Taking the Lead on Leadership

What MIT could do better
APR 2019
Sam
M.
Technology and Policy Program

A surprising portion of my undergraduate education at the United States Military Academy (West Point) was spent getting punched in the face, trying to stay alive in a class called survival swimming, and gasping for fresh air as I ran indoor obstacle courses. My after-school activities included walking in circles around a giant field for several hours, cleaning the dust from every crevice of my two-person barracks room alongside my two roommates, and avoiding at all costs being caught taking a shower after 11pm. After graduating from this bizarre place, I had a rare opportunity to immediately attend the Technology and Policy Program (TPP), a two-year Master’s program at MIT. I was profoundly excited about this. No more uniforms, no more morning formations, no more after school drill, no more curfew. I finally got to be a normal person again and, as you can imagine, these were welcome changes.

After a few months at MIT, having finally figured out what all the strange numbers meant and that calling professors “sir” and “ma’am” only made them feel old, I began to realize two things: 1) MIT has a distinct lack of leadership education/training and 2) I was gaining important experiences that would make me a better leader. I know… confusing, right? Let me explain.

The academy calls itself the world’s preeminent leadership institute, and for good reason. The number of presidents, generals, astronauts, and CEOs that the place cranks out is pretty astounding. Throughout my four years at the academy, I took five classes devoted to leadership development, held six different leadership positions (e.g. platoon leader, cadet company commander, etc.), and had many conversations about leadership with instructors (most of whom were in the military and had seen the challenges of combat) during classes in which we were supposed to be learning about differential equations or the American politics. I do not consider myself an expert on leadership—I still have a lot to learn—but the US Army invests millions of dollars into ensuring the academy is a source of exemplary military officers, and I’d like to think I learned a thing or two along the way.

In stark contrast to West Point, MIT spends very little time talking about leadership. They offer a few classes, mostly through the Sloan School of Management, but those are electives, not requirements. Most of these are short intensive courses taught during the January Individual Activities Period (IAP). There are few discussions about developing core values and character and making hard decisions in the face of adversity and self-reflection and goal setting and all of the ingredients I was taught were necessary for good leadership. This troubled me. I was surrounded by some of the world’s greatest minds, people who will likely develop the next great technology and one day run companies, yet they spent very little time learning about how they will lead. If MIT can be the leader in science, engineering, and research, why couldn’t it also spend some time developing great leaders?

Despite the distinct lack of emphasis on leadership development, however, I found myself growing as a person and a leader at MIT through the daily interactions with my fellow graduate students. MIT students come from all over the world and all walks of life. The diversity, both in the people and perspectives, that I have encountered at the institute far surpasses anything I had ever experienced (I grew up in a very homogenous suburban town in Ohio). And it’s not just diversity in race, gender, or ethnicity; it’s also diversity in experience. Many of my colleagues have worked in industry or government. Learning to appreciate and understand these diverse perspectives is something that I know will serve me well as I continue my Army career leading soldiers with similarly diverse backgrounds.

So, what’s my point? I may have underestimated the inherent leadership lessons that are associated with interacting with people from across the globe. The impact of these exchanges on how I view the world and form opinions cannot be understated. I have gained appreciation for opinions on both ends of the political spectrum, learned how to sound much less judgmental, and learned to check biases I didn’t even know I had. At the same time, I am only cognizant of how these experiences are improving me as a leader because of the foundational leadership training I received prior to MIT.

I think MIT needs to do a better job of not only incubating tomorrow’s greatest thinkers and scholars, but also developing the world’s next great leaders; in business, technology, politics, and beyond. Don’t get me wrong, there are some opportunities to practice leadership at MIT. I took it upon myself to take an active role in the Technology Policy Student Society (TPP’s student council). Sure, I have learned a few important lessons in leadership from this this experience (e.g. working with regular people requires more patience than simply telling younger cadets what to do), but most MIT students aren’t exactly jumping at the opportunity to add more responsibilities to their already busy schedule.

Thankfully, organizations like the Graduate Student Advisory Group (GradSAGE) and the Gordon Engineering Leadership (GEL) program are teaming up to address these issues through classes and discussions about leadership development. They are meeting with the administrators and professors to express their desire for better, MIT-led leadership initiatives. These groups are trying to make the administration realize that MIT has an obligation to its students to highlight the importance of leadership and encourage students to actively practice leadership skills in an environment that sometimes seems focused only on producing theses and publications.

That’s a start, but there is a long way to go. MIT needs to offer (and perhaps require) more classes on the soft skills that are essential to developing good leadership practices, such as those that encourage discussions about communication, core values, and integrity. The institute should hold more workshops that not only talk about the benefits of AI and Machine Learning, but also the moral implications and leadership challenges that will be associated with these important and increasingly pertinent technologies. There are some pretty incredible individuals waking up every morning and making great strides in science and engineering at this institute. If we do not teach them the skills necessary to lead others to make similar progress, we are doing them, and society, a great disservice.