Interview: Tony Brown
What’s a core value in your teaching and mentoring?
In my alumni work now, we are talking about “do better, be better,” and embedded in being better is a concept of strong-hearted leadership—the kind of leadership that is not only moral-driven, but it is compassionate and courageous. It’s strong-hearted leadership as compared to soft-hearted leadership, or hard-hearted leadership.
Having the courage of a lion to do what’s right. Having heart. I use the term strong-hearted leadership a lot in my teaching. It says a lot to me. In some ways it’s what I’ve aspired to do in my life and career—to do what’s right. If I have to make a decision that is going to cause harm—suffer. Don’t bypass suffering. Take it in, feel it. But then you still have to do what’s right.
That’s core. When you talk about being better, I don’t care about helping people improve their MBA skills, accounting skills, or how high they can jump. It’s about being better.
The application of that is the “do better” part. So the term we use is “do better, be better.” It’s not sitting on a rock and deciding things. It’s going out and doing good things, and reflecting. Strong-hearted leadership develops. That’s what I believe. It really does develop over time.
Pedagogically—everything I do involves real projects, real results, and in my own way, deep reflection, such as the Leadership Maps, and other similar assignments.
You can have the experience of doing things, but you won’t know where you are going unless you pause to take things in. This idea of strong-hearted leadership is always a combination—of team projects, results, and taking it in.
Tell us about a leadership principle that you emphasize with your students.
The leadership principle is proactive, moral-based leadership. If you do good things for people, if you do what’s right, you can effect change.
Strong-hearted leadership is action oriented. Leadership by definition to me has to involve real results and working with other people. Johnny Appleseed doesn’t get into my leadership club. So actually the problem I have in my language is that the thing I really care about is enterprising, strong-hearted leadership. But that phrase is too cumbersome, too wordy. You could be a military general and be a strong-hearted leader. But I am talking about on the ground, small is beautiful, incremental change. So enterprising applies to people who can discern. They can actually define a problem, act on it in an imaginative, resourceful, proactive way. And I am much more interested in that than in how you lead the United Nations.
But there is a side of “enterprising”—it could be the entrepreneurship club—that doesn’t interest me. The question is how do you bring these moral values and courage and compassion into your work of making things happen? So “enterprising” is making things happen. Enterprising and strong-hearted leadership go hand in hand. They are not sequential.
Pedagogically my students are going to do two-minute proposals in a week about their enterprising ideas, and it’s got to be built on what they care about. In the first class they have to write a paper about something that has distressed them about their Duke experience. And the enterprising side of things is how do you take a big issue and then define one thing you could do where you could actually make a difference?
The notion of leadership is that we have limited energy and capacity to make change. So we’d better be focusing on what we really care about, what we are passionate about, what distresses us, what excites us. And it’s got to come from the inside out.
How would you describe the spirit of the Hart Leadership Program?
We have a passion for teaching. It’s a human teaching. And we have the luxury and privilege to do this. It’s not a program about leadership scholarship. We have a notion of leadership that really allows us to focus on efficacy, identity and agency. These are the words that I use.
And we all come at it in different ways, and the focus to get there—all involves critical analysis and cognitive work, but it’s not limited to cognitive work. It’s the work of the heart, too. And it’s about real life. It’s not abstract.
The other quick thing about the Hart Leadership Program, and one thing that touches everybody—is that what we do is personal. It’s personal for us and for the students.
And one other thing. If you don’t know what we do, it is easy to underestimate the cognitive development aspect of what we do. And yet I find that the hardest thinking is when you are thinking about yourself, your own values. It’s not fluffy stuff.