News and Events
Following the Leaders: The Second Annual Project Lead Takes to the Road
As the President signs a new bill in Washington D.C., the CEO of a New York financial powerhouse plans corporate mergers and staff layoffs, while the coach of a national sports team signs a major transfer in any prominent city of the country. These are the leaders we read about every day in the news. But out of the spotlight, thousands of leaders are also at work, quietly making the every day decisions and resolving the battles that affect the people around them. Pepperdine's Project Lead program took two teams to meet with and learn from both types of leaders during the spring break week of February 28 to March 7.
The first team answered the siren call of the major east coast cities: Washington DC, Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia, which harbor some of the leading outlets of technology, sports, science, business, and entertainment.
"The East Coast trip interviewed some pretty prestigious leaders, got tours of ESPN, the White House including the Oval Office, and the Pentagon," says Kerri Heath, the student leadership development coordinator of Student Affairs at Seaver College. "The group also interviewed a CEO and VP of a pharmaceutical company and went to inner-city schools in DC, New York, and Philadelphia."
The other team had a much different experience, taking the week to drive along the iconic Route 66 interstate from Illinois to California. "The Route 66 trip participants wanted to meet with leaders in small, rural towns," says Heath. "The schools they visited were small and rural also. They were much more flexible with their trip and spent a lot more time in the van."
Both groups had the quintessentially American "road trip" experience, taking turns driving their weathered 12-seater vans to the next destination. While the Route 66 group traveled through the heart of the country along the best known road in America, the East Coast group drove their plum-colored, rusty van – nicknamed Colonel Johnson – between some of the best known cities in America. According to Heath, the unifying theme was going to meet "The Man" in a beat-up, worn-out van.
Another similar aspect of both trips was that friends and family back home could track their progress on the detailed and entertaining blogs kept by the groups throughout the week. The East Coast and Route 66 blogs detailed interviews, pearls of newly acquired wisdom, and charming anecdotes, such as freshman Steven Siwek's descriptive tale of the East Coast group's improvised teamwork:
We returned to find only that Colonel Johnson was injured in the line of duty. By "injured" I mean the parking garage people who parked our wonderful van "accidentally" hit the Colonel's driver side mirror and shattered it to a rubble of glass. Obviously this caused a momentary setback, but our team didn't allow this setback to ruin our day. We cleverly came up with a mirror solution (that probably wasn't the safest idea) - we used our trusty backseat driver, Katy Yasick, who literally sat in the back seat and directed Maurice Collins, the driver, when he wanted to change lanes.
Beyond amassing humorous road-trip tales and interviewing respected leaders for advice, the Project Lead teams conducted leadership workshops at schools along the way. Time spent at schools of varying sizes and socio-economic zip codes taught the Lead-ers about the challenges faced by American teachers and school children, as well as giving them the opportunity to flex their own leadership muscles and impact the students.
Siwek described the challenge of trying to reach every child in a small group, when a natural leadership hierarchy emerges among the children. "It becomes apparent early on in the small group what students will be defining the discussion and what others will be keeping silent," he says, of a workshop at West Deptford High School in New Jersey. "Finding the balance between the person who wouldn't stop talking and the silent student was one of the most difficult things for me as a small group leader."
Meanwhile, at Menaul School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Route 66 crew inspired the private school of 200 students to "Choose to Lead," the day after an emotional visit to Cal Farley's Boys Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. The Ranch is "one of America's largest privately-funded child and family service providers," which provides housing, education, and community to at-risk, disadvantaged children. While touring the facility, the children came to believe the Project Lead team was a singing troupe.
"We were asked to lead a group of children in a few worship songs," wrote the Route 66 blogger. "After a moment of panic and a warp-speed rehearsal session with Hunter [Stanfield, outgoing Student Government President and Route 66 group member] at the guitar, we stood on stage and sang... As we got ready to leave, one little boy stood at the microphone to say a prayer for us that I know we will never forget: 'Dear God, thank you for our friends who sang us like three songs. Amen.'"
Scott Harrison, the CEO of Charity Water – a non profit organization that provides clean water to third world countries – met with the East Coast group in New York City and had some encouraging words for the students. "He spoke a lot about how, although 'you' may not meet certain 'credentials,' 'you' can still do what you want," recalls Siwek. "Mr. Harrison, for example, never majored or minored in 'non-profit management' in college or even after college; he simply knew he wanted to do it. It was his drive, relentlessness and love for what he wanted to do that got him to where he is today."
The works of a truly great leader continue to impact their community long after they themselves are gone, whether it be the organizational decisions made by the superintendent of a small school in Nebraska that positively affects a student decades in the future, or the bill signed by the President abolishing slavery and freeing up millions of oppressed people to build better lives. Along the Mother Road in Illinois, the Route 66 group stopped in Springfield to visit the home of Abraham Lincoln, who was undoubtedly one of the greatest leaders in American history. The experience made them consider their mission and question what values are shared by great leaders:
As we focus on leadership this week, the theme of our endeavor, it was particularly moving to find ourselves in the home of one of the most influential persons we have in our heritage. We sprinted up to the house to see a historical sight; I was not prepared for the gravity of the event. Lincoln was a man of unbelievable humility. He sought no glory, fame, or wealth. It seems he accepted the office almost reluctantly; why does this phenomenon seem to appear in all of our greatest heroes?
This group had already had the meaning of leadership implanted in their collective conscious, being hosted by the family of a Pepperdine student in Chicago, Illinois, on day one. That night, their host opened a lively discussion with the Route 66-ers, touching on the indispensability of ethics in leadership.
He works for a pharmaceutical company and talked to us about the importance of ethics and morals, as well as the challenges facing large corporations in today's world. Our dinner conversation beautifully set the stage for our trip... The function of the American system, from the interactions between neighbors to the policies and practices of big businesses, demand that we acknowledge some absolute boundaries between right and wrong. He made it clear that a good leader is responsible for establishing the ethical boundaries of a group.
The concept of ethics is what some in America feel has been lost recently; the news reports corrupt financial heads profiting off the economic stimulus while hard working citizens struggle to keep their jobs and pay their mortgages. Honest leadership is certainly needed, but the students of Project Lead were able to convene with strong leaders and help communities along the way to recognize Pepperdine as a place that nurtures its mission to serve, as well as lead.
Heath notes that all of the teachers from the schools visited have invited their respective teams to make a return 2010 visit. Students learned that, although poor leadership may often be more newsworthy in the national media, all across America there are leaders who aspire to a higher calling. As the members of the Route 66 team say, "Values are the currency along this road, and these people don't leave home without them."
By Sarah Fisher