Magazine Perspective

Lead the Way

A liberal education can prepare students to succeed as future leaders

By Robert A. Scott

Fall 2022

Good leaders—whether university or college presidents or CEOs of corporations—know that they cannot be truly effective if they act alone. They know they must trust their teams and encourage them to question ideas and actions, which can drive teams to reach their promise of being greater than the sum of their parts.

To enable this kind of team, leaders must employ some essential personal skills and attributes: humility, empathy, the ability to listen, the ability to analyze, and the capacity to reflect are among the most important. To me, the greatest leadership asset is the self-awareness that comes from reflection after fully listening and analyzing. And a liberal education, whether pursued as a literature major or as an accounting major taking general education courses, can help students develop the capacity to reflect.

Indeed, if students are to become skilled at reflection, we higher education leaders must demonstrate that we ourselves are reflective in the ways we oversee and help shape our campuses. We must show that we reflect on what colleges should teach and what students should study. That is, we should consider the areas of knowledge, both general and expert; skills, such as writing and speaking with grace and persuasion; abilities, such as analysis and leadership; and values, such as teamwork and respect for others, that a college graduate should possess and can gain through a liberal education. In this way, we can create the framework for the world’s next generation of reflective leaders who aren’t afraid to be challenged to be better.

After thirty years as a college president focused on student success and a state higher education coordinating board leader in two states, I have found that, in addition to listening skills, leaders need to especially possess four capacities based on a liberal education: historical analysis, imagination, compassion, and the ability to reflect.

Historical analysis. History and historical analysis are essential to study, especially if leaders are to understand the different ways people “know” the truth, as well as the ways they challenge assumptions, validate assertions, and realize precedents. By studying history and historical analysis, students learn what it means to focus on what is important. They learn to think in terms of time, to understand how society has changed and continues to change, to consider an institution’s heritage, and to wonder how the founders imagined different futures for themselves and others. Students learn about the world we humans meet (nature or science); the world we make (culture); and the systems by which we mediate between them (law, morality, ethics, and religion). Students study the past and present, war and peace, poetry and prose. As they learn to distinguish between and among empirical evidence, epiphanies or faith, and emotions based in fear or superstition, students come to understand how people know what they think they know.

Our graduates must also learn to analyze the foundation on which the present was built and to see that change is not always incremental. By understanding the past, students can better comprehend change. For example, students can study how an institution responded in the past to society’s needs by establishing new academic programs, such as nursing following World War II or computer science in the 1980s as demand for such training rose. In another example, future students and scholars will study how society and institutions have responded to the spread of the COVID-19 virus and be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Imagination. A second area to develop in our students is that of imagination. The exercise of imagination permits humans to see patterns and where those patterns diverge and intersect. It requires us to listen, to understand, to tolerate the silent spaces, and to comprehend what others are saying before we respond. To imagine is to ask “why?” and “why not?” and “what if?” We can ask students, “What is going well?” and “What do you wish we would change?” Such questions can lead to new directions. Imaginative thinking can result in a transformational leader who not only knows how to reflect on problems but also how to identify which problems to address.

It seems to me that when thinking about recent challenges in society and academe, some leaders confronted problems without seeing connections to the past or among different variables. Think of Facebook’s algorithms and how they were used to create useful social networks but also ended up creating communities of hate. The board of the company didn’t seem to have visualized outcomes or to have considered unintended as well as intended consequences.

Compassion. A third area to develop on our campuses and within our students is that of compassion, which involves the desire to help others. Many articles about leadership emphasize empathy—or one’s capacity to understand or experience the emotions of another—as necessary to lead others. While this is true, I believe educators should push even further and develop the capacity for compassion in our students. If humans can move beyond sympathy (feeling sorry for another) and develop empathy (appreciating the pain or condition of another), then we can learn compassion and the ability to turn empathy into socially responsible actions in service to others.

Coursework in history and sociology, for instance, can introduce compassion to students. One example of a subject to study is the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. This effort witnessed compassion from afar as students in the United States pushed colleges and universities to divest their endowments from holdings in companies doing business with the apartheid government.

In addition to coursework, educators can introduce students to compassion through volunteer programs, speakers, art exhibits and plays, and internships in a range of subject areas.

Reflection. This is the process of considering what an experience or incident means. It involves the habit of mind to ponder what is—or is not—going right and why. It also involves the ability to identify a problem to be solved before attempting to solve it. It means first asking, “What is this? What can I learn from this?”—then acting.

A favorite question of mine during my years in leadership was to ask those assembled, “What can we learn from this?” The question might be posed to senior staff colleagues following a student protest, a scandal at another institution, or a report on higher education best practices. Or I might ask this of the student government association leaders on other topics. The point is that through reflection, humans can better prepare for the future. This is not to say that history repeats itself or that we should succumb to “paralysis by analysis,” in which we fail to take action. It is instead to suggest that we can deepen our well of understanding and draw upon past experiences when facing new challenges.

Taken together, listening, understanding of what came before, imagining new perspectives, serving others, and taking the time to reflect in order to find meaning can form the basis of an education for effective leadership in our institutions, organizations, and communities, whether in a professional or volunteer capacity. These are the building blocks for helping students prepare to lead the way in their lives and in society.

Illustration by Edmon de Haro


  • Robert A. Scott

    Robert A. Scott is president emeritus of both Adelphi University and Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is an advisor for Grant-Thornton’s Higher Education and Nonprofit Practices and author of How University Boards Work.