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Foundations of Leadership

by Mark Peres

October 5,2006

We sat in small groups getting to know each other during faculty orientation. The exercise called for us to describe perceptions about today’s college students. On the back of index cards, faculty wrote bullet points. We then paired and shared. One line of comment went like this: students today are uninformed and uninspired. They do not know how to express themselves. They think on a surface level. They fold in the face of adversity. Their feelings are easily hurt. They all want success, but have no idea how to achieve it.

We pondered. We nodded. We felt good about the unique attributes of our generation. And so armed, I began teaching “Foundations of Leadership” as an adjunct instructor.

The University catalog described the course: “This course delineates the principles that are important in the development of a leader in the 21st century. Discussion of the role and function of a leadership position will include an in-depth analysis and study of needs impacting individuals, organizations and society. Ten hours of community service is an integral requirement of this course.”

I am half way through the term and this is what I know: the students in my class work hard, care about others and want to do the right thing. They are in class at 7:30 AM, dressed in professional attire, alert and ready to learn. They carry a full academic load, nearly all of them have jobs, they all have community service projects, they are allowed two absences, and all work is handed in on time. They do it because it is required, and consequences of non-compliance are costly and clear. They also do it because they self-selected this environment and are motivated to create a better life.

This compared to my “old-school” days at a top-tier, regional liberal arts college where students sometimes attended class, wore shorts and flip-flops when they did, spent most of their time by the pool, and carried “incompletes” past the end of the semester until papers were handed in. We tossed Frisbees, joined fraternities and sororities, attended chapel, and read Beowolf while listening to The Doors.

I’m not sure that many of the gifted students who went to college with me would have managed well in the career university that I teach in today.

Of course, the models are different. One is an extension of the world. The other is a retreat from the world. One is – historically – work-force training. The other – historically – is education of the elite where reflection and preparation for leadership occurs.

What is clear is that the models are merging. In order to improve the graduation rates and career success of students who are financing their degrees with ever more debt, career universities are raising admission standards and offering more need-based scholarships. They are also leavening work-force training with classic liberal arts courses to attract and help form a more total personality. In turn, traditional universities are under stress to deliver education that is “relevant” to the career aspirations of its students and the companies hiring them (so much for Beowolf) , and thus are providing ever more skills-based, work-force training.

No matter the model, our increasingly complex society demands broad-based capacity to manage and lead. And here is where our new career university in the heart of Charlotte has it right: requiring all of its students – whether business, hospitality or culinary – to study and practice principles of leadership. Students learn about formulating vision, inspiring and influencing others, building and managing a team, communication strategies, creative thinking and decision making, and the frustrations and rewards of leadership. They analyze case studies, observe leaders in action, and roll up their sleeves as volunteers in the community. All of it enhances their abilities as students and serves us all they enter into citizenship.

The class embodies a synthesis of mission, scholarship and skills-based education. Its principles are reinforced throughout the curriculum. Does that insure that graduates will light the city on fire? No. Does it increase the probability? Yes.

As we discussed perceptions about today’s college students during faculty orientation, there was another line of comment that went like this: these students are smart, capable and ready to achieve. It’s a privilege to serve them.

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