Former Governor Angus King Offers Life Lessons on Leadership

Angus King in Class. James Marshall photo.

Angus King in Class. James Marshall photo.

It’s not unusual for a Bowdoin student to take a class with a professor of renown. The College’s faculty includes a mix of nationally and internationally recognized scientists, scholars, artists and writers.

But students get an improbably practical take on the subject of leadership when they enroll in Angus King’s interdisciplinary Leaders and Leadership course. King is a former two-term Maine governor who throws his own life lessons into the mix while studying leaders great and small.

“The first year I taught the class,” he recalls, “every time I would mention one of my experiences as governor I would apologize and say, ‘This class is not about me, but when we had the ice storm …’ Finally this student spoke up and said, ‘Stop apologizing for being Governor. That’s why we are in the class!’ ”

Video: Viewpoints on leadership from King’s students 

King soon realized that it wasn’t just his cachet they were drawn to — “The celebrity stuff wears off fast,” he says — but to his own strengths, failures, and learning extracted from 30-plus years as an entrepreneur, attorney, public television host, and very public, public servant.

Whether talking about Bill Parcell’s leadership on the field, Lincoln’s leadership of state, or Arlene Blum’s ascent of Annapurna, King has developed a course richly textured in personal experience.

He integrates his own public-speaking tips alongside those of Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. Conversely, he uses himself as an example of what not to do:

“When I was governor,” said King, during a recent class, “We developed a program to bring AP courses to every Maine high school through an interactive TV network. Brilliant, as they say on Guinness ads, right? Only it hasn’t worked as well as it should have. Know why? We just didn’t attend to the details of execution very well, like harmonizing class schedules between high schools.

“A good leader has that picture from the balcony, but also knows what’s happening on the ground,” says former Maine Governor Angus King. “I was at a stage in my administration where I hadn’t really learned the lesson that the nuts-and-bolts of execution are as important to leadership as inspiration.”

The real-life approach spills over in other ways, from the informal — pizza and class-related movies at his house on Sunday evenings — to the informative. A recent analysis of Chamberlain’s leadership at Gettysburg, for instance, was offset by an in-class visit by a Marine colonel discussing his leadership challenges under fire during two tours of duty in Vietnam.

Students say this mix of leadership principle and personal practice has been electrifying:

“It’s a rare course where you learn like this,” says mathematics major David White ’09, who waited a year to get into King’s course. “We’re reading the stories of leaders, learning leadership theory, but mainly we’re seeing how the principles apply to what they actually did. It helps you realize you can learn some fundamental qualities and become a leader with great skills.

“Every day I learn something new I immediately apply in my life. Every quality we talk about is applicable in a positive way. I’m a captain of the men’s volleyball league, and already it’s making me a better leader. Just learning how to listen. Because I’m realizing that these leaders were great, in part, because they could listen to people.”

King’s class is perhaps one of the more overtly focused curricular examinations of a concept that has long been an important part of the College’s history and distinction — a commitment to inspire “leaders in all walks of life.”

“Many of our courses teach about leadership in historical, sociological and political contexts,” notes Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Judd. “But leadership itself rests on the skills that are central to our curriculum: the ability to think and write critically, to work collaboratively, to evaluate problems and put knowledge together in new ways to respond to those problems.

“I think students are really inspired by the number of important leaders who have been educated at Bowdoin.”
“And it runs deeper than the curricular,” she adds. “We see leadership growing out of encounters in the classroom, but also on athletic fields, in student performing arts groups and through community service work. It’s a balance of the scholarly and the practical.

“I think that’s what’s attractive about Bowdoin to many students — they rub up against leadership every day in all sorts of interesting ways. Studying leadership with a former governor is certainly one of them.”

Bowdoin’s many co- and extra-curricular student groups also give students a chance to explore leadership opportunities — and challenges — notes Allen Delong, director of student life.

“Many of our students come with leadership experience in high school, but in the college environment find there are more demands on their skills,” he says. “They are hungry to learn more practical applications in their lives, clubs and organizations.”

With that in mind, Delong and Women’s Rugby Coach MaryBeth Mathews have begun offering a series of skill-based workshops for students — Bowdoin’s Leadership Development Series, hands-on training in matters such as communication, productive meetings, peer networking, time management and public speaking.

“The response has been tremendous,” notes Delong. “I think students are really inspired by the number of important leaders who have been educated at Bowdoin. Simultaneously, they are wondering where their spot is in the pantheon and how they will get there. This just provides one more opportunity to think about that — to take some of the concepts they are learning in a more academic way and try them out.”

“The whole theory of the course is that we learn from stories,” says King. “That’s why it’s a series of case studies; we’re examining the qualities of leadership as they are exemplified in real peoples’ lives and situations.”
Back in Angus King’s class, the governor is referencing the world pantheon to illustrate one very hard-won lesson in leadership: Churchill’s failure at the Dardanelles.

“Learn from your failures!” he shouts, pausing for dramatic effect like the savvy orator he is. “If you don’t learn from your failures you are missing a great education.

“Churchill said, ‘Never again will I be in the position of being responsible unless I have the power to make it happen.’ That’s a good principle. I want you to remember that because you are going to have to apply it in the next five years. Somebody’s going to want you to take responsibility for something but they won’t give you the power to carry it through. DON’T DO IT!”

At that, all thirty pairs of eyes rivet squarely on his face.

Story posted April 06, 2007, Bowdoin College