How can I improve as a leader? What can I do to create transformative change in a community that I care about? These were among the many questions that more than 35 Grinnell students explored while attending the “The Institute,” a six-day nationally recognized leadership immersion experience hosted by LeaderShape in collaboration with Grinnell College’s Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership and Student Affairs, and held at the Y-Camp in Boone, Iowa, over spring break. 

The institute encouraged students to redefine their concept of leadership, create ambitious and high-impact visions and develop “a healthy disregard for the impossible,” a core tenet of LeaderShape’s mission.

“As we continue to develop the next generation of leaders, we need more resources aimed at helping us understand the ‘why’ behind our actions, the nuances that make each of us unique and special human beings,” A. Paul Pyrz Jr., president of Leadershape, wrote. “This ability to understand others, in addition to ourselves, provides the foundation for everything else we do in leadership development.” 

To that end, LeaderShape’s Institute is based on an interconnected curriculum whereby participants are able to experience both macro and micro levels of individual and community interactions.  Each of the six days of the institute has a theme, which work progressively to help students to build skills and better understand themselves and others as leaders, and challenges participants to lead with integrity while working towards a vision rooted in their deepest values.  The structure of The Institute — designed to foster understanding among participants —is composed of a larger learning community consisting of all participants, and smaller groups, called family clusters, that provide for more intimate interactions. 

The institute included a guest leaders evening midway through event in which four Grinnell alumni joined the participants to hear about the students’ visions and to share some of their own diverse experiences as leaders.  Guests included Marlú Abarca ’14, co-chair of the Iowa Department of Human Rights Commission on Latino Affairs; Atul Gupta ’88, founder and president of Advanced Technologies Group and member of the Grinnell College Board of Trustees; Sherry Gupta ’88, founder and president of CultureAll; and Angela Onwuachi ’94, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California Berkley School of Law.

Developing as Leaders and Acting on Visions

There were a range of visions conceptualized during the institute including:

  • developing second language requirements in American schools;
  • transforming social interactions through technology platforms;
  • revamping healthcare and education policies; and
  • increasing the amount of medical doctors in minority communities.  

After developing visions, refining them became a core part of family cluster activity. Members within a specific family cluster were responsible for providing feedback, forwarding opportunities for furthering another member’s vision, and perhaps most importantly, holding someone accountable for his or her vision. The process of operationalizing one’s vision by developing a plan of action to bring back to a community allowed students to examine their leadership qualities and, in particular, consider how these qualities can contribute to and can be improved to further a vision.

In addition to creating service-minded visions, students participated in other leadership development exercises such as emotional intelligence training, ethical and value-based dialogues, and conflict management simulations.

Dylan Bremner ’20, a political science major, is passionate about expanding the tenets of intentional communities, communities designed to have a high degree of social cohesion, to the broader world. Bremner’s vision, “a society that is sustainable rather than consumerist and founded on community rather than efficiency,” is reflected in his position as founder of the Little Creek Movement (LCM) organization at Grinnell, and attending the institute has allowed him to embrace the challenges associated with leadership. 

“The Institute made me realize my strengths as a leader, but also my weaknesses. After The Institute, I came to see how my leadership style in LCM took up too much of the spotlight and caused others to overly rely on me,” writes Bremner. “A quote that really stuck out to me at The Institute is that ‘good leaders know how to create more leaders.’ I really took that to heart…, while two other LCM members who went simultaneously become more empowered to speak up and take charge. The result is that the group has become much more horizontally structured, to the benefit of everyone involved.” 

For Langston Thomas ’20, a political science major, the experience allowed him to explore the inner workings of living and leading with integrity against the backdrop of daily pressure and resistance. “One major takeaway from The Institute was the notion of staying in tune with one’s core values. This was important for me because a lot of people at Grinnell and in life claim to hold certain beliefs and characteristics, but a lot of time we lose sight of these in our day-to-day lives,” explains Thomas. “Having those values teased out during The Institute, written down, and vocalized to others has helped me to keep my core values in mind no matter what I’m doing. On top of that, The Institute bolstered my confidence in sticking true to my values even when others want me to compromise them.”

In a similar vein, the experience for Juliet Torres ’19, a biology major, strengthened and reaffirmed her leadership style by providing her the space to engage with a diverse group of students. “What I appreciated about The Institute was feeling more empowered in the leadership style I embody,” Torres writes. “As an introverted leader, I build close relationships with others to mentor them into being great leaders rather than being in the spotlight. The Institute gave me the confidence and tools to build close relationships with other leaders on campus.”

Attending The Institute provided Torres an immediate support base, her family cluster, as well as valuable leadership skills for leading Grinnell College’s first Racing Iowa Conference —an event that provided a space for “Latinx and Black students from Grinnell and Central College to attend workshops that gave them the tools needed to be culturally competent leaders and to provide resources needed for professional development.” This relates to her vision of expanding access, wellness, and mentorship opportunities to members of marginalized groups. “It was amazing to build a strong support network at The Institute that was very inspiring and proud of my ability to plan and host Grinnell College’s first Racing Iowa conference,” writes Torres. “The Institute was crucial to have this support and motivation to move forward with my conference.”

Bremner, Thomas, and Torres all found that the institute provided them a platform for exploring and celebrating leadership and building tools necessary to be effective leaders and innovators in their own rights.  At the same time were able to highly individualize the experience to their own styles and visions. 

“I think our inaugural event was a great success,” declares Monty Roper, director of the Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership.  “LeaderShape set up a great structure and sent us wonderful facilitators, and our own cluster facilitators and event coordinators truly modeled leadership in helping to run the event.  Of course, in the end, it was the participants that define the success.  They came open minded and with great energy, and they put in serious work over the week for the benefit of the entire group.  The whole event really hits at Wilson Center’s core mission to inspire and prepare students to innovate and lead.  I am enthusiastic about what the students do next and look forward to seeing what we can do to help facilitate their visions.”

The Wilson Center seeks to inspire and prepare students as innovators and leaders through courses, personal development, and events that emphasize experiential learning.

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