February 17, 2021

The Wilson Center kicked off its spring event series on January 27 with a virtual fireside chat that examined the interdisciplinary study of leadership.

Wilson Center for Leadership logoThe Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest kicked off its spring event series on January 27 with a virtual fireside chat between Wheat Professor in Leadership John Hillen, Professor of Psychology Jennifer Vitale, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian Viktoria Basham. The trio discussed the interdisciplinary study of leadership facilitated by the Wilson Faculty Fellowship program, which brings together faculty members from across the Hill to teach leadership courses from the lens of their specific discipline.

Basham, who holds a doctorate in Slavic languages and literature from the University of Virginia, teaches the wildly popular "Labor Camps and Crime"—INDS 185-01— where students explore concepts of leadership where leaders can be either powerful political figures or labor camp survivors, using classic Russian texts such as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Basham notes that “history teaches you the facts, but people don’t relate emotionally to facts. Literature teaches you about human emotions, and leaders have to speak in narratives because that is how people learn. Reading literature is a great way to learn how to do that.” Using these texts, she prods students to consider the depth and array of the human emotions explored in literature. “People see and feel strong emotions in different ways. Understanding this gives students more empathy for themselves and others which is a key component of leadership,” Basham says.

Hillen adds that the difference between management and leadership often boils down to understanding how to read one’s followers’ emotions and lead them through the emotions to the desired outcome versus just “putting all of the trains on the right tracks.”

Vitale, with a background in criminal psychology and psychopathy, teaches Personality and Leadership—PSYC 285—and provides a very practical explanation of the link between psychology and leadership. “If you want to understand how to lead other people, you have to be very self-aware,” she explains. “We don’t question an athlete who understands their muscular systems and how to train them or how to strengthen their weak shoulder; we should expect the same thing psychologically of our leaders.”

When asked about her process behind designing the course, Vitale explains that “there’s a foundation that matters. Whether you’re a citizen or a leader, there are rules of human behavior that apply. I wanted to shore up the basic awareness of people as individuals and people in a group and how that informs thought about citizenship or participation in the public sector.”

Hillen notes that any organization is ultimately a group of people trying to accomplish something, whether that group is a church choir or the national government, and its dynamics are rooted in psychology.

Teaching students that leadership is multi-faceted and complex is imperative as the Wilson Center prepares men of character for lives of consequence. The Wilson Faculty Fellowship Program provides an innovative and comprehensive way to do just that.

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