Educating socially conscious leaders

As someone who has long championed the need for leaders to develop a social conscience, I am gratified to hear corporate leaders begin to talk about transforming capitalism to be more socially conscious.

The most notable example of this is Neville Isdell, the former chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Co., who is inspiring a growing number of corporate executives around the globe to sign on to his vision of “Connected Capitalism” — a way of building businesses so that they are fully engaged with society.

I applaud this idea because it has all the makings of a social movement. And at Morehouse College, where as president I’ll participate in graduation ceremonies today, we love nothing better than a good movement. After all, it was at our institution that the iconic leader of the civil rights movement, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was educated and where he began to develop his philosophy of nonviolent social change that has inspired similar initiatives around the world.

But I also applaud this idea of the transformation of capitalism because it highlights for me the critical role that higher education has and must continue to play in starting and sustaining any kind of broad scale movement for the betterment of society, whether the changes we seek are in business or in any other arena.

Higher education contributes much to society, including the advancement of knowledge and the development of an educated and informed citizenry. But most important when it comes to movements, higher education contributes the talent pool from which the corporate, governmental and social sectors are likely to draw the men and women — the socially conscious leaders — who will do the work that ultimately transforms our world.

Since assuming the presidency of Morehouse three years ago, I have been working to advance my vision that the college will provide intellectual and moral leadership for a 21st century global renaissance of character, civility and community. This means that not only will we work to develop our own students as Renaissance men with a social conscience who are committed to the causes of equality, justice and peace, but also seek to guide and inspire others to serve the common good in their communities and throughout the globe.

My fellow presidential colleagues of the 19 other public and private colleges and universities that comprise the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education have similarly compelling visions for their institutions. This commencement season, we collectively will confer undergraduate and graduate degrees on thousands of young men and women whose intellect and energy will be applied to resolving a burgeoning list of global challenges that includes war, nuclear proliferation, climate change, pandemic disease, economic instability and, yes, the transformation of capitalism.

By all measures, the past few years have been tough for leadership and for leaders. As a result of the many scandals and failures of those in charge, our confidence in leadership is at an all-time low. Despite this erosion of trust, however, the fact remains that leadership still matters. We still need people who will stand up, point us in a new direction, and take the first steps toward getting us there.

True, our greatest problems will require more than an abundant supply of smart, ambitious people. Some might even argue that it is just such people who helped turn our problems into major crises in the first place. That is why, going forward, we will need and must demand leaders who are guided by vision, leaders who are accountable, humble, and ethical. We will need and must demand leaders who are socially conscious.

Dr. King described this brand of leaders as “a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.” I am convinced that our best hope of finding them will be to look among the ranks of the graduates of our many fine colleges and universities. This is higher education’s contribution to a better world.

Robert Michael Franklin Jr. is president of Morehouse College.

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