What is Character in Leadership? - A Message to the CIL Class of 2017

Mon, 01 May 2017

By  Liz Hunt, Director, 

Character in 

Leadership Program

Special to The Collegian 

This past fall, during and following the election, I had several people, both Democrats and Republicans, ask me if I felt my job in teaching leadership was pointless, particularly given the lack of character and integrity shown by the leadership in Washington. My response, of course, was that the antics during the election from all sides and from the general followership of the American people only make the work the University does in the Character in Leadership program all the more necessary. 

The distinction of our program resides in our title, Character in Leadership. During the past couple of weeks, I was working on a case study of the University’s name change from Jamestown College to the University of Jamestown. In doing my research, I reread President Barend Kroeze’s memoir, A Prairie Saga. From the beginning, the University of Jamestown has been concerned with and dedicated to the development of character within its student body. In the memoir, President Kroeze says this, “The college on a private foundation, however…is founded for the express purpose of building character, to stimulate Christian ideals alongside mental accuracy, intellectual discipline, and scientific study…The concern for private colleges is to “create” a passion for thoroughness, a passion to discriminate right from wrong, and a passion for unselfish service.” 

In leadership, we often talk about styles of leadership, philosophies of leadership, or theories of leadership. However, the type of leadership education we engage in at UJ espouses leadership as a way of being. Leadership as a way of being requires deep internal reflection, asking hard questions, wrestling with the unanswerable, embracing ambiguity, discriminating right from wrong, and unselfish service to others. It requires character.

The definition of character continues to be a contentious subject. Often literature tries to define it in terms of a checklist or as a personality trait, creating a very one-dimensional view of a multi-dimensional phenomenon. Aristotle discussed character as an individual’s possession of particular virtues or “morally good traits that everyone either may possess or learn”. The definition infers a notion of habitualness and impenetrability, meaning the individual consistently portrays these morally good virtues. In other words, character is not something we slip on or off depending on the circumstances, it is a deep and abiding part of an individual.

The real point of contention regarding the definition of character lies in determining which virtues make up character. What are these morally good virtues? David Brooks in his book, The Road to Character, distinguished between two types of virtues: resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are externally focused, looking at status, professional victories, building and creating things, and the like. They are part of the education at UJ and include professional preparation, experiential education, coursework, volunteering, and extra-curricular activities. They make students marketable, employable, and productive members of society. These things are good and needed. They are the resume virtues. They are the shiny paint job on the new car. They are the polish and shine.

Kroeze, in his memoir, also indicated that private higher education is not just about making a living, but also about making a life. Kroeze was talking about what Brooks would call eulogy virtues. Eulogy virtues are internal virtues. They are the embodiment of moral qualities; they are the quiet sense of right and wrong; they are the desire to do the right thing, only because it is the right thing to do; they are sacrificial service to others. My husband has poured many building foundations and has often said, if you do not pour a good foundation you may as well scrap the rest. A bad foundation compromises the entire structure, if not now, then later. Eulogy virtues form the foundation of a person, that impenetrable center of being that guides a morally good person. They provide guidance in how an individual acts both professionally and personally. They provide the foundation for integrity. The purpose of the liberal arts is to encourage eulogy virtues. The Character in Leadership program as an interdisciplinary liberal arts minor on steroids, encourages the establishment of eulogy virtues. 

Seniors, you began your leadership journey a long time ago. Long before you came to UJ. And, you will continue your leadership journey for a long time after you leave here. UJ has prepared you with both resume and eulogy virtues. However, it is my hope and prayer for each of you that the work you have completed during these last four years in Character in Leadership will stand as a foundational piece supporting your individual character. As one of your guides through this process, I have seen the light that each of you possess. I have seen your eulogy virtues and they bring me great joy and hope. As you go forth, let your lights shine brightly, guiding and leading others to Character in Leadership.