We teach them to think analytically. We encourage them to stand up for what they believe while respecting the beliefs of others. And we encourage them to develop lives of purpose and passion through their work and service. We have a proud tradition of graduating men and women who go on to positions of leadership in their communities and their careers.
In the face of global political and economic challenges and a technologically-driven world, how have the traits of effective leadership changed? Business management professor Michael Harvey, in a recent piece for the Baltimore Sun, provided one answer. Focusing on the resignation of Pope Benedict, he observed that social media has destroyed traditional leadership’s longstanding comparative advantage: exclusive access to information and communication. With the speed and transparency of information sharing, leaders must respond more quickly and openly to questions and crises.
Yet research suggests that the best modern leaders are still a lot like George Washington—authentic, inspiring, flexible and emotionally connected to their followers. They put the organization first and make personal sacrifices to achieve group goals.
So how do we teach that?
One way is to provide ample opportunities for our students to lead through campus governance, intercollegiate athletics and off-campus experiences, including internships and externships in the workplace. In the past few years, we have greatly expanded these opportunities through externship placements with alumni hosts at Legg Mason, NASA and NIH; internships at NATO, NOAA and national defense companies identified through the National Security Scholars Program; and signature internships exclusively for our students at the Academy Art Museum, Children’s National Medical Center, Health Integrity (a forensic accounting firm) and elsewhere.
We also promote leadership by inviting respected leaders from a variety of fields to visit and share their experiences. On Washington’s Birthday, we hosted one such leader, former FBI director Louis Freeh, who met with a constitutional law class to discuss the conflicting demands of personal freedom and national security. Freeh, who led the independent investigation of the Penn State sex scandal, focused his remarks on the need for integrity and moral courage in public affairs. He cited as one example Ulysses S. Grant’s commitment to the pledge of amnesty he made to Robert E. Lee and the Confederate troops at Appomattox. When, in the dark days following Lincoln’s assassination, the U.S. government decided to prosecute Lee for treason, Grant threatened to resign if President Johnson followed through on the charges.
“That single act overshadows most of Grant’s military victories and fame, because it was an individual act of moral courage that came at a critical time in the history of the United States,” said Freeh. “The terms of surrender at Appomattox were the building blocks for reunification.”
Just a few weeks ago, we hosted DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman as part of the George Washington Leadership Series. She had been handed the reins of the chemical giant just as the global financial crisis was developing. It was clear that the meltdown would have a radical impact on DuPont and would require a new kind of leadership from its CEO. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘What does winning look like in this new environment?’” she recalled.
We will continue to introduce our students to inspiring men and women who are proven leaders. We will continue to offer co-curricular opportunities for leadership development. But it is worth asking, “Where in our curriculum are the lessons central to effective leadership cultivated?”
In one respect, the answer is “everywhere!” Courses that pose vexing creative and scientific challenges demand that our students exercise integrity of mind, sharpen their determination, and expand the scope of their curiosity. Such values are central to the individual success we see in leaders like Freeh, Kullman and so many of our distinguished alumni. Further, our faculty offer lessons of leadership in the way they teach, demonstrating the values of civil discourse. These include respect for different perspectives, studied reflection and critical thinking.
Though these leadership lessons are marbled throughout the curriculum, we want to expand opportunities for our students to discover what it means to be a liberally educated person. Under the leadership of Provost Emily Chamlee-Wright, the faculty will be discussing and debating these questions in the weeks and months ahead, and we look forward to sharing these conversations with you.
President Reiss has invited banking executive Lance Weaver to give the next GW Lecture in Leadership.