The topic of what constitutes good leadership was on the mind of Michael Steele, well-known national political commentator and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, as he provided the keynote address for a ceremony honoring Western Carolina University’s highest-achieving students Tuesday (Feb. 12).
A self-described “Lincoln Republican,” Steele was the first African-American chairman of the RNC and also the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland, where he was lieutenant governor from 2003 until 2007. He visited the WCU campus to speak to students being recognized for stellar academic performances that led to them being included on the university’s chancellor’s list for fall semester 2018, a designation requiring a GPA of 3.8 or better. The event in the performance hall of John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center also was attended by the students’ faculty and staff mentors, as well as by families and friends.
A total of 1,651 WCU students were named to the chancellor’s list for fall. As he began his remarks, Steele told the honored students in attendance that the recognition is evidence of their individual achievements, but “it’s also a testament to something you probably haven’t given much thought to – your leadership.”
“I’ll bet that most of you think you know what leadership is,” he said. “You know what a leader looks like, right? You all have some idea of what you expect a leader to be, what a leader should sound like and what you expect a leader to do. But, the interesting characteristic of a really good leader is that intangible thing that you don’t necessarily understand or appreciate in the moment.”
Steele was born at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and raised in Washington, D.C. He told the Bardo Arts Center audience that he was exposed to many interesting people while growing up in the nation’s capital and “got to watch men and women do leadership.” He said he learned early on that the easy part of leadership is preparing one’s self to lead, while the tricky and most important part is being “prepared to follow.” The best leaders are OK with letting go of their power and allowing someone else to take on a leadership role, Steele said.
That type of leadership “inspires others who want to be in that crucible with the boss, who want to be in that space where the boss recognizes them and their talent. I propose to you today that our leaders do so little of that because it’s about ‘me’ – it’s about ‘how good I am’ and ‘how much I can do,’” he said.
Steele told the students that they will face expectations that distort what leadership really is as they begin their careers. Good leadership is not just promoting one’s self and leading in tough situations, but it also is “those quiet moments, those special moments, when you demonstrate compassion and understanding. You demonstrate your ability, most importantly, to listen,” he said.
“I submit to you that our politicians don’t listen to us,” Steele said. “If you want to understand what the rife and concern and anger and frustration has emanated from over the last five, seven, 10 years, it has come from a populace that has grown frustrated with people who do not listen to them.”
The nation needs “men and women who aren’t afraid to lose an election,” he said. “We need men and women who aren’t afraid to stand in the public square and call out the misogyny, the racism, the hatred, the fear. You’re smart, you’re capable, you’re engaged,” Steele said to the chancellor’s list students. “Now, the question you need to ask yourself is, ‘How will I lead?’”
Currently a political analyst for MSNBC, Steele has served as a contributor for the Fox News Channel and as a regular host for the Salem Radio Network’s nationally syndicated “Morning in America Show.” He graduated from Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown Law Center. His visit to campus was part of the university’s Distinguished Speaker Series and was organized by the Office of Student Transitions.
The ceremony included remarks by Alison Morrison-Shetlar, WCU interim chancellor, and Carol Burton, the university’s acting provost. Morrison-Shetlar told the honored students that they are “role models as university citizens and have demonstrated their commitment to academic and personal excellence.”
Chancellor’s list students “understand that while it is important to excel in the classroom, it is equally important to engage with their community on campus and in the region and to make a difference in the lives of those around them,” she said. “It is with great pride that I extend to each of the students here tonight a heart-felt congratulations.”
The ceremony was followed by a reception for the students and their families and friends.