Freshmen take the lead in discussing leadership

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- In a room tucked away at the edge of Butler College, 15 freshmen and sociology professor Suzanne Keller are spending 12 weeks exploring an age-old question that could not be more timely: "Who will guard the guardians?"

On a recent sunny afternoon, the discussion in the freshman seminar "Leaders, Leadership and Morality" ranged unflaggingly from one side of the long table to the other. It was evident that in the face of exposés of corporate greed and church scandals and the complexities of the post-Sept. 11 world, these new Princeton students were eager to pursue the goal, outlined in the syllabus, to "explore the historic, social and psychological conditions that sustain principled leadership as opposed to corrupt leadership."

Suzanne Keller, right, is exploring the timely topic of "Leaders, Leadership and Morality" in her freshman seminar.


"I believe it is important to grapple with these issues in the wake of recent scandals and events that have rocked American confidence," said potential politics major Lori Piranian, who comes from the Philadelphia area.

Another prospective politics major, Gözde Kücuk, from Istanbul, Turkey, said that she wanted to take the seminar "because obviously we are at a time in history where we can't come up with true leaders any more, and I believe that no matter if someone is the head of a family or a country, each has the chance to use leadership skills and to change things around herself."

Ongoing flow of ideas

Early in the seminar, the students responded to Benjamin Barber's "Jihad vs. McWorld" and Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations" to debate what people do for the sake of power and the relationship between identity and political leadership.

"McWorld refers to globalism, a world without borders," said one student. "And jihad is against Western democracy and the nation-state."

"The West developed McWorld, modernity and individualism," added Professor Keller. "Huntington warns us about the decline of the West. He describes an indicator of the decline as consumerism to the increasing exclusion of higher values."

"He says that if we keep on the wave of materialism, we'll go down," said a student.

Another student: "Does that mean we need to return to traditional values?"

"But what happens if you don't want to?" asked another student. "What happens if you just want to make money and buy things?"

"The job of a leader is to articulate a vision," another student commented. "Leaders have to give a direction and a path to follow."

"And leaders have to be able to articulate the need for change and the way to do it," said Keller. "Will everyone be delighted? No. But leaders need to be prodded, primed and reminded what they're here for."

Keller asked a student to read aloud from Barber for emphasis: "Our lives and our worlds are caught between two eternities." She explained that this sentence described a conflict between "the tribal past and the cosmopolitan future."

While the conversation moved in every direction, the result was an ongoing flow of ideas that encouraged students to participate at any time. "I think Professor Keller does an excellent job of posing questions for us to answer," said Michael Broache, a student from Owings Mills, Md., whose academic interests might lead him toward politics, the Woodrow Wilson School or ecology and evolutionary biology. "She doesn't give us the answers but lets us sort them out for ourselves and evaluate them from our own unique perspectives."

Management vs. leadership

The back-and-forth discussion took another turn with Keller's next question: "What is the difference between management and leadership?"

"Management can be taught but leadership must be learned," responded one student.

"What else? Management tries to preserve and maintain order," said Keller. "And leadership is crucial in a crisis or when change is necessary and there's no blueprint. Leadership means seizing opportunities, but they need to be recognized first." She paused, and then asked: "Is there any preparation for leadership?"

"Young leaders learn from seasoned leaders," said a student.

"Yes, that's called exposure learning," agreed Keller. "Outstanding leaders need the vision, goal and courage to go against the conventional group. How many times have you stood up and opposed everyone else?" she asked the class.

One student replied that she had done that once.

"And never again, right?" joked Keller. "What does it mean when we say that someone has character?" she asked.

"To have integrity," answered a student. "To have your own principles and to follow what you believe in."

The seminar then turned to a discussion of Henry V and Shakespeare's depiction of the king's strength of character in his play of that name. From describing how Henry V built loyalty among his followers to culminate in victory on the battlefield of Agincourt, the conversation then jumped time and place to return to the Princeton campus.

"One of the texts we're reading says that academia attracts many potential leaders who study more and more and then just end up critiquing leadership," said Keller. "You haven't been here long, but is that your impression?"

"It does seem that leadership is no longer popular or fashionable," answered a student.

"Most students want to scorn leaders," agreed another. "There's a negative connotation to leadership. That's why people shy away from their potential to tap into qualities that could make them leaders."

"People who go into it seem to do so not to serve anyone but themselves," added another student.

"Cynicism is a defense against feeling betrayed," said Keller. "And the scrutiny of the media accentuates the cynical posture."

Despite the unflattering portrayals of corrupt and misdirected leadership manifold today, the freshmen have confidence that they can learn to do better. "I hope to some day become involved in government, and it is essential to have a clear definition of leadership if one hopes to serve in this capacity," said Piranian.

"Leadership is one of the defining qualities of a society and, therefore, it must be studied and better understood," said Broache.


In the seminar, the freshmen will go on to study theories of leadership and its nature in different contexts, the education and selection of leaders and what Keller describes as the "fault lines" of leadership in a world of globalization and cyber reality. Films and biographies of George Washington, Osama bin Laden, Winston Churchill, Tiger Woods and others will offer a closer look at the lives of prominent historical and contemporary figures.

Each student will be asked to "adopt" a leader of interest to them and to prepare a brief classroom presentation and final paper on their selection.

"At the end of the course I hope that the students will have developed a deeper grasp of the complex phenomenon of leadership and make it an important theme in their own lives," said Keller. "They are so bright and articulate, and it is a great pleasure to be their guide."

Keller joined the sociology department in 1968. Her teaching currently focuses on corporate leadership, elites and leadership and comparative family systems.


November 4, 2002
Vol. 92, No. 8
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Page one
Seminars introduce freshmen to 'the adventure of learning'
West spends first fall back on campus with first-year students
Nothing robotic about response to this seminar
Freshmen take the lead in discussing leadership

Invention has impact beyond the lab
Princeton architects reimagine world Trade Center site
United Way campaign kicks off Nov. 5
R&D Council honors freshman

Nassau Notes
Calendar of events
By the numbers

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Karin Dienst, Evelyn Tu
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Margaret Westergaard
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett