The value of leadership development seminars

by David Schmiesing

In the “Editor’s Post Script” section of Volume IV, Issue 7 of the Concourse, Kathleen van Schaijik wrote a few provocative paragraphs titled “How to become a leader.” Van Schaijik is critical of leadership and time management seminars in general and the University’s Institute for Catholic Leadership in particular. I believe she is correct in approaching such seminars and institutes with skepticism, for indeed there are many silly, wrong and even dangerous ideas on leadership that have been, and still are, quite influential today. In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey summarized these ideas as the “personality ethic.” The personality ethic is espoused by people who believe that gimmicks and interpersonal skills (such as positive thinking and communication techniques) by themselves are enough to make a person a successful leader or manager. Covey argues strongly that the personality ethic will not make anyone successful because these techniques and tricks are very shallow and will eventually be discovered as such. What is necessary instead is the practice of what Covey calls the “character ethic” which holds that the integrity of character is foundational to successful leadership. People will not follow (at least in the long term) those whom they do not trust.

A person earns this trust by, among other things, fulfilling commitments and displaying competence. Covey argues that the character ethic must come first and is primary; the techniques of the personality ethic can be useful only if built upon the trustworthiness of the character ethic. If the personality ethic does not have this proper foundation it will eventually self-destruct, and the fruits of this damage can be observed in many of the failed business and personal relationships in the world today. Therefore I would agree with Van Schaijik that any leadership talk or seminar that focused on skills, techniques and gimmicks (the personality ethic) would be useless or even harmful.

However, I do not believe that the list of “essential elements of servant-leadership” that Van Schaijik quotes and criticizes is quite as useless as she thinks. For example, the first element is “beginning by changing oneself.” This really is the first step that any person who wants to exercise leadership must take, for this is the beginning of self-leadership—recognizing that I am responsible for my own actions and working to correct myself where correction is needed. If a person is ever going to inspire others to do what is right and good, then that person must demonstrate that he himself is capable of doing what is right and good. The character ethic comes into play here—people will not trust a person who says one thing and then does another.

The second and third elements—“being a good listener” and “being empathetic and accepting of others”—are closely related, it seems. An effective leader does need to be such a person. People must feel that they are understood and appreciated before they will follow another person wholeheartedly. If a would-be leader does not listen to those around him and cannot accept the ideas and viewpoints of others, other people will not give that person the trust which is crucial to any leadership situation. The leader may have great and noble ideas and vision, but if he is not aware of the strengths, weaknesses, concerns and needs of the people around him, he will probably run roughshod over them as he tries to implement his worthwhile goal. There is a parallel in the intellectual life: if an apologist or lecturer simply argues from his own point of view he will probably never convince the listener of anything. However , if the apologist or the lecturer “listens” first by trying to understand his audience and their background, concerns and expectations, then he can argue much more effectively because he can acknowledge and address those issues with which his audience is most concerned.

I think the fourth and fifth elements—“having a positive effect (healing influence) on people and situations” and “building community through cooperation”—are also closely related. These two elements, or behaviors, are again necessary if a person wishes to exercise leadership. Leadership is all about working and interacting with other people and achieving some sort of common goal or objective. When people get together, there is always friction and tension that results from different perspectives, backgrounds, ideas, interests and personalities. Sometimes this friction can be constructive and actually encourage greater creativity; at other times this friction can become negative and self-defeating. A good leader can take advantage of people’s differences and use them to achieve great things, while a poor leader sees only insurmountable divisions and so either gives up or tries to squash the differences and homogenize everyone. I think the often-discussed but still ongoing tension on campus between the “charismatic” and the “traditionalist” spiritualities illustrates this point well: the leadership of Fr. Michael Scanlan has allowed a new culture to form here on campus that is both charismatic and traditional, but yet is not just charismatic or just traditional. (footnote reference to previous articles) It should be noted here that a true leader does not simply evaluate the positions of others and then find the lowest common denominator between them. People would never follow this kind of a leader for very long. Rather, a true leader realizes that people, with their different gifts and aptitudes, can accomplish much more together than they can by working alone or against one another. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Van Schaijik says that these five elements also happen to describe the “characteristics of a very nice person.” There is some truth in this observation. It is very difficult to construct a conclusive list of essential leadership qualities without overemphasizing some aspects or failing to adequately emphasize another. However, I would argue that the alternative program proposed by van Schaijik is at least as faulty and imperfect as the program she criticizes. Her first step is to “forget about leadership talks and time-management seminars.” One can readily imagine such a student. Next, the student must “dedicate yourself to prayer, and to discerning the Divine Will for your life.” The student therefore has an active spiritual life. Next step is to “Throw yourself into your studies.” This is problematic because the student may be spending six hours each day in prayer and discernment. Perhaps the student could really use some help with prioritizing and balancing goals and responsibilities, but that was covered in the forbidden time management seminar. Add the next element “Make painful personal sacrifices for what you believe is true and right.” So the student pickets the abortion clinic not just on Saturday mornings, but on every morning of the week, causing further stress on the spiritual/academic balance. Finally, the student follows the final point and “Writes articles for the Concourse challenging the campus status quo.” The result is an article entitled “Why Every Student Should Get Up at 5:00 am Every Day of the Week to Picket the Abortion Clinic in Pittsburgh Because That Is What I Discerned as God’s Will for my Life and If You Think it is Not God’s Will for Your Life Then You Are Going to Hell Because I Pray More Each Day Than You Do.”

Of course, the above illustration is a gross misinterpretation of Van Schaijik’s list. While I actually agree that her list is a very good one, I do want to point out the limitations of any such list.

I must also respond to Van Schaijik’s claim that leadership seminars give students “the silly and self-defeating notion that they are being ‘transformed into leaders’ by attending them. Real leadership is not so painlessly gained.” I cannot speak for all of the seminars sponsored by the Institute of Catholic Leadership, but I did observe one of these leadership seminars about two years ago and the fundamental point communicated was this: real leadership is based on character. Since character is based on a person’s own choices, decisions, and actions, everyone has the ability to become a leader in one sphere or another. It is not attendance at the seminar that transforms the individuals; rather a person becomes a leader as a result of his choices, decisions and actions. And since many of these choices are very difficult, their “transformation” into a leader will be anything but “painless”.

Finally, I must emphasize the importance of character, or self-leadership. A person must be self-examined, disciplined and committed to leading his own life properly before he can ever think about exercising a positive influence upon others. Character is precisely what is lacking in our society today; people want to lead others without having to go through the hard work of self-leadership. Even time management is really a misnomer—the problem is not managing time, the problem is managing ourselves, our passions and our lack of discipline. There is value in learning psychological realities and communication skills—this information can be very helpful. However, without a character-based foundation these techniques quickly deteriorate into tools for manipulation. This is why I believe that character-based leadership training can have an extremely positive, even transformational, impact upon students at the University, and therefore ultimately upon the world.

David Schmiesing, ‘92, is Director of Business Services at Franciscan University, and one of the founding members of the Concourse Editorial Board.