New business course to examine ‘defining moments’ of leadership, character

As another presidential election year gets under way in the United States, defining and determining what makes a great leader is on the minds of many voters and politicians.

Eric Greitens (left), CEO of The Mission Continues, autographs a book for Kurt Dirks, PhD, the Bank of America Professor of Leadership, prior to Greitens’ presentation to the “Defining Moments” course Jan. 23 in the Knight Center. (Credit: Jerry Naunheim)
A new and innovative course at Washington University’s Olin Business School examines this question by allowing students to interact with top leaders in the corporate world who exemplify both integrity and excellence.

“We wanted to focus on leadership that achieves excellent results without compromising values or integrity,” says Stuart Bunderson, PhD, the George and Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics and Governance, co-teacher of the course, “Defining Moments: Lessons in Leadership and Character From the Top.”

“And we wanted students to appreciate the role and importance of values in leadership by exposing them to standout CEOs who achieve excellence while pursuing deeply-held values,” he says.

The course, for second-year master’s of business administration and executive master’s of business administration students, will feature discussions with six prominent business leaders, each of whom will discuss defining moments in their own business careers.

The course also will engage students in thinking about how they can achieve success without sacrificing character and integrity.

“We have asked these leaders to discuss key choice points in their career that shaped the trajectory of their leadership and character, and particularly those which involved their own moral compass,” says Kurt Dirks, PhD, the Bank of America Professor of Leadership and co-teacher of the course.

“The final assignment asks the students to write a personal leadership statement that reflects how they plan to pursue their own path of leadership in ways that reflect excellence and character, drawing on the lessons from the course,” Dirks says.

The speakers for the course are:

  • Erik Greitens, CEO of The Mission Continues, who spoke Jan. 23;
  • Bob Chapman, chair and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, who spoke Jan. 30;
  • Jim Weddle, managing partner of Edward Jones, Feb. 9;
  • Dave Steward, chair and founder of World Wide Technology, Feb. 13;
  • Dave Senay, president and CEO of Fleishman-Hillard, Feb. 22; and
  • Andrew Taylor, chair and CEO of Enterprise Holdings, Feb. 27.

Their talks will be supplemented with cases and readings on leadership and character.

“We want these students — the future business leaders of our country — to really think about whether or not there is a trade-off between trying to get ahead in their own careers and being true to their own values,” Bunderson says.

“We want them to think about how they can create a culture of excellence in their careers, while still adhering to a personal values set.”