In praise of the liberal arts: Leadership training is fine, but more importantly, we need more educated leaders

(graphic courtesy of

Lots of management degree programs, professional seminars, and personal coaching services offer instruction and guidance in leadership training and development. That’s all fine and good, but what we really need is the nurturing of better, wiser, more ethical leaders.

One way is to invite study, dialogue, and reflection grounded in the liberal arts: Yup, stuff like history, philosophy, psychology, theology (even for non-believers), sociology, art, political science, literature, anthropology, you name it. These academic disciplines are in decline in our colleges and universities, as higher ed institutions rush to market themselves as career builders whose graduates can “hit the ground running” in today’s fast-paced, tech-friendly workplaces.

Let’s first dispense with the silly imagery of hitting the ground running, which is advisable only if you’re a trained paratrooper in the military. Instead, let’s take a deeper dive into what kind of learning helps us to become more effective, thoughtful, and moral individuals participating in a complex society. The liberal arts equip us with knowledge, concepts, and modes of thinking helpful toward that end. They may also help to make us wiser and more empathetic.

Doubt my words? Just search “liberal arts and leadership,” and you’ll get plenty of endorsements.

Am I suggesting that we ignore teaching folks how to run an organization, invent software, or create something? Absolutely not. However, technical and management skills helpful towards being successful in a profession or vocation should be informed by core values and ethics, along with an understanding of our historical, societal, and individual development.

Nor does this mean that everyone should go or return to college and major in philosophy or political science, though I can think of worse things to do. There are plenty of ways to learn about the liberal arts. And, in fact, such a course of study may be more meaningful as one gets older. Life experience can deeply inform our appreciation of the liberal arts, and vice versa.

If, like me, you’re an adult who prefers to learn independently, then here are some possible starting places, in no particular order. Longtime readers of this blog may recognize some of them:

  • Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, is an anthology of readings in the liberal arts tradition, designed for undergraduates, and with a special emphasis on the question of vocation. I guarantee that many of the selections carry greater resonance with adults who have been around the block a few times than with the typical 19-year-old.
  • The works of Charles D. Hayes, a homegrown philosopher and former oilman, Texas police officer, and Marine, are a tribute to the power of liberal arts learning. You can discover his books by going to this link. For starters, I especially recommend two of his earlier books, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004) (non-fiction), and Portals in a Northern Sky (2003) (fiction).
  • Two of the leading online continuing education providers, Coursera (link here) and EdX (link here), offer numerous liberal arts courses taught by professors from around the world, either free or for a nominal course fee.
  • The Great Courses (link here) offers lectures on many topics by leading professors, in multiple formats, including a subscription streaming service that provides access to hundreds of courses for a fraction of what you’d pay to own them.
  • Open Culture (link here) is a great portal for discovering free learning resources, including plenty in the liberal arts.
  • Literary Hub (link here) is an excellent site for learning about books and culture, especially modern literature.
  • Especially if you’re on a tight budget (and even if you’re not), check out your public library. You’ll find books, periodicals, films, and other resources galore, all for free.

These resources just scratch the surface. If you want to enrich your worldview and become a better leader by studying the liberal arts, then a world of learning awaits you.

Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week 2019: All in a week’s work

This is Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week, and here in Massachusetts, we’ve got some promising news to report: The Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Bill (Senate No. 1072, Sen. Paul Feeney, lead sponsor) has been reported favorably out of the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and is now before the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. Put simply, we’ve made an important step forward in the process of eventually enacting this bill. Thank you again to all of the advocates who are contacting their state legislators and helping to make this happen!

Later today, I’ll be hosting an event at Suffolk University Law School, “A Conversation about Workplace Bullying with Dr. Gary Namie,” featuring the foremost North American authority on workplace bullying. Gary and I will be discussing the past, present, and future of the ongoing movement to prevent, stop, and respond to workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

This weekend, Gary will be facilitating a special edition of his world-class Workplace Bullying University intensive seminar for union leaders and activists, hosted by NAGE-SEIU, one of the major public sector labor unions that has been a primary supporter of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

And yesterday, I had the honor of giving the keynote address for the Boston Bar Association’s annual employment law conference. My talk was titled “Dignity at Work and Workplace Bullying: Roles for Employment and Labor Lawyers?” Although not formally part of the Freedom Week events, this gave me a welcomed opportunity to talk about workplace bullying to a group of Boston area labor and employment attorneys. In addition to discussing how lawyers representing both management and workers can address bullying at work in their practices, I presented the basics of the Healthy Workplace Bill and what its implications would be for employment litigation.

Tackling work abuse is an ongoing commitment that is shared with many other readers of this blog. So when I say that this is all in a week’s work, I know that many of you can relate. 






Man faced surgery, while bullying co-workers bet on his survival chances and gave him a toe tag

His name was Charlie Bowlby. As reported by Peter Salter for the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star (link here), he was a divorced, single, middle-aged guy whose life often “revolved around music.” Bowlby shared much of his life on Facebook:

Almost daily — and sometimes several times a day — he shared photos of his turntable and whatever album was providing the current soundtrack to his life. Ozzy and KISS, Robert Plant and Pink Floyd, Donald Fagen and his favorite, a South African-born singer named Dilana Smith.

He also posted memes and cat videos and selfies, a long-haired rock star look-alike, always wearing a black T-shirt and a big grin.

A “broken soul”

Singer Dilana Smith, who had became friends with Bowlby, shared this with the Journal Star:

Bowlby would travel to watch her perform when she was back in the States, and they’d have breakfast together. They talked about once a week, she said, through calls, messages and video chats.

He had a broken soul, she said, but had a positive attitude. “Charles seemed to me a little bit of an outsider, an outcast. Charles was special. I literally took Charles under my wing and nicknamed him CharlieBoy.”

Bowlby spent many years working for the Nebraska Department of Transportation. The work side of his life was not good, and Salter’s article goes into some detail about that. Among other things, he was repeatedly bullied by co-workers. The stress took its toll on him, and friends urged him to quit. He said he couldn’t afford to do so:

“He needed his job. He needed his insurance,” his family wrote. “Although a career at the state is not a lucrative prospect, making ends meet can ironically be the fundamental thing that ultimately keeps many bound to the source of their misery.”

Facing heart surgery

Earlier this year, Bowlby faced heart surgery. His Facebook posts, according to the Journal Star article, revealed increasing fear and concern about the upcoming procedure.

Some of his co-workers decided to pile onto that fear. They took bets on whether he would survive the surgery. Soon before the procedure, they gave him a fake toe tag with his name on it.

Charlie Bowlby went in for surgery on August 23. But he didn’t make it. He died from complications following the surgery a couple of days later.

The Journal Star further reports that in the aftermath of Bowlby’s death, the Nebraska Department of Transportation (DOT) was investigating the allegations of bullying from his co-workers, but the DOT would not provide more details. The DOT did, however, claim that bullying behaviors are not tolerated.

Familiar and unique

Over the years, I’ve encountered so many heartbreaking, outrageous stories about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, and they typically mix both familiar and unique elements.

The story of Charlie Bowlby certainly fits this description. On the one hand, we hear so often about the bullied worker who feels trapped into remaining with their employer. In addition, multiple aggressor bullying and mobbing appears to be especially prevalent in public sector work situations. It’s also quite likely that stress from the bullying contributed significantly to Bowlby’s health problems, another common element of work abuse situations.

On the other hand, the abuse perpetrated by these co-workers took on a uniquely horrible spin. Imagine betting on the likelihood that a co-worker will survive serious surgery. Fathom the cruel nature required to give him a fake toe tag days before his operation. I found myself reading this article and wondering, what the hell is wrong with these people?

I hope you’ll read the full Journal Star article here. It provides a lot more context and background to Charlie Bowlby’s story and the people who cared about him.

Here in the U.S., October has been deemed National Bullying Prevention Month. Next week, we’ll be observing Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week, while at the same time, our Canadian neighbors will be observing Workplace Bullying Awareness Week. Obviously the vital need for us to prevent and respond to bullying and mobbing behaviors remains strong, so let’s use these observances to redouble our commitment.


For those in the Greater Boston area, just a quick reminder that on Friday, October 18, I’ll be hosting a free talk about workplace bullying featuring Dr. Gary Namie, a foremost authority on workplace bullying and co-founder of the Workplace Bullying Institute. The event will start at 4 p.m. at Suffolk University Law School in downtown Boston. You may go here for registration details.

MTW Newsstand: October 2019

Every month, the “MTW Newsstand” brings you a curated selection of articles relevant to work, workers, and workplaces. Whenever possible, the materials are freely accessible. Here are this month’s offerings:

Eric Kuelker, “How Psychological Injuries Cause Physical Illness — And How Therapy Can Heal It,” Mad in America (2019) (link here) — “You and your loved ones now have a new future. Whether the psychological injury was early in your life or recent, whether your boss bullied you, or your business partner stole from you, whatever the nature of your emotional wound, a healthy new future is possible. Torn DNA can be woven together again, blood pressure can drop, gray matter in the brain can grow, and you can greatly reduce the risk of 7 of the 10 leading causes of early death.”

Michelle R. Smith, “Why many employees feel devalued even in booming job market,” AP News (2019) (link here) — “Economic research, government data and interviews with workers sketch a picture of lagging wages, eroding benefits and demands for employees to do more without more pay. The loyalty and security that many say they once felt from their employers have diminished, and with it some measure of their satisfaction.”

A. Pawlowski, “Why older women will rule the world: The future is female, MIT expert says,” NBC News (2019) (link here) — “Older women can sometimes feel like they’re invisible to workplaces and businesses, but they’re actually the trailblazers others should be watching, says Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the new book, “The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market.” As people get older, the future is female, he argues, with women better prepared for life after middle age than their male peers.”

Karen Weese, “America’s fastest growing jobs don’t pay a living wage,” The Week (2019) (link here) — Over the next 10 years, the occupations with the most job growth in America will not be the techy jobs that most of us think of as the jobs of the future, like, say, solar-panel technicians or software engineers. Instead, they’ll be the jobs held by the women in Hyde-Miller’s community center neighborhood: home health aide and personal care aide. More than one million new aides will be needed over the next decade, in addition to the 3.2 million already in the field, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday. What’s more, six of the 10 occupations providing the most new jobs over the next decade will pay less than $27,000 a year. That’s more than 15 million people, working hard at jobs that simply don’t pay the bills.”

Sherri Gordon, “6 Reasons Why People Are Bullied at Work,” verywellmind (2019) (link here) — “If you have experienced workplace bullying, you may be asking yourself “why me?” And you are not alone: workplace bullying impacts 54 million Americans every year. Here are some common reasons why people are targeted by workplace bullies.”

Bill Chappell, “U.S. Income Inequality Worsens, Widening To A New Gap,” NPR (2019) (link here) — “The gap between the richest and the poorest U.S. households is now the largest it’s been in the past 50 years — despite the median U.S. income hitting a new record in 2018, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. . . . While many states didn’t see a change in income inequality last year, the income gap grew wider in nine states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Kansas, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Texas and Virginia.”

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