February 19, 2007
Learning to lead
Drew Harbur is an Emory College senior majoring in sociology.
I 'm here at Emory because I was given a second chance. I was not a typical high-achieving high school student as most Emory students were. My family had moved to three different countries during high school, and this had left me completely uninterested in classroom pursuits.
Instead, I focused most of my energy on sports -- in fact you could say that it was too much energy because my school principal forced me to write apology letters to my teachers after a dismal academic performance in my freshmen year. In addition, just weeks before my 16th birthday, my family learned that our financial advisor and my Sunday school teacher had stolen our entire life savings. Within hours, we'd packed up a few small items from the house in the Bahamas, including two cats and two dogs, and were on a plane headed back to America.
This event made me aware that I needed to sharpen my academic focus if I wished to attend college. So you can imagine how grateful I was when an Emory official called me and said I'd been taken off the waiting list and accepted into the class of 2007. And thanks to scholarships I would receive after my first few years here, the financial side was taken care of. I couldn't believe that after all my family and I had been through, I was still being given a chance to study at one of the best schools in the country.
I was determined to prove that I belonged at Emory but wondered if I was even smart enough to be here. So the summer before my freshman year I made it my duty to "get smart enough."
I took a job as a stairwell painter at a large apartment complex, and began listening to books on tape throughout my workday. There I was, listening to "War and Peace," breathing in toxic fumes, spilling cans of paint down the stairs, and getting threatened by retirees who preferred the old color of the stairwells. But I didn't mind the complaining because I was busy doing what I thought at the time was "real learning."
Yet after one semester at Emory, I started to really understand what it meant to learn. Moreover, I started to understand what it meant to be a leader. I believe learning and leadership are so closely tied because to do them at their most effective levels, one must embody very similar qualities, and these are qualities I've seen people demonstrate at Emory: a collaborative mindset, openness, flexibility and patience.
Perhaps these are different characteristics than those exhibited by the General Patton-types we commonly associate with great leadership. But my experience at Emory has shown me that it is these qualities that make great learners and great leaders. These qualities are so different from the learning and leadership I sometimes experienced at earlier stages of my life.
The leadership style of my high school baseball coach, for example, was one of hierarchy and top-down instructionalism. The axiom "my way or the highway" comes to mind. For me it actually was the highway -- we would run in the emergency lane of Florida 27 with my coach barking out times from his golf cart. This coach had a rigid model of what he thought a high school baseball player should be, and spent his time addressing each player's weaknesses until we "measured up." And so, my learning process involved little more than listening to him preach about fundamentals and "doing anything to win."
In my current job with an economic/community development firm, we would call this a "need-based" approach to development. This is where leaders spend their time identifying all of the weaknesses of a person, city or state, and then attempting to fill in the gaps. This outdated approach ignores the inherent strengths unique to each entity.
What successful developers are now employing is an "asset-based" model of development. This involves the identification of a community's assets. The majority of the development, then, centers on creatively growing these assets until you have more fully nurtured an entity's capacity.
My high school coach was obviously using a need-based approach to developing his players. As a result, players didn't learn how to live up to their potential. Though three of my teammates signed professional contracts, more than any other team in the county, we never had a winning season.
But here at Emory, through my experiences both in athletics and academics, I observed something vastly different: an asset-based model to developing young people.
I'd never done track and field until I came to college. So when I tried out for the team, I figured I'd have the best shot as a sprinter. There were very few upper-classmen who sprinted, so in a sense, I thought I could fill a need and also make the team.
Unfortunately, I tore my hamstring in my first collegiate race. But this is when the throwing coach spoke to me about trying some new events. She believed my strengths might be better applied in other ways. Although throwing requires more complicated technique than running, she convinced me to try.
My first day of throwing felt so natural because, rather than starting me off from square one and teaching me the traditional style of throwing, Coach Heather Atkinson was flexible and helped me find a style that was natural for me. I must admit that not having orders barked at me felt unfamiliar in the beginning. In fact, I wondered if I was learning anything at all. But after I qualified from a Division 1 final on my third day of throwing the javelin, we figured we were on to something.
Coach Atkinson was a leader who remained open to possibilities, was patient even when I became frustrated, and was willing to collaborate with me to find solutions. I'd never seen myself as a thrower, but she did, and because of her leadership style, she pulled capacities out of me that I was unaware of.
My classroom experience followed a similar pattern. You'll remember my initial approach to college learning with the books on tape. You could say that I was still using a need-based approach -- in which I attempted to fill in knowledge gaps with facts and figures.
But the professors at Emory have taught me that learning is not a one-way street. And fortunately for my health, it is certainly not memorizing piles of information in a freshly-painted stairwell!
It is thinking about and applying theories in unique ways. It is collaborating with classmates through conversations at 3 a.m. and expanding the way you'd previously seen things.
Top-down styles of leadership that rely on self-centered, overly assertive personalities no longer seem viable. Instead, it seems that leaders who see the value of collective wisdom, leaders whose flexibility allow them to find adaptive solutions to pressing issues, and perhaps most importantly, those leaders who can empower others by drawing out existing capacities, are the leaders who will take us forward.
From CEOs to heads-of-state, can you imagine how different things would be if our leaders practiced the collective, transparent and patient style of leadership Coach Atkinson demonstrated?
As students, our challenge is to continue uncovering these emerging styles of learning and leadership, so that when we assume the roles appropriate to our strengths, we can be the most constructive leaders the world has ever seen.
This essay has been adapted from Harbur's Founders Dinner speech on Feb. 5.