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Developing the Social Capacities to Lead

October 5, 2011

Citing the need to harness human creativity to spark innovation and echoing the call for a greater focus on entrepreneurship, President Barry Mills writes of Bowdoin’s place in the development of the sophisticated skills required to thrive in a creative economy.

I recently read an intriguing article in The Atlantic by University of Toronto Professor and Atlantic Senior Editor Richard Florida. In “Where the Skills Are,” Florida describes how cities spark innovation and promote human creativity. I experienced this correlation first-hand when Karen and I lived and worked in New York City. But the phenomenon can also happen elsewhere. In fact, the article in many ways supports the work that Karen did here in Maine (and continues to do nationally)—creating clusters of innovation where groups of people who are geographically close can learn from and support each other in their business endeavors. Not surprisingly, a strong concentration of analytical skills in a dense population apparently creates the environment for innovation.

Florida writes that innovation and a creative economy require highly developed social skills, and he draws a distinction between these skills and “mere sociability.” According to the author, these social skills include “persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people, and a keen sense of empathy. These are quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations and launch new firms. They are highly complementary to analytic skills—and indeed, the very highest-paying jobs (and the most robust economies) usually require exceptional skill in both realms.”

In the broadest sense, a Bowdoin education develops the analytical skills and intellectual capacities of our students, while our residential life program builds and focuses their social skills. This intense environment, where students live together for four years and are involved in so many ways on our campus, also develops the social capacities of our students to lead.

Florida also notes that given the importance of this social sensibility, it is remarkable how we devote so few educational resources to the development of these skills. In a world so focused on math, science and technology, our educational focus is much less focused generally on social intelligence.

Florida writes, “today’s students need a stronger focus on teamwork, persuasion and entrepreneurship; a better integration of the liberal arts with technological literacy, and an emphasis on the social intelligence that makes for creative collaboration and leadership.”

My Convocation talk this year—which is apparently making the rounds at other colleges and was published recently in abbreviated form by Inside Higher Ed—touched, in part, on this nexus of the liberal arts, technological literacy, and the educational opportunities available because of technology, so I agree with Florida’s point here. I also agree with his call for a greater focus on entrepreneurship. But as we think about Bowdoin and our history of graduating so many important leaders in the U.S. and around the world, I also believe we are largely successful at doing what Florida advocates.

In the broadest sense, a Bowdoin education develops the analytical skills and intellectual capacities of our students, while our residential life program builds and focuses their social skills. This intense environment, where students live together for four years and are involved in so many ways on our campus, also develops the social capacities of our students to lead.

As I think about my Convocation talk, it occurs to me that this is one of the many things that make Bowdoin’s form of education critical. This is a place where a student unquestionably receives the sophisticated education necessary for the 21st century (just examine the Bowdoin curriculum and our faculty achievements). But, it is also a place—through its size, the composition of its community, and the opportunities available to each student—that is especially suited to the development of the “social” capacities necessary to lead. Because of this, Bowdoin holds a very special and enduring place in the educational landscape.