By: Norman Sandridge


Halleluyah! It’s the beginning of December and classes are over. It’s been an exhausting, confusing, and prison-like experience teaching completely online for the first time in my career. Despite these frustrations, I would say that it has also been one of the most rewarding semesters of my career. I chalk this up both to a cohort of very resilient (albeit equally frustrated) students and to my own decision to embrace an identity I have spent a lot of time thinking about but perhaps not quite embodying, namely, that of a leadership trainer in my role as humanities educator. To be clear, I think it would be pretentious to claim that humanities educators can train people to be, e.g., CEO’s, politicians, or football coaches. If that were actually the case, business schools and political science departments would have closed down a long time ago. What I mean is that I believe humanities educators can and do train students to translate their study of the humanities into leadership. Accordingly, I would argue that CEO’s, etc. could all develop their leadership by studying the humanities and that many of their core activities, like chasing market share, passing legislation, or winning championships, may not even count as leadership (see the definition of leadership I discuss below in #4).

In what follows I’m going to share my own guidelines to seeing oneself as a leadership trainer. The kind of leadership training I have in mind is analogous to training a spy or a ninja in the sense that you are not training someone to perform leadership in a specific venue or on a specific occasion like a dispute at a family reunion or an evil genius trying to take over the world. Instead, you are helping someone cultivate a habit of translating their study of the humanities into leadership practice wherever that leadership might be needed, whether in a family, on a military campaign, at a job, or in a republic. In this piece I don’t go into the important question of how to tell if a student is ready to become a “trainee”, but this is something I hope to consider in greater depth in the future. My hope here is to give humanities educators some help both in conceptualizing what they do in the classroom as leadership training as well as presenting it to students as such. I have framed this as six guidelines.

The Basics

One: Build analogies to other forms of training

How is training someone to use their study of the humanities to inform leadership like training someone to do yoga, ride a bike, play a musical instrument, or cook a meal?

I have experience training people to run marathons, to read Greek and Latin, and, in the case of my daughter, to write her name. I know from these experiences that I need to be patient, attentive, and encouraging. I also need to have a clear picture in my head of what success in these forms of training could look like. From my experience working with students over the years, I can call on memories of them, for example, grasping a complicated aspect of leadership, or making a discovery about their own psychology that has–or hasn’t–contributed to their leadership practice, or seeking a leadership role they previously didn’t see themselves as qualified for, or pursuing a mentoring relationships, either as the mentor or the mentee. In more recent years I have persistently asked students to describe to me the forms of leadership development they experience, so that I will have a clearer picture of how my training is working going forward.

Two: Present yourself as a model for emulation, however imperfect

Even if the person you train to run a race is going to run faster or slower than you, it’s still helpful for your trainee to hear your stories, your failures and triumphs, and discover themselves in them. A trainee always wants to be like a good trainer. It’s perhaps most important for them to hear how much you believe in what you’re doing, why it matters to you and why you find joy in it. I make a point to tell my students throughout the course how much I’m fascinated by leadership in the humanities even though I’ve studied it longer than some have been alive. I also give them exercises that I myself do for my own development. Specifically, I encourage students to “sketch” leadership, by which I mean “write about vividly” the kinds of leadership they are seeing in their lives. I share with them my own sketches and talk about where I was when I developed them (for more on sketching, see this Brief Guide and these examples from the Kallion Sketchbook Library). 

Three: Create space for students to experiment and learn from each other

When I began teaching over twenty years ago, I believed I had a professional duty to teach students as much as I possibly could, by which I meant imparting knowledge and talking about my own relationships to that knowledge. Over time I have realized that I have a better chance of instilling habits in students that will last beyond the scope of the course if I create opportunities for them to build relationships with each other, either in class or in study groups. At least once per week I put them in breakout rooms on Zoom, where they will make meaning of leadership questions on their own terms without any oversight from me. In one example of this, we read for class Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, a novella about a sixteen-year-old girl who reconciles two warring races of sentient beings–in outer space(!)–earning the title “master harmonizer”. One exercise for the students was to get into groups of four and design a school to train young people to become master harmonizers. We then reconvened as a group and talked about whether any of us had actually received such an education. I know that this exercise worked for leadership development because some of the students were still talking about it ten weeks later and going on about their plans to become a master harmonizer. For the final project in the course students get into groups and identify a work of the humanities that they will analyze as a source for leadership development and present to the class. This has proven to be an effective way to catalyze further reflection and dialogue among the students, but it’s also a way to empower them to become leadership trainers themselves because I become their trainee and challenge them to help me show leadership. 

Next Steps

What I have said above may be thought of as general guidelines to keep in mind while in the act of any kind of training. I want to add now some approaches for developing the competence and confidence to train people specifically in the habits of translating the study of the humanities into leadership practice.

Four: Develop a definition and understanding of leadership that is meaningful to you

I don’t think in terms of good leadership or bad leadership. I don’t even think in terms of leaders…[O]ne either leads (=meets the needs of others), tries to lead (=tries to meet the needs of others), or doesn’t lead at all (=does not meet the needs of others or even try).

There are many approaches you might take here and of course your definition might change over time. Whatever you come up with will have serious ramifications for how you design and talk about your course. My own definition of leadership is modified from the fourth-century BCE Athenian author Xenophon in his work, the Education of Cyrus (section 1.6.7). Basically, Xenophon says that the most wondrous thing a person can do is to see to it that others have what they need and become what they need to be. For me that’s leadership. Using this definition, I don’t think in terms of good leadership or bad leadership. I don’t even think in terms of leaders in the sense of someone who is by nature or training always capable of leading. From one moment to the next one either leads (=meets the needs of others), tries to lead (=tries to meet the needs of others), or doesn’t lead at all (=does not meet the needs of others or even try). Accordingly, while Hitler may have held a leadership role, one invested with power and prestige, he did not show leadership because his activity consisted of influencing people to act superior to their fellow human beings–genocidally so–something I would argue is not truly a human need (for more on this definition of leadership and its usefulness see “The Humanities as Leadership Training”).

Five: Identify some forms that you imagine leadership development might take

There are many different forms of development to consider and different educators will categorize them differently. I typically think in five forms and I decided to add another one this semester. The five are appreciation, behavior, relationships, decisions, and reputation. This is to say that someone may develop their leadership in terms of their appreciation of what leadership is, how it works, and who can practice it. One of the most important discoveries that students in my course have is that leadership takes many different forms and that all of them are capable of showing at least some of them. To develop approaches to behavioral development, I return to the definition above and ask myself, “what are the behaviors that lead to other people having what they need and becoming what they need to be?” There are probably hundreds of such behaviors and many will be specific to the leadership occasion. I recently wrote a paper with John Esposito in which we argued that the most common leadership behaviors in Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus are (1) providing for others, (2) displaying behaviors necessary for others to emulate, and (3) honoring them for exhibiting it. One may measure development in these behaviors in terms of the frequency or habitualness with which they exhibit them (which is a function of their character) as well as their level of skill (there are more and less skillful ways of honoring others, for example). Beyond appreciation and behavior, I also encourage students to develop collaborative and fulfilling partnerships with others and to build a reputation for doing so. I also encourage students to consider the decisions they might make to improve their leadership in the future, whether studying new subjects, taking different courses, changing majors, or changing career plans. Finally, I mentioned that I added a sixth way of conceiving of one’s leadership development and this has to do with judgment or what ancient Greeks called phronesis. This is the ability to project your mind into the future and sort of know how things are going to turn out, an ability that seems to be honed by experience and reflection. We thus spend time thinking about the difference between how you would like something to turn out, how you think it should turn out (morally speaking), and how it will likely turn out regardless of personal and moral expectations.

Six: Think of the ways that the study of the humanities can contribute to this leadership development

Again, there are a lot of forms that this could take. Some of the most common and intuitive are in developing so-called “soft skills” (a term I hate) like close listening, public speaking, story-telling, and emotional intelligence. If you would like to see what entire courses look like, check out the following online examples:

To get started on your own courses and exercises, I would encourage you to revisit some of your favorite works in the humanities–literature, history, philosophy, or whatever. They don’t even need to feature people in leadership roles. Poetry about anything would likely work. If you like the definition of leadership as the art of meeting the needs of others, ask yourself how, e.g., poetry might train people to be more sensitive to the needs of others, how it might help to prioritize those needs, how it might help a person even care more about those needs, even over and above their own needs. Then you might challenge yourself to imaging how people in actual leadership roles could develop their leadership by reading poetry. You will now be well on your way to seeing yourself as a leadership trainer. 

Finally, I will leave you with a general template I use to encourage my students to fill out whenever they they are in the mood to translate their study of the humanities into leadership:

Questions for the analysis of leadership in a work of literature, history, philosophy, etc. answers Questions for translating study into practice answers
Who is showing leadership, i.e., who is addressing someone’s need(s), real or perceived? Is the need for an individual or a community? To what extent do you identify with this person, i.e., are they a potential model for your own leadership?
What actions does this person perform in their leadership? Do you ever perform these actions? Are they part of your behavior? Do you perform them well (=are they a skill)?
What character traits does this person possess that enable them to perform these actions? Do you possess these character traits?
What was their motivation? How similar is your motivation?
What was the occasion and opportunity for performing this leadership? Do you have opportunities and occasions for performing this leadership?
How did this person develop their leadership? Do you have similar opportunities for development?
What official leadership role (if any) does this person hold? To what extent does the role enable the act of leadership? Do you need to hold such a role to perform this leadership?
What system of organization or government is the person operating in? Do you operate within a similar system?
What is the vision for the world that the person is informed by? Do you share this vision for the world?
Would it be good (=moral, effective) for you to show this leadership?

Norman Sandridge
Silver Spring, MD
December 8, 2020


4 Responses

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful and pragmatic post, @Norman.

    Two questions:

    1) Re. modeling leadership: Modeling works a bit more naturally when the trainee is going to become something rather like (if not identical to) the trainer. But most undergrads aren’t going to become college professors, which means (in some idealized picture of professorship!) less time professionally devoted to contemplation, which means reflection on leadership ends up competing with a different set of contenders for life-hours spent. Any suggestions for getting around this trainer/trainee discontinuity, in the case of undergraduate instruction?

    2) Re. Ahsoka and Grogu: Ahsoka thinks she is less capable of training Grogu than another Jedi might be in part because of her experience with another powerful fear-filled Force-sensitive who was trained fatherless. But I can conceive an argument in the other direction: that she is most capable of training Grogu precisely because she has seen this kind of young person go bad. Is she wrong? Or — as your post made me think — does she think herself incapable not because she has no relevant skills or experience but because she is too personally, emotionally entangled?

    • Many thanks for your thoughtful questions, @John.

      1. When I model leadership for my students, it’s rarely in my role as a professor (for exactly the reason you cite), but as someone who has held various leadership roles over the years (e.g., captain of my baseball team, president of the Society for Ancient Languages in college, board member of CAAS). I also talk about my role in Kallion and my roles as a parent, older brother, friend, etc. It’s not exactly that I try to model a specific leadership role, e.g., “here’s how to be captain of a baseball team”; it’s more situational, “here’s how I dealt with an issue of leadership while I was captain of a baseball team, and so you might consider this in a sports (or other) context.” Similarly, I might draw on my role as a professor as being analogous to the kinds of leadership questions students may wrestle with even though most will not become a professor, e.g., how do you evaluate people who look up to you? how do you remain friendly with those you work with when it’s not exactly appropriate to be “friends”? how do you have the largest impact possible over a short period of time?

      2) I think these are really great questions about what’s motivating Ahsoka b/c you are right, she should be in a better position to see how someone with attachment issues could be drawn to the dark side. I think your second explanation makes the most sense, that she is too entangled. I imagine it would be very painful for her to watch someone even flirt with the same path as Anakin. Maybe she worries that she herself would become too attached to Grogu. It’s probably worth wondering why Luke might imagine he himself would not become thus entangled.

      • I meant to add vis-a-vis modeling that I often stress with my students that the kinds of questions I ask them and the kinds of exercises I ask them to do (like journaling and sketching leadership) are things that I have done and actively do to inform my own leadership. In other words, I didn’t just make these things up because I thought they would be useful things for students to do; I actually practice them myself.

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