From the Dean: The Fundamentals of Leadership

vinceheadshotby Dean Vince Boudreau, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership Leadership can mean a lot of things to different people, and has been on the minds of more than a few of us at the Colin Powell School. What does it mean to shoulder the task of developing leadership capacities in new generations of City College students?

For us, leadership probably needs to mean something different than the specific training programs that take place in Outward Bound experiences or executive leadership seminars—because our leadership development work occurs alongside the university’s degree-granting activity. Students here need to prepare themselves for leadership roles as they learn the ins and outs of economics, sociology, psychology, and other academic fields. 

Moving from fellowship programs for 100 select students at the Colin Powell Center to addressing the needs of the 2,600 students enrolled in the Colin Powell School was daunting—precisely because we need to integrate leadership education and academic study in ways that are relevant to each of these students. How does the leadership mission sit alongside students’ academic priorities? Some wondered whether a leadership curriculum would displace or dilute the traditional academic disciplines. Others worried that applying the curriculum across a number of disciplines would dilute leadership goals we’d set for the school.

However, I think these questions obscure the main issue and camouflage our central opportunity. It would be a mistake to pursue our leadership mission as a program or curriculum, delivered in classes or seminars marked specifically for that purpose. Rather, we must regard it as an approach, geared to develop in students a habit of thinking through the relationships between their ideas, their choices, their skills, and their connections to one another.

We cannot know what roles our students will eventually inhabit, and so must allow for the vast diversity of student experience and trajectory. Our approach must excite the imagination, and harnesses the talents of everyone at our school—from first year students unsure of how to navigate the college bureaucracy, to sophomores trying to figure out how to direct their studies, to seniors about to enter the professional world. Our vision of leadership must include those on an honors trajectory, those struggling to succeed, and everyone in between.

So how can we develop this approach? You could compile a long list of leadership attributes, but most fall into three main categories: vision attributes, skill attributes, and integrity attributes. Leaders possess a vision for something better, and orient themselves toward shared rather than individual or self-promoting goals. Leaders have the skills to communicate those goals, to allocate responsibility, and to evaluate progress. Leaders have the integrity to sustain and inspire support; they hold themselves and others accountable to a shared vision, and live lives consistent with that vision.

We want our students to acquire these leadership attributes and habits. But I think we start with something so fundamental that it risks being overlooked: the idea that none of us should be passive observers of our lives, that each day offers a chance to engage the grand project of meeting the future head on.

I think we start with the basic idea of agency.

It is, in some ways, both too modest and too ambitious a place to start. It prefigures loftier leadership skills, the advanced knowledge of upper-division classes, and the specialized focus of a research project or service placement. In these ways, agency may indeed be a small thing. But it may also be nothing short of a revolutionary declaration: that having arrived in this place, at this juncture in one’s life, a young person may take control of their future, and perhaps help author better futures for those around them.

And here’s the most important thing: We will lose students if we assume that everyone comes to school feeling the thrill of their own potential. But they should, and we must work every day to make sure that they do. So we start with agency.

Over the weeks and months to follow, I will, in our blog, lay out a vision for the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership—this wonderful endeavor I’ve been asked to shepherd. I’ll outline new programming, opportunities for students, and faculty projects, but my next post will stick close to examining what agency must mean in the service of our educational mission, and how we can produce a kind of leadership education that inspires our curriculum and propels confident, visionary students into the world.