The best piece of career advice I ever got…I spoke to a mentor of mine about what it meant to be ready to be a leader. He said to me, “You will know you’re ready to be a dean, or a provost, or a president, when you can say in your heart of hearts that your prime intellectual satisfaction comes from the accomplishments of your colleagues.”–Fred Lawrence


Fred Lawrence, CEO of Phi Beta Kappa and past president of Brandeis University, talks with Norman Sandridge (Howard University classics professor and fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies) about the process of becoming a leader and how one might recognize leadership traits in oneself at an early age. They discuss the idea behind the founding of Phi Beta Kappa in 1776, namely, that the love of learning is the helmsman of life (rather than the church or the government or the British Crown). They then talk about the limits of civility and what it is that colleges and universities can give students in the way of leadership training. 


  • Has Fred more often sought leadership roles or been asked to serve in them? (00:01:28)
  • What does a leader do to discover whether a certain role is right for her/him? (00:04:22)
  • What leadership traits does Fred believe people saw in him? What did he hope they would see? (00:04:44)
  • Were there signs in Fred’s childhood that marked him out as a leader, particularly someone who was good at helping a community articulate a vision for itself? (00:06:45)
  • Does Fred ever remember wrestling with the question, “Are you a leader?” (00:10:37)
  • Does Fred see himself as a “leader” outside of his official, professional leadership roles? (00:11:42)
  • What is it like to notice the difference between how people see you as a person versus how they see you in a leadership role? (00:14:55)
  • Is there a danger of falling into paranoia when a leader hears criticism from people he or she believed had been speaking frankly? (00:17:14)
  • Are there works of literature, film, or history that Fred has related to in his various leadership roles? (00:19:44)
  • What is the mission of Phi Beta Kappa and how does it emerge from its motto, Philosophia Biou Kubernetes “the love of wisdom is the guide/pilot of life”? (00:23:44)
  • What are the implications for thinking about higher education as being a “guide” vs. a “pilot” or “helmsmen”? (00:26:45)
  • How does Phi Beta Kappa honor and recognize its members? (00:30:27)
  • Is honoring a leadership activity that comes easy to Fred? (00:32:39)
  • Does Fred consider himself a good judge of character? Does this come through experience? (00:38:00)
  • Does the leadership role persuade someone to believe that they can mold others even though they can’t? (00:41:00)
  • How does Fred understand and practice civility as a leader? (00:43:00)
  • Does Fred agree that the mission statements, e.g., of Brandeis and Georgetown, capture the idea of training leaders, even though they don’t explicitly state this? (00:53:55)

Final Question from Fred Lawrence: How does a leader not just inspire other but inspire the best in others?

Key Leadership Insights

  • Finding a leadership role can be more like being on a “date” than trying to find a job.
  • In a leadership role you have the paradox that everyone is working for you and you are working for everyone else.
  • “My leadership skills trace back to being the youngest of three boys. And when you’re the youngest of three, you figure out at a pretty early stage that when the coalition breaks 2-1, you’d better be in the two.”–Fred Lawrence 
  • Leaders can inspire people for good or ill, but moral leaders strive to bring out the best in people.
  • Leadership roles come both with opportunities and obligations.
  • It is important for leaders to surround themselves with people who feel free to criticize them.
  • When advisors have the courage to disagree with a leader, it’s important to let them know that their input is valued, even in cases where the leader doesn’t always agree with the advice.
  • Leaders can address hard challenges with new solutions by continually referring back to an organization’s mission.
  • The love of learning is the “helmsman” or “pilot” of life–not necessarily the “guide” because the path we may follow is not already known.
  • When people who have been honored recognize that there achievements are the product in part of blessings from others, they are filled with a sense of gratitude, from which follows a sense of responsibility.
  • “Managing up is easy. Managing down is hard.”–Fred Lawrence.
  • Leading may be compared to an orchestra, where everyone is playing a different instrument but the conductor is ultimately responsible for the sound.

Fred’s three rules of “vigorous civility”: 

  1. How to disagree without delegitimizing each other.
  2. Begin by questioning each other’s ideas rather than their motives. Start by assuming the best of the other.
  3. All difficult conversations should begin with a “forced exercise for common ground.”

“The person who says, ‘I want to go be a leader. I’m gonna go find something to lead.’ I think that person should be watched closely…The motivation to serve will lead you to the right kinds of leadership positions.”–Fred Lawrence

Works and Authors Referenced

Maya Angelou: People will forget what you said but never how you made them feel.

Abraham Lincoln: listen to the better angels of our nature

Harry Truman: the unvarnished truth

Harold Bloom: We read imaginative fiction because we can’t know enough people.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Works about Abraham Lincoln, biographies of Dwight Eisenhower

John McCain defends candidate Obama’s decency:

The Allegheny Prize for Civility

At the 2016 presidential debates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are asked one positive thing they respect about each other: 

Further Reading

Phi Beta Kappa’s Website:

Fred Lawrence’s Phi Beta Kappa podcast:

Frederick Lawrence on Hate Crime Law:

Susan Gelman, Frederick M. Lawrence. “Agreeing to Disagree: A Proponent and an Opponent of Hate Crime Laws Reach for Common Ground” Harvard Journal on Legislation 421 (2004)