They say that you learn everything you need to know in life in kindergarten. Treat others as you want to be treated, play fair, clean up your own mess, naps are good — the list goes on.
Beyond calculus and chemistry, however, one skill stands out to me as something I didn’t learn when I was five — something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s a nebulous concept, one that is hard to pinpoint in writing but easy to identify by experience. That concept is leadership.
From a young age, we’re taught to “follow the leader.” But there’s no explicit lesson for how to become a leader, much less one that merits followers.
Within the athletic sphere, leadership takes many forms, whether it is bestowed upon us through years of experience and seniority, with titles of captainship, or by embodying grit and being resilient. I think any student-athlete at Penn would agree that without some semblance of leadership outside of the coaching staff, a season’s goals would be for naught and practice would be little more than going through the motions.
That is why it is crucial for student-athletes to learn how to lead — and how to follow. Luckily for us Quakers, we have an Athletic Department that is keenly aware of this need.
As announced on March 21, 2017, the University is launching a Penn Athletics Wharton Leadership Academy in partnership with the Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program at the Wharton School that will provide leadership training to all student-athletes at Penn.
Penn Athletics ran a pilot program for the Leadership Academy in May 2016 that was attended by all of Penn’s varsity sports captains and administered by Jeff Klein, the executive director of the McNulty Leadership Program, Anne Greenhalgh, a professor of management and Klein’s deputy director, and John Kanengieter, a Director for Leadership at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). After receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from the participating captains, Penn Athletics sought to expand the program.
“We’re trying to do that now for everybody,” explained Lauren Caminiti, Penn Athletics’ Student Development Coordinator. “It’s happening next year. It’s going to start with the freshman class and then try to move them through and slowly add people to that.”
The initiative was made possible through two substantial monetary gifts, one of $1 million dollars from David S. Pottruck, a decorated wrestler and football player during his years at Penn and former C.E.O. of Charles Schwab, and another of $500,000 from Benjamin Breier, a Penn baseball alum and current president of Kindred Healthcare. It is telling that two former student-athletes fund the program, for they understand the difference great leaders can make on the playing field.
“Leadership is a quality that can, and should, be taught,” Pottruck said in a press release made by the University. “The combined stamina, discipline and team spirit that Penn’s athletes show so consistently demonstrates their enormous potential as world leaders.”
When I first heard the news about the Leadership Academy I was thrilled, as I attended the guinea pig session last May that was held in Steinberg-Dietrich Hall.
The so-called “captains training” began with an exercise on values led by Klein and Greenhalgh. Each of the student-athletes in the room was presented with a deck of about 50 cards, each with a different term, such as “family,” “integrity,” and “discipline.” We were told to pick just three and then justify our choice to other captains in small groups. Everyone I spoke with had picked a different set of three cards, and yet there were still shared undercurrents of respect for hard work and investing in relationships.
Next, the captains migrated downstairs to a room with two perpendicular rope lines laid out on the floor. As we walked into the room, Kanengieter explained that we would be doing an interactive exercise. He would define the rope axis, ask us a question and then wait while we placed ourselves in the room based on our answer.
The tone of the first series of questions was light – are you a morning person? What kind of music pumps you up? Gradually, Kanengieter moved towards more serious questions that poked at our leadership tendencies. By the end of the session we were scattered across the room upon axes based on how rational vs. emotional and introverted vs. extroverted we were.
Kanengieter then explained how people in each of the quadrants react to crisis situations. It was fascinating to see what coordinates my co-captians occupied on that imaginary plane. Without that exercise, I don’t think I would have had as firm a grasp on my own strengths and weaknesses as a leader, nor those of my teammates. Countless times over the course of the swim season I found myself going back to that room, and using Kanengieter’s lessons as a basis for when to defer to my co-captains and when to take on a larger role.
Afterwards, Klein led the captains through a debriefing session when we set goals for our teams and ourselves for the upcoming year. From the six hours we spent at the training session, I learned more about myself than I have from almost a decade in the pool.
The Leadership Academy is something I think all Penn student-athletes will benefit from, whether they are expected to take on a leadership role as upperclassmen, or still learning the ropes of how to be a student-athlete at an Ivy League school and largely following the example of their teammates.
While the exact lesson plans for Penn Athletics’ Wharton Leadership Academy have yet to be finalized, I sincerely hope that it includes an exercise similar to the one Kanengieter led in May.
If I learned one thing at the captains training last year, it is that leadership is a skill that never ceases to need refinement. And something tells me my kindergarten mind wouldn’t have quite grasped that concept.