The 2013 Summer Leadership Discovery Institute… an experiential journey of learning, empowerment and transformation

by: Dean Bradshaw & Ellen Vriniotis, Academy Faculty, ACS Athens

Ethos Magazine, Winter 2013, Vol 8, Issue 1

This summer marked the third college-level summer leadership program offered to ACS students – this time through a partnership with St. Louis University.  While most students prepared for final exams, a small group of dedicated students committed to a six-week online leadership course, 3-days of exploratory and simulated learning in Athens and a 2-week experiential journey to St. Louis to understand how servant leadership can transform communities through the collective efforts of conscientious citizens utilizing their vision, intellect and passion for social change. At the end of their 8-week leadership discovery journey, students in turn would share their own vision of leadership after connecting concepts to social concerns, interviewing community leaders, collaborating in aviation teams, and mastering the fine points of effective digital storytelling to create their own documentary of leadership stories.

With the calendar set, we began the process of creating an engaging and challenging program for these students beginning with a crash course on the foundations of leadership psychology. We combed through on-line databases and journals, videos, textbooks, short stories, newspapers, and more in search of the best materials for our teen audience.  With diligence and detective work, our course began to take shape.  From researching historical leaders to investigating their own leadership strengths, students identified those traits common to the world’s great leaders.  Combining timeless, foundational concepts of followership and citizen leadership with contemporary role models of these concepts from the worlds of sports, government, and business, students learned theory and applied it. Whether reading a column about the need for more global female leaders or watching a TED Talk about how great leaders communicate, we challenged our students to listen to the different voices, synthesize these opinions, and form their own philosophy about leadership.  Prior to our face-to-face work, these aspiring leaders needed to understand the scope and complexity of leadership juxtaposed against societal needs to begin the thoughtful process of affecting change through the eyes of a teenager.

The discussion boards of the on-line course clearly showed the amazing minds accepted into this program; however, the three days in the classroom, prior to our departure, allowed us to see these young adults in action.  We knew that reflection is a key component to leadership development so each student was required to keep a journal of all their responses and thoughts during the program.  Through role-play, we addressed the unease of change or the challenges of situational leadership.  We looked at cultural differences in groups and how leadership must change to match the fluid dynamics.  Our activities, however, were better integrated with real-world experience.

Our second day together brought students face-to-face with real citizen leaders who used their talents, education, and passion to bridge community relations with social responsibility. Alexander Costopoulos, entrepreneur and communications strategist shared his mission: to “Repower Greece” by using research and accurate statistics to educate and dispel the negative stereotypes that exist about Greece. Focusing on the positive actions of people, he hopes to empower more citizens to become active and not passive bystanders pointing the finger of blame at the TV screen.  Mr. Costopoulos left the students with a simple challenge:  it is easy to criticize, but it is much harder to solve. As Georgina later wrote, “it’s not enough to just have good intentions or even good ideas – they must be put to action.”

We met our second citizen leader in Athens, in the offices that facilitate the non-profit organization Boroume, inspired and founded by Xenia Papastavrou. Ms. Papastavrou is a clear example of Mr. Costopoulos’s idea of how seemingly simple acts of civic engagement can create great change.  Ms. Papastavrou, an online journalist, felt she could not sit idly by and watch the increase of people challenged to meet their daily food intake while great amounts of food were going to waste at local restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores.  She asked the very simple question, “I wonder why families, nursing homes, and shelters are always struggling to find food when others are throwing it away?”  From this simple query, her new passion was born.  Using her technological skills, Ms. Papastavrou was able to connect those with excess food to those who needed it, without having to leave her desk. In less than a year, Boroume grew to facilitate the exchange of over a 1,000 meals a day throughout Greece and the islands.   Ms. Papastavrou is merely a humble woman with an insightful question and a desire to help.   As we thanked her for her time, dedication, and the model for citizen leadership she provided to our students, Ms. Papastavrou thanked us countless times in return.  Ms. Papastavrou realizes her country’s fragile future is in the hands of our students’ generation.  She was thankful for any chance to inspire them.

Our next visit was perhaps the most powerful example of the challenges of leading effectively.  We visited the Athens Homeless Shelter during their meal distribution hour.  We thought it valuable for the students to see the challenges for service providers to meet the needs of the growing homeless population. We wanted students also to identify the populations most plagued by homelessness: the elderly, the mentally ill, drug addicts, immigrants, and young families living under the poverty line. Who takes care of these members of our community? Too often we become desensitized and lack empathy toward the social problems of our day when our only connection is the television screen. Confronted by the dire circumstances of the people at the shelter, the students began to see the depth of need.  Statistics and numbers are wonderful tools to help explain problems; however, there are few things more powerful than actually seeing the most desperate.  The students were shocked and saddened by what they saw:  homeless people in long lines waiting for food, shelter workers having too little food to give out, and  the building’s decrepit state and lack of repair.    Stamatis, a student, later wrote in his journal “Community service and help to the needy is not only an act of kindness but it is also being grateful of what we have and the opportunities that are given to us.”  During our debriefing every student was shocked but thankful for the eye-opening experience that left them with more empathy to affect change and less pessimism and dismay. Effective leadership comes when you can feel the heartbeat of those that you lead and are stirred with passion and purpose.

We carried this idea to our final destination, St. Louis University.  In the following two weeks, we were led through an amazing program, each one impacted by a leader in the making.  The School of Communication taught us the power of a story told through a camera lens.  With professional quality cameras and sound-gear, the students interviewed leaders from a variety of areas.  St. Nicholas’s youth director, Father Michael Arbanas and Colonel Peter Nezamis provided great examples of servant leadership.  Col. Nezamis stressed that he doesn’t “lead” the 1,000 men of his command; he “serves” them.  St. Louis University law professor Dr. Joel Goldstein, a leading expert of US vice presidents, gave students a historical perspective of leadership at the highest governmental levels, as well as the traits needed in effective followers and second-in-commands.  Courtney Sloger from FOCUS showed the students how bridging diverse constituents in the community creates the foundation for growth, connectedness and long-lasting community change.  Dr. Anastasios Kaburakis, a lawyer and an assistant professor at the John Cook Business School, discussed the role of education in leadership and offered his vision for revitalizing Greece.

DSC00152Dr. Diane Carlin, Associate Vice President for Graduate Education, granted Georgina Vriniotis an exclusive interview on Women in Leadership. Dr. Carlin shared her recent experience of establishing a debate club for college women in Afghanistan and shared her latest book on the challenge of being an American woman in government.   Professors Chris Lepp and Cindy Graville-Smith taught us how to frame shots, record interviews, create soundtracks, and edit the work into a cohesive documentary that tells a story and makes an impact. They also inspired our students as role models of servant leadership: Professor Lepp developed an athletic and mentorship program for youth in the community with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and Ms. Graville-Smith uses educational technology to inspire intercity youth to discover the magnificence of science.  Dr. Steve Winton, Director of the Leadership & Organizational Development program, challenged students to actively try on new roles and move beyond their comfort levels. By engaging them in role-play scenarios students exercised their decision-making skills and examined group dynamics. Each academic we engaged with exemplified leadership in spirit but also in action.

DSC00470The third component of our program was the unique opportunity to learn about aviation.  Dr. Stephen Belt and his colleagues from the School of Aviation worked with the students on flying remote-controlled aircraft.  It was a study in group dynamics as the students worked in groups creating obstacle courses for the other teams and deciding roles: pilot, co-pilot, safety coordinator, and score tabulator.  In some cases, the students were forced to give up their own desires for team success. Martin, a student from Thessaloniki, remarked that exercising his skills as both a leader (he was a pilot) as well as a follower (when his safety coordinator walked him through a pre-flight checklist) helped him to understand each role better and to perform better within the team.  Later Dr. Belt allowed us all to work in flight simulators to get a real feel for flying, examine airplane engines in for service and tour an air-traffic tower to better understand the collaborative and reciprocal role of leading and following during a successful flight.

During our downtime, Bridget De Clue, our amazing program coordinator and our student liaison, George, showed us the greatness of St. Louis.  From the Arch to the museum campus, students were able to see what leaders have accomplished. Peter Bunce used his passion for the arts to help revitalize downtown St. Louis by establishing the Circus Flora and bringing in to town the work of young artists to attract families and generate more restaurants, parks and businesses.  A local artist, Bob Cassilly, turned an abandoned manufacturing plant that was an eyesore into an urban playground.  With over 100,000 square feet of slides and mazes, Mr. Cassilly created a model of servant leadership in practice.  Using only recycled materials, the City Museum is one more factor in St. Louis’s recent change into a vibrant city of culture and renewal with over 600,000 visitors each year.
Now it was time for our students to also serve the community. After Sunday’s visit to the Greek Orthodox Church in which members graciously prepared a home-cooked meal for us, it was time for us to give back to this impressive community. We set off for the Campus Kitchen, an organization run by college students that collects donations of food and cooks meals for homeless shelters and soup kitchens.  Students rolled up their sleeves, put their hair nets on without complaint and proceeded to cook – perhaps their first meal ever – to serve the homeless community.  After two hours, we had prepared dozens of nutritious and needed meals and connected our experience with the work of the Athens homeless shelter and Boroume.  After our rewarding task, Stamatis mentioned that he believed community service like this should be a requirement for high school graduation.
As our two weeks came to a close, student reflections became all the more pronounced.   Achilleas realized that “everyone has a leader in them” while Martin stated his new motto of leadership: leaders are not served but act to serve others.  Perhaps Georgina put it best when she said “it’s not enough to get the airplane up in the air – you have to keep it up there.  In other words, it takes hard work, persistence, and real dedication to a cause in order to make it happen, and to make it happen successfully.”   Now as we see the students daily, we can see the change, the dedication, persistence, and commitment to service.   Georgina has gone on to develop an ACS chapter of the U.N. Foundation’s GirlUp Club to empower young women through education. Achilleas has joined the debate team to strengthen his critical thinking and speaking skills and participated in a soccer tournament to raise awareness for Football Against Racism in Europe. Our youngest members, Ilia, Hannah and Stamatis and our Greek local students have submitted proposals to initiate their own service projects. Each one is finding his or her place in school to develop social responsibility.

The lessons did not end only with the personal growth of students.   As both teachers and mentors, we questioned how we might continue to teach for transformation through our interdisciplinary, scholars’ diploma course, World Literature, Leadership & Ethics Honors.  How can we engage more students to develop their potential, to care about the world that “others” manage for them? How can we use our own personal tools and passion for servant leadership to positively impact the next generation? The answers came through the voice of our own students who often say, “YOLO! (you only live once)”, in response to more obligations. And thus, the YOLO! Student Leadership & Social Action Club and Website was born to facilitate a global forum for dialogue and allow the intellectual imagination of youth to flourish who want to optimize their leadership opportunities and become social change agents.

Our goal was to create 11 servant leaders over the course of eight weeks: teaching, guiding, challenging, nurturing.  Who knew that we would create 13?