ll make more money; major in y because you have a better chance of getting a job), one message needs to be consistent: Make your college experience YOUR experience.

Every [insert discipline here] major takes the same courses, more or less. So how do you make your college experience unique? By applying what you learn in the classroom to real world situations outside of the classroom. Don’t just ask questions about global problems – attempt to figure out how to solve them. Your education will inform your future work; but, your work can also greatly enhance your education. The more you experience outside of the classroom, the more you will understand the importance of the classroom content.

This post was prompted by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Want a College Experience That Matters? Get to Work.” (Click here for the link.) Scott Carlson, a writer (and English literature major), focuses on a visit to student writers for the Minnesota Daily, the newspaper of the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. He recalls the importance of writing for his college paper as developmental to his career and focuses on the importance of “integrating students into the working world.” In essence, Carlson’s argument is that students need to learn the realities of the working world before they actually have to face them in the postgraduate world.

As someone who has been living in the postgraduate world for just over a year now, I have to agree with Carlson. Don’t get me wrong – what you learn in the classroom is extremely important to your future success; but, the real world experiences that are available to you while you’re still in school are unique opportunities for you to get a leg up, so to speak, before you enter the workforce. Carlson quotes a statistic from the Gallup-Purdue Index, “a survey of 30,000 Americans aimed at finding which college experiences lead to a happy job and life,” that states the following: “Graduates who felt that their colleges had prepared them for life beyond the academy—through such activities as internships or jobs where the students were able to apply their classroom knowledge—were three times as likely to be engaged at work.” Three times more likely to be engaged — that significant increase can make a huge difference not only in what you accomplish at work, but also in your job satisfaction and your level of personal happiness on a daily basis.

Why are graduates with real-world experiences more engaged? My experience tells me it’s because they’re more confident in their ability to be successful. They take risks, think outside the box, bring new ideas to the workplace, and ultimately contribute to an innovative culture that leaves an impact on the people with whom they work. They’re not swimming in complete darkness because, quite simply, they’ve been there before. They don’t know everything – because, really, who does? – but they’re confident enough to speak up when they don’t know something and learn from their co-workers, supervisors, and mentors.

Students — I’m fully expecting you to ask “so what?” (remember – it’s the most important question you can ask of us) at the end of this post. Why am I telling you all of this? Why does this article in the Chronicle matter so much? It matters to two groups of people for two different reasons:

It matters for those of us who work in higher education because it challenges us to provide you with the kind of meaningful real-world experiences that will lead to your future success and happiness. According to the same Gallup-Purdue Index that Carlson quoted, “only a third of the survey respondents said they had gotten such an internship or job during college.” We need to increasingly provide you with these kinds of opportunities. After you’ve had them, we need to help you reflect on why those opportunities were important and how you’re going to use the knowledge gained from your experience in the future.

It matters for you because you have a choice as to how you move through college. You can go to class, move through the motions, get good grades, and graduate. Or you can do all of that and then some – get an internship, become involved in your community, start a new organization on campus, conduct and present new research in your discipline. In short, make your college experience YOUR experience. It doesn’t belong to anyone else; it belongs to you. Embrace it and own it, and then use it after you graduate.

If you’re unsure of how exactly you might do that or where to find experiences that fit your personal passions and professional goals, ask us. That’s our job.

Ginny Walters

Honors Program Assistant Director

University Fellowship Coordinator