Colleges and universities all over the United States play an integral role in shaping tomorrow’s leaders. At Saint Leo University, the faculty and administration take this charge to heart, infusing visionary leadership into the curriculum. I recently sat down with Arthur F. Kirk Jr., president of Saint Leo University, to discuss his approach to leadership preparation.
Q: Saint Leo is known for its commitment to developing leaders. Would you tell us about your university’s approach to developing future leaders?
A: The notion that leaders are born and not made was once widely accepted. However, this belief is fading, as research suggests that much can be done to help grow leaders to their fullest potential. That certainly has been my experience as a university president for nearly 30 years.
When students arrive on our campus, they quickly realize that much will be expected of them. The days of sitting in the back row of a classroom and going through the motions as a college student are no more. That type of attitude is unacceptable to potential employers, and eliminating it while on campus is the first step to cultivating future leaders.
For this reason, our classes are intentionally small (our student-teacher ratio is 15:1) and students do not get lost in a crowd or back row; rather, we engage them, ensuring greater opportunities to develop their skills and prepare for leadership roles.
At Saint Leo, all first-year students must take SLU 100, a foundational course upon which freshmen can build their leadership skills throughout their education and long after. The course focuses on understanding and applying the university’s core values of excellence, community, respect, personal development, responsible stewardship and integrity. The only way to cultivate leadership qualities among our students to ensure each of these values is thoroughly explored as principles of leadership—and followership.
Q: How does the curriculum at Saint Leo prepare students for future leadership?
A: One thing we know for certain is that the 21st century manager will need to know more about leadership than the 20th century manager. The world is changing at an ever-increasing rate, so we knew Saint Leo’s approach to leadership development would need to keep pace with and anticipate those changes.
Saint Leo’s new liberal arts general education program (the core of all our undergraduate degree programs), University Explorations, is designed with an emphasis on topics of special interest to the 21st-century student. The curriculum takes a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching students to think critically; to read, write, and communicate effectively; to act ethically; to appreciate beauty and exercise creativity; to develop a capacity for reflection; and to work in teams. Using a problem-based learning approach, students develop the skills they will need to be thoughtful citizens of the world and responsible leaders in their communities.
In addition, woven throughout all our classes is Saint Leo’s Quality Enhancement Plan, A Model for a Challenging World: Critical Thinking + Core Values = Effective Decision Making, which requires students to apply critical thinking and our university core values to solve problems. Saint Leo University also offers a 12-credit Certificate in Leadership as well as an 18-credit Leadership minor that includes a capstone course in leadership, as well as an internship. In addition, 17 sophomore student athletes picked by their coaches, representing each of our intercollegiate athletic teams, take a year-long leadership course.
Q: What are the needs of the nation and how should higher education address them?
A: There is no shortage of problems in our country at the moment. Challenges abound in all sectors—economic, political, environmental, militaristic, etc., because current “leaders” don’t lead responsibly and pass from generation to generation, problems that grow worse over time.
But the pass-the-buck mentality is not sustainable, and our nation’s young people will be faced with grave challenges to keep our country great. It is our responsibility to ensure that the future generation of leaders is equipped with the tools to confront in ethical and courageous ways.
Q: How does Saint Leo respond to this need?
A: I hear from many employers that our students are not only qualified with the practical skills necessary to hit the ground running in an entry-level position, but that they also have the ethics, critical thinking, problem solving, and decision-making skills to take on more responsibility within their first year on the job and move quickly through the ranks; they tell me that recent graduates from other institutions, in effect, start slower or hit a brick wall. Our students go on to become leaders in their fields and in their communities.
As an example, after Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, a recent alumnus in Florida reached out to fellow alumni—both those in need and those who might offer assistance or resources—to figure out how he could help. Within days, he coordinated the donation and delivery of more than 20 pallets of supplies and was soon helping to distribute those items in Staten Island and New Jersey with other alumni. So, again, I believe instilling values and challenging students to think critically to solve problems ethically is essential to educating the people we want to become our future leaders.
Another way Saint Leo responds to this need is to understand that one particular source of future leaders too often goes untapped. Our active duty-military members and veterans return from their service to our country having already received leadership training. And yet too often they are not given the support necessary to translate that experience into the civilian workforce or their communities.
Military members are resilient. They know how to be a team member. They have a clear understanding of the mission and how to achieve objectives, and many times over have demonstrated courage and skill under high-pressure situations.
These are all skill sets that will make them effective in the workplace, especially when partnered with a degree in their field. Putting that package together in the workplace and in the community is a powerful dynamic. They have already made a tremendous contribution to our society through their military service, but their potential for greatness at home too often goes unrecognized.
Q: What does the future hold for Saint Leo University?
A: While we already offer our students many opportunities to study leadership and leaders and to practice leadership skills in classes, clubs, and athletic teams, we are engaging more students in the study and practice. Leadership seminars, retreats, and non-credit short courses for fraternity and sorority leaders, student government representatives, and club leaders will soon be offered. Virtually all of our classes in our school of business require students to solve problems in teams. Many other disciplines are also emphasizing team approaches. There is so much more we can do.
I would like to thank Dr. Kirk for consenting to this interview and for all that he does to develop America’s future leaders.