Liberal Arts Leadership at Furman: A Unique Executive Development Experience

By Dr. Brad Bechtold, Director of Continuing Education at Furman University

In a world where there is a constant expectation of instant resolution, the liberal arts learner is content with incompletion. Rainer Maria Rilke, perhaps the greatest modern German poet, captures this in his advice to a young writer:

    Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

At its core, liberal arts learning is a synthesizing exercise, a reconciliation of seemingly disparate elements and experiences. “Living the questions” is an essential part of the endeavor. To do this effectively, one must develop and refine two skills. First, it is necessary to gain facility with developing the questions themselves. In “problematizing” a subject, we form the hypotheses that will lead to greater understanding. Responsive answers are dependent upon well-formulated questions.

Once the questions are developed, the liberal arts learner patiently seeks their resolution which is the second critical skill in living the questions. In your search, you may have to hold some bits of information in suspension, to be called upon later. Your activities here are designed to prompt questions and encourage their exploration. Over time, you will notice connections between seemingly unconnected ideas. It is through realizing these connections that “you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” These “ah-ha” moments are the true value of the liberal arts experience.

To this end, Furman University’s Center for Corporate and Professional Development has created a new executive development program which is designed to relate both film and literature to current business realities and organizational performance. We believe this is a unique approach that promotes fresh thinking and applications. Rather than first diving into traditional business cases, we will begin by looking at and capturing themes from classic literature and contemporary films. Then, the group participants will discern organization applications as we integrate business cases that complement the executive learning experience.

Let us emphasize that this is not a program where people come to Furman to simply view films and lightly discuss books. All of the reading and viewing will be structured as pre-work. During the actual program, it will be the content in these acclaimed films and classic literature that will provide context to typical organization business and leadership themes. Business cases will be used in a “just-in-time” fashion rather than as the core content. We believe there is great value in reflecting on the cumulative experiences of the human community as captured in film and literature and that these experiences have very real applications within the business world.

Most executives face the tyranny of everyday life and work that can numb the mind. While they may have more and more information, sometimes they believe that they truly understand less and less. Many seek to return to a time and place where ideas are intoxicating and synthesis thinking is a treasure. Too much is written in business books to tell an answer rather than to challenge a leader to think. Executives have to formulate the “right” question and then map out the appropriate course of action to take. This is not a linear or canned route, but a “thinking” and “discerning” process. The key elements of success are staying true to one’s intention and paying attention to the right things.

In executive development we must stop telling others what to do in particular situations, and instead, provide ideas, tools, templates, and encouragement so they can come to their decisions based upon synthesis thinking. Business and organizational insights always trump the “book” answer or the business case scenario. Many of the current topics in organization life, such as “emotional intelligence” and “organizational excellence,” will be provided as just-in-time applications in Liberal Arts Leadership when dialogue and discussions warrant them. To add depth to the experience, are having a variety of mid-career and seasoned executive participants from private and public organizations. The program will foster open dialogue between these successful leaders and their peers.

Time will be built into the program for personal reflections and “Ah-ha” journaling to capture ideas of personal relevance, as well as back-to-work applications. Group process will be a powerful element designed into Liberal Arts Leadership. It provides a structured way for enthusiastic peers to dialogue and to help individuals make sense of information. Additional perspectives that a Liberal Arts Leadership approach offers: A true alternative to many leadership or executive development programs which can be too “canned” and/or based on one individual’s biased focus, a valuable and provocative synthesizing exercise, and an opportunity for reconciliation of seemingly disparate elements and experiences. “Living the Question” will be an essential part of the endeavor and the view that nuance is often where business truth and organization realities rest.

The most important element that our Liberal Arts Leadership facilitators and faculty will provide for our executive participants is to help them make sense of the complex world of information, organizational culture, and decision making. Our role is to provide “outside insight” into their organization worlds. Using this as our guide, we will accelerate their task of acquiring new knowledge while they discover real-world business and personal applications. An esteemed professor once pointed out that in 15-20 years, when students had mastered their professional craft, they would yearn to return to the things that most fascinated them in school. She foreshadowed their desire to relive a time when discovery and pure learning were forces in their existence. This executive program could well be that once-in-a-lifetime learning experience. We invite you to join us on such a journey! For more information, please contact Dr. Brad Bechtold at (864) 294-3136 or by email at [email protected] or visit our website at Applications are now being accepted for the inaugural class which begins August 24, 2006.

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