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Rethinking Leadership

During the Fuel the Fire leadership conference last Saturday, keynote speaker Kristi Wieser, class of ‘84, left attendees with an important message: live your values every day. She explained to students that she chose to work at IBM, a large multinational corporation, because of the company’s core values.

I appreciate this message as I near graduation, and am taking it to heart. It’s the reason I’m putting off homework right now to write this editorial; this is one way I can live out my values and share what’s important to me. While I appreciated learning from Kristi’s experience as a Global Technology Services Program Executive for IBM, it also left me wondering: is this the most important kind of leadership that Concordia College can showcase to student leaders? Is this the kind of leadership model we should highlight?

My idea of what it means to be a leader dramatically changed during my fall semester, which I spent in India on the Social Justice, Peace, and Development program. Instead of hearing from people in high leadership positions—ones that come with fancy titles and big paychecks—on the topics we discussed (such as globalization, ethics of development and sustainable agriculture) we saw first-hand how people are affected by these issues.

I learned from child laborers, factory workers and farmers. I met with activists, community organizers and people volunteering their time to causes and organizations that are making positive changes in the world. I listened to stories of people who hadn’t finished elementary school and didn’t know how to read—things that, in the United States, are seen as necessary to be a leader. I learned from these unconventional teachers for four months, and it was my most transformative semester yet.

In a world that is dominated by huge companies making millions of dollars each day, we need more models that show you don’t have to go into the corporate world to be successful, and that your main priority doesn’t have to be making money. Working in a corporate environment, spending more than 40 hours each week at an office, and constantly striving to increase sales and profits are the norm in our society. This is the kind of life that many soon-to-be college graduates see as successful—being in a high position of leadership, with a great deal of influence and power over both people and money. But there are often unwritten and unseen costs to this kind of leadership—both for your personal life and for other people across the world.

During her presentation, Kristi mentioned that IBM had to let go several employees in her Bentonville, Arkansas office because their jobs were moving to India. Although Kristi did not give a specific reason for the jobs shifting from the United States to India, a common reason for companies to outsource jobs is to increase their own profits. At the time I’m writing this, one U.S. dollar is equal to 53 Indian rupees. The employees in India, and other countries around the world, do the same amount of work as those in the United States, yet are paid much less. The idea that one laborer can be exploited for a corporation’s gain is incongruent with my personal values, as well as what Concordia stands for.

Kristi and countless other individuals working for IBM are likely good examples of corporate responsibility; for example, Kristi is also involved with a non-profit based in India that provides technology for children with disabilities. I’m not writing this to denounce Kristi as a leader or the LeadNow® program in their selection of a keynote speaker. But CEOs and corporate business executives are constantly highlighted; the namesake of the new Offutt School of Business is a perfect example. While both IBM and Ronald Offutt’s companies have charitable endeavors, they are primarily concerned with making a profit. When I think about Concordia’s mission to inspire students to “become responsibly engaged in the world,” these are not the kinds of leaders I think of.

I value learning from nonconventional leaders. I value hearing the stories of the underdogs—the individuals working tirelessly for social change, who spend countless hours at non-profit organizations or NGOs where they make pennies to the dollar compared to CEOs of big companies. I value the kind of work that puts people’s wellbeing before profit—because that’s the kind of leadership Concordia College has taught me to value during my time here. To show us the CEO, the businessman, even the businesswoman, is to show us who we’ve always seen at the top of the economic pyramid. To show us an activist, a caregiver, a true believer in combating hate with love, is to show us the person who’s going to change the world for the good of all instead of profit for some. I encourage Concordia College to think about the types of leadership they showcase throughout the college, and students to think about the leaders they want to become.

This letter to the editor was submitted by Kelsey Kava, Concordia 2013.

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