Recently, when President Barry Mills spoke about leadership to 52 students — many of them organization heads and class leaders — he began by questioning whether leadership can be taught, and whether he could actually impart any useful tips to the young and aspiring leaders in the room.
Those doubts aside, he launched into an hour-long discussion that focused on his own experience as president of the College — and previously as a corporate lawyer in New York City — to convey his insights into effective leadership. Mills was the first guest in this year’s Leadership Development Series, organized by Student Activities for student leaders on campus.
Mills repeatedly urged students to learn from many different leaders. “It’s important to remember that leadership is a very personal matter,” he said, adding, “there is no one style.” Mills recommended that students find the techniques that work best for them, in part by listening to and observing different types of leaders, as well as by being truthful to their own natures.
Sarah Nelson, president of Bowdoin Student Government, was the one who invited Mills to kick off the leadership series. She said he’s been a role model for her since she first met him at matriculation. “To me, the most valuable lesson from his remarks on leadership was his insistence on the diversity of leadership styles,” she said. “I have never had someone tell me that the most effective leaders are the ones who are true to themselves and who are comfortable enough in their own skin to cultivate a personalized set of leadership skills rather than just imitate one type of leader.”
Mills spoke broadly about many aspects of leadership. The following are some of his observations:
“It is important to believe in the organization you are leading and let people know that, so your commitment to the place is something they want to be a part of.”
“A big part of communication is listening — it is the underrated skill. Often what people say is not what they mean or what they want — either because it is hard for them to communicate the idea or they don’t want to tell you. …It’s very important to learn how to listen. Because if people know you’re listening to them, they will respect you.”
“Why do I walk the quad all the time? How come I show up in Moulton or Thorne and have lunch with all of you? Because when I sit and talk with you, I find out what’s happening. …I learn about Bowdoin. …That concept of leadership is called ‘walking the halls.’”
“Life is mostly about arithmetic. It’s about adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing — and a little bit of fractions. If you’re a leader you can’t be afraid of numbers, and if you are, then you need someone attached to your hip who understands them, and who won’t blow smoke at you.”
“In every organization, leaders worry about under-performers and how to make them better. In my view, you can’t. They are who they are. …If instead you can get the over-achievers and good performers to live their potential and do even more, think about what you’ve done for your organization.”
“If you’re afraid of hiring someone who’s smarter than you, you’ve got a big problem.”
“Your goal is to build a team of people who…will tell you the truth. You need to have people around you who you trust and who are loyal, but will tell you when you’re full of it.”
“You can’t be afraid of conflict. …If you disagree with someone, it’s okay. And it’s okay to tell someone that, without closing off communication. Conflict isn’t bad, but you have to do it in a way that has a positive result.”
“…Is it always comfortable being a leader? The answer is clearly not. …You have to be willing to live with a certain amount of stress. You have to figure it out, because if you get stressed, you start to make bad decisions.”
Throughout the semester, Student Activities offers the Leadership Development Series as a voluntary series of lunchtime workshops. The series’ second speaker, Professor of Government Allen Springer, will talk today about how to run a successful meeting. On Nov. 1, Katy Longley, Bowdoin’s treasurer, will discuss contract negotiation. Coordinator of Health Education Whitney Hogan and Associate Director of Student Affairs Meadow Davis will speak on Nov. 8 about bystander intervention. And on Nov. 15, Social Media Director Holly Sherburne will discuss how to use social media to best promote an organization.
The Leadership Development Series is supported by the Healey Family Fund for Leadership Development.