Talking Leadership with Grad Students

Logo for the Graduate Student Congress at the University of Kentucky.Today I had the honor of having been invited to speak at the University of Kentucky’s Graduate Student Leadership Conference. My talk was called “Democracy and Leadership in Higher Education: A Talk for Graduate Students.” I seconded some of the prior speaker’s remarks, which concerned the value of networking, including online and via social media. One student had expressed her aversion to social media. I explained that at least one wants to have a good Web site, as people do want to look you up some when getting to know you. One avenue that can help are social media profiles, but a good Web site can do wonders too. I would encourage some of the same things. He had said that Facebook isn’t a great medium, but that’s because he was thinking of one’s personal Facebook profile. And obviously he hasn’t read my post about why scholars need Facebook author pages (and since I wrote that piece, my author page following has grown from ~2k to ~141k).

Eric Weber delivering a different talk years earlier, not the one mentioned in this post.

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'I wasn’t there today to talk about social media, though. Instead, I spoke mainly about my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, and showed what I think we still have to learn from Plato, even if it needs updating for the modern and democratic era. I find a lot of value in reminding myself of what Plato’s Socrates says in the first book of the Republic. There, Socrates says that good people won’t be willing to lead. They’d rather others do it. But, some compulsion weighs on good people, inspiring them to be leaders against their inclinations. That compulsion is the fact, in his way of thinking, that worse people will lead. In the democratic era, the language of good people and bad people generally rings as unpleasant at best. My translation for democracy is to say that the compulsion could be instead that good people care about problems, injustices, that could be ameliorated with effort. Good people don’t want to be at the top for its own sake, but accept positions of responsibility because of what would happen if other people would not stand up to address key problems.

Bust of Socrates.


After that, I explained how and why I think it’s important that we continue to learn about leadership from Plato, even while we disagree with and let go of his authoritarian outlook. In other words, how he characterizes the virtues of leadership is problematic, but there’s no doubt that wisdom is important for leadership, for example, including in the democratic era. It just needs to be understood, pursued, and embodied democratically. So, I talked about what I take that to mean in many contexts of leadership today, but focusing on prime challenges for grad students. After all, good people will need compulsion in grad school too. Leadership is generally thankless, or worse. Plus, it takes a great deal of time and effort, which generally means a distraction from one’s other work. As such, engaging in leadership efforts as a grad student may well mean taking longer to finish one’s program. That’s something serious to accept. To want to lead despite that may well take some compulsion. Even if it does, however, grad student leaders would be wisest if they engage in democratic practices, acknowledging the dangers, challenges, and harms that can come from leading. They should also beware not to carry the world on their shoulders, as time is short, even at its longest, in graduate school (or we generally want it to be), and colleges and universities are slow-moving, relatively conservative institutions. So, at best one can make incremental change and pass on to the next group of leaders their chance to make a further difference.

As such, leadership in the grad school context should stay humble and stoic about what’s possible, want to lead for the right reasons, and be award of the costs, challenges, and reasons not to lead, all while going after it anyway in those cases that truly call for such a sacrifice.


P.S. Of course there was more detail in the talk, but this is the gist of what I had to say this morning, and the people in attendance seemed to appreciate thinking through these matters with me, raising some very thoughtful and valuable questions. My thanks go out to James William Lincoln and the Graduate Student Congress for the invitation.

Great Review of ‘Democracy and Leadership’

Dr. Tadd Ruetenik.Dr. Tadd Ruetenik of St. Ambrose University published a review of my 2013 book, Democracy and Leadership, in the second 2016 issue of The Pluralist. I subscribe to the journal, but since I moved last June, I have not yet received the issue. I still have some address information to update for a number of subscriptions and such, it seems. I was delighted to get my hands on the review through other means, therefore, when Tadd was kind enough to share a digital copy of it with me.

Image of Ruetenik's review of 'Democracy and Leadership.' The link opens a PDF version of the review.

Click on the image for a text-searchable Adobe PDF version of the review.

A good review explains a book’s main point and approach, showcases some strengths, and offers some points of potential disagreement. In many reviews, that formula is often undertaken in all too formulaic a way. Ruetenik’s review has a depth of thoughtfulness and a sharp discernment about differences in our points of view that is deeply refreshing. Plus, where he inclines in different directions, he nevertheless exhibits the philosopher’s humility in understanding why others incline in other ways. In the popular press in Mississippi, my more recent book was dismissed as excessive optimism by one older, jaded progressive and rejected as far too moderate and modest by a young, not yet jaded man on a mission. It was like the old economist’s joke. With your hair on fire and your feet in ice, on average, you’re quite comfortable.

Photo of MLK, Jr. I’m definitely an advocate for moderation and believe that, like MLK, one can be militant yet moderate. Ruetenik appears to disagree, but naturally, I think. The concepts certainly seem to be in conflict, on the surface anyway. A moderate person in an immoderate, unjust society, may be called radical, as King was. But when Aristotle referred to the mean between extremes, he did not mean a simple matter of the average of others’ extremes. The moderate is what is right, and one’s society can be far from the mean. Calling for justice courageously can seem immoderate, but, I believe, that one’s means for calling for change can demonstrate moderation while pushing heroically for change.

These remarks are initial thoughts I have about the great feedback I have received from Tadd. The best thing about Tadd’s review is that, unlike so much other feedback one can receive, his makes me want to return to the project. In fact, I’ve been meaning for years to write a paper about how I believe my theory of democratic leadership can help us to explain and theorize elements of King’s democratic leadership efforts, which I see as a confirmation of the value of my theory. Of course, there are important contributions at work in the Malcolm X’s out there, yet even he, when you look at what he said, often was far more reasonable and democratically respectful of people and inquiry than he was painted in his day. He accepted the label of extremism, but in his own way showed how moderate the values he represented were, such as in the values of liberty, self-respect, self-defense, and more.

I don’t want to get too far afield here today, but my excitement over thinking about this topic again is not something I commonly experience when I encounter a review of my work. It is a testament to Ruetenik’s probity, his sincere and interesting engagement with the ideas of the book, and his reasonable differences of opinion that inspire me to think and write more on the subject.

Benjamin Franklin.

Beloved deist, Benjamin Franklin.

To his speculation about public office, I’m with Plato in thinking that in general, one probably ought to feel called to leadership. You need the right environment and to believe genuinely that you are the person who might really have what the public needs. That takes a balance of circumstances related to the mandate-independence matter. Thus, you’ve got to be a part of a community in which you will represent people, not merely in terms of what the public calls for, but as someone whom you believe the relevant public would choose for his or her own values. That takes the alignment of quite a few stars. If one day the stars do align in such a way, then I might pursue service to my community outside the academy, beyond public writing and speaking. I don’t think it would be such a problem to learn from Kurtz, whom Tadd mentions. The many deists who contributed to the U.S. Constitution are lauded despite their divergences from some Americans’ beliefs. The important thing is whether or not a person seriously embraces the right values and has the wisdom, courage, and humility to listen and serve others in the deepest, most democratically respectful manner that he or she can.

All these are initial thoughts, hence posted here on my site only. Still, I can feel renewed energy for thinking about democratic leadership and am thus profoundly grateful to Tadd for his review and challenges in The Pluralist. If you all are interested in reading what he had to say, check it out here.

Leaders or Leaderfulness? Lessons from High-achieving Communities

The 21-page report, Leaders or Leaderfulness? Lessons from High-Achieving Communities (2016), was written by David Mathews and supported by the Cousins Research Group of the Kettering Foundation.

The report discusses how communities become stronger and more resilient through more “leaderfulness” of its community members, as opposed to having just a few of active leaders. What Mathews means by “leaderfulness”, is that people are engaged within a community and show leaderfulness by taking initiative to participate. Through years of research, Kettering has found that the serious problems that face a community require active participation from the people within it. There is a largely untapped civic energy in this country, this report shares information on how community members can be more leaderful and what that can look like.

Below is an excerpt of the report and it can be found in full at the bottom of this page or on Kettering Foundation’s site here.

From the guide…kf_leaders_cover

There is a widely held belief that change only occurs when a few courageous leaders step forward to take charge and overcome entrenched power. History is full of examples of great leaders who have been agents of change: Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, George Washington. You can complete the list. Could “just citizens” working with just citizens ever change anything?

Kettering began to think about this question as a result of a study of two communities that, although similar, were quite different in what they achieved.3 However, the more dysfunctional of the two actually had the best leaders, as leadership is traditionally understood. They were well educated, well connected, professionally successful, and civically responsible. Yet what stood out in the higher-achieving community was not so much the characteristics of the leaders as their number, their location and, most of all, the way they interacted with other citizens. The higher-achieving community had 10 times more people providing initiative than communities of comparable size. The community was “leaderful.” And its leaders functioned not as gatekeepers but as door openers, bent on widening participation.

Beginning Where We Live
Because we are facing an array of daunting domestic problems and a morass of international uncertainties, many Americans think we need to make basic changes in the way the country operates. We believe that the chances for change are best beginning at the local level, in communities where we can get our hands on problems. Change has to start there before it can take place nationwide. At the same time, we are deeply worried about what is happening to our sense of community, to our ability to live and work together. As Benjamin Barber put it, we worry that “beneath the corruptions associated with alcohol and drugs, complacency and indifference, discrimination and bigotry, and violence and fractiousness—is a sickness of community: its corruption, its rupturing, its fragmentation, its breakdown; finally, its vanishing and its absence.”

Calls for reform come from every quarter and touch every facet of American life—ranging from the way we organize our businesses to the way we raise our children. People say they want more than a few improvements; they want to change the “systems” that seem to control their lives—the criminal justice system, the welfare system, and, most of all, the political system. Some also want to change their community in fundamental ways—in the ways people work, or often don’t work, together.

When I say “community,” I don’t mean just a place or a collection of individuals; I mean a group of diverse people joined in a variety of ways to improve their common well being. And by change, I mean the process by which people redirect their talents and energies or reorder their relationships so as to realize their vision of the best community. So community change means a change in a community itself, and only a community can do that. For me to change myself—my weight or habits or ways of relating to others—I have to do something. The change has to come from within. So when a community wants to change itself—to be more of what it would like to be—the same principle holds. For there to be fundamental change, the citizens in a community have to act. Large groups of people can’t sit on the sidelines.

How Communities Can Become Leaderful
Leaderful communities are necessary because change is a journey of the many steps it takes to move a community from one place to another. Anyone who takes any one of those steps has provided leadership. This kind of leadership isn’t the prerogative of a few; it’s the responsibility of the many. When citizens talk about the quality of leadership in their community, they are talking about themselves! If we are talking about change by and not simply in a community, then leadership consists of all the activities needed to bring about change. And there are many of them. Think about all of the things that have to be done to change something relatively simple— like remodeling an old house. Someone has to file a building permit, someone has to design the remodeled structure, someone has to tear out the old walls, someone has to order new materials, someone has to do the carpentry, someone has to add electricity and water, someone has to repaint—and so on. The interaction of the workers is as crucial as what each one of them does individually. The walls have to be in place before the painters can do their job. Remodeling is a dynamic process of interaction. The same is true in communities. They aren’t static but rather dynamic, and their patterns of interaction are critical. For a community to change, even more people have to be involved in even more tasks than in remodeling a house.

What I have just described is a functional concept of leadership, which is quite different from the theory of leadership that is built around what one person—the leader—does. From the perspective I am talking about, leadership is provided by anyone who carries out any of the tasks in the work of change. This kind of leadership passes to different people at different times. There are many leaders.

This leaderfulness can develop around the ways a community goes about doing its routine business; that is, around the various tasks that make up the work of a community, these are the equivalents of the tasks for remodeling a house. Here are some of them…

This is an excerpt of the report, download the full guide at the bottom of this page to learn more.

About Kettering Foundation
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

Resource Link:

The Risks of Public Engagement, Part I

Dr. Shane RalstonI and others may well be guilty of romanticizing public philosophy. Fellow Dewey scholar and a prolific writer, Shane Ralston, has published a warning for people interested in engaging in public philosophy. In “On the Perils of Public Philosophy,” Ralston rightly recognizes both that there is a resurgence in the movement for publicly engaged philosophy and that too few call attention to its risks.

He explains that “Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere.” He’s right. In Oxford, MS, while I was working at the University of Mississippi, I was thoroughly harassed by someone who made me feel ill. I won’t go into the details of it, but being publicly engaged has not been easy. People who disagree with you sometimes do so to a degree motivating enough to be threatening.

David - The Death of Socrates

I have reason to believe that this person sent two students to my office with a video camera for a “gotcha” kind of harassing interview. They were surprised when I sat them down to schedule a time to meet up formally. They didn’t show up for that.

Other people have written me with insults. One man, in a single email, called me a eunuch, a gelding, and effeminate. He clearly has strong feelings about gender and opinions. That sort of thing I can laugh off. The person who told me he was meeting with my Chancellor the next day was clearly trying to intimidate me. I was then an untenured assistant professor.

People will be mean. They will be unbelievably uncivil. One said that I should spend more time in the classroom than in the opinion pages.

Ralston is right that we don’t hear enough about the unpleasant side of public engagement.

So, why on Earth do we do it?

First of all, we should remember that it’s no surprise to be criticized or insulted for engaging with people about philosophical issues. Plato noted in his cave metaphor that the philosophers who have seen the light outside the cave have an obligation to go back down in there to help free the others. He did not think that they would welcome this liberation, he explained. If any philosopher “tried to loose another [prisoner in the cave] and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death… No question.”

Plato’s Socrates recognized that people will resist teachers and liberators. The folks in the cave are habituated to that setting. They believe that they have interests there. It’s unpleasant to be turned toward the light. People will be upset. Some might try to kill you.

I see that I have yet to make the case for public engagement. My point so far is that when we do it, we must do so with understanding of dangers. It’s like a battle medic. You head into dangerous territory to save people, not to injure anyone. Nevertheless, you can be targeted and hurt in the process. The part that makes it all the more difficult is that in Plato’s metaphor, it’s those whom you’re trying to save who resist and want you dead. Given that, why think we even have an obligation to them?

Here another line from the Republic is motivating for me. Plato’s Socrates says that the “greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.”

Puppet master's hands and strings.If you’re unwilling to fight for the truth and for the liberation of people’s minds, you have chosen to be ruled by ignorance and whatever shadows on the wall the powerful puppet masters choose.

If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

You can follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

Trump’s Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won’t Work, Just Look at the Evidence

Piece originally published in The Herald Leader, October 13, 2016.

Thumbnail photo of my piece in the Herald Leader, titled, 'Trump's Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won't Work, Just Look at the Evidence.' The link leads to the article on the Herald Leader's site.

After watching the first Presidential debate, I was struck by how little Donald Trump had to offer in terms of actual policy proposals. He suggested renegotiating trade deals, but that’s not something he can unilaterally do. I’m skeptical. The things government can do on its own, among his recommendations, included lowering taxes for the wealthy and for corporations. It’s his panacea. It’s also something that in many cases has already been shown not to work.

Of course, there can be too much. But for a man proud of paying no taxes, it’s all the more absurd to suggest that taxes are too high on him. Here’s my piece, covering what I take to be the four big mistakes in Donald Trump’s free market fundamentalism.

Trump Forfeited the Benefit of the Doubt

Yesterday, I was deeply troubled to hear that Trump referred to suicidal veterans with PTSD as people who “can’t handle it” (CNN). It sounded, read in the news, like another incredibly callous remark, like so many that he has made. When you watch the video of him saying the words, you see that he was trying to speak sympathetically to the difficulties that veterans face when they witness traumatic events. That fact leads some people to want to defend Trump from the unfair media, and from others’ allegedly unfair reactions.

Image of a soldier at the Arlington National Cemetary.

There’s certainly some merit to the idea of encouraging people to dig deeper. Folks need to understand two things, however. 1) His remarks displayed a disrespectful, troubling set of assumptions even if he meant to be sympathetic. 2) Trump once deserved the benefit of the doubt, but his words and actions forfeited it long ago. Procedurally, he’ll always have the benefit of the doubt in the courtroom, but you have to deserve it in the court of public opinion.

Trump calls people “losers” all the time (170 examples in the Washington Post), and himself “smart” for paying no taxes. He sees people’s misfortunes as demonstrations of their own failings. You can’t get a clearer example of this than in the language he used to describe veterans who commit suicide. “Handling it” is something you’re supposed to do when you have a problem. Even if he was trying to speak sympathetically, and I’m sure he was, he referred to PTSD in terms of an inability for veterans to handle their problems. Imagine saying that a deceased mother’s problem was that she couldn’t handle her cancer. If you hear how jarring that sounds, you can see what’s so troubling and ignorant in Trump’s remarks. PTSD isn’t a little bit of everyday work stress turned up several levels. It’s a serious matter of mental illness. It’s akin to cancer.

So, when reporters who felt that his language was troubling wrote that “Military suicides happen to service members who ‘can’t handle it’,” it rubbed a lot of people wrong. He has said so many things that have been deeply callous, troubling, and unacceptable for a Presidential candidate that folks encountering that reporting have cause to worry and be dismayed by this man’s careless statements.

For critical thinkers and readers, it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I first read the article, it sure sounded as though he was being as callous and judgmental as so many instances in the past. For public figures, we ought to dig deeper and try to make sure that our judgments are deserved. A figure can abuse that, however, and there’s no doubt that the public has heard so much troubling bigotry from Trump that we’ve become desensitized to it.

I want our judgments to be well informed and fair, but at least as important is the obligation of our officials to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Trump has forfeited that honor contemptuously. Three examples of hundreds make the matter plain for me:

  1. Because of Trump, we actually have had a Presidential candidate, during a Republican primary debate, mind you, refer to his penis size and satisfaction over the matter. Sadly, this is the least troubling of my three examples.
  2. Trump’s misogyny actually led him to refer to a Fox News reporter’s menstrual cycle, literally “blood,” when upset about difficult questions she raised for him. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes… Blood coming out of her wherever.”
  3. In reference to one of our most famous veterans who endured trauma, Senator McCain, Donald Trump actually dismissed the idea of him as a hero, saying that he prefers soldiers who weren’t captured.

This final example explains my lack of sympathy for those who believe Trump was interpreted unfairly. Maybe some commentator thought he meant to be hurtful, and probably that person was wrong. That doesn’t mean that Trump deserves the benefit of the doubt. He has so profoundly demeaned the role of the American Presidential candidate that he has forfeited sympathy over a few people’s snap judgments.

If evidence matters to you, here’s a New York Times list of 258 people, places, and things that Donald Trump has insulted, as of August 22nd.

Sure, I’ll always advocate for innocent til proven guilty in court. But in the public sphere and in the pursuit of the highest office in the United States of America, you’ve got to deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s time for people who care about values to mean it.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is Executive Director of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) and Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He is representing only his own point of view. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

End Corporal Punishment in Public Schools

First published in The Herald Leader (Lexington, KY), Sunday, 9/25/16, 4-5C.

Logo of the Lexington Herald-Leader.On September 4th, The Herald Leader of Lexington, KY, published an in-depth news article on the subject of corporal punishment in public schools. It was still early in the school year, which makes such topics timely. I had written a draft to send them on the subject, but the news article offered many specifics to address in considering the kinds of justifications people raise for continuing corporal punishment in public schools.

Here is the news article to which I was responding, titled “The Paddle Is Still Wielded in Kentucky Schools, but in Declining Numbers.” The piece covers quite an array of reasons people give for the continued practice of corporal punishment. I believe philosophers have a lot to offer when it comes to analyzing arguments, clarifying concerns, and cataloguing reasons for or against a matter. So, I updated my initial draft for the Herald Leader and it came out yesterday in the Sunday issue.

Photo of the header of my op-ed on corporal punishment. Clicking on the link in the image takes you to the full scan of the printed article, available on

My original title was “End Corporal Punishment in Schools,” but the editors found one of the lines from the piece stronger. So in print and online, the op-ed is titled “Prisoners Better Protected from Corporal Punishment than Students.” That link takes you to the HTML version of the piece online. I’ve also scanned in the printed version which you can view on here or by clicking the image here above.

“Correcting Political Correctness”

Published in "The Philosophers' Magazine," issue 72, 1st Quarter 2016, 113-114.

I had the pleasure of receiving a request to write for The Philosophers’ Magazine, which was planning an issue on “50 New Ideas.” My proposal was to revisit and rethink an old idea that people have been criticizing quite a lot lately: political correctness. Click here or on the photo of the piece here to open a PDF of my article:

Thumbnail photo of my piece in The Philosophers' Magazine, with a link to the PDF file.

Cover of The Philosophers' Magazine, issue 72, 1st Quarter 2016.This piece is a short, op-ed snippet of the larger project I’m working on, called A Culture of Justice. It’s an example that shows clearly how and why culture matters for policy, such as in trademark registration, free speech, and the cultural responsibilities of leadership and symbolism. Check it out.

If you enjoyed the piece, connect with me by “liking” my Facebook author page and “following” me on Twitter.

Tehran Times Front Page on ‘Uniting MS’

Check out the front page of February 28th’s Tehran Times. I gave an interview on Uniting Mississippi and was honored with some pretty cool real estate in the paper. Here’s an image of the cover and below that I’ve got links for a clipped PDF of the interview and to the regular text version on their site:

Cover pic of the front page of the Tehran Times, featuring an interview on 'Uniting Mississippi.'

Click on the image above to read a PDF of the piece, or click here. You can also read it online here.

You can learn more about the book here and find it for sale online here.

Follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and “like” my Facebook author page @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

Video: “Poverty, Culture, and Justice,” @ Purdue U

This is a screen capture from my talk at Purdue University in February of 2016.

I’ve posted a number of recordings of interviews and talks I’ve given on Uniting Mississippi. This talk is on my next project, which is still in progress. The book is titled A Culture of Justice. One of the chapters that is in progress is the subject of the talk I gave at Purdue University. Here’s the video, about 1hr 28 mins:

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If you’re looking for a speaker, visit my Speaking and Contact pages.