10 leadership lessons

JMU President Jon Alger with Eagle Scout Hunter Morton ('17) (photo by Jim Milham, BSA)

JMU President Jon Alger with Eagle Scout Hunter Morton (’17)  (photo by Jim Milham, BSA)

Change requires leadership. Someone has to step up and draw others to help. But perhaps most important are leaders who roll up their own sleeves, reach out, connect, and do so in a spirit of gratitude. That’s servant leadership — and that’s exactly what JMU President Jon Alger did Thursday morning when he addressed the Massanutten District, Stonewall Jackson Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America at their annual Friends of Scouting Breakfast. It was a demonstration of the convergence of community, service and leadership.

As keynote speaker, the president helped a local organization that in 2012 provided 26,476 hours of community service through 327 projects, collected more than 60,000 lbs. of food for area food banks and provided $10,000 in camper scholarships to some of the district’s 4,538 Scouts. The district, last year also, presented a special award to JMU’s Eric Pyle of the Department of Geology and Environmental Science, for his exceptional work with Scouting.

On the program with President Alger this morning was JMU freshman Hunter Morton (’17)  who shared his Scouting story. Hunter is a math major who would someday like to enter medicine. In the audience was Greg Liskey (’75) who has served as an assistant Scout master in the district for 24 years, and numerous other individuals connected with JMU and Scouting.

The morning represented two community organizations devoted to positive change intersecting.

In his talk, President Alger asked the question: So how do we use our gifts, talents, and passions?  As an answer, he outlined 10 Lessons in Leadership — which he acknowledges aren’t original to him — but are “things I’ve learned in my career about servant leadership,” he said.

I thought they were well worth sharing. Here’s a review of the president’s remarks:

1. Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, and personality types

The president told the group of a friend who was quite soft-spoken. As a Supreme Court advocate, he would begin every argument by agreeing with much of the opposing counsel’s argument. “But,” he would say softly, “there are a few key issues.” At that point, everyone was listening, Alger said. “Leaders can have different types of personalities,” he said. They can be loud or introverted, but being “polite, honest and respectful” is key.

2. Be authentic

Early in his career, during an annual review by two senior lawyers in his firm, one reviewer got right in Alger’s face and told him he’d never make it. “You’re not tough enough. You don’t make people cry.” The other attorney countered. “Bob is Bob,” he said, referring to the first lawyer. “You need to be the best Jon you can be.” It is, Alger said, the best career advice he ever got. Be who you are — and be the best you can be.

3. Use your gifts

“All of us have something to contribute,” Alger said. Find something you care deeply about and pursue it. And he added, look for mentors who can help you identify and make the most of your gifts.

4. Realize that we are all interconnected and express gratitude

It is important, he said, to “take that time to notice all those people around us who are making your life better — and thank them.” He made special mention of the people “behind the scenes,” those who don’t always get the accolades but whose work and contributions are valuable. People at JMU, for instance, who make the campus beautiful or who smile at students in the dining halls, contributing to a friendly campus climate. “We all need each other,” he added.

5. Find the good and praise it

Quoting the late author Alex Haley, Alger said to “find the good and praise it.” Civil discourse is in short supply, and we need to “model and encourage constructive conduct.”  Encourage, praise, be thankful — and say ‘thank you.’ Gratitude is powerful.

6. Listen, and learn from others

“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “There’s great strength and power in listening to the people around you.” Such listening is part of continual and lifelong learning. Citing his own listening tour — his first major initiative after coming to the university in 2012  — Alger reported the excellent comments and conversations he had as a result of taking the time to listen.

7. Continue to develop critical thinking skills

Critical thinking, learning to ask the right questions, and especially refusing to assume that things can’t change are critical to leadership. He cited a program at Rutgers University, his former post, that looked at students in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus. “No students were [coming to Rutgers] from schools in our own backyard….It wasn’t the easiest place to grow up,” he said, of the school districts with a 50 percent drop-out rate. The university created a program that identified 7th graders with academic potential, offered them mentoring, and made them an offer: If they earned admittance — on their own — to Rutgers, they would receive a full tuition scholarship. He reported that the first cohort graduated this year; of the group, 90 percent went on to college.

8. Engage in deliberate ethical reasoning, and ask key questions

A key component of leadership is to “engage in ethical reasoning,” Alger said. He cited a 2013 report published by the Association of American College and Universities. The survey of top CEOs revealed that 93 percent believe that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.* He talked about how JMU’s new program, Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action, addresses that need. The collaborative seeks to teach every student how to apply critical thinking in every facet of their lives. It is an ambitious program, but an important one. When it was first introduced to the Class of 2017 in August, Alger said, they were “surprised to learn how many students had never gotten this before.”

9. Don’t be afraid of failure

“You can’t be afraid of failure.” In fact, Alger said, “if you don’t fail sometimes, it probably means you’re not reaching high enough in the first place.” Failure is a great teacher.

10. Dream BIG and give back

Alger talked about the importance of big dreams. “Those big dreams are important. They create vision, ” he said, remembering President John F. Kennedy’s dream to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Not only did it inspire us, the dream led to hundreds of by-products, he said.  Along with those dreams, he added, it’s important to “constantly think about how you can give back.” One way is to create a legacy by passing on these lessons of vision and leadership and service to others.

That’s what Scouting does. And that’s James Madison University does.

Many thanks to President Alger for getting up so early this morning to contribute to this part of our local community, for “walking the walk” by demonstrating servant leadership — and for so graciously sharing your notes with me.


The great and important overlap

Brian Kaylor introduces panelists (l-r) Jim Shaeffer, Meg Mulrooney and Chaz Evans-Haywood

Brian Kaylor introduces panelists (l-r) Jim Shaeffer, Meg Mulrooney and Chaz Evans-Haywood

For every college and university in every town and every city in every part of the country, there is town and gown, yin and yang, give and take, push and pull. JMU in Harrisonburg is no exception.

Since 1908, Harrisonburg and Madison have grown together and sometimes groaned together, side by side. Occasionally, there are spats, but for the most part it has been a mutually beneficial arrangement. A university’s presence in a community, a state, a nation can and should have a positive impact. It should be a catalyst for positive change.

Last night citizens from the community, students and Madison faculty came together for a Citizenship Forum as part of the weeklong celebration of Friday’s inauguration of President Jonathan Alger. They discussed higher education’s responsibility to society to help produce educated, informed and enlightened citizens, who will in turn influence their communities.

In the wise words of panelist Jim Shaeffer, “We’ve got to live with each other at the end of the day.” It is, perhaps, the best reasoning I’ve ever heard for civic and civil engagement, but how do we get there? What is higher education’s responsibility in producing educated, informed and enlightened citizens?

Jim, associate vice president for outreach and engagement at JMU, was joined on the panel by Chaz Evans-Haywood (’96), Clerk of the Circuit Court for Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, and Meg Mulrooney, JMU associate professor of history and associate dean for University Studies. Brian T. Kaylor, JMU asistant professor of political communication, advocacy studies, rhetorical methods and public speaking, moderated the discussion.

JMU senior Oliver Brass addresses the Citizenship Forum.

JMU senior Oliver Brass addresses the Citizenship Forum.

Jim has spent 30 years in outreach and engagement. He characterized the intersection of civic involvement, community involvement and education as a Venn diagram whose purposes overlap. Based on the Carnegie model, he says, civic engagement should provide mutual beneficial exchange of ideas and strengths, partnerships and reciprocity. “All of us bring strengths to the table,” he said, “You leverage the strengths of both.”

That’s exactly what happened in Chaz’ office, for example. After he was elected, Chaz was faced with an office full of documents dating back to the 1700s. His predecessors had “saved everything,” he said. Preserving that history has been an important task for his office, and JMU students have played a part. “The students were excited about the technology and how they could use it [to preserve the court’s history].” It was a win/win for the clerk’s office and for the students. Students provided enthusiasm and ideas based on their technical saavy. The opportunity to work in an office setting helped hone students’ critical relationship skills.

When students and community groups intersect both also have responsibilities. Chaz pointed out to the students in attendance that they — as voters in local elections — influence the lives of his children through votes on issues such as local school funding and the allocation of funding.

To make those decisions, Meg Mulrooney said, students — as future citizens — need good judgment. One of higher education’s responsibilities is to prepare students to make these decisions wisely and to apply learned and practiced skills in ethical reasoning. Teaching ethical reasoning across the curriculum is the focus of the Madison Collaborative, a new program that will ensure that every student will graduate equipped with the critical thinking skills to function as thoughtful and positive members of society.

The obligation of higher education to teach ethical reasoning in action and civic responsibility goes even further than teaching, Jim said. “As a public university, we have a moral obligation to share our resources, our expertise with the community.”

“The Madison community must also model community engagement to students,” he also said.

The Madison faculty does that well. “As a student, I found those teachers who helped me get involved in the community,” Chaz said.

Participants in the event included current students, members of the JMU debate team, faculty members, community members, one toddler (who was the least interested in the event) and even friends of the Algers, the Matsons from Princeton, NJ, who were on campus to celebrate the inauguration of their good friend Jon Alger.

The Citizenship Forum was an evening of engagement in action, one that is repeated in offices, classrooms, clubs and organizations — anywhere that the university and the community overlap.

For more of Jim Shaeffer’s perspective on JMU’s civic engagement, read his blog, Shaeffer’s Forays.
%d bloggers like this: