Colleges that cultivate leaders
Students at Presbyterian colleges are learning to lead by empowering those around them
By Gary Luhr
Growing up, Katie Hendrickson had always been a leader—at home, at school, in sports. She didn’t really understand the importance of good leadership, however, until being part of the Posey Leadership Institute at Austin College, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related college in Texas. Her understanding came, as it does for many Austin students, when Hendrickson completed her senior project—a leadership training event for 40 at-risk middle school students.
“Many of the kids were notorious for causing a ruckus in the school,” she says. “The teachers selected them because they saw the leadership potential in each of them. Our theme was ‘superheroes vs. super-villains,’ which enabled us to teach the difference between leading positively and negatively. The kids that were throwing chairs and punching each other at the beginning of the day were the same kids cheering each other to overcome obstacles by the end of the day.”
That was fall 2011. “The teachers were amazed and invited us back for a second visit this past spring,” Hendrickson says. A third visit was scheduled this fall, fulfilling one requirement of a senior leadership project—that it continue after the student who designed it has graduated.
People of influence
The Posey Institute is one of a growing number of leadership programs at Presbyterian-related colleges. At least a dozen schools now offer a minor in leadership studies.
“Leadership is about having influence, with or without authority,” says Peter DeLisle, who directs Austin’s program. “We are trying to prepare young men and women to be people of influence, to bring positive influence to bear.” DeLisle’s goal is to equip students to lead “by acting in a moral and ethical way,” whether they are running a campus group or standing up to their peers in a conflict situation. The preparation comes through a combination of classroom instruction, where students study leadership theories and models, and experience gained through campus organizations, internships and volunteer service.
Self-assessment and self-awareness are an important part of leadership programs at Austin and other schools.
“The most important skill it taught me is how to critically and honestly evaluate my own performance in a variety of situations,” says James Smith about his experience at the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development at Davidson (N.C.) College. “For me, the most memorable self-development session was when we were handed a deck of cards, each with a value on it such as ‘openness’ or ‘success,’ and we were asked to pick out the 10 that were most important to us. Then they asked us to narrow it down to five and finally to three. I had never prioritized all of the values in my life before. It gave me a goal to strive for and ideals to always keep in mind when making decisions.”
Alexandra Woodruff had a similar experience as part of the Character in Leadership program at Jamestown (N.D.) College. “I learned that I value empathy, compassion and experience,” she says. “These were qualities I always had but could not properly identify or express. It was the leadership program that helped me recognize what I value in myself and in other people. I try to work on and strengthen those qualities every day.”
When students come in, their idea of leadership is the person up front getting people to do what they want them to do. By the time they leave, they have done a complete turn and realize that leadership is really about helping people reach their own potential.
Kelly Bauer was in the first group of students to graduate from Jamestown with a leadership minor. Some of her closest college friendships were forged during the program, she says, “because we went through all four years having class, attending workshops and retreats and completing service projects together. Many leadership students would joke that we were going to ‘life school’ because we learned how to be better people and ultimately how to improve our lives and the lives of those we would one day work with.”
Bauer says she uses knowledge gained from the program every day as a first-grade teacher. “I use it when leading my classroom. I use it when dealing with parents and my colleagues. One very important thing that my leadership classes taught me was how to disagree with someone. Dealing with conflicts and disagreements is part of the real world, and I feel like I can handle myself in those situations in a respectful and professional way because of what I learned.”
“When students come in, their idea of leadership is the person up front getting people to do what they want them to do,” says Myra Watts, who directs Jamestown’s program. “By the time they leave, they have done a complete turn and realize that leadership is really about helping people reach their own potential.”
Jackie Kramlich says Character in Leadership prepared her in two ways: “First, it allowed me to begin learning about, understanding and forming my own beliefs and values. Second, it taught me, in sometimes challenging ways, how to focus on the strengths that I have been given to empower those around me. Our main focus in the class is on the servant-leadership style.”
That is true of other leadership programs as well, including the Wendt Character Initiative at the University of Dubuque (Iowa). “We dissected concepts such as grace and gratitude as a model for serving,” says Dubuque graduate Josh Terrell. As a student, he helped survivors of the 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids, families in Dubuque who did not have sufficient food, and children in the Bahamas who lacked adequate school supplies.
“When we look at our mission as both a college and a seminary, at its core is the notion of character and ethics,” says Dubuque’s president, Jeffrey Bullock. “Most schools dodge the character question and teach ethics usually as a three-hour capstone course. We’ve tried to infuse questions of character and ethics into every single class.”
Alma (Mich.) College takes a similar approach with its Center for Responsible Leadership. “It’s not just a place for students to develop their own leadership abilities and skills but where leadership, as a practice, becomes a culturally embedded value of the college,” says the center’s codirector, Mike Vickery. The center does that by engaging students in what Vickery calls “public leadership projects” where they address concerns not just of the college but also of the community—and beyond.
“We help them to think in very real ways about what they can do now to improve the quality of life in communities where they live,” he says. He cites as examples a community garden project and a fall festival for Alma and the surrounding area.
While such leadership programs are not specifically faith-based, faith-related concepts often get discussed.
“We’re about helping students find their call—a call to leadership,” says Watts. “In my classes I ask, ‘What does God intend for you?’”
“It shows up when we talk about recognizing the dignity and worth of all people,” says Julia Baker Jones, director of Davidson’s Chidsey Center. “One thing I love about Davidson is that spirituality and values are part of the fabric of who we are. They are the lens through which we see leadership.”
Gary Luhr is executive director of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities.
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