Leadership for Today’s World: Cultivating Thinkers, Compassionate Hearts and Bridge Builders

This has been a difficult and painful summer for our nation, and as I write this, we are not yet through July. The deadliest mass shooting in our nation’s history, a massacre of 49 people—mostly LGBT and many college-aged—shocked the nation and fanned the flames of fear of domestic terrorism by ISIS-influenced radicals. The tragic shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—brought to us graphically through social media—reignited charges of deadly policing tactics against black citizens, and took away from many of those close to us even a basic sense of safety and security. Immediately afterwards, Dallas police officers were ambushed in another massacre while trying to protect citizens at a Black Lives Matter protest. Then we learned about a horrific act of terrorism in Nice, immediately followed by the murder of more police officers in Baton Rouge. The violence is incomprehensible.

The backdrop for heartache is a political climate that is harshly polarized and has left unsolved many of the most pressing issues of our day. We are about to begin the political convention season, and I think it is a fair bet to say that a great many American voters are experiencing emotions ranging from disillusionment to outrage, many having lost trust in political leadership.

And yet, as we plan for a new academic year, I echo Winston Churchill: “… I am an optimist—it does not seem to be much use to be anything else.” Indeed, optimism is the only possible course for those responsible for preparing the next generation of leaders the world badly needs right now.

How does Elon’s culture provide the next generation with a foundation for leadership in order to create constructive change for our nation and our world?

We seek to prepare leaders who are equipped to manage complexity. Elon’s great liberal arts tradition prepares our students with the analytical and critical-thinking skills required for the many complex issues that confront our nation and the globe. We want them to push back on the simplistic, unexamined rhetoric that dominates much of the public square today and create reasoned, informed viewpoints they can express with courage and conviction.

We seek to develop leaders with compassionate and generous hearts. Elon’s values are rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition. Leaders should be motivated by love, mercy, forgiveness and concern for the most vulnerable. Today we honor many religious and spiritual traditions on campus, but remain centered on an ethic of service to others that should be at the center of a leader’s heart. It would be nice if books on leadership devoted as much attention to the subject of kindness as vision.

We seek to develop leaders who listen to the viewpoints of others and are committed to civil discourse in the public square. I am convinced that the capacity to listen is one of the most important attributes of effective leadership, and one too infrequently exercised. Regularly engaging with individuals of varying viewpoints, learning to thoughtfully come to define points of consensus and disagreement, and showing respect are civic arts that must be cultivated in leaders. A university campus should be a place where these skills are tested regularly and rigorously.

We seek to develop leaders who are respectful of difference. In broad terms, I believe the current generation of university students shows a great deal of promise for working across differences of gender, race, intellectual or political viewpoints, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, etc., like no generation before them. We want Elon students to develop the confidence to thrive in diverse environments all over the globe and then to use their experiences to practice inclusion and mutual respect, which are assuredly necessary qualities of leadership in the 21st century.

Our great nation—with all of its wonders and flaws—has always prepared new generations to assume leadership in shaping a civil society based on principles of freedom, democracy, opportunity, justice and equality. But at this moment, the stakes seem especially high for universities to cultivate leaders equipped to build bridges across the chasms that separate us, to lead informed and reasonable dialogue about the course corrections we must make together, and to have kindness as the lamp that will light their paths.

Leo M. Lambert
President

Download a PDF version of this article.