March 07, 2023

Leadership Through a Liberal Arts Lens

A new Graham course led by professor David Wray uses diverse texts across centuries and the globe to examine leadership and ethics.

When Tim Murphy, director of the Graham School’s Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program, was compiling the 2022-2023 academic year’s course schedule early last year, he mentioned to longtime Graham instructor David Wray that “ethics and leadership” classes were becoming increasingly popular at Graham.

There was a hunger, Murphy told Wray, particularly among working professionals, to elevate their leadership capabilities by rigorously examining big questions of ethics, leadership, and decision making through a liberal arts perspective.

Wray didn’t need to hear another word.

Within days, Wray, an eminent scholar and dedicated professor who regularly teaches MLA courses, sent Murphy the description for a new course applying a liberal arts lens to leadership development.

An exploration of leadership

Launched this academic year, Wray’s World Wisdom Literature course uses written works from global minds like The Art of War author Sun Tzu and British philosopher John Stuart Mill as well as historic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, to shape and sharpen students’ thoughts on leadership and propel their efforts to lead examined lives of purpose.

“I designed a course that was as wide ranging and broad, over the planet and millennia, as I could devise and one that brought in a lot of texts about the biggest, broadest questions about life, about mind, about thought, and about how to live,” Wray says.

 In the opening week, for instance, Wray and his students explored Plato’s The Statesman, a Socratic dialogue fashioning the political leader as a “weaver” who deftly incorporates different styles together, from competitive to cooperative, aggressive to retiring. During the first week, students also discussed The Instructions of Ptahhotep, an ancient Egyptian composition which champions the importance of listening to crafting a noble life.

In a later examination of writings by Confucius, Wray and students investigated integrity, benevolence, and care for others as components of ethical leadership.

“The master said, if you use government to show people the way and punishment to keep them true, the people will grow evasive and lose all remorse,” Wray says. “But if you use integrity, meaning virtue, to show them the way, and if you use ritual to keep them true, they’ll cultivate remorse and always see deeply into things.”

Wray found students surprised to see texts spanning centuries and geographies carrying universal messages of personal values, ethics, and human connections applicable to their contemporary lives. It underscored humans’ timeless search to take responsibility for their own thoughts, emotions, and actions as well as the climate of their mental life.

“The thought here is that by reading these texts and discussing them in the keenest critical way possible that’s the way we are most likely to get at what these texts might have to offer us in response to questions about how to live and how to lead,” Wray says.

Applying lessons to modern-day lives

Though David Allan-Matheson was exposed to leadership principles from the likes of Confucius and Marcus Aurelius as a West Point undergraduate some two decades ago, he entered Wray’s World Wisdom Literature course to “get back to those basics” and gain a more expansive understanding of leadership.

In particular, Allan-Matheson relished reading Marcus Aurelius, who stressed the importance of being true to oneself. He says the course not only compelled him to reflect on his professional role as the head of human resources and medical affairs for the U.S. Army Reserve’s 310th Sustainment Command, but also fueled valuable, rich conversations about servant leadership with his children.

“These philosophers really got me thinking about my own life, my own existence, and how I’m going to impact my children, how my children will impact others, and how we can just impact humanity in general,” Allan-Matheson says. “Because if we’re only in this for ourselves, that’s the wrong idea for life.”

Sparked by a recent move into academic administration, veteran educator Daniel Costello enrolled in World Wisdom Literature to continue deeper self-reflection on his own leadership style and how he hopes to show up for others. In reading diverse texts and engaging in discussion with his fellow students, Costello discovered thought-provoking and action-oriented ideas he could apply to his new administrative position.

“The process of finding my own leadership style and being given the permission to live into my own sensibilities and having some ancient authors guiding me along has been very fruitful for me,” Costello says.

And Cara Brennan Allamano, the chief people officer at software management company Lattice, credits her experience in Wray’s World Wisdom Literature course for strengthening her critical thinking capabilities and unearthing improvements she could make as a leader. As a result, Allamano is finding more purpose in her work and asking deeper questions of her team.

“Reaching deeper and going broader in the liberal arts perspective has helped me think about the tactical pieces of my day job better,” Allamano says.

Those are the type of results Wray envisioned when he crafted the course, hoping exploration and discussion of these diverse thoughts on leadership and ethics would inspire students’ growth into better thinkers, better listeners, and better communicators poised to reach their fullest human potential.

“These arts go with us everywhere … and there’s no moment that we can’t bring them with us,” Wray says. “They accompany us through all the stages of life.”


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