A group of Board of Trustee members, along with their spouses, gathered over dinner on June 22, 2017, at Farrell Hall on Wake Forest’s campus to discuss leadership and character.

In response to the opening discussion prompt that asked the group to share when they have seen character in action, many in our group mentioned family members or close friends who had overcome obstacles. We also discussed the idea of personal sacrifice for the benefit of others. Some individuals in our group identified people who showed grace in the face of illness, loss and disappointment, or they shared stories of people who had lived “hard lives” but showed resilience and humility. Several in our group gave examples of character in action that involved people who have navigated life transitions well or who cared for special needs children or elderly parents. Generally, the idea of suffering was a common theme as we discussed notable examples of character in action.

As our discussion unfolded, we considered the idea of whether we have sheltered our children too much, to the point they cannot handle suffering or failure. Several participants expressed an opinion that humans learn to appreciate more through suffering and failure, and that “we have grown fragile” as a society. This thread of conversation led to the question of whether we could create a culture that encourages failure as a means to becoming successful.

To cultivate leadership and character in our students at Wake Forest, our group offered a range of suggestions:

  • Introduce the concept of failure to students in freshman seminars.
  • Consider the prospect of becoming known as an institution willing to wrestle with the issues of leadership and character, and identify this focus as a distinction of the University.
  • Make it easy for students to get help and to find a mentor.
  • Encourage students to form relationships beyond connecting with other students.
  • Stay on campus for 3+ years to be a part of a community.
  • Focus on great writing – storytelling can play a role.

When our discussion led to the question of whether character can be taught, the general consensus was yes – by mentors and faculty role models, especially through storytelling. One individual in our group suggested Wake Forest leverage freshman writing seminars to address the theme of character. Character can also be learned through reading about individuals who displayed strong character. Role playing to teach character was also suggested, by simulating leadership and character.