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This talk is given to the first-year class at Salem College as part of the Salem Signature, a leadership development curriculum required of all students.  While some of it is specific to course content, most of it presents a broadly-based view of the "unteachability" of leadership but the vital need for citizenship training to prepare individuals for leadership opportunities as they arise in their lives.

Leadership and Citizenship
Doug Borwick, Ph.D.
Salem Distinguished Professor
28 February 2002
Salem College

Over the past four weeks we have begun an adventure in leadership education and cross-cultural awareness.  We began at the most local level with having you identify leaders in your life and moved from there to what was for some, but not all, of you the far-away world of the 14th Dalai Lama.  It has fallen to me to attempt to bridge the gap between those two seemingly disparate discussions.

I make no apology for the fact that it is not easy to follow the thread from one to the other.  Leadership is a phenomenon of the real world, not of the textbook.  Understanding the nature of leadership is difficult.  Indeed, academic discussions about the nature and definition of leadership abound.  National and international conferences are held regularly to confront the issue.  I have participated in many of those arguments; I have spoken at a number of those conferences.

Before I begin this in earnest, I would like to make a pact with you that goes far beyond a mere rhetorical device.  I want each of you to listen to what I say as if I were speaking directly and only to you.  I am utterly serious about the fact that an understanding of the nature of leadership is vitally important to your happiness and well-being.  Those who do not have an understanding of leadership or of how to exercise it themselves will, inevitably, spend their lives subject to the plans, desires, or whims of others.  At the serious risk of sounding like admissions promotional propaganda, I, like all of your College 101 professors, am deeply concerned about your personal growth here at Salem and your success after you leave.  We do not want any one of you to step out into a world which will happen to you rather than one which you will shape.  Listen carefully; I will try to uphold my end of the bargain by limiting what I say to things that will be of help to you.

Leadership occurs when a situation is met by a person whose background, skills, interests, and motivation fit the requirements of that moment and who succeeds in communicating a need for action to those around her.  The bad news is that this makes leadership very difficult to study—there is no single thing or set of things that we can identify to explain or define leadership.  The good news is that every one of you here will one day have numerous opportunities to assume leadership because you will face a situation for which you have been prepared.

I don’t expect you to understand that yet.  My job here is to attempt to make that, if not clear, then at least a little less opaque for you.

Let me pair some names for you to illustrate why the topic is a difficult one:

Jesus of Nazareth Julius Caesar
Lao Tzu Attila the Hun
Siddhartha Gautama Genghis Khan
Muhammed Niccolo Machiavelli
Mohandas K. Gandhi Adolph Hitler

Let me add some individual names: Frederick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, and Candy Lightner (MADD).  And, especially for your edification for this term:, consider the 14th Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Most, but not all of these people participated in spiritual, political, or military movements.  But few of them (at least at the beginning) held "positions" which equated with leadership.  All of them are considered to be leaders.  However, we only become fully aware of that in retrospect.  And few of these people would have been similar leaders in different circumstances.  As one example, I cannot imagine Mahatma Gandhi being as successful at consolidating the Roman Empire as was Julius Caesar.

The Gandhi/Caesar comparison illustrates some of the difficulties in understanding the nature of leadership.  Leadership is a function of the context in which it occurs; leaders in one situation may not—indeed, likely will not—be leaders in another.  As a result, leadership is not a single thing.  That is why my first published article on leadership was titled "No Such Thing as a Leader."  The all-encompassing word "leader" prevents us from understanding leadership because leadership is not one specific, isolatable thing.

For you, understanding these things about leadership is important because it will allow you to recognize situations in your life calling for leadership.  And that will enable you to make changes which will improve your life.  No one wants the world to just happen to them.  Everyone is presented with leadership opportunities at numerous times in their lives.  Every time you run into a situation that makes your life more difficult, you face a possibility for exercising leadership.  If you don’t recognize it as such, you resign yourself to a life lived at the mercy of other people’s agendas.

For society as a whole, you understanding your potential as a leader is also valuable.  There is much about our world in need of improvement.  The more of you who are capable of making a difference (that is, being leaders), the better off the world will be.  (Assuming we at Salem have done a good job of preparing you to make a positive contribution.)

Having talked so much about the difficulty of identifying leadership, let me go on to say that there are some things we can say about leadership: those whom we eventually recognize as leaders have a few things in common.  First, people we recognize as leaders are able to motivate others.  They do this by imparting a clear vision either of the end result or the process of how to get there.  At the same time, they possess a passionate personal commitment to that end result. .  However, just as important, the time must be right.  Potential followers must be ready—as a result of history, tradition, or current circumstances—to hear what the leader has to say.  The leader’s powerful motivating ideas can then stir the hearts of those who become the followers.

Second, people we recognize as leaders have advanced skills (or develop them) in the tasks necessary to accomplish whatever goals they pursue.  These skills obviously differ according to the nature of the situation that is being faced.  Since we do not know what situations will present themselves to us in our lives, every skill we develop is, potentially, a leadership skill.

Third, people we recognize as leaders are willing to put their self on the line in the process of their work.  Those we recognize as leaders have the courage to be the first voice to speak out.  (Or, in the many cases where actions speak louder than words, to step out and do something when others are not yet doing so.

There is a fourth point I should mention.  You can consider it a bonus point?in general, those we consider to be "good" leaders have a positive self-image, while the "bad" leaders, the ones who treat people rottenly :-), have poor self-images.  Think of the difference between the school-yard bully and the student who would take the new kid on the block under her wing.

The other thing we know about leadership is that it happens in a context.  Leadership takes place in the context of a group.  Considering leadership apart from a group is a bit like the "If a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?" question?interesting, but strictly academic, and not particularly helpful.  Leadership also takes place in a context in which task-specific skills are required to reach a goal or carry out a project.  Finally, people who are leaders in one context may not be in others.  This demonstrates why people who are leaders in one context may not be in others.  If I am going to build a house, I want Bob Vila leading, not Julius Caesar.  (Indeed, if I am limited to my earlier list in choosing a leader for that house-building job, my first choice would certainly be the carpenter from Nazareth.)

It should, then, be clear that no one can teach you to be a leader.  There is no single thing which the word "leader" means, so we can’t teach toward it.  And yet, the Salem catalogue says that the Salem Signature, among other things, is "designed to prepare women to become confident, effective leaders."  It may, then, sound like I am accusing us of false advertising.  I am not.  What we can and do attempt to do in the Salem Signature is to show you how leaders have arisen, to help you see why they were successful, and to prepare you to accept the responsibilities of good citizenship as opportunities occur.  This is the root of the title of this little "sermon" I am giving this morning.  At Salem, what we can encourage and support is your development as effective citizens of your society?citizens who, when the appropriate circumstances arise, will be able to step forward and see to it that leadership happens.  What we train for is not leadership, but effective citizenship?the capacity for leadership.

Since your having the capacity for leadership is vitally important, both for you and for your world, it must be important for you to know about the process of preparing yourself for it.  You should begin with self-knowledge and self-understanding.  The individual who is plagued with self-doubt and uncertainty is going to be distracted from the important tasks which ensure leadership.  You cannot passionately commit yourself to something when you are not sure the self you are is worthy of being committed (or of being listened to).  To this foundation you must add self-acceptance and self-confidence.  Leaders with poor self-images are often the ones who are abusive to their followers.  They are the ones who demand rather than earn respect; who are motivated by personal gain rather than helping others.  The truly self-confident person is the one who has the personal ability to give.

With that grounding, you can then develop life skills?skills of coping with stress, disappointment, and success.  To this you add skills at inter-relating, that is getting along with, supporting, and motivating others.

Next, you must develop specific skills in some discipline, whether carpentry, military strategy, lobbying for legislation, or the saving of souls.

Finally, you need to gain an understanding of the way the world has worked and the way that it does work.  You must understand history and trends to enable you to have a vision of the future.  You must understand the processes and structures through which things are done, either to utilize those processes and structures or to overthrow them.  You must understand the way groups function and how to effectively aid groups in the attainment of goals.  Above all, you must understand the contexts in which you live, for they will be the field upon which your leadership will emerge.

It would be no mistake to hear this list and realize that it sounds remarkably like a Salem education: the BDR’s for breadth, a major for specific skills.  To these common elements of a liberal arts education we add the Salem Signature?Discovery of Self, Discovery of Self in Society, Community Service, Professional Development, Values and Leadership for Life.  These experiences carefully prepare you, not for leadership, but for citizenship.  We cannot, we should not attempt to prepare you to be a "leader."  We want to prepare you to be a citizen ready to assume leadership in the context in which you live and work.

Now let me turn your attention to College 101 specifically.  In an attempt to help you develop an understanding of leadership and of yourself in society, we have chosen to introduce you to individuals who have spent their lives working for peace and who have been recognized for their efforts.  In order to broaden your horizons we have chosen individuals who come from backgrounds outside our own backyard, our own culture.  This is not just because Salem is committed to a global focus in education but also because if you are to be equipped to succeed in the world to which you will graduate in three years, you must be prepared to respectfully engage with other cultures.

We have begun our study with the 14th Dalai Lama and will continue with Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (or Myanmar)—one of your jobs will be to understand why there are two different names for her country—and Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala.  It is no accident that two of these are women.  Salem is a women’s college.  However, we did not have to look hard to find them.  The world has changed.  In the last two decades, more and more women have assumed roles which enable them to make ours a better world.

Two of these Nobel Peace Prize laureates are Buddhist.  That is coincidental to their selection for study in this course.  However, since leadership is a function of context and personal vision, and since their Buddhist faith is at the core of their motivation, it is essential for us to develop at least a rudimentary understanding of Buddhism  to understand them, their work, and the nature of their leadership.

Study of the Dalai Lama presented us with an additional bonus.  In the fall we used a textbook on ethics rooted firmly in the Judeo-Christian view of the world.  It’s approaches and conclusions felt familiar to most (but not all) of us. This spring, we have the opportunity to read about an approach to ethics rooted in another culture.  In our selection process we were particularly pleased that the Dalai Lama’s book attempted to frame the discussion without recourse to his own or any other religious faith.  Obviously, the results reflect who he is; however, the fact that many (if not most) of the ethical principles he espouses are virtually identical with those which are rooted in Western tradition should give us pause—and hope for peace in an increasingly global village.

In the second half of the term each section of College 101 will do research and present a case for granting a Nobel Peace Prize to someone who has not, as yet, received one.  You will discover that, like at least two of our first three laureates, virtually none of those people saw world peace leadership in their future when they were 19.

In studying the lives and struggles of all of these people, their relationship with the groups they led, and with the larger world, we have powerful case studies in the nature of leadership.  Among other things, we will learn how an individual’s commitment to improving lives can change a world.

Ours is a large, diverse, yet extraordinarily inter-connected world.  Studying these people, we will gain a greater understanding of Central America's Guatemala and of Asia's Tibet (now a part of China) and Myanmar (also known as Burma).  In addition, we will learn of many more cultures through the lives of our potential nominees.  This awareness will enrich us by providing more ways of viewing problems and so, more ways of arriving at their solutions. We will be studying what will be for many of you "exotic" cultures.  (Although not so exotic for some of our international students.) Just remember that, to the people of Myanmar, ours is the exotic culture.  Things do not have to be done far away to be great things.

I have one significant, additional challenge for you for this term.  As you study these people, open your field of vision to pay attention to those who might be called their followers and to the society in which they lived.  From doing that, you can gain the greatest insight into the nature of leadership.  As an example, who were the people who followed Jesus of Nazareth?  Why did they follow him?  Why was his message so compelling to them?  What was it about the society in which he lived that made his message take root and grow?  What was it that enabled the movement to spread like wildfire?  Many of you probably know many of those answers.  It was primarily the poor and oppressed who followed him and his message of hope for a better life.  His was a society under the thumb of a foreign power that was expecting divine intervention in the political or military arena to deliver them from Rome.  The sophisticated transportation and communication systems of the Roman Empire allowed the movement to grow rapidly, given its compelling message.  And we are aware of the results.

OR  Who were the people who followed Adolph Hitler?  Why did he rise to power?  How could people turn their backs or avert their eyes to what he did?  How did he maintain such control over so many?  And what were the long-term results?  I don’t want to oversimplify the answers, but Germany was a nation reeling from the punitive Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I.  That treaty left the German economy in a shambles.  Poverty and bitterness led to a willingness to accept any promise of a better life.  Hitler promised national self-respect and prosperity.  The pain of the twenties led to the blindness of the thirties and forties.  His control stemmed from that and, of course, from terror.  Importantly, the long-term results of Hitler’s vision are non-existent.  By that I mean, he left no legacy of the things he intended.  It is a truth that while despotic, ruthless leadership can be extremely effective in the short term, it seldom yields results which last.  As the Dalai Lama said in our reading for last Tuesday, "order imposed by force is only ever short lived."

That point is one I would encourage you to remember.  Many people are quick to say that since authoritarian leadership is so efficient, that is the best way to "get things done."  I would counter that that depends on how long-lasting you want the results to be.  Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his poem "Ozymandias" addresses that very issue.

Ozymandias (Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817)
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The kind of analysis of leadership I am proposing here gives you a powerful new way to understand the nature of leadership and how it might work in the world in which we live.  It also gives you an opportunity to observe society around you and consider how you might participate in making it better.

I hope that you believe that I have lived up to my end of the bargain here.  Rarely does a single speech transform a person’s life.  That has not been my goal.  What I do hope is that, having heard these words being specifically directed to you, you will meet your future in a slightly different way.  As you go forth from this room and, later, from this institution, I hope you will recognize your leadership situations when they present themselves; and, recognizing those situations, you will act, making your world—and mine—a better place to live.  You see this is not just a humanitarian hope; it is a selfish one as well.

Salem as an institution cannot train you to be a "leader".  What we and you together can do is prepare you to be effective citizens, ready to undertake leadership responsibilities each time an opportunity presents itself.  Every one of you will face such opportunities numerous times in your lives.  The examined self, with well-honed skills, with understanding of the way the world works, will be able assume leadership responsibilities at the appropriate times.  It is in your best interest and in ours for you to be able to do so.