Training Leaders in Christian Virtue

Franciscan University of Steubenville has launched a new leadership institute.

Every day in Congress, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., sees a complex array of problems that affect civic institutions, families and the culture. It’s for that reason that he believes it is imperative that future leaders be well prepared. And it’s why the alumnus of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, gave a ringing endorsement to his alma mater’s Center for Leadership.

Founded last summer, the center “roots young men and women in virtue, forms them as leaders, and grounds them in sound philosophical thought,” Fortenberry said. “I know this university provides students with outstanding intellectual and spiritual formation. Its new Center for Leadership will further equip students to take their places as the next generation of leaders for America. That’s what our country needs.”

The center seeks to form highly effective Christian leaders in every area of society and fill what David Schmiesing, its director, said is a “desperate need for authentic leadership.”

Many leaders in the world, he said, lack either character or competence or both.

“This is our most explicit and focused effort yet to train leaders for the Church and world,” said Schmiesing, who is also vice president of student life.

The idea for the Center for Leadership was percolating for awhile.

“Years ago,” Schmiesing explained, “Father Michael Scanlan (then the university’s president) had asked the question, ‘If Catholic students like those at Franciscan University don’t produce leaders for tomorrow, who will?’ We’re trying to play our part answering that question and forming those leaders.”

According to Schmiesing, Franciscan was training leaders in the Church and world who have had an impact out of proportion to the school’s relatively small size. But it was time to build on that foundation.

Past programs were limited to a weekend or a semester at most. Schmiesing believed a completely effective program had to run four years.

“Our dream in [the Office of] Student Life to have a more intentional and sustained leadership program intersected with the desire of some university donors and benefactors with that same idea,” he noted. As a result, a small number of donors looking at the world and our nation in particular who shared that vision of developing leaders gave gifts to fund this new Center for Leadership Program.

These gifts are aimed principally as scholarships for students chosen for the leadership program.

This first select group to inaugurate the Center for Leadership consists of 30 freshmen from an incoming class of 550. The admissions staff invited students to apply who appeared to have great leadership potential based on applications and personal interviews. This initial group represents a cross-section of students from 15 majors.

Schmiesing pointed out another cohort numbering 20 freshmen will be added in the spring. The goal is to have 50 freshmen in the program by the end of this academic year. They will continue in the leadership program through the end of senior year; new groups will be added with each incoming freshman class.

Christian Leaders

There is an unmistakable focus on how Franciscan can better prepare leaders for secular pursuits. Students will learn how to bring Christian leadership to bear on media, politics, sports, business, health care, education — in short, every occupation and every realm of culture proper to Christian laity.

According to the director, the center’s program will promote authentic Catholic social teaching as well as an understanding of the principles of America’s founding: “The goal is toward a healthy patriotism with gratitude for all the gifts we enjoy in this country, but also with the idea to build upon what’s good in our nation and work to improve where we need to improve.”

Already, leadership students have gotten key inspiration reading, studying and discussing Blessed John Paul II’s 1985 apostolic letter Dilecti Amici (To the Youth of the World on the Occasion of International Youth Year).

“He talked a lot about how the youth need to speak out and accept being leaders,” said freshman Brian Kirby. “That was powerful for me, coming from John Paul. One line particularly pointed out how youth need to stand up and live our faith in today’s society.”

Kirby noted this particular line affecting him: “You become rooted in that which each of you is, in order to become that which you must become: for yourself — for other people — for God.”

Kirby, who was active in high school leadership roles, including with Eagle Scouts, serving on his parish council and as a youth director, sees the program as a great way to strengthen his leadership abilities.

JPII and Stephen Covey

One major way the center looks to make strong Christian leaders and build upon students’ strengths is to focus on a weekly meeting with presentations and discussion of readings.

This semester focuses on two readings and themes that stress the idea of the vocation of the laity. The primary reading is Dilecti Amici because it “speaks well to the young people and addresses the excitement of being young and the responsibility they have accordingly,” Schmiesing said.

The second reading is Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, examining and teaching the virtues and character traits necessary for leadership.

In addition to the weekly meetings, students are required to apply what they learn. They must get involved with clubs and have a student work position and a student leadership role — all on campus.

The center’s mentorship component will gradually require students to expand their circle of mentorship from an academic advisor and a Center for Leadership advisor to eventually include university alumni working in the world.

Another resource for the program is the university’s distinguished speakers series with the likes of Virtuous Leadership author Alexandre Havard and Acton Institute president Father Robert Sirico, who is on the center’s board of advisors.

Father Sirico talked about character, virtue, competence and vocation to serve as leaders.

“We have a chance to speak with and meet with different distinguished speakers who have been all around the world studying incredible things,” said leadership student Camille Mica. “Getting the opportunity to talk with these speakers with such incredible credentials, I’ve learned a lot from them and been very encouraged and strengthened by their words and message and example.”

Though the leadership center will have a global outlook, Schmiesing noted that, ultimately, all leadership is local.

“If Catholic leaders don’t lead in their families, then all the other leadership is not going to be effective,” he said. “Leadership in the family is essential and applies to men and women. We’re teaching students in the center the skills, knowledge, virtues that will help them to be more effective in their families and then flow out to the churches, then to occupations.”

How are students in the program reacting? Camille Mica sums it up best: “The only thing I tell the director is: I wish we could have it every single day. No way could I have this kind of experience in Christ-centered leadership elsewhere.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.