The Jepson School of Leadership Studies: Inspiring Students to Lead

As one of the founders of the Jepson School for Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond in Virginia, Professor Joanne Ciulla was seeking an element blatantly missing from the traditional management programs at business schools and undergraduate colleges around the world.

Ciulla, an expert on leadership and ethics, noted that most leadership studies programs emerged from industrial psychology, social psychology and management. And in 1992, when the Jepson School opened as one of the nation’s first leadership schools apart from the military, “the big problem in leadership studies was that all the scholars who were the top social scientists were lamenting that they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere,” Ciulla recalled. After countless studies of the impact of leadership programs, the net result was a lack of understanding about the field. The Jepson School might not have had all the answers, but it was determined to reframe the questions.

In one of her early books, “Leadership Ethics: Mapping the Territory,” Ciulla critiqued leadership studies as a discipline and asked, “What’s missing?” And what seemed to be missing was context, the type of context provided by historians, philosophers, theologians and literary types. In other words, the humanities.

Quoting novelist C.P. Snow, Ciulla said social science “gives you an explanation for things, but the humanities give you an understanding of things.”

Twenty years ago, the immense popularity of graduate business schools and the flood of M.B.A.’s into investment banking and Wall Street left a void in the pedagogy of leadership. Having slowly rid themselves of historians, business schools began to turn out armies of graduates who believed that “reality started five years ago because everything has to be new,” Ciulla said. Historians became integral at Jepson, as did philosophers, ethicists and professors of literature.

“How do you not understand what Shakespeare has to do with leadership?” Ciulla asked. So Jepson added a Shakespeare scholar to its initial faculty.

The program was founded with a $20 million grant from Robert S. Jepson Jr., a Richmond alumnus who made his fortune in investment banking. The idea was “to create something different in the academy,” Jepson said. Coupling leadership with the humanities was clearly a different path. “The humanities are where we live in our everyday life,”

 

Jepson added. “If we want to teach leadership, we want to teach it where we will encounter it every day.”

Leadership studies has grown into a widespread academic field – nearly 100 undergraduate offerings at colleges and universities – and Jepson now has competitors on a raft of campuses including the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.; the Leadership Institute, founded by management guru Warren Bennis at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business; and the University of San Diego’s Leadership Education Institute, founded in 2001.

Like any longstanding program, the Jepson model evolved and reshaped itself over the course of two decades, incorporating new faculty, innovative concepts and a broader view of the discipline. But the core mission hasn’t wavered, and while it would be difficult for any one school to claim uniqueness in the field, Jepson is set apart by its heavy focus on teaching about leadership as opposed to offering professional management training. 

The original mission statement holds as true today as when it was penned in the fall of 1991. Jepson would view leadership as stewardship and “would inspire its students to use their abilities to serve society in a variety of ways.” The focus would be on sharp critical and analytical skills, a strong interdisciplinary approach and learning by experience.

And building on its iconoclastic narrative, Jepson has thrived despite its relative obscurity in Richmond and a dearth of big name faculty. The program has grown to its current size of about 200 students by mining both an intellectual and practical approach to leadership and the humanities. James MacGregor Burns, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and presidential biographer who is considered the father of leadership studies, was a founding faculty member at Jepson and served as an adviser and teacher for the first five years. “I had the most intellectually exciting years of my life there,” Burns said in a 2012 interview. He sought to bring more intellectual weight to a field that he said had “become quite fragmented and some would say even trivialized.”

To that end, Jepson has embraced “the road less traveled.”

“We spend a lot of time talking about leadership as a process imbedded into an institutional framework,” said Jepson Dean Sandra Peart. “In fact, this is why I became interested in leadership as a field of study. I’m the only economist in the building, but once you start talking about the context within which leadership is exercised or the rules that govern a leader and his or her followers, then you get into some really interesting social research questions. These are things our faculty research and write about, but also bring to the classroom.”

Graduates speak of the diversity of offerings across a wide spectrum of disciplines that encourages Jepson’s students to draw their own academic blueprint. One student might major in leadership and classical civilization with a minor in Greek; another might focus on ethics or religion, still others on history or philosophy. The classes are open to all University of Richmond students, but to earn a Jepson degree, students must apply and be accepted to Jepson. Students enter the program in the spring of their sophomore year and spend the next two and half years experiencing an array of humanities-based leadership courses. They are also required to do internships in a venue of their own choosing.

For example, Camille Hammond, a 1997 Jepson graduate, recalled her internship working on a leadership development program for girls in a Richmond elementary school. Jepson gave her the opportunity “to learn how to think critically with a focus on the individual who would benefit from whatever intervention I was working on,” Hammond said. “It’s one thing to think about a problem from a 50,000-mile-high view, reviewing data, considering theories. But it’s quite another to look into a little girl’s eyes knowing that she is struggling and, for whatever reason, she doesn’t feel adequate. The challenge was to work with real people and address real problems. The school gave me the confidence that I could do something that could make a difference and that a lot of these problems are solvable for people willing to invest and work with the community.”

Michael Stinziano is a 2002 Jepson graduate and the Democratic state representative for the 18th District in the Ohio General Assembly. While enrolled in the school, he spent a summer in Britain’s House of Lords, where he was thrust into the frenzy of an election. Three weeks before Stinziano got on the plane, Prime Minister Tony Blair dissolved Parliament and called for elections. Stinziano found himself knocking on doors and working on a national campaign for Barry Gardiner, a candidate for Parliament. After graduating from Jepson, earning a master’s degree in public administration at George Washington University and a law degree at Ohio State University, Stinziano entered the political arena and won two terms in the Ohio House.

“Jepson did a wonderful job of giving us that survey experience of what is out there, for us to evaluate where we fit in, what my preferences were and where I thought I could be successful,” Stinziano said. “My big ‘aha’ moment was that summer in London. I had grown up around politics in Ohio, but getting to do a national election in the British system, I thought, ‘I can do this. I can make this work.’ Had I not gone to Jepson, I probably would never have come back to pursue public service.”

THE ART OF SERVANT LEADERSHIP

At age 38, Camille Hammond has had an abundance of experience with leadership and the humanities. After leaving Jepson and graduating from the University of Maryland medical school, Hammond assumed she would become a clinician. Instead she became the co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Tinina Q. Cade Foundation in Owings Mills, Md. The foundation provides support and information about infertility, adoption and foster care. From the Jepson School, Hammond learned the importance of a grounding in the humanities.

“My exposure as an undergrad helped me think about infertility from a variety of vantage points,” Hammond said. “My experience at Jepson definitely made me more of a global thinker with the ability to consider not just my own perspective but the perspective of others.”

But it was a life experience that cemented Hammond’s career path.

After five years of trying to conceive, Hammond and her husband decided to give up. But Hammond’s mother, Tinina Cade, associate vice president at the University of Richmond’s office of student development, had another idea. Even though she was 55 years old and post-menopausal, Cade offered to become a surrogate mother for her daughter and carry the baby, conceived from an egg and sperm from her daughter and son-in-law. Hammond was stunned by her mother’s offer. After much soul-searching, she and her husband agreed. The pregnancy went surprisingly smoothly for a woman of Cade’s age. Another surprise: Cade birthed triplets, and the family’s experience became a story in the national media with appearances on “The Today Show” and “The View.”

As a medical student, Hammond assumed she would work as an obstetrician-gynecologist. Instead, her mother’s selfless act, along with Hammond’s leadership training, sent her in another direction. In 2005, Hammond and her husband founded the Cade Foundation, and in 2007, Hammond became the organization’s full-time CEO.

At Jepson, Hammond was exposed to the concept of “servant leadership” as taught by Gill Robinson Hickman, who demonstrated how to lead by serving and giving, “instead of standing up front and proclaiming yourself the leader,” Hammond recalled. “At Jepson we had to come up with a project and address an issue. We weren’t given a template, just some tools and encouragement and a goal to identify a problem and come up with an intervention.” Hammond didn’t hesitate in setting up the Cade Foundation. “Having done something similar on a smaller level at Jepson, I knew I could do it,” she said.

In an era when a liberal arts background has become anathema and parents sending their children to $55,000-a-year colleges are demanding job-favorable majors, Jepson hasn’t blinked in its devotion to the humanities. The pendulum is starting to swing back toward the advantages of an education on the broad scope of what it means to be human.

Leadership, as taught in this context, “is one of those rare disciplines that is under-studied but at the same time prized by employers in every field,” said Greg Efthimiou, a 1999 Jepson graduate who is director of communications at Duke Energy in Charlotte, N.C.

Efthimiou’s job is to lead the organization that supports, informs and unifies Duke Energy’s 29,000 employees. Having an interdisciplinary foundation strengthened Efthimiou’s self-confidence. Before joining Duke Energy, he had been a consultant at Accenture, and the Jepson training put him in a stronger position to assess and manage the interpersonal relationships on teams to which he had been assigned.

“It was almost like I was the leadership equivalent of a clinical psychiatrist,” he said. “I was able to help them better understand their own agendas and expected outcomes from major projects they had accountability for.”

Jepson professors devote a great deal of discussion to the question of nature versus nurture in leadership development. In a hero-focused society, trailblazers such as Lincoln, Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are considered role models. But the recognition that opportunity and character, coupled with excellent preparation, are the seeds of leadership success, opens Jepson students to more realistic expectations.

“In the business world, you’ll find people with natural leadership abilities who may or may not rise to leadership positions,” Efthimiou said. “What seems to draw more attention these days are the people with no ability or desire who rise and fail to meet measurable success. Leadership failures are widely documented, but we often fail to highlight victories that leaders at the lowest levels achieve.”

Jepson mirrors Aristotle’s belief that the “real work in life is the work of being human.” As Joanne Ciulla said, “By taking a liberal arts approach to leadership studies, the Jepson School is not doing anything new, but rather reapplying the original intent of liberal arts education, which was not to learn a craft or useful skill, but to acquire knowledge that is good in itself and to educate citizens to live and make choices in a free society.”

A leadership school should not mimic a management-training program. “While leadership requires certain skills, I am not so sure that leadership itself is a skill,” Ciulla said. “If anything, leadership is more about initiative, perspective, imagination, morality and the ability to think well and understand people and the world around us.”

Authors

  • Glenn Rifkin

    Managing Editor, Korn Ferry Briefings