Three million hits appear when one searches for “leadership academy” or “leadership training” on Google. Amazon has 22,000 titles in stock relating to leadership. Websites offer quick lessons and simple skills to become a charismatic leader in 24 hours or less.
At Boston College, there are close to 20 leadership programs and over a dozen leadership awards offered for students.
On Thursday night, Rev. Paul McNellis, S.J. cited these facts to open his discussion “How Men Become Good Leaders (And Why Women Should Care),” sponsored by the Sons of St. Patrick and the St. Thomas More Society. Although he decided to address men primarily, McNellis said he was not doing so exclusively.
“I do believe that there are some differences between men and women … [and] I have something to say that I hope would be of interest to women as well,” he said.
Being a leader is related to having authority and responsibility, McNellis said, but it is not the same, nor is it the same as management. He offered a working definition of a leader-a person others are willing to follow because they respect him or her.
He went on to offer three examples of leadership that he has witnessed, beginning with a commanding officer with his unit when he served as a lieutenant in the Vietnam War.
After a South Vietnamese ally was injured, the officer called for an air evacuation, yet the only aircraft in the area was an upscale helicopter made for transporting important military figures. The officer knew that the pilot would only transport a wounded American in this kind of helicopter, so when the pilot asked whether the soldier was American or South Vietnamese, the officer replied, “Neither, he’s a human being.” The man was rescued by the helicopter.
The second instance of leadership McNellis shared was from 2010, immediately following the BC men’s hockey team’s victory in the national championship game. McNellis noticed that the first thing assistant captain Ben Smith, BC ’10, did after the final buzzer was skate over to the BC band and thank them for being there.
“It was the classy thing to do, I thought,” McNellis said. “Something he hadn’t planned on.”
The final example was from when McNellis was 16 years old in his high school cafeteria, and his friend, upon feeling uncomfortable at the conversation topic that made fun of women, had the courage to get up and leave the table. In all three cases, McNellis said the men showed elements of character, none of them having had trained for the responses they ultimately had in those particular moments.
McNellis then went on to discuss why people respect leaders, and he determined that it was because they were good men.
“Men become good leaders, but first become good men,” he said. “How do you become a good man? It’s a difficult, lifelong task. It’s not done once and for all. There’s no one course you can take.”
Several aspects of today’s society, particularly on college campuses, discourage commitment and virtue, making it more difficult to become a good man, he said. Among these elements that McNellis said to avoid are addictions to alcohol and pornography. McNellis also cited an unrealistic outlook on life as detrimental to becoming a good man.
“The most insidious, harmful thing about the college experience is thinking of college as a bubble that puts real life on hold,” he said. “How unreal is this really?”
Some suggestions he offered to become a good man included being honest, never lying or cheating, being on a budget, being considerate, spending time with friends whom you respect, developing a sense of honor, treating all women with respect, and accepting responsibility.
A key example McNellis shared of being both a good leader and a good father was Don Shea, a 1918 graduate of BC and the namesake of Shea Field. A sailor during World War II, Shea wrote a note home to his young son telling him to be brave, take care of his mother, and heed his advice for his future.
“Study hard when you go to school,” Shea wrote. “Be a leader in everything good in life. Be a good Catholic. And you can’t help being a good American. Play fair always. Play to win, but if you must lose, lose like a gentleman and a good sportsman.”
In acknowledging female leaders, McNellis said that leadership for both men and women is based on character, and the virtues of good male and female leaders are basically the same, but some are emphasized differently. Men, for example, might be ashamed of being called cowards, yet this would be seen differently for women, who might feel worse about being called cold or heartless.
“Character is the most interesting thing about another human being and what you can admire the most is character,” McNellis said.