From the Archive

Leadership in a Democratic Society

Donald Stewart, then the president of the College Board, argued in the Fall 1988 issue of the College Board Review that a major part of leadership is teaching—and the greatest teachers lead their students toward a solid grasp of ethical and moral standards.

It’s the kind of sentiment we might find bouncing around social media, appended to a tweet or clip calling out a politician by someone with more faith in the system than maybe we feel at the moment: “The fact that leadership may now be in a parlous state must not make us cynical of its value.” It certainly sounds right for where many find themselves midway through 2020—even if the sentiment is more than 30 years old.

Donald M. Stewart had been president of the College Board for two years when he contributed “Leadership in a Democratic Society” for the Fall 1988 issue of the College Board Review. At the time, the country was assessing its post-Reagan future—a landscape, Stewart writes, where “the debasing of the currency of leadership by public officials during the Reagan administration—whether for personal gain, ideological reasons, or some combination of the two—left us in a state of malaise that has yet to be resolved.” But rather than wallow in this misery, he challenges readers to reject cynicism, cultivate dynamic and ethical leaders, and locate themselves in perpetuating our democracy and national ideals. And he does this by tethering leadership with education.

This might seem an obvious connection, but it’s one worth being reminded of. Reading Stewart’s piece today feels dispiriting—how far we haven’t come!—but also rejuvenating. His clear-eyed view of the challenges facing the nation, prescriptions for possible solutions, and the cohort most able to affect real change—namely, college students—are as relevant today as they were in 1988.

Stewart writes that “our nation will face challenges in the coming dec­ades that will require leaders of enormous strength and vision.” That sounds glaringly obvious. But sometimes those simple truths are the ones that get lost in the noise—and the ones we need to be reminded of from time to time.

black and white photo of donald stewart, in glasses and a suit, talking to a group from a lectern with a college board logo on the front of it

Serge Hambourg/College Board Review

The question of leadership is a fascinating one in a democracy like ours. In fact, it might reasonably be said that the United States has a love-hate relationship with its leaders. A chronic lament is that we have too few leaders of real quality. John Gardner, a great leader of both government and private organizations like Common Cause and Independent Sector, has been quoted recently as saying: "It becomes harder and harder to believe that we once had a President who, long before coming to office, drafted the Declaration of Independence. And another capable of composing the Gettysburg Address." By the same token, the second half of the twentieth century has given us at least two great political leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, whose careers were ended tragically and prematurely at a great loss to each of us as individuals, and to the nation as a whole.

Most recently, the issue of leadership was again very much with us. One reason for this is that the comfortable jockeying between mainstream Democrats and Republicans was challenged by an unusually dynamic candidate, Jesse Jackson. Second, the debasing of the currency of leadership by public officials during the Reagan administration—whether for personal gain, ideological reasons, or some combination of the two—left us in a state of malaise that has yet to be resolved, election results notwithstanding.

In celebrating the arrival last summer of Richard Thornburgh as head of the Justice Department, The New York Times noted (more in sorrow than in anger): "The regret is that the nation couldn't have had an attorney general of Mr. Thornburgh's caliber all along." This is an interesting comment because it shows that a sense of what leadership should be, and the ethical responsibilities that go with it, is alive (if not well) in the land. While this may seem obvious to most of us, anyone who has spent time in other countries, even those in Western Europe, will know that the way leaders are viewed by citizens of other nations is not the way we view ours.

The fact that leadership may now be in a parlous state must not make us cynical of its value. Great leaders, since they are often so deeply a part of us, and so accurately mirror our dreams and hopes, are essential to the progress and evolution of a democracy. And just as they are important in the national and international arena, they are important in the academic world as well.

I believe that there is an especially strong link between the world of learning and the world of leadership, for leadership embodies two profoundly important attributes: ethics and teaching.

One of the great qualities of a democracy is that it is not possible, in the long run, to lead by fear or force. Moreover, those lacking in ethics ultimately fail as leaders. "The system worked," we learned to say with relief when Watergate forced a sitting president out of office for ethical misdeeds. The claim that great democratic leaders make on our hearts is a function of their moral vision, and of their abilities to persuade and teach us about that vision and our role in achieving it.

Within this larger context of creating and preserving democratic leadership, academia and schooling have an important role to play. And within that role, in a more modest sense, so does the College Board itself, due to the fundamental interrelationship of ethics, leadership, and learning.

Ethics and leadership are inextricably woven together. Ethics and moral values provide the context, the framework, and the substance of leadership. It is the leader's duty to remind us continually of our ethical constrictions. Successful leadership is inherently moral because it reflects, embodies, focuses, and gives expression to the lasting values of church or synagogue, family, community, group or nation—sometimes running counter to short-term personal goals. Moreover, schools and colleges have a crucial obligation to transmit an ethical sense and an understanding of moral values to our young people. If we had done so to a greater extent in the past, or were more effectively doing so now, we might have far fewer instances of antisocial behavior and poor citizenship than we currently are witnessing in the United States.

cover of the fall 1988 issue of the college board review showing a black and white photo of group of college students listening to a lecture

As the president of Spelman College in Atlanta for 10 years, I was in favor of required chapel attendance on our campus in the 1970s and 1980s—not because I felt that everyone should have the same religious beliefs, but because I felt that young people should regularly confront profound questions of human dignity and moral choice.

Happily, I had some success with Spelman's chapel program. Great speakers such as the late Reverend Howard Thurman from San Francisco and Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes brought inspiring messages and stimulated thought and discussion among our students and faculty. I was lucky, because it is often difficult for college presidents to provide real leadership of this kind in their institutions. Generally, the faculty manage the curriculum, the trustees manage the endowment, the professors are autonomous in their classrooms, and students do pretty much what they wish. All too often, the president's office concerns itself with worrying about the budget, mediating among competing interests, and fund­raising. It should focus much more on shaping values—old-fashioned values, such as love, fairness, sharing, and learning—that go far beyond immediate goals of career preparation and monetary gain. College presidents most likely can have their academic impact only on the general education portion of the curriculum. The introduction of a strong humanities core—with courses in philosophy, religion, foreign languages, and literature—can also become the vehicle for transmitting values.

In a small, somewhat contained community such as a college or a country village, leadership is one thing. In a huge, energized, competitive, democratic, highly diverse nation such as ours, it is quite a different matter. How can we understand leadership in a complex world, particularly leadership and its requisite ethical dimensions?

John Gardner has written a brilliant series of papers called "The Nature of Leadership."* "Leadership," he says, "is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to take action that is in accord with the leader's purpose or the shared purposes of all." As we all are aware, there are many different kinds of leaders, and the setting, in Gardner's words, "does much to determine the kinds of leaders that emerge and how they play their roles."

Leadership role outlines in a college setting are somewhat ambiguous, as I have described from the viewpoint of a president. They are even more ambiguous in a school setting. Yet it is here, as in family and religious settings, that basic ethical values are formed and the basis for leadership established. Former commissioner of education and Ford Foundation executive Harold Howe has said that "the main values received from schools are of two kinds: those that constitute the central core of our democratic heritage and those that make up the commonly shared ethical values of all people, such as honesty." In the face of rising delinquency rates, drug use, teenage pregnancies, and problems of venereal disease and suicide, schools, in the absence of strong family and religious influences, are being called upon to teach moral values. This is particularly true of schools serving disadvantaged minorities, but it is also true of those serving middle-class students who, increasingly, have only one parent, or two parents who both work. With overworked and underpaid teachers and principals, there is little opportunity for real leadership, either in the form of strong role models offering individual attention to students, or in the form of basic value instruction by example, rather than by prescription. This latter is the model that works best, particularly for inner-city students who have few positive role models at home or in the neighborhood. High school students need to be able to work cooperatively with adults who teach more by what they do and less by what they say. Behavior among teachers, principals, and other adults, that demonstrates a strong sense of morality, a dedication to learning, self­-discipline, and concern for others, inspires similar behavior from teenagers. In schools as in college, leaders produce leaders.

When one thinks of leaders in all walks of life, we need to ask what elements they share. Again, John Gardner offers some fine insights:

  • They think longer term—beyond the day's crises.
  • They look beyond the group they are heading and grasp its relationship to larger realities.
  • They reach and influence constituencies beyond their own jurisdiction.
  • They put heavy emphasis on the intangibles of vision, values, and motivation.
  • They have the political skill (and I would say "values" skill) to cope with the conflicting requirements of multiple constituencies. Finally,
  • They think in terms of renewal.

If we take a moment to reflect on these points, we realize that leadership skills are remarkably different from what we think of as "practical" skills. There is "longer term," "larger reach," "vision," "values," "the future"—in sum, the ability to take the group one is leading from where it is to a new place which the "constituents" of the group (as Gardner likes to call them) may not yet quite see or understand.

There is, moreover, a continual dialogue going on, in conscious and unconscious ways, between the leader and the constituents. All social groups share needs, beliefs, dreams, hopes and fears. As Gardner notes: "The group creates norms that tend to control the behavior of its members, and these norms constitute the social order." He adds, "It is in this context that leaders arise; and it is this context that determines . . . what will be expected of them. In Woodrow Wilson's surprisingly poetic phrase, ‘The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.’"

What those voices are saying reflects not only their needs, but also their norms, moral values, and ethical commitment. When a leader becomes deaf to those voices we have a dilemma such as the one that now characterizes our political life. However, the group itself can lose sight of its values and, in some cases, become ethically passive, illustrating the maxim that "A society of sheep must in time beget a government of wolves." Or the group can become too focused on its own particular wants, neglecting common needs or ignoring the sweep of history—a sweep that may require a leader who has the courage to defy those he leads.

The cover of the book On Leadership by John W. Gardner

But how does one learn vision, persuasion, and values, in order to become a leader? Mostly, I would think, in the doing, in the leading.

Anyone who has had this opportunity knows that it is something of a voyage of discovery. In my own experience, the discoveries were unexpected and countercyclical, and the leadership modes demanded by the circumstances did not always fit my preconceptions of "a leader." On campus, for example, in an era of powerful student activism, my role as leader required that I hold firm to certain more traditional elements of the curriculum, or espouse the unpopular cause (at that time) of adult learning. In the foundation world, I argued, not always successfully, for greater sensitivity to the indigenous customs of those people we were trying to help. Here at the College Board, surrounded by colleagues of considerable experience and often greater specific expertise than mine, I find that leadership requires being sympathetic and understanding, as well as candid about the limits of my knowledge. It requires asking questions and seeking consensus, or at least a full airing of the problem, before charting a new course—hardly General Pat­ton with his ivory-handled pistols astride a Pershing tank. However, the ability to understand the situation and the kind of leadership required in situ, is one of the essential elements of the practice.

But this does not preclude a role for education, even formal education. Often one of the major tasks of leadership is setting goals, such as the leadership shown by Lyndon Johnson when, early in his presidency, he declared education the nation's top priority. He couldn't merely say this; he also had to "explain" it. Pedestrian as "explaining" may sound, people want to understand the problem, why they must change their behavior or become involved, and what their place is in the larger scheme. Gardner adds: "Leaders teach. Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address provides an extraordinary example of the leader as teacher." I would agree with him that while "Teaching and leading are distinguishable occupations, every great leader is clearly teaching—and every great teacher is leading." And, I would like to add, every great teacher is preparing others to lead as well.

Another aspect of leadership is the ability to cross boundaries, to know different groups and different worlds. Think how many "publics" a corporate CEO needs to know: customers, stockholders, the community, the media, the political world. As a college president, I found myself dealing with a range of constituencies with remarkably different agendas: students, faculty, parents, the community, donors, politicians. The same is true for me as president of the College Board.

How does one learn to cross boundaries, to understand priorities, to be comfortable with different groups and different ideas? Education. Not narrow vocational education, nor the short run pure "MBA ethic," which emphasizes the bottom line without regard to consequences, but learning about the world, about the dreams and hopes of diverse peoples, about the ways men and women have spoken movingly and persuasively to one another over the centuries. In sum, through the classic workings of a liberal education that we now need to strengthen at both the high school and college levels.

What has happened in the last several decades? In part, democracy itself, through its liberating energy, created a period in the 1960s of important, if uncomfortable, strife. Higher education, however, failed to grasp the moral imperative. As educators, some of us forgot the ethical framework in which we must work. We forgot to note the difference between right and wrong. Then, under the threat of a diminishing pool of incoming students, we gave in to a "student-as-consumer" outlook, i.e., the customer is always right. As academics retreated into a value-free relativism that has helped nurture the "get-mine-whatever-way" ethos of the "me" generation, there is little wonder that moral turpitude, a very old-fashioned phrase, has reentered current parlance.

Under the pressures of these years, we may have lost sight of our responsibility to instill in our young people a sense not only of the financial, but also of the "ethical" coin of the realm, that core of values and ethics that we all share. Educational institutions must now produce thinking individuals with their own sets of internal constraints. 

Colleges and universities, working with America's schools, must once again become a significant part of the nation's conscience. There are not enough educational leaders such as Harvard's president, Derek Bok, who are willing to criticize their own institutions on ethical grounds, as President Bok did when he addressed issues of medical and business education. Or like Stanford's Don Kennedy, who is vitally interested in the community orientation of his students and in improving the quality of the educational programs in the schools of his community.

Less than a year and a half ago, we witnessed the frightening spectacle of Colonel Oliver North capturing the imagination of a substantial number of his fellow citizens through the intensity of his commitment to his own narrow ideas. Is it not the role of education, and educational institutions, to teach us how to resist being carried away by intense but ungrounded, if not illegal, enthusiasms, and to help us maintain our balance and our vision in difficult times? Is it not the role of education to help us understand that the moral aspects of our professions are as important as their financial rewards?

black and white photo of donald stewart smiling while talking in a small group during an event at spelman college

Spelman College

Donald M. Stewart at a 1977 event at Spelman College.

These are the questions I am grappling with, as I apprehend my leadership of the College Board. The Board is the one educational association in America devoted to the transition of students from high school to college. With 2,700 member high schools and colleges, we are concerned with the quality of educational programs and preparation of students on both sides of the equation. This is a time of enormous demographic change: By the year 2000, one-third of all school-age youth will come from minority backgrounds. In some localities, there will soon be a "minority majority." Thus, at the College Board, we are deeply concerned about how to maintain high quality education throughout the country and, at the same time, promote educational opportunity for all students, no matter what their economic background, their family situation, their level of skills, or their racial or cultural heritage. This is not an easy task, when so many traditional institutions, such as the family, are under severe stress. But it is a job that must be done, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also for the nation's continued economic and social health.

At the Board, we feel it is our responsibility to help provide leadership in the development of quality educational opportunity for all students. For many years we have sponsored the Advanced Placement® Program of courses and tests that enable students to earn college-­level credit while still in high school. With the assistance of a major grant from the Mellon Foundation, we are now training inner-city teachers to teach Advanced Placement courses to more minority and disadvantaged students, thereby increasing the possibility that they will be prepared for and will pursue college-level work. More recently, under the auspices of our “Educational EQuality Project,” we have sponsored collaboration by school and college people to describe what students need to know and be able to do to succeed in college, in terms of academic skills and subject knowledge. We also have published books describing and analyzing the basic skills and competencies all students need to succeed in college. Known as the "Green Book" and rainbow series, these “Academic Preparation for College” books are a major contribution to our understanding of student preparation for college-level work. Now, using these books, school and college collaborative projects throughout the country are working to incorporate the skills and competencies they describe into their instructional programs. We are also striving continually to improve and evolve our testing programs so that they may help teachers understand their pupils' learning needs better, and not be used merely for sorting and selection. We are committed to helping improve the teaching-learning process in schools and colleges of all types.

Not only do schools and colleges have an enormous role to play in creating the ethical and educational environment necessary for leaders and leadership, but in fact, the two are inseparable. Learning to learn is also, in a sense, learning to teach. And very clearly, learning to teach—whether in the case of Moses, Gandhi, Churchill, Kennedy, or King—is learning to lead. The task confronting all of us is how to do it effectively.

We must, of course, avoid the extreme. There is a story popular among college admissions deans about the father of a young woman applying to college who was asked to write a short essay about his daughter. Among the questions to be answered were, what are her shortcomings? After some agonized thought, he wrote, "and on the negative side, she really is more of a follower than a leader." The letter went in the mail, and the response was electric. A telegram arrived from the college: "Daughter admitted without reservation. Class of 500 alleged leaders needs at least one follower."

Well, leadership is not all our colleges should produce. They should also produce the understanding that values leadership, nurtures it, and gives it support when it is displayed. Call it "followership" if you will, but not of the blind, unthinking kind; rather, an enlightened followership of the kind Jefferson envisioned when he said, "We hope to avail the nation of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as among the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated."

To return to the thoughts of John Gardner: "Teachers and leaders share a trade secret—that when they expect high performance of their charges, they increase the likelihood of high performance." I concur totally, and with his comment that "our educational system is preeminently the instrument through which we express our expectations." Although it places a great responsibility upon us, that is precisely how it should be.

Our nation will face challenges in the coming decades that will require leaders of enormous strength and vision. As the place where young people spend so much of their time and receive so much that will benefit them, schools, colleges, and universities must actively play a role in providing an understanding of ethics, as well as intellectual enlightenment. Similarly, through its ability to set an agenda and create a forum for consensus, the College Board must work to see that key issues—both societal and academic—are openly confronted and effectively dealt with. In this way we can play our role in assuring the future well-being of our democracy.

* Elective editor's note: As clarification, Gardner wrote a series of essays, “The Leadership Papers,” that were gathered together in a book called On Leadership. The first of the original essays is titled “The Nature of Leadership.”