Vermont governor tells Norwich class
leadership takes humility, compassion © May 31, 2013, Norwich University Office of Communications

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks with a class of Norwich University students in an upper-level psychology class on leadership on April 29,2013.

photos by Jordan Silverman, staffVermont Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks with a class of Norwich University students in an upper-level psychology class about leadership on April 29,2013.

The governor of the state of Vermont had a confession for a group of Norwich University students who wanted to hear his take on what it means to lead. He never thought about leadership as a young man and had no interest in politics.

“Really. I was an English major,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, a democrat first elected to the state’s top government position in 2010. “Leadership’s a weird thing. You stumble into it by accident.”

Shumlin found time to visit an upper-level class, Psychology of Leadership, one late April morning to give students a sense of what he’s learned about the subject in his years in the Vermont State House. The governor addressed topics relevant to people in highly responsible positions, such as dealing with the press, prioritizing and moving forward in the face of heavy criticism. But he also told a story about his introduction to the democratic process, which happened back when he was in his 20s.

Shumlin

  Shumlin

At the time, the federal government was proposing to turn an unused college campus in his hometown of Putney, Vt., into a prison. Shumlin helped organize a movement against this proposal, instead backing a plan to turn the facility into a college for students with learning disabilities. He ended up running successfully for town select board on the issue. Landmark College, one of just a few colleges in the country for students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, opened on the site in 1985.

It was a project Shumlin became caught up in emotionally, because he grew up with dyslexia and had a frustrating time early on in his schooling. People weren’t as aware of the different ways children learn then, he said. One teacher told Shumlin he would probably never attend college or have a professional career. It was only through a concentrated effort from a very special teacher that he learned to read.

These early years continue to motivate him and may have led, he said, to the foundation of his philosophy about leadership: To have compassion for people who struggle to do things that most people take for granted, and to understand that people who learn easily don’t always come up with the best ideas.

Above all, he stressed that great leaders work with people and make use of the talent around them.

“If you think for a moment that you're better than the people you lead, they’re going to know that,” said Shumlin.

Students questioned the governor on broad leadership issues, including traits of a good leader, how to work effectively within teams and the appropriate ties between government and business interests. Prof. Peg Meyer, director for Norwich’s Center for Educational Effectiveness, noted that the questions seemed to spring from a number of leadership theories students had studied, which was what she was hoping for.

Moreover, students have been learning to observe and analyze the values embodied by speakers and Norwich personnel who have visited their classroom, as well as the histories of famous leaders such as Gandhi, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Army Gen. George S. Patton. Shumlin’s recollections about his childhood worked well with this framework, she said.

“We do a lot with the leader’s story,” she said.

The opportunity came about because Meyer has friends who work in the governor’s office. She had initially brought a list of student questions to a gathering where she anticipated an opportunity to talk with Shumlin. He appeared to take a special interest in the questions.

“He said, Do you want me to answer these in person?’” she said. The appointment to come to Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college, took a few months to finalize.

Andrew Lynch, a biochemistry major from Pepperell, Mass., said after the class that he doesn’t automatically attribute leadership characteristics to politicians, but felt the governor did a good job and came off as quite humble and introspective. One thing that surprised him, Lynch said, was how openly the governor spoke of his mistakes, and how leadership and decision making is often a spontaneous, responsive process.

“Don’t think so much about leadership that you fail to be a leader,” said Lynch.