Published: July 2, 2021 By

For Brian Muriithi (AeroEngr’22), leadership is about building community, bridging cultures and collaborating. While his ideas are largely informed by his Kenyan heritage and personal experience, Muriithi has found confirmation in the books he’s reading as a student in the Engineering Leadership Program (ENLP).

Take Speaker of the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, which he read for his “Intelligent Leadership” class this spring: “There’s an ongoing, tense war between cultures that don’t understand each other,” he said. “It was the job of a few characters to find the common ground and get people to work together instead of eliminating each other. The book was really about the importance of empathy and understanding.”

Muriithi is one of five recipients of the 2020–21 Newton Endowed Chair in Leadership Student Leaders of the Year Award, from CU Boulder’s Center for Leadership. In 2021, he was one of 3,000 undergraduate students on campus who are focused on improving their leadership skills through new CU Boulder opportunities. 

A new era of leadership at CU

As part of the university’s Flagship 2030 vision to better address 21st-century humanitarian, social and technological challenges, CU introduced a Center for Leadership last year. The center is a top priority for Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano, who holds the Newton Endowed Chair in Leadership, and will distinguish CU’s approach from other universities.

“Just as there is no one way to lead, there is no single approach to developing the leaders of tomorrow,” said Aaron Roof, executive director of the center. “We are a hub that will connect more students to the multidisciplinary leadership education they need, while also amplifying CU’s cutting-edge research in the field of leadership development.”

The Engineering Leadership Program Muriithi is involved with is one of 27 initiatives for the center. CU’s Shilo Brooks, a staunch supporter of the liberal arts with a discipline in political theory, was tapped in 2018 to help prepare future leaders to grapple with the impacts of advances in biomedical engineering, energy, social media and other rapidly evolving fields.

“My view is that leadership education is, in essence, liberal education,” he said,“and that the kinds of challenges leaders face require a certain intellectual agility that can only come by way of a broad and deep curiosity and a vigorous mind that wants to encounter and engage all aspects of the world.”

Along with Angela Thieman Dino (MAnth’95; PhD’07), an anthropologist and senior instructor in the program, Brooks focused the four-course curriculum on exploring leadership through philosophy, history, psychology, politics, literature and anthropology. 

Students read biographies — of the Wright brothers, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., for example — and listen to podcast interviews as a way to understand human “passions and longings and hopes and fears,” which Brooks said is critical to leading teams and also doing well by society.

“We teach leadership as a philosophy, which is where art and science meet: a reasonable, rational knowledge of the world, combined with a humane sensitivity to guide us to wisdom,” said Brooks, faculty director for the ENLP program. “Some of the qualities that a good leader must possess — empathy; character; an appreciation for diversity; a sense for the right, the just and the good — are not purely numerical, measurable or scientific in character.” 

While the ENLP curriculum emphasizes character formation, Brooks appreciates the diversity of approaches to leadership on campus. 

“The Center for Leadership brings together all the programs, all the diverse interests, all the manifold ways of doing things,” he said. “So, we all talk to each other and learn from each other.”

New metrics for leadership

For Stefanie K. Johnson, associate professor in CU’s Leeds School of Business, the art and science of leadership have become one and the same.“People study how leaders build empathy, and we can measure empathy,” she said. “So, if you consider science to be what I do — which is using the empirical scientific method to test hypotheses —then it’s all science.”

Specifically, Johnson studies the intersection of leadership and diversity. Her bestselling book, Inclusify: The Power Uniqueness and Belonging to Build Innovative Teams, was published last year, and in addition to teaching students, she has spoken across the U.S. as a consultant, including in the White House. 

What matters most to Johnson is that leaders keep learning.

“If you were a great leader in 1980 and you’re doing the same thing today, then you’re not a great leader anymore.”

“If you were a great leader in 1980 and you’re doing the same thing today, then you’re not a great leader anymore,” she said. “But if we can define certain competencies, then we can train people to be better at them. That makes leadership more accessible.” 

At Leeds, Johnson said they are focusing on building leaders who have moral, ethical character, not just people who can make money. 

“For a long time, we thought first you had to get your technical skills down — accounting, finance, marketing — and if you had extra time, you could focus on the more social skills like empathy and inclusivity. Now it’s the opposite. Our students want an education that aligns with their values and prepares them for a workplace that supports the triple bottom line of people, planet and profits.”

In that way, she believes CU Boulder is getting it right.

“Of course, we have to act on our values and make certain changes,” she said. “But our Center for Leadership shows how progressive we are compared to other institutions.”

Learning the art of leadership

Peter Huang, professor and DeMuth Chair at Colorado Law, studies happiness in law and business. Among other courses, he teaches Law and Leadership, which focuses on what he calls “the art of leadership”— and includes skills such as mindfulness, emotional intelligence, self-discipline, grit and subjective well-being.

“These skills are teachable and extremely important,” Huang said. “If you can lead yourself, then you can lead others and lead change. If you’re distracted, you’re not fully present to hear what your client, or the jury or opposing counsel is saying.”

Huang is pleased that other Colorado Law professors are also teaching empathy and compassion, though the profession at large is embracing the concepts relatively late.

“Doctors realized the importance of bedside manner,” he said. “Managers understood the importance of being adaptive when a plan isn’t working. But law is by its nature precedent bound. Lawyers want consistency over time, and they’re also risk-averse.”

Huang is convinced that improving their leadership skills will help CU graduates stand out in the job market. 

Allie Reuter (IntPhys, Neuro’21) agrees. As a pre-med student and a member of the Presidents Leadership Class, she is graduating with a leadership minor. She serves on the Senior Class Council and conducts undergraduate research on mental wellness with engineering students. 

After a friend died by suicide, Reuter started CU’s chapter of Active Minds, the national organization that promotes mental health for young adults. Like Muriithi, she was one of the top five student leaders for 2020–21. 

Reuter believes her leadership training and experience at CU will help her standout when she competes for jobs and medical school admission.

“Everyone who applies will have a great resume and be decently smart,” she said. “But what ends up differentiating people is whether they can have conversations and help others feel comfortable. I’ve met some really impressive doctors in the field, and the thing I’ve taken away is how compassionate they are and how comfortable others are in their presence. To me, that’s really an art.”

Leading the way to change

Whether leadership is considered an art or a science, everyone agrees that the future requires leaders who have more than technical skills for their field. 

Brooks says they’ll need the intellectual grounding to grapple with fundamental human problems. So, he wants all leadership students to “think through the great question Aristotle first asked: ‘What is good for man?’” 

But there’s more, said Muriithi, who plans to continue fostering the growth of future leaders within the Kenyan community in Colorado. He believes leaders will need to see the world as a diverse community whose problems cannot be solved alone.

“In the Kenyan community, one of our big mottos is, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ That influenced me a lot growing up,” he said. “Leadership is about how you live your life and carry yourself on a daily basis.” 

“Our generation is more progressive, and we’re change-makers,” he said. “When we look to the past, we see that the top-down method hasn’t worked, sowe want to do things a different way — to make our future and the future for our children better.”


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Illustrations by James Yang