Meanings: “Leadership”

April 23, 2011

I went to a dinner this evening celebrating our graduating Bonner Scholars.  This is a program through which we select 15 students in each entering class with significant financial aid need who are interested in doing community service. In their financial aid packages, we replace their work study (campus employment) expectation with additional grant money in return for a commitment from them that they will give so many hours each semester in community service.  An essential part of the program is a good deal of training and coaching so that their community service is progressively more substantial.

At the end of the evening, after we had heard amazing individual portraits of the graduates from Bonner Program Director (and Earlham alumna) Jana Schroeder,  I said to the group that I had heard the word “leadership” more often and more comfortably that evening than I could ever remember on any other Earlham occasion.  The Earlham community is wary of the word — and perhaps of the concept, probably because of the associations with formal organizational authority; but the Bonner Scholars Program appears quite comfortable in speaking of leadership.

The portraits of the graduates I had heard were really portraits in leadership.  Reflecting on those portraits, I offered the graduates an Earlham-flavored definition of leadership:  “leadership is taking initiative generously, constructively and persistently.”

It involves initiative: not waiting for anyone else to make the first move, but being ready to take the risk of stepping forward yourself.

It involves being generous: you can’t just act on your own behalf; you have to act on behalf of some wider, perhaps inchoate, group of people — with the hope and expectation for drawing them into community.

It involves acting constructively.  Certainly the world needs analysis and criticism — even in its leaders –, but if one is to lead one has to work on behalf of building something new and better.  It is a work of building up, not pulling down.  There may be obstacles that need to be removed, but the fundamental aim must be to build something up.

And it involves acting persistently.  Acting once or acting twice may encounter resistance.  Leadership keeps at it, doesn’t fall prey to discouragement.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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