Campus News

Cultivating the Leader Within

Story posted May 17, 2007

Leadership is often defined as the ability to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization of which they are members. Variations of that definition are everywhere; more elusive are defined ways in which one becomes a leader. Is leadership innate, or is it learned — cultivated over time — through the right experiences?

"A leader is made by having people follow," says Andrew Lawrence '10. "A good leader cares about who he's leading, where he's leading them, and how he's getting them to follow. A really good leader empowers followers to become leaders."

From Session VI: Public Speaking, presented by Elmer Moore, Assistant Dean of Admissions
  • Don't stand if talking to fewer than 10 people
  • The best read speeches are not as good as the worst ones that come from the heart
  • How you say it is as important as what you say
  • Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them


Lawrence was among 29 students who examined leadership and began to cultivate it within themselves while participating in the Bowdoin College Leadership Development Series.

Students have traditionally come by so-called leadership training in a variety of ways: the Outing Club trains students to lead group expeditions and handle outdoor medical emergencies; team captains learn leadership skills that are specific to the athletic arena; and students involved in community service and residential life also experience leadership in a focused way.

To address the needs of students who are rising leaders, but who are not part of these specialized efforts, and in identifying a need to link leadership to coursework to make it more pragmatic than conceptual, the Bowdoin College Leadership Development Series was formed.

It's a curriculum of individual sessions addressing leadership styles, relationships and effective communication. The series is structured to help established and emerging student leaders participate and run student organizations at Bowdoin and to help students develop a leadership philosophy to employ in organizations after graduation. (Read the biographies of the Leadership Development Series presenters here.)

"Students come to Bowdoin having had leadership experience, and suddenly they're on a campus of leaders," says Director of Student Life Allen W. Delong, who was part of Leadership Development Series coordinating team.

"They might feel intimidated asking for help. This program really focuses on foundational and sequential skills — recruiting and retaining members for clubs, setting organizational goals and public speaking."

The series was presented in six sessions: Leadership Explorations, Productive Meetings and Time Management, Peer Networking and the Value of Relationships, Powerful Plans for the Future, Effective Communication and Public Speaking. Students were required to attend at least four of the sessions in order to receive a certificate of their participation and completion.

Dat Le.jpg
Dat Le '10

"I think anyone can be a leader in one way or another, but to be a good leader, I think the person needs to have charisma, experience and most importantly — confidence," says Dat Le '10.

"A liberal arts education teaches you: reading critically, writing well and leadership," says Elmer Moore, assistant dean of admissions and presenter of the public speaking session. "To be an effective leader you must be able to communicate your ideas clearly, effectively and in a way that produces good results."

To that end, Moore put several students on the spot — and held them there — during a variety of interactive exercises while he coached them to a better delivery with advice such as "walk into the room like you owned the place" and use humor when appropriate. He told them: know the subject material well, feel passionately about it and communicate clearly.

"Speaking in front of everybody was slightly awkward the first time around, but as I did it again and again, it got much more comfortable, to the point where I could focus on being an effective speaker and conveying my point," Lawrence says.

"I learned how important starting the speech right is. If everybody starts out with a negative opinion of you from the way you walk, or introduce yourself, it's an uphill battle to win them over."

In the Peer Networking and the Value of Relationships session, students learned how to maximize the potential of their encounters with those around them — essentially, learning the art of networking.

"Without connections and relationships, leadership would be a nearly impossible task," said Dudney Sylla '08. "One can never do anything alone. Leaders need followers and a strong support system in order to be successful. Networking becomes a crucial part of the leadership experience."

Sylla says of the many lessons he has taken away from the Leadership Development Series, the one thing that stands out is the importance of being yourself. "You must try to discover who you are and be in tune with what your beliefs are," he says. "Having confidence in who you are and having the conviction to fight for what you believe in is the best quality that a leader can have. The rest will fall into place as one develops a vision and works hard to achieve it."

"The most important lesson for me was that I still have significant room for improvement in my leadership abilities, and need to continue pursuing more opportunities for leadership development," says Lawrence.

This elective curriculum was co-sponsored by the Student Activities Office and Bowdoin Student Government. Another version of the Leadership Development Series is planned for the fall.

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