Graham School News

Expanding Perspectives on Leadership Through Studying the Liberal Arts

Philip Baker

On July 18, the University of Chicago’s Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program hosted a student panel to launch its new graduate certificate in Ethics and Leadership. The curriculum is embedded in the MLA and enables students to earn a graduate certificate in three quarters.

“Do We Have the Leaders We Deserve?” featured a discussion with three current MLA students and business and nonprofit leaders, moderated by Mary Daniels, associate dean of Liberal Arts Programs. The evening’s conversation highlighted the type of agile thinking that occurs in MLA seminars and is a defining skill of the liberal arts. 

“The liberal arts can offer an important approach to how we think about leadership,” Daniels said. In contrast to the management-heavy discourse on leadership that dominates business school curricula, Daniels opened the panel from the premise that the liberal arts is “able to pose questions that can broaden the lens through which we gauge a leader’s task and effectiveness.” 

She asked the attendees and panelists to consider several historical and mythical leaders—Achilles, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Megan Rapinoe, for example—and to ask themselves whose values these leaders represent, and how these relate to our own values as contemporary Americans. 

If leaders might formerly have been honored for their courage, she noted, or for their ability to achieve a goal no matter the means, there is a sense today that ethical commitments matter. She asked students and attendees to consider MLK’s famous statement that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


“The sort of ethical thinking one carries out when practicing the liberal arts entails continuously cultivating your intellect and questioning your basic beliefs. A leader’s ability to think outside their immediate environment. . . is critical to success.” —Patrick O'Meara


The panelists took up this topic of ethical leadership, thinking about what being a leader means as well as how their time in the MLA program has helped them to become more effective leaders. 

Drawing on his career in business, Patrick O'Meara, a current MLA student and chair of the Ann Arbor Acquisition Corp., as well as the former owner of the Ann Arbor Railroad, emphasized that “creating value is rooted in the sort of ethical thinking we develop while studying the liberal arts.” 

“Joining the program after I sold the railroad illuminated for me the strategic and tactical side of running a business,” he said. “The sort of ethical thinking one carries out when practicing the liberal arts entails continuously cultivating your intellect and questioning your basic beliefs. A leader’s ability to think outside their immediate environment. . . is critical to success.”

Fabi Delgado, a current MLA student and global vice president for financial planning and analysis at Ensono, emphasized that in studying the liberal arts and learning about the perspectives of history’s great ethical thinkers, our sense for what goals are worth striving for can deepen and change.

“It can be painful to grow as a person and as a leader,” she said. “For instance, if what’s valuable is for my team to finish a financial report by tomorrow, what am I willing to do—what am I willing to make my team do—in order to achieve that end? The joy I’ve found in studying the liberal arts, as well as the connection with humanity I’ve felt while in the MLA program, has brought new perspective to these sorts of questions for me.”


"The joy I’ve found in studying the liberal arts, as well as the connection with humanity I’ve felt while in the MLA program, has brought new perspective to these sorts of questions for me.” —Fabi Delgado


Emphasizing the inherent value of the diversity of perspective one gains through liberal arts study, Jake Sparlin, a recent MLA graduate and associate pastor at Chicago Tabernacle, as well as creator of the online platform DNA of a Leader, pointed to how the liberal arts cultivates an ability to think across disciplines. By comparing ideas from a variety of frameworks and learning how to use old ideas in new ways, he noted how one becomes more flexible and more effective in facing problems as a leader.

“By having a liberal arts education you are positioning yourself to become a leader because you learn how to make connections between different abstract thoughts,” he said. “In this way, you’re able to close the gap of differences. In our increasingly specialized and polarized world, an ability to bridge that gap makes you vital to any organization or sphere of influence you walk into.”

The attendees and panelists grappled with the relationship between leadership and influence. It is convenient to equate popularity with the capacity to lead, but this can be a dangerous view to take. Certainly great leaders have sizeable followings, but is it the following itself which defines the leader, or something less tangible? 

Daniels, a political theorist by training, emphasized the complexity of defining leadership in our contemporary social and political climate. “There’s a sense today that the ethical commitments you have while achieving your goals matter. . . In the way that something that is beautiful must be good, we want to imagine that the correct idea of leadership embodies some form of good as well. For that reason, leadership today, having taken a democratic turn that entails embracing all different kinds of people and points of view, has become immensely more complicated.”