Students at LeaderShape
LeaderShape, a six-day immersion in "leading with integrity."
“You're not born a leader, you have to earn that.”

Learning to Lead

by John Gagnon

You cannot lead if people won't follow, and in January fifty-two Michigan Tech students received intensive lessons in how to take charge without bossing people around.

"Some of my best teachers are people who worked for me," local businessman Steve Bethel told the students gathered at Michigan Tech's Ford Center in Alberta, forty miles south of campus, where they tackled, in the words of one student, "cool stuff like changing the world."

The occasion was LeaderShape, a six-day immersion in "leading with integrity." Students weighed ideas: being fair and square; letting others take the lead and the credit; "having each other's back"; leading by example, not directive; being guided by principles, not self-interest; and steadily working at it. "You're not born a leader," Bethel told the group. "You have to earn that."

This is year fourteen of LeaderShape at Tech; since 1996, more than 600 students have participated in this rigorous, internationally recognized institute. They tackle a packed agenda from early morning to late at night. Said one, Cassandra Thiel, a fifth-year student from Tomah, Wisconsin, "It's six days of being around people constantly, and you're talking about deep issues. You have to think a lot. At the end of the week, I was exhausted."

Students alternately were comic and serious, quiet and raucous—even hushed and intent on day three, when they shared their dreams for the world, posted on tear sheets affixed to the wall, clarions all. 

Why is there enough religion to incite violence but not enough to inspire peace? pondered Patrick Dreyer, a computer science major from Hastings, Michigan. "After hundreds of years of wars," he imagined, "the religions of the world have stopped fighting. The day has come when people can be proud of their religion." Another student applied a sticky-note of encouragement to Dreyer's tear sheet: Faith after fear.

The students stayed at the Ford Center round the clock. Sequestered from distractions (cell phones are relegated to the dorms), they were a captive audience with the freedom to wonder about such matters as eliminating hunger, curing AIDS, defeating war, and providing health care for children all over the world.

What are some of the keys to leading people? facilitator Kristin Skarie asks the group.

"Give them the illusion of choice," a student suggests. 

"Why does it have to be an illusion?" Skarie responds. "Why can't it be a choice?" 

"They might say no," the student rejoins.

The favorite session for Caleb Goff, a sophomore in mathematics from Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, was a personality assessment that divided students into four leadership types: Dominant. Influential. Steady. Conscientious.

Goff scored high for steadiness. "We don't need credit," he said about himself and others like him. "We don't need to be in the limelight. We settle for making sure things get done. We work for team harmony," attributes that he intends to leverage as a resident assistant in McNair Hall.

Thiel aims to apply what she learned back on campus. She is passionate about the practice of building landfills near poor communities, and she wants to bring a speaker on environmental justice to campus.

Thiel gets tripped up by a black dog of uncertainty whispering from her shoulder: "You can't do that. You're going to fail."

"I'm too softspoken," she has learned. "LeaderShape helps you lead your own life, too."

Alumna Laura Walikainen participated in LeaderShape in 2003. "It's great stuff," she said. Fresh from the program, she established the Social Sciences Student Society, or 4S, for students in her major. She then applied its precepts to her own life, gaining admission to a highly selective graduate program at the University of Delaware, where she is now working on a PhD.

"You can talk about leadership," she says, "but unless you have a goal, a concrete idea, it's hard to put the idea to work."

Jason Bergeron, assistant director of student activities, has been the campus coordinator of LeaderShape for three years.

"We push them mentally and physically," he says. "It's not a boot camp, but it can be tiring."

The outcomes? "Students feel like they can accomplish anything and can create significant change in the world.

"Our goal is to push and challenge students so they learn about themselves and other people. Everybody is teaching everybody else, and everybody is learning from everybody else. It teaches you that it's okay to be an idealist." 

Facilitator Skarie says the participants bring as much to LeaderShape as they take away. "They give me hope," she said. "They see more possibilities sometimes than I do.

"One of those optimists is Jay Daniels, 37, a junior in industrial technology and the oldest student in the group, who came away saying, "I love it. It costs sixty dollars, and what you learn is priceless."