Leadership as a Liberal Art

The idea for Seven Learning had been percolating in my mind for at least 10 years.

My husband, Matt, teaches at St John’s College, a small liberal arts school with a unique approach to education based on deep reading of classic books, hands-on encounters with the ideas of great thinkers, and open discussions with peers.  I noticed how St John’s alumni, a number of whom had impressive business careers, talked with passion about the program and the way it had transformed their lives.  I thought there should be a way to apply this kind of approach to corporate education—and especially to leadership development.

Busy as I was with my job at Forum, I kept putting the thought aside until one day this article  appeared in my Linked In feed.

In it, Ken Starkey of Nottingham University Business School advocates for “a new kind of Master’s education that melds an understanding of business with a broader concept of education.”  Pointing to the seemingly constant crises in business and finance around the world and employers’ growing doubts that the MBA is a useful qualification for leaders, Starkey offers ideas for reinventing the business school so that it becomes “more like the agora of ancient Athens … a place of dialogue where citizens collectively addressed the limits of their knowledge.”

The article was a slap upside the head.  I decided I would quit my job and start a company devoted to teaching leadership in a new way:

  • Not as a supposedly practical—but actually ineffectual—collection of tips and tools
  • Not as a supposedly robust—but actually flimsy—collection of contemporary theories
  • Not as a supposedly transformational—but actually transitory—collection of “a has” and “wows”

… but rather, as a liberal art:  a genuinely practical, robust, and transformational way of understanding oneself and the world.

What do you think:  Laughable … obvious … or intriguing?


About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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4 Responses to Leadership as a Liberal Art

  1. Kate says:

    Having spent a fair chunk of time in business and done an MBA, I feel reasonably qualified to agree. I think my MBA was very useful indeed, but not necessarily as an intrinsic quality to the degree. First, I was grounded in a liberal arts background. Second, I worked quite consciously to ensure the practicality of what I learned. Third, I am an avid reader and continued my book-a-day habit throughout that program (and still do).

    I’m absolutely intrigued about this idea and believe it could significantly improve leadership training. Leadership, in my experience, involves a change in how one thinks. (Management? Not so much… But that’s a discussion for another day.)

    I will be watching this space to learn more!

  2. Thanks, Kate; interesting points. Perhaps that’s one of the differences between leadership and management? (Leadership requires a change in how one thinks, whereas management does not.)

  3. Kate says:

    I think that’s spot on.

  4. Sylvia Celentano says:

    Love the idea of understanding oneself in order to lead effectively. A missing element and not one that is achieved in one quick quiz or session. It’s ongoing. Love the idea and will look forward to more.

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