Lessons in Leadership

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Giving students the skills and ethical compass to prevent future Enrons.

By Judith Rodin

On college campuses throughout America during the 1960s, student anger over the U.S. role in the Vietnam war hardened into pervasive student distrust of authority in general and university administrators in particular. The tide of student protests, which included dramatic occupations of administration buildings at Columbia, Berkeley, and other universities, gave way to an era of general cynicism about American institutions that only deepened after the Watergate scandals. How could America’s youth believe in the legitimacy of leadership when their leaders had betrayed their trust, or, in many instances, stolen their future?

Nearly 40 years later, reports of greed, corruption, and malfeasance have swept across the country, shattering retirement nest eggs and plunging Americans again into a crisis of faith and trust. As I write this column, the fall-out from the latest corporate accounting scandals is dominating the headlines, shaking investors’ confidence, and compelling us to ask some hard questions.

Society is learning another bracing truth about the use and abuse of power. Employee, shareholder, neighbor, or stranger—anyone and everyone can be deeply affected for good or ill by the decisions that leaders make in times of crisis and peril.

Here at the University of Pennsylvania, we can’t inoculate humanity against cupidity or any of the seven deadly sins. But like other universities, we can furnish our students with the skills and ethical compass they need to become effective and humane leaders in their professions and society. 

Indeed, guided by Benjamin Franklin’s counsel to merge learning with service to humanity, the cultivation of humane leaders has always been one of Penn’s core missions and values.

In recent years we have stepped up our efforts to nurture, among our undergraduate students, a new generation of principled leaders who leave Penn with the vision, creativity, empathy, and practical experience to bring people together in common pursuit of shared goals. 

These undergraduates are able to choose from a variety of discrete classroom-based and co-curricular leadership education programs that were unavailable just a few years ago, although leadership training has always been an important part of our mission.

First, successful leadership in the real world entails working with other people. Curricula throughout the University stress the critical importance of working in teams and developing an empathetic understanding of other peoples and cultures. These are essential elements of humane leadership, and Penn wastes no time thrusting students onto the humane leadership track. In Wharton’s nationally celebrated Management 100 Class, all first-year students run collaborative community-service projects that pay huge dividends in their own leadership development while making life better for our Philadelphia neighbors.

In fact, Penn offers incoming students opportunities to begin developing their leadership muscles virtually the moment they arrive on campus. A new pre-orientation program called PENNacle will give 40 members of the Class of 2006 a dose of leadership training, with games, exercises, and discussions all geared to bring students into the University’s extraordinary leadership network.

Our college houses also provide their own pathways into leadership networking. A freshman program at Hill House, for example, brings students into close contact with business, community, politics, education, and commerce, while also emphasizing the ethical, moral, and civic dimensions of citizenship. 

Leadership education doesn’t begin and end in the freshman year. Twice a year for nearly 20 years, a group of students from all communities on campus—student government, greeks, performing arts, cultural groups, service organizations, academic clubs, college houses—have traveled to Fellowship Farm near Pottstown for the Leadership Training Weekend.

Sponsored by the Division of University Life, the retreat allows Penn’s leaders—and those aspiring to campus leadership—to think, talk, and strategize about ways to enhance campus life while sharpening their own skills. While the primary focus is on student organizations—the natural laboratory for developing leaders on every college campus—leadership in the larger community is implicit in all sessions. The continuing success of the program led last year’s participants to lay the groundwork for launching PENNacle this fall.

Second, humane leadership involves reaching out to friends, neighbors, and other fellow citizens as partners in learning and progress. Penn has modeled engaged leadership through its successful collaborative social, economic, and educational initiatives with the West Philadelphia community. Students strengthen our relationships, not to mention their own leadership portfolios, through more than 70 academic ‘service-learning’ courses across a variety of disciplines. Not only do these exercises in applied knowledge nourish our students’ intellectual and moral growth, they also bring about enduring community improvements, such as effective public schools, improved childhood nutrition, neighborhood economic development, and vital community organizations.

Third, any effective leadership education must include a rigorous analysis of case studies and an equally challenging regimen of hands-on exercises. The Center for Leadership and Change at the Wharton School typifies this intensely focused approach. Under the direction of management guru Michael Useem, the Center organizes expeditions through the Himalayas, rounds of basic training at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, and an array of other leadership cross-training exercises that force students to solve problems through teamwork, which, as they learn, becomes very much a matter of survival. 

Fourth, the dynamic leaders of tomorrow will need superb communication skills and they will need to learn from the finest exemplars of dynamic leadership. Exposure to national leaders and the development of communications skills are two of the many benefits of the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program. More than 3,000 Arts and Sciences undergraduates participated in one or more of the Fox Program’s four program areas last spring, learning how to make public presentations or run meetings in the public speaking segment; meeting and dining with business leaders, top journalists, political leaders, and religious leaders, many of them Penn alumni, at public events; working with organizations ranging from Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America to Habitat for Humanity in Public Service; and enrolling in intensive recitations and classes led by SAS course instructors in leadership curricula.

Finally, teaching ethics and values helps to create the kind of leaders who will do right by society. Many courses and programs throughout the undergraduate curricula at Penn teach students to understand and fulfill their ethical obligations to their professions, communities, organizations, and society. From the Ethics Program at Wharton to “Theoretical Foundations of Health Care Ethics in Nursing,” from “Ethics in Engineering” to numerous offerings in bioethics, courses with discrete ethics components span more than a dozen departments and programs across all four undergraduate schools. Rare is the student who graduates from Penn without having grappled fiercely with the ethical challenges and complexities that all graduates inevitably face.

We hope that one day our students will lead the world. As the global community becomes more complex, as the diversity of ideas and values and cultural norms expands, our students need to understand themselves and those with whom they interact. Training managers to work with other people in teams of various kinds and to take responsibility for their attitudes and actions is not the latest business or academic fad; it is a necessity if we are to prevent future Watergates and future Enrons, and if we are going to prevail during these perilous times. 

If we don’t do it, who will?

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