• Tips for Entrepreneurs

10 Leadership Lessons From James Madison University President Jon Alger

“Change requires leadership,” writes Martha Graham, James Madison University’s Be the Change coordinator.

“Someone has to step up and draw others to help. But perhaps most important are leaders who roll up their own sleeves, reach out, connect, and do so in a spirit of gratitude,” she writes in JMU’s blog, Be the Change.

That’s servant leadership, Graham insists, pointing to JMU President Jon Alger who shared 10 leadership lessons from James Madison in a recent speech to the Massanutten District, Stonewall Jackson Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Alger’s insights will certainly resonate with business leaders, as well.

10 Ways to Use Your Gifts, Talents, and Passion to Become a Servant Leader

JMU President Jon Alger says:

  1. Realize that leaders come in all shapes, sizes, and personality types. The president told the group of a friend who was quite soft-spoken. As a Supreme Court advocate, he would begin every argument by agreeing with much of the opposing counsel’s argument. “But,” he would say softly, “there are a few key issues.” At that point, everyone was listening, Alger said. “Leaders can have different types of personalities,” he said. They can be loud or introverted, but being “polite, honest, and respectful” is key.
  2. Be authentic. Early in his career, during an annual review by two senior lawyers in his firm, one reviewer got right in Alger’s face and told him he’d never make it. “You’re not tough enough. You don’t make people cry.” The other attorney countered. “Bob is Bob,” he said, referring to the first lawyer. “You need to be the best Jon you can be.” It is, Alger said, the best career advice he ever got. Be who you are—and be the best you can be.
  3. Use your gifts. “All of us have something to contribute,” Alger said. Find something you care deeply about and pursue it. And he added, look for mentors who can help you identify and make the most of your gifts.
  4. Realize that we are all interconnected, and express gratitude. It is important, he said, to “take that time to notice all those people around us who are making your life better—and thank them.” He made special mention of the people “behind the scenes,” those who don’t always get the accolades but whose work and contributions are valuable. People at JMU, for instance, who make the campus beautiful or who smile at students in the dining halls, contributing to a friendly campus climate. “We all need each other,” he added.
  5. Find the good and praise it. Quoting the late author Alex Haley, Alger said to “find the good and praise it.” Civil discourse is in short supply, and we need to “model and encourage constructive conduct.” Encourage, praise, be thankful—and say ‘thank you.’ Gratitude is powerful.
  6. Listen, and learn from others. “We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “There’s great strength and power in listening to the people around you.” Such listening is part of continual and lifelong learning. Citing his own listening tour—his first major initiative after coming to the university in 2012 —Alger reported the excellent comments and conversations he had as a result of taking the time to listen.
  7. Continue to develop critical thinking skills. Critical thinking, learning to ask the right questions, and especially refusing to assume that things can’t change are critical to leadership. He cited a program at Rutgers University, his former post, that looked at students in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus. “No students were [coming to Rutgers] from schools in our own backyard. … It wasn’t the easiest place to grow up,” he said, of the school districts with a 50 percent drop-out rate. The university created a program that identified 7th graders with academic potential, offered them mentoring, and made them an offer: If they earned admittance—on their own—to Rutgers, they would receive a full tuition scholarship. He reported that the first cohort graduated this year; of the group, 90 percent went on to college.
  8. Engage in deliberate ethical reasoning, and ask key questions. A key component of leadership is to “engage in ethical reasoning,” Alger said. He cited a 2013 report published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The survey of top CEOs revealed that 93 percent believe that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.* He talked about how JMU’s new program, Madison Collaborative: Ethical Reasoning in Action, addresses that need. The collaborative seeks to teach every student how to apply critical thinking in every facet of their lives. It is an ambitious program, but an important one. When it was first introduced to the Class of 2017 in August, Alger said, they were “surprised to learn how many students had never gotten this before.”
  9. Don’t be afraid of failure. “You can’t be afraid of failure.” In fact, Alger said, “if you don’t fail sometimes, it probably means you’re not reaching high enough in the first place.” Failure is a great teacher.
  10. Dream BIG and give back. Alger talked about the importance of big dreams. “Those big dreams are important. They create vision, ” he said, remembering President John F. Kennedy’s dream to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Not only did it inspire us, the dream led to hundreds of by-products, he said. Along with those dreams, he added, it’s important to “constantly think about how you can give back.” One way is to create a legacy by passing on these lessons of vision and leadership and service to others.

Read more postings on the “Be the Change” blog at jmubethechange.wordpress.com.

Photo: by Jim Milham, BSA, of JMU President Jon Alger with Eagle Scout Hunter Morton (JMU 2017).

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