Robert Korstad

What’s a core value in your teaching and mentoring?

A core concept I communicate with my students is an appreciation for determination. It’s a commitment. Making the world a better place becomes a life mission. It’s not something ephemeral that you can dabble in here and there. If you are serious about being a leader, then being engaged in the society you live in requires a commitment, and your determination to honor that commitment becomes a core value. A belief in democracy, or equity—there are a lot of values that people can espouse—that they might believe in strongly—but those don’t resonate with people unless they have a real commitment to see them realized.

I’ll give you an example—the guy whose daughter was the news reporter killed the other day in Virginia. I watched him on the news. He said, “They are messing with the wrong family now. My life commitment is going to be to go after the NRA and to end gun violence in the United States.” You see this determination in people who have moments in which things come together for them, and sometimes it is because of a tragedy.
Amy Biehl, the young woman who was killed in South Africa–her parents created this fabulous foundation. It completely changed their lives. There was this commitment on the part of the family to help change the social issues that created the circumstances that led to Amy Biehl’s death.
Determination is different than what we normally think of as values. It embodies purpose and action. To have determination is to act on the purpose you have in life.

People can have a sense of purpose, but not act on it.

I see it in students. They have purpose, but they don’t know how to act on it, or they are afraid to act on it, or they are afraid if they express the kind of passion they have in life, they are not going to make enough money, or their parents are not going to be happy with them.
Determination is one of the values we have always tried to instill in our students here. When you feel strongly about something, and you have a purpose, you have to act on it. You have to acquire the skills to do that.

Tell us about a leadership principle that you emphasize with your students.

Talking about determination leads me to the principle of wisdom. A desire or quest for wisdom is something that great and effective leaders have. What is wisdom? A lot of different things. It’s the ability to be self-critical, to be reflective. It’s an ability to think broadly, and historically, and not to see things in narrow ways, but to understand the breadth of a problem or issue you are trying to deal with. And it is a real capacity to suppress your own ego in the goal of achieving something bigger than you are.

Wisdom is something you acquire over time. You are not born with it. I’ve always thought that’s one of the things we ask our students to do—the reflection, the critical thinking, the engagement. If you put these things together, what are they acquiring? They are acquiring skills and experience, but they are also getting wiser. That’s a leadership principle I’ve spent a lot of time teaching.

How would you describe the spirit of the Hart Leadership Program?

Collaboration. It’s collaboration among faculty and it’s genuine collaboration among students and faculty. Our ability to provide a space where collaboration is nurtured and welcomed is something that draws students to this place.

I think collaboration—particularly among faculty and students—is often a hard thing for an institution to achieve. But collaboration is definitely one thing our students would mention. Ask them to look back on what was special about the classroom experience or the combination of the classroom and the experiential work that they did. Look at Tony’s classes—they are incredibly collaborative. He gets in there with the students. He rolls up his sleeves, and they work on these things together. Alma does the same thing. And I do it, too, but I have a different style. And it is always something we strive to do better.


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