Joanne Ciulla is professor and Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies .
About 20 years ago, Savannah business leader and University of Richmond alumnus Robert S. Jepson Jr. gave the university $20 million to start a school of leadership studies. I was one of the four faculty recruited to design the school and its curriculum. We briefly grappled with the question "Can leadership be taught?" which is frequently accompanied by the question, "Are leaders born or made?" We came to the conclusion that neither question was particularly useful.
What the first question means is this: If students take a leadership course, will they become leaders? I wish education could offer such guarantees. I've been teaching ethics for 34 years. Imagine how wonderful it would be if I could guarantee that every single student I ever taught would be ethical. Do all students who take an art course become artists? No. Often the ones who do become artists have a natural talent, but not always. Some artists are indeed born, but there are also people who become artists because they take a course, develop an interest in it, and work hard to be good at it. Furthermore, even the most naturally talented artists benefit from a class on art. All of this, of course, applies to leadership too.
The second meaning of the question, "Can leadership be taught?" concerns what one teaches in such a course. After all, generals and CEOs know about leadership, but what do college professors know about it? When we designed the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, we had very clear answers to these questions: We teach liberal-arts courses. How could one possibly understand leadership without exploring history, the classics, literature, religion, philosophy, art, political science, psychology, sociology, etc.? The Jepson School faculty and curriculum is about half social science and half humanities. As a philosopher, what I know about leadership is what some of the greatest minds in history have to say about the subject, what my colleagues in psychology know is about empirical studies about leadership and how people think and how groups of people interact.
We describe our program at Jepson as a liberal-arts school with a focus on leadership. Students take courses on history, literature, philosophy, psychology and international studies, all taught around the study of leaders and leadership. We invite in a variety of prominent leaders from politics, the arts and the sciences to talk to our students, and we also engage students in service-learning projects and internships.
Some of our students seem to be natural leaders, but others do not. Nonetheless, we have been surprised by what our graduates end up doing when they leave and which students end up in leadership roles. The value of liberal-arts education is that through exposure to various fields of study, students discover their interests and abilities. Not everyone knows that they are born artists or leaders, and the ones who do may discover in college that they would prefer to do something else. Furthermore, it would be silly to sit around waiting for leaders and artists to be born when education can help make them.
At the Jepson School, we do not aspire to have all of our students become presidents or CEOs. Besides giving our students a good education, we try to do two things. First, develop in students a sense of responsibility for what happens in the world around them. Second, give them a broad understanding of how leadership works that might aid them if they do take on a leadership role. At a minimum, we hope our students will become good citizens who have the will and knowledge needed to take action or initiate change, whether it is in their family, community, job or the broader world.
liberal-arts education is the best way to develop future leaders, and I also think that you can use the liberal arts to teach leadership. Aristotle said that the goal of liberal arts is to educate people on how to make choices in a free society. He did not advocate leadership "training," which, if you think about it, is really an oxymoron.
A version of this essay ran on April 22, 2009, in The Washington Post's blog, " On Leadership ."