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In Her Own Words ... Dr. Cormier on Leadership

The following comments were taken from a speech that Dr. Cormier presented at a 23 July 2003 meeting of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Significant leadership, leadership that works, leadership that energizes, affirms and benefits the community, is not an acquired set of technical skills, nor a cynical act put on to manipulate an easily duped audience. Significant leadership is, for me, the conscious and unremitting application of a values system, a values system based on the ancient belief that humankind is responsible for itself, that each one of us has a responsibility to care for ourselves, for others and contribute to the common good.

As is all too apparent, many who call themselves leaders wield power but lack the values that should inform, direct and ennoble all their actions. From Enron, to WorldCom, to Adelphia, to pedophile priests, to corrupt politicians, our world is awash in glaring and horrible examples of leadership gone awry. As a result of these debacles, an already skeptical public opinion of those in leadership roles has been driven even lower.

Even our beloved academy has not been immune. As is clear to anyone who reads newspapers and watches television, the dialogue concerning higher education frequently focuses on waste, corruption and mismanagement; if values are mentioned at all, it is their absence that is noted.

While I would suggest to you that this popular perception is largely inaccurate, especially in terms of higher education, there has been enough damage done to warrant concern. There has been enough damage done to cause all of us who are in leadership positions to think deeply about who we are, what we are doing and why we are doing it.

I deeply believe that leadership, in and out of the academy, is a privilege. It is the privilege of serving others, of serving society. Significant leadership is not about wealth, recognition, power and prestige; indeed, ultimately it is not about material or worldly things at all. It is about knowing who you are, what your unique gifts are (we all have them), and applying those gifts to a life of service. The value, the ethic that I believe defines significant leadership is service, service to others, service to the common good. Not ascetic selflessness, but rather the joyful use of self to better the human condition …

I believe that significant leadership is characterized by three core values:

Core Value No. 1: Know Thyself
Emblazoned prominently on the ancient oracle of Apollo at Delphi are the words “Learn to Know Thyself.” I would suggest that leadership requires great wisdom, and true wisdom begins with knowledge of self. If we aspire to lead others well, we must begin by thinking deeply about ourselves, about our beliefs, our motives and our presuppositions. We must analyze, acknowledge and learn from each, determining exactly what our values and our gifts are, and how they can best be put to work in service of the common good.

Core Value No. 2: Accepting Social Responsibility
I believe that any leadership that may be termed significant, must be leadership based on accepting social responsibility ... This places a very heavy burden upon us, the leaders of today's higher education community. Yet I would suggest that it is a burden that is a privilege to bear. It is a burden that cannot be ignored or laid aside. Service to society, contributing to the common good, is the heart and soul of leadership – it is what we are about, it is why we are here. It is our most important value and greatest responsibility.

Core Value No. 3: Love
In the final analysis, I would like to suggest that significant leadership is really leadership based on love. It is about leadership that knows and loves self (without being egotistical, arrogant or self-serving), and, above all else, loves the human community. For me, this means giving back those I serve the same love I have had bestowed on me. I believe that love is the essential, transcending value. It allows the leader to approach her work with a humanity, joy and broadness of spirit that is infectious and welcomed by all those with whom she comes into contact. It is uplifting, motivating and sustaining, and is the ultimate bond between human beings.

Contrary to popular perception, values are virtues in leadership. They always have been and always will be. The three I have identified here – self knowledge, social responsibility, and love – are extremely important, but by no means all. Each of us has the ability and responsibility to think deeply about our leadership role, to not just take the road of expediency or personal gain, but to always let our values set our course. We must be models for those we serve.

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