How can universities cultivate leaders of character? Insights from a leadership and character development program at the University of Oxford

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Universities have long played an important role in preparing thinkers and leaders who go on to have significant impact around the world. But if the world needs wise thinkers and good leaders, then how might modern universities educate leaders of character, particularly in a pluralistic context where many educators are reluctant to see the university as a site of moral formation? This article shares insights from one specific program, the Oxford Global Leadership Initiative, an extra-curricular program that seeks to help diverse cohorts of graduate students develop the ethical qualities of character needed for leaders to serve the common good. Drawing upon qualitative data collected over three years of program activity to illuminate and illustrate our argument, we address three questions: (1) Can virtues of character necessary for good leadership be cultivated in a university setting among a culturally diverse group of students? (2) How can a character-based leadership program meet the particular developmental needs of “emerging adults”? and (3) How might the program’s impact translate into society and culture? We conclude that a program integrating character and leadership can make valuable contributions to the ethical and professional development of postgraduate students.

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    Similar examples can be drawn from universities around the world. Harvard University (2019) announces on its website that it “is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally.” Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government (2019) describes its mission as contributing to “A world better led, a world better served, a world better governed.” Peking University (2014) has established the Yenching Academy “to cultivate world leaders who will make a difference in the world.”

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    To challenge heroic models of leadership and consider other models, the GLI includes readings from Haslam et al. (2011) and Grint (2010).


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We are grateful to the Templeton World Charity Foundation for their generous support of the Oxford Character Project and to the staff, advisors, guest speakers, mentors, and participants who have contributed to the Oxford Global Leadership Initiative since its inception in 2014. For their contribution to the program, we owe particular thanks to Anjie Anderson, Liubov Brooks, Kate Seagrave, Claire Shuttleworth, Julianne Viola, Luna Wang, and Bethan Willis. For careful research assistance, we are grateful to Cameron Silverglate. For helpful feedback on ideas in this paper, we thank audiences at the Virtues in the Public Square Conference hosted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at Oriel College, Oxford (2018), and the inaugural conference of the North American Association for Philosophy and Education in Chicago (2018). We also appreciate support from the Oxford Pastorate, McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at the University of Oxford, and Wake Forest University.

This publication was made possible through the support of a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc.

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Brooks, E., Brant, J. & Lamb, M. How can universities cultivate leaders of character? Insights from a leadership and character development program at the University of Oxford. International Journal of Ethics Education 4, 167–182 (2019).

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  • Character
  • Leadership
  • Virtue
  • University
  • Postgraduates
  • Oxford Character Project