Priming the Pump
Models of Group Culture, Conceptions of Power, Foundations of Social Justice, and Teaching About "Leadership for Social Justice" at Grinnell
Seeking to maximize the benefits of the decennial accreditation process for formative reflection and conversation, the College requested and received permission from the Higher Learning Commission to engage in a Special Emphasis self study focused on an issue critical to improving our ability to achieve our mission: reinvigorating our traditional commitment to train leaders in public service and social justice as we enter the 21st century. The College's mission reads, in part:
As a teaching and learning community, the College holds that knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and of society at large....The College aims to graduate women and men who ...are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good. (emphasis added)
Our Special Emphasis theme arises out of ambivalence about leadership on our campus. Our students hope to "change the world," but tend to eschew leadership, one of the qualities that might contribute to that end. Views on campus differ as to whether leadership as commonly understood (or misunderstood) is essential to effecting positive change. Our students' desires to effect positive change while disavowing leadership aspirations are seen by some as self-defeating. Others are deeply suspicious of the language of leadership. How do we conceive of leadership at Grinnell? What is social justice? What do leadership and social justice have to do with our approach to liberal education? In order to help us think about our Special Emphasis theme, we conducted preliminary interviews with faculty members and alumni who approached the topic from different perspectives. Some of these people were chosen because they had expressed concerns about emphasizing leadership at Grinnell and had offered alternative models. Others were chosen because their teaching, research or position has given them a particular insight into leadership and social justice at the College. We asked this group the above questions and received rich and varied insights into possible meanings of these terms for Grinnell. In his interview, Dan Reynolds foretold the approach we hoped to take in our faculty discussions: "I think rather than provide a [hard-and-fast definition] of leadership, I'd be more interested in thinking about ways in which we could look at various models and emphasize those that are more about community-building and about motivating than they are about authority." Taking Dan's comment as our point of departure, we invite the faculty to consider conceptions of leadership, social justice, and liberal arts education at Grinnell and their relation to our mission --what we're doing, why we're doing it, and where we might go in the future.
Leadership and Grinnell culture
Doug Caulkins was to the point in discussing his notions of leadership, both as it is generally understood and as it is understood at Grinnell, where our interviewees were nearly unanimous in their observation that Grinnell students are deeply suspicious of leaders and their exercise of power. Caulkins paired leadership with group membership and offered an anthropological analysis of the dominant Grinnell culture based on the work of Mary Douglas, whose important works include Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, and, with Stephen Ney, Missing Persons: A Critique of the Social Sciences. According to Caulkins:
Leadership means motivating others to help change the status quo; making a difference. However, Grinnellians tend to think and feel that "leadership" implies hierarchy--having authority over people. According to the egalitarian cultural bias here, Grinnell should be a leadership-free zone. An anthropology framework involves two dimensions of social constraint: Group [identified as an X axis] or incorporation into groups, and Grid [constraint applied by external sources, identified as a Y axis]. These axes range from low to high, and a four-quadrant grid placed on the axes contains four theoretical groups:
Quadrant A: Competitive Individualism (where there is low group constraint and low group membership). In this [sector of the quadrant], individualistic free actors create and break social networks as needed for their daily life.
Quadrant B: Isolated Subordination. Those in this quadrant are fatalistic, highly constrained by external rules, and often have no social network at all to support them). This [quadrant] is an undesirable place to be. On a societal level, many who are poverty-stricken are here. They have little control over their lives.
Quadrant C: Hierarchy. [In this quadrant] there is high group membership and a high degree of restraint. Think of a typical bureaucracy, where individuals are highly constrained but have clearly understood memberships in groups. According to Max Weber, this is the university, the church, or a governmental agency: You're in your group, you know your place, and there are lots of rules.
Quadrant D: Egalitarian enclave/sectarianism. [In this quadrant] there is low external restraint, high group membership. People in this group think about their responsibility to others, and for them the idea of self-managing is not individualistic. Those in this group believe we are responsible to others, and there is a moral authority in the responsibility we bear toward others. Here, leadership is a critical responsibility. This system is always critical of individualism and hierarchy. That's where [this group's notions of] leadership [are located]; we are protestors, we are critical of the system. It's often said that, in this [model], universities are the institutions that provide a critical perspective on the other institutions. Grinnell's dominant culture is firmly located here. There are lots of subcultures that are either more hierarchical or more individualistic here-international students, for instance. By coming here, they've taken themselves out of their group membership and are more focused on "What's my career going to be like?" In contrast, many of our domestic students come from the middle class, and while they do know they will need to earn a living, it's not yet a critical issue for them. They're confident they'll find a role and have a future. This has traditionally let them focus on cultural criticism, the Social Gospel Movement, etc. Many of our students [from this demographic] start in grass-roots activities — Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, soup kitchens, etc. They don't assume they are elites to be catapulted into leadership positions; they [know they] have to earn their way into leadership. At Grinnell, tolerance comes first: we're not rule-based but morality-based. No culture is without its contradictions, though; we're intolerant of the hierarchical.
Intolerant tolerance According to Caulkins, it is Grinnell's traditional suspicions concerning leadership that have produced this culture of "intolerant tolerance," and that make it difficult for anyone here to use the word "leadership" without encountering resistance. "Changing things, innovating, are positive things if they are connected with [a Grinnellian] sense of morality," Caulkins said. "It's team leadership or team entrepreneurship [that are seen as positives]. That's why there's a proliferation of various groups on campus. In a sense, you have to make [an issue] not just your concern but the concern of some others before it becomes legitimate. Individualistic leadership is right out here." Caulkins continues:
How do you lead? You can create an organization that will make a difference, or you get into a position where you are able to direct an organization's activities in the right direction from within. Let's add a further complication: Let's think about entrepreneurs as leaders. The usual, erroneous, image is of the thrusting individual who's out to make a billion dollars before they're 35. What entrepreneurs do, according to Schumpeter, is innovate, creating new products, processes, or organizations. And one can innovate in any sector — business, non-profit, or government. Entrepreneurship doesn't have to do with making money; it has to do with making a difference and making new institutions. Schumpeter spoke of the "creative destruction" of old institutions that are not adequately meeting needs being replaced by others that do actively meet the needs of society. This view can be harnessed in Grinnell's hegemonic culture. Grinnellians do like destruction and want to change things for the better. We're driven by moral critiques of these other institutions that are failing society in some way. Bob Noyce '49 made a lot of hardware innovations, but he was instrumental in creating non-hierarchical Silicon Valley institutions. Grinnellians can become innovators who create new products, processes, organizations. Consider two of our recent alums.... They have worked with the Latino community in Des Moines. They found that banking institutions in the area weren't serving this community well, so they worked with the savings and loan organizations to better serve the Latino community, the most rapidly growing population in Iowa. This is socially responsible: making the American dream accessible to a community that has not previously had sufficient access to it. It exemplifies the social concern and creative entrepreneurial leadership that is very Grinnellian. Entrepreneurs in the D quadrant are typically "team" entrepreneurs with a high sense of collective or community responsibility.
How leaders exercise power-four models
Given Grinnellians' avowed suspicions concerning leaders and their exercise of power, we felt it might be useful to move from Caulkins' grid/group analysis to a discussion of power offered by Kathleen Skerrett. In talking about the exercise of power, Skerrett drew on her scholarship and her legal experience to offer a succinct taxonomy of the ways in which power is exercised among human beings: through coercion, through nurture, through attraction and through reciprocity. We quote this section of our interview with her directly:
Power as nurture. I would say this is a strategy of using power as energy to increase the strength, the growth, or the vitality of other human beings. It's a strategy of transmitting and giving energy, gathering energy and then putting it strategically in the way of people who need it or can use it. It's part of what we do with young children; they don't know what they need, so we provide resources and energy and stimulation and vision that enable them to thrive. I chose the word nurture because I want it to be construed as very concrete, as in food.
Power as attraction. This would be a way of thinking about power as mimetic, of offering people patterns after which they form themselves. That can also be very concrete. It can also be a good or a bad thing — power can attract others to vacuous models as well as to good models. Dominance, for example, can be very attractive.
Power as reciprocity. This has to do with both the visceral impress people have on each other constantly, and the ethical regard that can emerge from that; the power we have on each other as incarnate beings is primal. We are aware of each other as consciousnesses, as vulnerable and as influential; we're aware of each other as creatures that have this impress on each other. This sort of power springs from a profound awareness of other beings — that they're not things. That's the basis of ethics in politics.
Power as coercion. This is a strategy of constraining others by force, curtailment of resources, intimidation and degradation. Power that coerces is the weakest form of power, though its effects are terrible. It is what we do when the other strategies have been exhausted. So coercion is the limit of power. I would say it's weak because it works to destroy the beings it wants to move.
According to Skerrett, good leaders are aware — either intuitively or directly — of all these forms of the exercise of power, and know how to use them strategically and humanely.
"It's tempting to set up a hierarchy," she said. "But I think effective leadership springs from an awareness of all these forms of power, although I think I would privilege reciprocity. People who are ethical leaders are constantly aware of power as reciprocity. They feel obliged to generate power as nurture, and are constantly trying to shape their behavior as model, and to avoid coercion through degradation or violence."
Reciprocity as sine qua non in social justice
As is suggested above, Skerrett privileged the reciprocal model over the others as yielding the most direct path to social justice.
"Social justice begins with an awareness of and experience with reciprocity:" she said. "the awareness of the other as a sentient being who can suffer, a consciousness that this being has loves and suffers loss, is organized by direction, and an awareness of the other as a being in time. The consciousness that is before you begins in acute vulnerability and finitude; the contract of reciprocity that we make with each other begins in an awareness of that temporal development. An awareness of the other's developmental needs is a part of reciprocity as well."
Skerrett emphasized that, in her conception, justice begins and ends in leaders' understanding of reciprocity.
"It's a way of governing ourselves with mutual attention to our needs changing through time," she said. "We begin in natal vulnerability and end in death; any concept of social justice has to have an alertness to these truths as its basis. Without that, any way we frame justice will fail. It will produce the excluded, the abnormal, and the outcast. [Reciprocity is] inclusion in an active process, over time; an ability to envision a community of nurture and justice over time."
The centrality of reciprocity in effective leadership also came up in several of the other interviews. For instance, in our conversation with Grinnell alumnus Babak Armajani, founder of the Public Strategies Group in St. Paul, MN, he said: "Ethics and leadership are entwined... [i]n the kind of leadership Robert Greenleaf calls "servant leadership." The foundation of ethics is 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.' That's reciprocity. So with anyone who at any point is leading and those who have voluntarily decided to follow, there's reciprocity."
"Follow-ship" rather than Leadership
Pablo Silva has a slightly different version of the path the "servant leader" must follow, which has its roots in a commencement address he heard while at Harvard.
"Harvard's chaplain talked about the need being not for better leadership but for better 'follow-ship,'" he said. "A lot of people come out of college at a lot of leading institutions with very strong ambitions to become leaders. And some will realize these ambitions, over the course of their career, at some point. But for the vast majority of people, and for almost everyone when they're starting out, what they need to prove themselves [as being] is not really effective leaders, but effective followers. And it's that part that I think is the most important: to prepare people for these early stages of their career, in whatever field they're going to go into. In the realm of the pursuit of social change and social justice, no one instantly shoots to the top. There are these few amazing individuals that do rise rapidly through the ranks, yes, but even they have to start out someplace down the line: knocking on doors, doing surveys, doing research — the scut work which is involved in all these professions, whether they're [conducting] academic studies, working for government, or working for a social organization or corporation. There are certain characteristics we ought to instill in people, which will hopefully help them to rise to positions of authority and leadership. But to make that [the central] goal of an educational institution is excessively narrow. And the other problem with that is that it sort of exaggerates the ultimate goal, and it makes it seem like if you don't achieve at a certain level, you're somehow failing.
"That's just not what we want to be teaching students. I think effective follow-ship is important, and it's an important goal to instill. To make it seem like leadership is the only adequate level of achievement actually undercuts the very mission of social justice. So I don't think it should be something we should be doing, nor should the rhetoric we're using be [shaped that way]. Right now, if you think about effective activism for social justice, I think Grinnell is doing an excellent job of that. There are some things we certainly do better, and I think there are things in train moving that direction that are very positive."
Silva suggests that one way Grinnell can do more of what it's already doing well is by helping students to expand their notions of what constitutes fitting work on behalf of social justice.
"I do like the language of 'social justice,'" he said. "[However] the way a lot of our students conceive of [working toward it] ... oftentimes becomes too narrow, and that's my real concern with defining it [this way]. Because I think a lot of students, even by the time they leave here, have too narrow a vision of what would constitute a worthwhile career."
The Gadfly Farm
John Stone also feels that Grinnell can build on its successes by recognizing that many of its graduates work for social justice in a way that often goes unremarked — as social critics or (to use his term) "gadflies." In his essay "The Gadfly Farm," Stone called Grinnell "an institution for developing thoughtful, persistent, effective critics."
"We should accept this image of ourselves and promote it in our public relations," he said. "It is consistent with the College's history and our current reputation. It takes advantage of the College's greatest institutional strengths and converts into additional strengths other characteristics of the College that have sometimes been regarded as weaknesses (such as its location). Finally, it distinguishes us from most of our competitors, placing us foremost in a class of significant and socially useful institutions."
Stone insists that Grinnell graduates "fewer leaders and more gadflies" than its sister liberal arts institutions. He has a particular definition for "gadfly," calling the person who wears that mantle "a thoughtful critic of ideas, customs, and institutions." He holds that there are important distinctions between leaders and gadflies — distinctions it would be useful for the College to consider as we ponder the institution's avowed ambition to produce leaders.
The social role of a gadfly is to effect institutional change by challenging preconceptions and prejudices, advocating reforms, and "speaking truth to power." A leader, on the other hand, is someone who guides and directs the activities of other people within an organization. The leader's social role is to build, shape, and preserve useful institutions. Although the two roles sometimes overlap, the differences are more striking than the similarities. Gadflies usually operate from the periphery of the social structure that they want to change, leaders from the center of power. The traits of character that a gadfly needs most are outspokenness, persistence, clarity of insight, and courage; good leaders, on the other hand, are characterized by self-assurance, loyalty, personal charisma, and professional expertise. Gadflies tend to be politically progressive or radical, leaders to be conservative.
Stone emphasized that Grinnell's production of gadflies has strongly figured in the College's history, "both among its faculty (e.g., George Herron, Jesse Macy) and among its graduates (e.g., Hallie Flanagan, Louise Noun)."
Founded by social reformers and given a home by abolitionists, the College has, from its inception, accommodated and indeed cultivated dissidence. It is no accident that, in the proudest public moments of its subsequent history (such as the Social Gospel movement, the NDEA loyalty-oath flap in the late fifties, Vietnam War protests, and divestiture in South Africa), the College itself has acted more as a gadfly than as a leader.
The implication is that the College would do well to remember the gadfly's importance to society, and to stay aware of this importance as it weighs what its traditional strengths best equip it to inculcate in our students. Indeed, in Stone's conception, Grinnell's structure — and even some of its perceived shortcomings — make it a gadfly breeding ground:
Grinnell's open curriculum attracts students who are already skeptical about institutional rules. Once they are here, the open curriculum more or less forces Grinnell students to reflect on the rationale of the plans that they develop for their own education — to examine them critically and to defend their choices as best suited to their needs and goals. This experience, too, teaches them to question arbitrary requirements.
Politically, the Grinnell College community tends to be progressive and at the same time to be tolerant and respectful of dissenters. The students we attract tend to have the same orientation and are therefore predisposed to becoming gadflies. We provide them with an environment in which outspokenness, persistence, clarity of insight, and courage are visibly rewarded more than unthinking acceptance of conventional views.
The small size of the College and its relative freedom from bureaucracy and red tape make it possible for a gadfly-in-training to effect small changes promptly and, on occasion, significant ones over a four-year undergraduate career.
At Grinnell, students work unusually closely with faculty. We spend a lot of time in one-on-one office discussions with students, and we support an unusually large number of guided-reading and independent-project courses and student-faculty research projects. Consequently, there are many opportunities for students to observe and assimilate the attitudes of faculty. But the Grinnell faculty itself includes more gadflies than leaders. The critical stance that comes naturally to teachers, and particularly to faculty members at a college where teaching is highly valued, is one of the attitudes that our students most often learn to imitate.
On the other hand, the College's location, which we have tended to regard as a difficulty to be overcome, actually contributes to its success as a gadfly farm. Our isolation would indeed be a handicap to the development of leaders, because leaders use their undergraduate years to meet influential people who can advance their careers and to establish friendships, or at least share experiences, with one another. It is much harder for embryonic leaders to build up a network of useful contacts when they are placed in a remote, rural area of an unfashionable state. However, our distance from the centers of power is an advantage for gadflies: It weakens the inertial force of established institutions and enables us to look at them objectively, dispassionately, and fearlessly.
Similarly, Grinnell's reputation for idealism and its commitment to social justice, which have sometimes been thought to be signs of dangerous naïveté and unworldliness, are more valuable as characteristics of a gadfly farm. It would be appropriate, perhaps, to train leaders to be pragmatic, so that they can build up their power and acquire followers. For gadflies, however, pragmatic abandonment of ideals is a disastrous mistake, undermining the force of their criticism. In many of its programs, Grinnell College puts its ideals into practice without compromising them. Observing and participating in such programs is valuable experience for our gadflies-to-be.
Rather than selling itself as a producer of leaders, as so many of our sister liberal arts institutions now seem to be doing, Stone recommends that Grinnell should embrace and even "go public" with this traditional, if unrecognized, strength:
Since many of the colleges that Grinnell sees as peers and competitors have focused on the goal of developing leadership, the contrasting image of the gadfly farm is one that distinguishes Grinnell and makes it easier for prospective students to see and understand our unique attributes. Few liberal-arts colleges recognize the social utility of gadflies or present themselves as supporters of the gadfly's role. By most standards, Grinnell is the foremost of them.
In a study released in 1998 (Marketing Grinnell College: Strategy and Recommendations), Jan Krukowski and Company recommended the following "positioning statement" as the basis for the College's public-relations and recruitment efforts:
Grinnell College is an outstanding liberal arts college dedicated to helping students fully develop all their abilities and their determination to have an impact on the world. Grinnell's approach to education in the liberal arts and sciences emphasizes the building of intellectual initiative through academic choice and responsibility. Grinnell views an important outcome of this education to be the confidence to translate ideals into actions, in whatever field of endeavor. An environment of close collaboration, intellectual challenge, and receptivity to diverse views is fostered by a demanding faculty dedicated to teaching. A Grinnell education is not only different — it makes a difference.
I support the Krukowski recommendation and propose the image of the gadfly farm to add specificity, color, and point to this statement.
Tyler Roberts also had an alternative take on how the College might steer closer to its ultimate aims by steering away from a focus on leadership. For him, instead, a more fruitful use of our energies would involve reframing, for ourselves and our students, our definitions of citizenship.
"When I first heard people on campus talking about this focus on leadership, I had a strong negative reaction to it," he said. "It seemed to me like more branding, and seemed connected — in my mind at least — to some of the negative elements of the 'No Limits' slogan. Both can very easily play into the some of the worst individualistic excesses of our culture. I think that I have since moderated my view of the leadership idea, though I am still not convinced that it is something we should pursue. I've been thinking about it this way. There are at least two models for thinking about leadership. The first is a kind of George W. Bush model: I am the decider, or, in a less extreme version, the 'entrepreneur.' The second is the citizen. Where the first emphasizes individualism and economic creativity and success, the second emphasizes community and social justice. It seems to me that if Grinnell is going to focus on leadership, it has be leadership of the second type. I wonder, though, whether a more appropriate focus for Grinnell would be on citizenship rather than leadership.
"When I think of the kind of leaders/citizens Grinnell produces, the people I first think of are [a couple of] Grinnell grads who live here in Grinnell, who aren't leaders in any obvious sense, but [who are] really good citizens of the community. He's [headed the campaign to build the new library]; she's on the school board [and has been involved with the League of Women Voters]. Perhaps I shouldn't say that they are not leaders; they certainly have played leading roles in the town. But to me it is the citizenship aspect of what they do that I find admirable. I am also thinking of some of our colleagues on the faculty who have been heavily involved with Democratic politics, local and national, such as Don Smith and Pablo Silva. I worry that the term leadership is too narrow, that it leads us to think first of CEOs and politicians rather than those who do the bulk of the work of creating better communities for all of us."
For Roberts, "responsible citizenship" is determined by one's active engagement with the various communities to which one belongs.
"I think [our ambition to create] a stronger link to social justice is precisely why the meaning of citizenship needs reframing," he said. "Citizenship [as it is commonly thought of] seems kind of passive: 'All I need to do is vote, and I'm a citizen.' But [true] citizenship requires active engagement in the community. I would like to see the College emphasizing the ways in which our commitment to the liberal arts is in large part a commitment to producing graduates who think first of being good citizens of whatever communities they might find themselves in. Sure, it's great to go off to graduate school, and a lot of our students will do that. But how are we helping to shape people who're going to engage the world outside of academia?"
According to Roberts, the advantage this revamped notion of citizenship brings to leadership is the recognition that the individual acts within a community, creating an obvious link between public engagement and social justice.
"One way of thinking about [social justice] and connecting it with leadership [is through notions of] democracy and community," he said. "I mean the ways the leader works with a community to make it a just community, where power is shared and the community recognizes its relations with other communities.
"I think if we're going to redefine or reframe [the word "leadership"], we need to link it directly — and much more closely than we usually link it in our culture — with social justice. Here I think especially about how we forge the kinds of communities and processes that make democracy possible. Let's take the Grinnell College community. It would be my hope that the leaders of this community would see as one of their primary responsibilities the cultivation of the kinds of trust and communication that makes group decision-making, where it is appropriate, fair and effective, and makes individual decision-making, where appropriate, responsive to the larger community. Not all decisions — say about certain appointments or about the budget — are made democratically. But even in those cases, it is crucial to have leaders who facilitate or cultivate the kind of community where information and opinions flow freely and where there is trust that they will be taken seriously by those making decisions. A poor leader inhibits critical thinking or inhibits people from communicating their critical thinking. A good leader is one who lets the community know that he or she values such thinking and seriously considers it in making decisions. To me, this is the kind of leadership that helps create communities of democracy and social justice."
Roberts holds that this sense of the necessity of just engagement at all levels is one of the most important things a Grinnell education can instill, and one of the reasons we should be at pains to maintain the primacy of place we give to the teaching of reasoning skills. It is the ability to reason, he says, that leads the student — and the Grinnell grad — to making the sort of informed judgments and choices that engagement — in community, nation and world — is all about.
"What is critical thinking for?" he says. "It doesn't make any sense to me if it's not for something. And if we think about it this way, then I think that there is an inherent moral/political dimension to what we do as teachers. In terms of my own teaching, there are two ways in which this becomes most obvious to me.
"The first is that in all my classes, but especially those in which there is a lot of discussion, I find it important to think about the class as a kind of community where we will be practicing and exercising our critical thinking as we engage, challenge, argue with one another. How important it is, then, to utilize our critical thinking not just to criticize, or to try to win arguments, but also to do the very hard work of learning how to listen to one another, to really understand what [others] are saying, to interpret what they are saying with generosity.
"The second is in my Religion and U. S. Public Life course. In teaching the course, I'm not trying to turn [the students] into Democrats or Republicans, for or against religion in the public square, but I am trying to get them to think not just as students or critics, but as citizens, as people who are learning about the history of religion in the U. S. or about theories of the relation of religion and politics, so that they can use this learning in an engaged way."
Leaders on the field become leaders in the community
For Andy Hamilton '85, the need to talk about leadership at Grinnell is immediate and obvious. Coaching several of Grinnell's athletic teams has put him in constant contact with the necessity for teaching leadership skills, and his years spent guiding the careers of student athletes have proved a good forge in which to temper theory with practical experience. In comparison to the athletes at sister institutions, Hamilton says, Grinnell's athletes are extremely active in leadership — a circumstance he pins directly to Grinnell's tradition of student self-government.
"This all goes back to the question of what a Grinnell student really is," he said. "[Students] have a voice here, and the College's Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) is one more example of how that works. In recent time, the SAAC [was discussing] eating disorders and getting information to student athletes about these disorders. In our area, that's a quiet disease that often gets shoved under the carpet. But the Grinnell student is very aware of their own person [and compassionate toward others]. The compassion comes out in the way we were trying to bring information to these folks — teammates stepping forward and trying to lead a teammate out of their problem."
Athletics, along with SGA, is an area in which student leadership is necessary and assumed. This being so, Hamilton pointed out that leaders are selected (at least on his teams) by their peers, rather than by coaches. Team membership also typically involves another staple of Grinnell life: community service.
"My tennis guys go out and coach kids and a lot of soccer kids go out and work with local groups," he said. "We do a basketball clinic, and — particularly with the Fairview school — a number of different students go over there and read. And then Community Meal is one area where, during an academic calendar, one of our teams will [act as host]."
While many classes at the College approach the question of leadership obliquely, Hamilton addresses it directly in his 200-level class, "Organization and Administration of Athletics." In true Grinnell fashion, the class involves the construction of models and a round of introspection which, Hamilton hopes, will lead to a sense of community responsibility.
"The section I teach spends a couple of weeks on management and leadership," Hamilton said. "We talk about leadership styles — an autocratic leader, a benevolent dictator, a democratic leader. We try to get them to look back at their past and identify some of the leaders from their past and label those leaders. The logical next step is to ask them how they would lead. I try to get the students to understand [that], wherever they end up in life, they're going to deal with a manager or leader or they're going to be a manager or leader. So an understanding of management and leadership is very important."
As part of the course, Hamilton asks students to give presentations on various types of leaders.
"I've had people report in class on Malcom X, Genghis Khan," he said. "I've had a student give a reading on a marine. Through this process, they come to grips with how they're going to be a leader, and what characteristics they're going to have. What I try to get the students to understand is that they're going to be leaders at the youth level, at the community level, and they'll be leaders at the sport level."
One of the ways Hamilton tries to convey exactly what that means is by giving them a ground-level problem in fiscal management.
"I give them a budgetary problem, and they have to explain to me how they're going to deal with it," he said. "Are they going to keep the money-making, revenue side up, and make some cuts in other areas, or are they going to go with egalitarian cuts across the board and risk reducing the revenue side? This is where I see what makes them tick; are you going to be the-dollar-at-all-costs kind of leader, or are you going to focus more on the human element?"
Hamilton is careful, in teaching the various modes and models of leadership, to avoid privileging one type over the other. "What we try to show the student is that in life, an eclectic style is going to be the way to go," he said. "There are going to be times that an autocratic style is necessary, when it's very important to make a decision, and there are going to be times for a more laissez-faire approach."
Hamilton said sport provides an excellent laboratory in which student athletes can test the leadership skills they will take with them into the after-Grinnell world. More than preparing them for the challenge, Hamilton said that being a Grinnell athlete leads Grinnell students to expect the challenge.
"Because of the [student athletes'] experience, there will be wonderful opportunities in their lives to step forward. I'm not sure they'd see it as service; I think they'd see it as opportunity. But there'll be a lot of chances to step up and serve on a student sport board or to coach a local basketball team. And because of their athletic background and academic background, it's almost a natural thing for them to be involved. For instance, one of the guys I graduated from [Grinnell] with in 1985 ... is the chair of the Democratic party in Iowa. He got a law degree, and he comes to college basketball games here, and now he's leading in politics." Hamilton said that Grinnell student athletes use sport to test the Grinnell ethos of service again and again. Indeed, he says, the challenge to "step up" is intrinsic to sport:
"In athletics, there's the [perennial] question: 'Who's going to make a difference today?' These sorts of things continue turning in our students' heads. And once you have done it, it's much easier to do it again. So the students here, in sports, have done it; they've stepped forward and taken a risk, and it's easier for them then to step forward in their communities and in their lives and take risks. There are studies out there that companies want liberal arts students because they think broadly; there are also studies out there that say companies want student athletes because they're used to stepping forward. And whether they use [this experience] in a local nonprofit, or a church, or go to New Orleans and work — they're going to be thinking about it."
Mentoring and intellectual independence
While David Lopatto, like most other Grinnell faculty, doesn't "teach leadership" in the classroom, he said that leadership skills get conveyed nonetheless in his courses. For him, these skills are intrinsic to the collaboration and interdisciplinarity that are fixtures both of today's science and today's Grinnell. His investigation of undergraduate research methods has showed him there are two main vectors through which the skills of leadership are delivered, here and elsewhere.
"In researching [methods of] undergraduate research, what I've found is that students don't talk about leadership, and as far as I know their faculty mentors don't talk about leadership either," he said. "What they do talk about is the development of [intellectual] independence — which you could identify as a prerequisite for leadership. And they talk about mentoring."
Mentoring is part of the fabric of Grinnell life, from the first-year Tutorial through the choosing of a major adviser and the intense, regular contact that follows. And since the addition of MAPs to the curricular landscape, the formation of mentor relationships has become even more of a staple. Lopatto said this runs counter to the common conception of the scientific researcher as the lone laboratory cowboy, working in pristine solitude late into the night. On the contrary, Lopatto said; research as it is conducted here provides students with multiple opportunities to cut their leadership teeth. That's different than it used to be.
"Nobody says that a student doing research as an undergraduate is learning leadership," he said. "Back in the 50s, the scientist who was working in academe was a loner. What Anne Roe discovered about these guys was that they were introverted loners who took great pleasure in doing scientific research. The contemporary view, though, is that you can't be a loner; that you have to work with peers. You can't be interdisciplinary without working with peers, obviously. The idea that you're going to be working with peers is fashionable. No one has taken [this line of thinking] to its conclusion: that if you put five undergrads together to do research you might have a leader emerge. It's peer mentoring. The student who has done research for a professor for two summers will be identified as a peer mentor."
What is referred to as "independence" or "autonomy" in the research Lopatto discussed is referred to at Grinnell as "critical thinking," and is enshrined in the mission statement and revered, as has already been discussed, as one of the primary goals of a Grinnell education. Lopatto had an anecdote which explains why such a characteristic would be useful to a scientist:
"There was a student who was working for a physical anthropologist who was interested in medical archaeology," he said. "The prof was convinced that a skeleton in a New York museum showed evidence of arthritis. Halfway through the semester, the student realized that the professor was probably wrong. She had come to an independent conclusion and that was a real moment of growth there."
This ability — to talk back to authority and to back one's position — might not at first appear to be leadership, but Lopatto emphasized that, if the common view of what constitutes leadership is used in the sciences, one quickly concludes that the sciences must have problems. A different set of standards is necessary.
"If you think about leadership as a personality trait, the science division is in serious trouble," he said. "[The students are] typically quiet, lab-bound; you're not thinking about a bombastic leader. [However] there are limits to what we can do with theories of leadership in the sciences. But there are contingency theories that take in the notion that leadership can be learned."
Oftentimes, he said, the learning opportunities arise not as part of a course's official lesson plan, but as part of the realpolitik that plays out among lab partners and group projects.
"You ask yourself: 'What kind of decision maker should I be?' And in doing so, you ask yourself: 'What's most important: the support of my peers [in my decision making], or the preservation of my autonomy in deciding where the research ought to go, the protection of my decision?' Sometimes, as a leader in the sciences, you have to be able to overrule the will of the peer group if you want to protect your procedure."
Lopatto holds that Grinnell faculty should remember that one of the other important ways Grinnell students learn leadership is by watching their professors lead, both in the classroom and in life.
"The students don't seem to be limited to watching us as teachers and scholars," he said. "They're also aware that our children come to our offices, that we talk about having hobbies and traveling. It seems to me that the students are coming [away from this sort of contact] with a desire for a balanced life. Students are looking at life; they want to know if you have enough money, if you have family, if you ever leave the laboratory. They are not satisfied with compromise as much as we may have been or our parents may have been. They're not prepared to sacrifice, not in the same ways.
"When I was an undergraduate, my mentor was a practicing experimental psychologist," he said. "I saw him teach; I saw his research. He modeled for me the professional life and made it possible for me to combine research and teaching because he didn't see research and teaching as opponents."
Lopatto said that there are models of leadership which it might be useful to bring into our larger discussion from his area of research, industrial psychology, while there are others his experience shows should be left out.
"The first model I try to discard is the personality model — which offers the theory that great leaders are born and not made," he said. In terms of the model that works best for Grinnell, Lopatto said he prefers the cognitive model.
"If you're going to send a message to the Grinnell student body that you need to be a leader, then you need to present them with a plan," he said. "And the more cognitive model is going to be more effective than the personality-based model."
That said, Lopatto also agreed with Skerrett, Roberts, Hamilton and others that the best model for teaching leadership may be having no model at all, instead teaching that good leaders are able to borrow from various models, depending on the situation. "With the contingency model, you can be a better leader if the task is very well structured, [which permits us to] spend time on interpersonal relations because the task [has declared] itself."
This sort of heterodox leadership style requires a high degree of thoughtfulness from the leader, he said: "There are gradations of what people can do. You're maintaining a kind of metacognition; you have to remain aware of what the best leadership position is, in terms of the outcomes. You learn to recognize when a decision needs to be protected and when it can be open. Sometimes you don't need to go for acceptance.
"The students aren't confronted with momentous decisions," Lopatto said. "They're apprentice decision-makers [for whom] most decisions are about distant outcomes. [The momentous decision is] a decision that could end up creating a different life path, rather than something with less immediate impact. It's interactive; with the students we're obliged to point out what the distant effects are. You might look at applying for a MAP or going to the Second-Year Retreat as exercises on our part of mentoring good decision-making, which will make them better leaders."
An obvious question arises, though: how does teaching leadership in the lab and in helping students in deciding on what classes to take translate to the teaching of leadership for social justice? Same skill set, Lopatto said; the most important part is teaching the ability to stick by your decision — publicly — if you think it's the right decision.
"There are socially active scientists, sometimes blatantly so," Lopatto said. "The global warming issue obviously has a lot of scientists involved in it. The scientist is less likely to be the hermit of years past."
According to Lopatto, in considering the social and environmental implications of science, the decision-maker is aided by having a solid picture of what's really important to them, to their community. "You will be guided by what you value," he said. "When we promote autonomy and opportunity among the students in undergraduate research, we set the stage for leadership," he said. Rather than [using the phrase] 'value added' [to describe the benefit of a Grinnell education], wouldn't it better be framed as 'value expressed' or 'value revealed,' with every person seen as potentially valuable?"
Lopatto stressed that this is a vital message to deliver to prospective leaders because, at its heart, it is a message of the student's intrinsic value to the greater conversation of the College's intellectual life — a conversation whose integrity we must preserve as being the foundation for everything else that might happen here.
"A person comes to an intimidating place like Grinnell after having demonstrated a certain level of cognitive ability," Lopatto said. "[They ask themselves:] Can they add anything to a discussion of social justice? So we try to empower them to do so, show them they can do something in the public community that they may have been afraid to do. It was always in them; the student had that potential to do that. You just influenced, uncovered, encouraged and cajoled that student to get her to go where she could go. 'Value added' is a model that makes it seem as if you built her; "value revealed" is about advising that person in ways that encourage them to reach their potential. As a member of our community, you operate according to the assumption that you're potentially a leader.
"I'm glad we're doing a Special Emphasis self-study," Lopatto concluded. "Because if you're doing a general, you're facing the battle of assessment. I hope Grinnell never ever goes that direction. There's a movement to measure our worth by pre-test, post-test; it's being driven by a model of corporate accountability. [Under this system,] the most "value-added" place is the college that's cheapest to go to and the one that gives me the greatest rise in my score. You can't measure something as amorphous as leadership that way."
The musical ensemble as a leadership model
During the interviews we conducted for this preliminary document, our sources used many intriguing metaphors to describe leadership and/or group membership as we teach and live it at Grinnell. Roger Vetter's "Ensemble model" seemed to us to be one of the more elegant, exemplifying as it does the truth that a carefully managed whole can become greater than the sum of its parts — and provide a singular learning experience thereby — and that the leader of any enterprise must never lose track of the importance of each individual's contribution.
"While many facets of group participatory music-making impress me as having educational value, one in particular has inspired me to rethink how I structure teaching in a curricular domain outside of the rehearsal room — the seminar classroom," Vetter said. Vetter drew a parallel between what goes on in the musical ensemble and what happens in a seminar involving between five and fifteen students. In a musical ensemble, he said, each individual has a particular voice, but must go through a process of learning and collaboration to bring that voice into relationship with those of the others in the group. The result, as he put it, "produce[s] a collective product far greater than any which could have been produced by any individual."
Vetter said his comparison between the musical group and the seminar group holds at almost every level of the process. Typically, he said, the conflation holds up best if the course's subject is "a general, interpretive-oriented topic" that can be grasped through the exploration of case studies — in this being rather like the music director's selection of the work to be rehearsed and performed.
"Each student selects a specific topic on which they will become the class expert," he said. "[Like] the musicians' individual parts."
The group then works its way into an understanding of the seminar's general topic through shared readings, and during this period, each student works to identify resources that will support them in "playing their part" — rather as individual musicians must practice their own parts in isolation from the group.
"I structure into the course syllabus several themes pertinent to the understanding of the general topic of the seminar," Vetter said. "And several weeks of the course are occupied with the students reporting to one another (orally in class, and in writing in the form of short reports deposited on the course Blackboard site) about how these themes are manifested in their case studies."
Vetter compared this period of his seminars to the period during which a musical group will disassemble a performance work during rehearsal, becoming familiar with each performer's part and coming to understand each individual's contribution to the whole piece.
"From the research and reports each seminar member has carried out on their specific topic, they write an original paper that is conceived of as a chapter in a collected volume on the general topic of the seminar," Vetter said. In tutorial, he also has his first-years present their short chapters orally, as if they were reading a paper at a professional conference. He compares this to a musician's "full mastery of [his] part and a solid understanding of how it is meant to fit with the work's other parts."
"After reading one another's chapters (available on Blackboard), their final assignment for the course is to become the editor of the collection," Vetter said. "Each student creates a title for the collection, decides the order in which the chapters will appear, and, most importantly, [writes] an introduction to the collection in which they [must articulate] overriding themes and [summarize] how the work's individual chapters contribute to an understanding of the general topic of the 'collection.'" Vetter compares this to an analysis of the "informed, collective realization of a challenging work," offered from the interpretive perspective of one of the performers.
"I have been pleased with the results of this approach because it provides each student with a sense of self accomplishment and the responsibility that accompanies it (researching, writing on, and teaching their classmates about 'their' topic) and a sense of cooperative achievement (respecting the work of, learning from, and coordinating with their colleagues)," Vetter said. "I like to believe students feel a strong sense of ownership of the knowledge they have acquired through this learning process — I do very little conventional teaching in this approach, but am constantly providing feedback to individuals and the group as a whole to steer them in what I see as productive directions."
A problem of definition
With this groundwork laid, we can move to a more usefully complicated version of the question posed by the memorandum of understanding with Higher Learning Commission, that being: "How are we as a faculty and as an institution to work to produce the leaders envisioned above — leaders that, Grinnell students' suspicion of authority notwithstanding, work effectively in their post-baccalaureate life on behalf of social justice?"
According to Caulkins and several others, successfully addressing — and circumventing — Grinnellians' leader-aversion may be a problem of definition. As Caulkins put it, "Leadership is not the linguistic term that has any potency here."
This might be true, Dan Reynolds says; but while he applauds Grinnell students' suspicion of power, he also emphasizes that we must nonetheless help them to come to grips with the concept — and with the notion of someday wielding it.
"I think that there can be a sort of naive belief that you can escape power or you could even escape the exercise of power," he said. "I think we can all exercise power responsibly [by acknowledging] the ways in which, like it or not, we exercise power and we exercise authority. We just have to do it deliberately and conscientiously and not delude ourselves that [power is] an option we can pass on. We don't have to get rid of the concept behind the term, or the somewhat-more-positive associations one could make with "leadership." There are all kinds of examples of leadership happening at Grinnell at a more grass-roots level; all sorts of activism our students do, MAPs that require a certain kind of expertise and leadership and independence of thought." Reynolds further emphasized that, as the faculty and administration work to mint a Grinnell definition for "leadership" and make changes to support it, we ought to avoid being too reductive ourselves.
This article appeared as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2009.