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

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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.

2 responses

  1. Thank you for saying this, David. Business students don’t take enough liberal arts courses in the standard business degree curriculum, and that has never made any sense to me. If being successful in business means going out and engaging with the world, it’s fundamental to be able to understand how that world works.

    • Hi Fiona, I’m so heartened, but not surprised, that you would endorse more exposure to the liberal arts for business students. Wise words from one who has written a book about great music!

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