I recently participated in the United States Naval Academy’s Leadership Conference with two of our university Honors Program students. There were 221 students and faculty from 64 institutions, with a wide variety of colleges and universities represented. About half of these students were civilians from honors programs and athletic teams and the other half represented military service academies and ROTC programs. The conference program consisted of numerous distinguished speakers and panel members who were highly successful leaders in military, government, business, science, journalism, technology, and education. It was an informative, challenging, and inspiring conference that brought great benefit to our students (and their faculty sponsor).
The after-dinner speaker for the Tuesday evening closing banquet was Clint Bruce, an All-American football player from the Naval Academy, professional football player with the Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints, and Navy SEAL (which he left the NFL to join, engaging in three extensive deployments throughout the world). His speech exhorting the gathering to move beyond excellence to elite status in leadership was extremely inspiring. After the speech (as was the custom in this conference), Mr. Bruce entertained questions from the audience. The speech was very motivating, but it was the questions asked that intrigued me—particularly two of them.
One student asked, “Mr. Bruce, if you could recommend one book on leadership, what would it be?” Without a second of hesitation, Mr. Bruce replied, “The Bible.” There was an interesting moment of silence. He went on to explain: “whether you are religious or not, the Bible contains the best advice you can find on leadership and life. Start with the Proverbs.” Even though this was a secular conference with very few faith-based institutions like Johnson represented, there was great respect for the Bible, Jesus, and biblical principles of leadership. In fact, the Servant Model of leadership with its values of love and sacrifice was the dominant model referred to by most of the speakers. One particular speaker reminded us that the Servant Model was two thousand years old and summarized in the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Johnson students were amazed at the similarity between the leadership principles espoused by the conference speakers and the biblical principles of leadership that they had been learning in their classes.
A second question was also intriguing to me: “Mr. Bruce, you and the other speakers have discussed throughout this conference that the key to effective leadership is good moral character. We can see how the Naval Academy emphasizes and teaches character development. But many of us are from state universities. How can we encourage our schools to focus on character development as well?” I was amazed that these university students, who mostly studied in secular educational settings, were asking what they could do to encourage sound moral character and positive ethical decision-making. I don’t even remember Mr. Bruce’s answer. I immediately thought of our own educational approach at Johnson, which emphasizes knowing and experiencing God, understanding and practicing a biblical worldview (which includes ethics), and exhibiting the character of Christ in all our relationships and responsibilities. Our Senior Capstone Seminar, which all students must complete, focuses on Christian ethics, equipping students to engage the ethical decision-making process successfully and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. Character-development is central to what we do.
The two students and I discussed this on the way home from the conference. We were not only informed and inspired to strive for excellence in our personal leadership, but gained great confidence that, as a faith-based institution of higher learning, Johnson was on the “cutting edge” of leadership development. I am reminded of Paul’s words to the Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16-17) We witnessed the impact of the gospel on this leadership conference and were strengthened in our faith and resolve to serve Christ in whatever circumstance his call demands.
Written by L. Thomas (Tommy) Smith, Jr., Johnson University Provost.