These interviews were recorded on October 26 and 27, 2019, at the International Leadership Association meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and on December 4, 2019, at Sorenson’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.Learn more about Georgia Sorenson
Scarpino: As I said when the recorders were off, I’m going to start by reading a statement.
Today is Saturday, October 26, 2019. My name is Philip Scarpino, Professor of History at Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis, IUPUI, and Director of Oral History for the Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence, also at IUPUI. I’m interviewing Dr. Georgia Sorenson in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. We’re both attending the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association, ILA.
This interview is a joint venture undertaken by the Tobias Center and the ILA. We’ll include more detailed biographical information with the transcript of the interview, but for now, I’ll provide an abbreviated overview of Dr. Sorenson’s career.
Georgia Sorenson earned her PhD in Education from the University of Maryland in 1992. Her dissertation was entitled Emergent Leadership: A Phenomenological Study of Ten Transformational Political Leaders. Dr. Sorenson also holds an MA in Psychology from Hood College, Frederick, Maryland, conferred in 1976, and a BA in Psychology from American University, Washington, D.C., 1974.
She had held several positions in the Washington D.C. area including, but not limited to, Senior Policy Analyst, the Carter White House, 1979-1980; Co-Director, Center for Organizational and Policy Research, Bethesda, Maryland, 1981-1982; Director and Founder, James MacGregor Burns
Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, College Park, 1981-2000; and Founder with James MacGregor Burns and Larraine Matusak of the International Leadership Association, 1998.
Dr. Sorenson has also held several academic appointments including, but not limited to, Senior Scholar and Professor, the Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, College Park, 1999; Jepson School of Leadership, University of Richmond, 2002-2004; Inaugural Chair and Professor of Transformation of the U.S. Army, Army War College, 2005-2006; Research Professor and Distinguished Leadership Scholar, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, 2006-2009; and presently she serves as Visiting Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Maryland, School of Law, and as James MacGregor Burns Leadership Scholar and Moller By Fellow, Churchill College, University of Cambridge.
Through her publications, she has had a profound impact on the field of leadership studies. Over a long career, she’s been the author or co-author of numerous scholarly articles and books on leadership. Representative sample includes: Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation (1999); The Encyclopedia of Leadership, 4 Volumes, co-edited with George R. Goethals and James MacGregor Burns (2004).
She had earned numerous honors and recognitions for her work, but the one that brings us here today is the Lifetime Leadership Legacy Award
given by the International Leadership Association at its annual meeting in Barcelona, Spain, in 2015.
I’m going to ask your permission to do the things you just agreed to in writing. I want to record the interview, transcribe the interview, deposit the transcription and the recording in the IUPUI Library and also with the Tobias Center and International Leadership Association where parts or all of it may be posted to the internet. Can I have your permission to do that?
Sorenson: Yes, you do.
Scarpino: Alright. I’m going to start with some big picture questions and we’ll see how we do. The first thing that I want to ask you is how do you define leadership?
Sorenson: Well, it’s evolved over the years, obviously, having the benefit of all these great scholars influencing each other, particularly through the Kellogg Leadership Studies Project where we got to know each other really well, people like Bernie Bass and Ron Riggio and Joe Ross and Joanne Ciulla and Gill Hickman. We met for a period of years and we influenced each other’s thinking about leadership. I have to say that from the beginning, I was always a person that felt like leadership was a role in the group. I had a lot of experience and training with the Tavistock Institute and the A.K. Rice Institute, which looks at group relations. So, while at the beginning, there are a number – the field itself shifted from looking at individual leaders to now looking at a broader view of leadership including roles of
the group, but I always held fast to the role in the group. That’s not to say that individuals aren’t leaders, of course they are. How do I define leadership?
Scarpino: Or, how do you know it when you see it?
Sorenson: How do you know it when I see it? That’s a very good question. I think the most striking way to learn about leadership is to look at the quality of the followers, to be honest. You look at people who are around that person or doing dissertation work with that person or who are colleagues of that person, you know. So the exceptional nature of the quality of people who are followers or colleagues around the person I think is probably the best way to do it. In that sense, I agree with Posner and Kuznet, who look at followership that way too. You know, I’ve written a book about invisible leadership...
Sorenson: … so, in lots of ways, I think of leadership as the core driving raison d'etre of the group of the organization, in other words, the purpose of the organization. The people coalesce around the idea or the purpose, in my opinion. So, there are just great ideas in human nature; the idea of democracy, the idea of markets, for example, the idea of fairness. I think those ideas really drive the recruitment of leaders and followers really, the Civil Rights Movement is a good example I guess. It’s more invisible than looking at individuals is what I’m saying.
Scarpino: You taught at the Army War College?
Sorenson: I did.
Scarpino: How did your view of leadership go over at the Army War College?
Sorenson: To be honest, I didn’t actually teach there. They wouldn’t actually let me teach there, I think, because the Army has a very considered view of leadership. Have you ever been in the military?
Scarpino: I was, yes. I was a platoon leader in the armored cavalry. .
Sorenson: Okay, then you know. Yeah, the Army is really a phenomenal institution, in terms of leadership, and they spent a lot of money – Dwight Eisenhower started it – on understanding leadership and followership. And obviously, Ed Hollander did lot of great work for the Army on followership, and they did it for a reason. They wanted to learn how did Hitler arise, why did we let that happen, but also, how do you create a team, a team that works together productively. The Army has got the teamwork down pat. You know, there are soldiers that go out and get all their limbs blown off and they want to go back to the field...
Scarpino: That’s true.
Sorenson: … to be with their team. That’s phenomenal. Now, some people could say it’s coercive, but I didn’t experience that. I experienced just a really strong culture with a strong purpose, core values that are articulated. I
was hired by General Huntoon at the Army War College. It was part of the Donald Rumsfeld initiative, by the way, on transformational leadership. What Donald Rumsfeld meant by transformational leadership was how to integrate the different service sectors – the Marines and the Air Force – because he felt that they were kind of competitive and it would be better them working together as a group. So, I didn’t know that that was their definition of transformational leadership until I got there. I’m not opposed to that, of course, so I was kind of quiet there. There was only one other woman and we became very good friends – Heidi Cannoli (SPELLING???). Now, I’ve forgotten your question. Why did I go there? Is that it?
Scarpino: No, I was wondering how your views of leadership matched up with what happened when you went to the Army War College.
Sorenson: Right, okay. I’m not sure that I changed them very much, to be perfectly honest. They kind of had all the answers to everything. I was a person that people would come to and talk to about leadership, but not in a systemic way, I would say. I’ve become very close with several people from the Army War College afterwards and helped them get jobs in the private universities when they retired and so forth. So, I’ve got a good connection there. I’ve had influence, but it wasn’t direct.
Scarpino: Based on the way you understand leadership, what constitutes successful leadership?
Sorenson: Well, I would say successful leadership in a group would be the accomplishment of their tasks in a way that the group feels satisfied and ennobled by the work that they do.
Scarpino: Who sets the tasks?
Sorenson: Well, it depends on whether it’s a formal or informal leadership. If it’s a group that wants to go to the beach together one day and they organize and pack up a picnic basket and go to the beach, that’s one kind of a task, an informal leadership. That might be just a person or persons saying let’s go out dancing, like the young people did here last night. On the other hand, the formal leadership is set by the organization and is set by the hiring practices of the organization, who hired a formal leader to guide the group. So, it’s really quite different.
Scarpino: Do you think that leadership is in part situational, that some people become leaders in certain situations and not others?
Sorenson: Oh, absolutely. Yep.
Scarpino: Can you think of an example of that in your own long career?
Sorenson: Yeah, I was thinking of like when I worked for Carter, there was a Treasury Secretary, Regan, I think his name was, and he came from the private sector, from Alcoa – this fact might not be right, so we’ll have to look into that – and he just wasn’t able to manage the political process, but he was probably a brilliant private sector leader. I think that happens a lot.
Scarpino: Do you think that leadership is in part a cultural construction?
Sorenson: Well, yes and no. I mean, leadership I believe is ubiquitous because we’re social animals. Even in the most remote places, there are people gathering together to get work done and require leadership, but you said it was cultural – yeah, but it’s somewhat different in different cultures. That’s something I’ve been looking at a lot because I travel a lot.
Scarpino: Well, that’s what I want to ask you next is if leadership is in part a cultural construction? Are there qualities of good leadership that vary from culture to culture?
Sorenson: That’s a really hard question. I can’t believe it’s 10:00 in the morning and I got that question.
Scarpino: I didn’t mean to play stump the professor.
Sorenson: The cultural component of it, is that what you asked?
Scarpino: Yeah, are there qualities of successful leadership that vary from culture to culture?
Sorenson: Right. So, when I was in Hungary, for example, women leaders there did not want to separate themselves too much from their male counterparts in the political parties because they were just emerging as a force and they didn’t want to be seen as the woman leader in the council or the cabinet or whatever. So, they made certain strategic choices like that. I do
remember in Eritrea, too, it was wonderful. Everything was done in a group. It’s a very matriarchal, very collaborative culture, collectivist. If you stood out and said something in a group in Eritrea, people would think that that was immodest of you. So, it has to emerge kind of in a much more organic and invisible way in some ways.
Scarpino: Do you think that there are qualities of leadership that are constant; in other words, they’re the same when you cross cultural divides?
Sorenson: Right. Well, that’s a very interesting question too because it came up in our work on the general theory of leadership – actually, it was called The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership because in the end, Burns and the others thought we did really find a general theory of leadership, but we made some progress toward it. We added the contextual situation on the last chapter with Liz Phair (SPELLING???), who was an anthropologist, and Tom Wren also, because they were pretty insistent on it, and we said well, okay, we’ll do that, and I do seen that that was an important factor.
Scarpino: To what degree do you think that leadership is a product of education and training, and to what degree is leadership is something that a person is born with?
Sorenson: Right. I do want to add to the last question, too. Jim Burns was pretty insistent on the idea that we were looking for a universal theory of leadership that would go across all groups, all culture, all history, and he felt like that was so. He was changed by the work of Liz and Tom Wren,
too. I think there probably are universals, I’m not sure that we got to them and situation definitely has an impact. Alright, Phil, I’ve forgotten the question already.
Scarpino: Well, what I said is is leadership a product of education and training or – in other words, there are probably millions of people who can play basketball, but there’s only one Michael Jordan. He was born with something that most people don’t have.
Sorenson: Right. I think you kind of answered my question, in a way, because I think we all are leaders. Leadership changes from group to group, activity to activity. If you go to my daughter’s house, you’ll see her running her family very effectively, but if she goes somewhere else, she might be a follower, for example. So, we all are leaders and followers every day. I don’t believe that it gets encapsulated into one person. I think there are people with certain – well, you know, the five factor theory in psychology, which says extroversion is an important part of leadership. Yeah, most leaders, I think, probably are pretty extroverted. I’m an introvert and Jim was an introvert. I do think intellectual leadership doesn’t require so much extroversion. I mean, you have to kind of like to rub shoulders in lots of ways, and I suppose that’s more born than made. I do think you’re your leadership can be improved by close mentorship with good people and classroom experiences, you know, experiential education, trainings – all that can only improve your own abilities and sense of leadership.
Scarpino: Did you ever find, when you were teaching leadership, that part of what you had to do was persuade people that they could do it?
Sorenson: Yeah, it was sort of interesting. I always made a point of working with students that wouldn’t be seen as leaders by most people. They weren’t the student government type, you know. They often were women, they were people of color, whatever, and it was a little bit different at Jepson and Harvard and things, but I think those students, you have the most capacity to kind of help them flower that they might not have had if they had anyone else. I don’t think they would have been recognized. So, I learned to go out my door, out of my office door at the university and find people because, at the time, the young people, people of color and women, they wouldn’t come to the Academy because they didn’t think of themselves as leaders. Nobody ever said that they were a leader and, if they did, they probably thought ah, it doesn’t matter, you know, I’m into service kind of thing. So, I kind of had to go the extra mile to find the people that nobody noticed and they were the most exceptional people, as you can imagine.
Scarpino: Is that one of the things that distinguished your career was the ability to find exceptional people?
Sorenson: Yeah, I would say so, yeah.
Scarpino: I don’t remember their names, but two of your students were at dinner last night.
Sorenson: Oh, that’s true.
Scarpino: They seemed like exceptional people.
So, a slightly different tack and I’m going to generalize and realizing that any time you do that, there are always exceptions, but most scholars in leadership are social scientists. As I mentioned earlier, your BA and MA degrees are in psychology, which I classify as a social science. Yet when we look at one of the important founders of leadership studies, James MacGregor Burns, he’s a political scientist, but that book he wrote on leadership, that’s a humanist book. It’s not social science. His volume didn’t adapt the social scientific method that dominates leadership studies today. So, you worked with James MacGregor Burns in partnership for a long time, so what did you bring to his world view that helped the two of you achieve what you did?
Sorenson: Oh, that’s so interesting, yeah. Well, he was quite a bit older than I was and he had a very considered view of leadership. One of the most interesting things, I think, he really thought about his body of work, so that he did a book on Congress, he did a book on grassroots leaders, he wrote several books on presidents, he did one on the Supreme Court because toward the end of his life, he felt like he had missed that. And then some others, a deeper level, were like the Scottish Enlightenment period and so forth, but he looked at the whole American experiment, the whole system of leadership in our government, and so that was incredibly helpful to me.
So, he had a pretty definite view of leadership by that time and I didn’t attempt to influence him, but really to learn from him. But over time, I did notice a lot that my thinking and my friends did help him see some new things. I was young and energetic and I was kind of an institution builder and I was naming this academy after him, and basically I’d call him up and tell him to do things and he would do them.
Scarpino: He must have really liked you.
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah he did. Yeah, he did, because he liked to get things done. He didn’t want to just have theories sit on a shelf. So, we were great partners for that reason. We just tried to get things out into the world. I remember we had sort of a plan that we wanted to have a book publishing company to publish books on leadership, we wanted to have a journal on leadership, we wanted to have a library of leadership, you know, a body of work. So, we had some sort of goals that he based on the French Enlightenment period, you know, what it would take to have a strong discipline. For the most part, those things got done. We didn’t have to do them all; there became well-known publishers who published things on leadership, like Rublage (SPELLING???), for example, and ILA has its own series. So, it’s not like we did them, but we made sure that they got done, the four or five things that we decided we were going to get done. He did ask me once if I would mind getting Eleanor Roosevelt’s bust up on the Mount Rushmore and I said Jim, I don’t think I could do it. I loved Eleanor too, but I’m kind of tired. So, he wasn’t shy.
Scarpino: So, he wanted you to move mountains?
Sorenson: Yeah, that’s wonderful. Yes, yeah, and he would remind me of it from time to time.
Scarpino: Well, in the interest of full disclosure, my first ILA interview was with him. I sure wish I could go back and do it again. After all these years, it would be much better.
I want to ask you a few questions about him and then we’ll come back to that later on. The first question is an easy one, I hope. How did you get to know this man? He was quite a bit older than you and he was an intellectual institution.
Sorenson: Right, right, that’s true. Well, I was going to write a dissertation on leadership. Originally I was looking at charismatic leadership, so I went up to have dinner with Bob House, who was a buddy at Wharton, and I just didn’t quite feel like Bob’s and my view of leadership was the same. So, I kind of puzzled because I was thinking of asking him to be on my dissertation committee, but I didn’t. Then, a friend of mine, Greg Lebel, who was the Campaign Manager for the Gary Hart campaign, he said, “Why don’t you just call up Jim Burns? He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and he’s listed.” So, I called him up and I told him I had dinner with Bob House and that I was writing a dissertation on charismatic leadership, but the more I thought about it, I really didn’t want to focus on charisma. And he said, “Oh, that’s great, yeah, good, this is exactly what
I’m thinking too.” So we became fast friends. Then he came down to Washington to receive the RFK Courage Award, I think it was, for his books and that was the first time I met him. He had his family there.
Scarpino: And he was on your dissertation committee, is that right?
Sorenson: Yes, he was, yeah. It was great.
Scarpino: It’s a little like having God on your dissertation committee. So, you and Jim Burns became collaborators, colleagues and friends. Can you talk about what he was like as a person?
Sorenson: Oh, yeah. Sometimes I think I miss him so much, but other times I think like he gave me everything; there’s nothing left. Do you know what I’m saying? So, I don’t have this loss of that, although there are times when I just miss his physical presence. He was a very, very kind person. That was the most important thing, very kind to people and extremely brilliant. I mean, just in everyday life, he’s just an everyday person, of course, but if you ever went to an interview with him, like on some media or something like that, you could see him going from a quiet, agreeable, kind person, and he would just get into this laser-sharp intellect of his and from the first question on, he just was so articulate about things. That part was really amazing to me, that he could shift gears like that. He was very kind. He was a big advocate of women’s issues. He came to see that he thought if women could be leaders, particularly in government, that we’d be better off. He himself was a soldier, a war historian. So, he admired the Army
for what they did on leadership, and he definitely supported the wars that we got into because he felt like we needed to take action like that. I’m more of a pacifist. I’m a Quaker and Buddhist, and I wouldn’t agree to that. So, that part was sort of interesting to me. He was very good with his family. He was just adored by everybody. You’ve met him and seen how he is.
Scarpino: When I interviewed him, when we were done, he stood up and hugged me. I was a little surprised.
Sorenson: Aw, aw.
Scarpino: He was just a nice man.
Sorenson: Right, right. I remember Hillary – he hugged Hillary at the end of their meeting, too. Yeah, I guess he was kind of a hugger. He was especially a hugger with me. We didn’t have a personal relationship, in the sense that I wasn’t his girlfriend or anything like that, but people always thought it because we were always together, but I think that also preserved our long friendship, too, because there was nothing complicated about it.
Fitzpatrick: And not to interrupt, I think that you had that he was affectionate and loving and really was happy to display that with others. On the phone, they always said “I love you” to each other, but he would say it to me, and he would hug and kiss me. He just was perfectly happy to display love and not have it be romantic or anything, just like hugging. I mean, I was a
child when they met, but I just remember that. He was always happy to display his affection for others, with his children, with his sons, you know, with you. It was nice.
Sorenson: He was very sweet.
Scarpino: That person speaking is Suzanna Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick: Oh, sorry.
Scarpino: Georgia’s daughter.
A slightly different question about James MacGregor Burns, the scholar; what impact did he have on your thinking?
Sorenson: Yeah, that’s sort of a big one.
Scarpino: That’s why I didn’t ask you first.
Sorenson: Well, there’s something that my friend, Chris Ruval (SPELLING???) is writing about now, which has to do with how older people with experience, sometimes well-known, affect the trajectory of young people. At first, I kind of poo-pooed it, you know, so what if he met Nelson Mandela for 20 minutes, you know. I don’t see how it could have changed your life. But I do think that when older people that are established or well-known take the time with a young person, it’s a kind of uplifting, empowering, helpful little boost along the way. That was definitely true. I liked his systemic view of things. He was a great planner. When we started off leadership
studies and we had these four goals, he had thought about them and he had four goals and he stuck to them. I’m not a planner. I’m more of a serendipity, you know. In fact, I once had a funny conversation with him about I believe in how your consciousness creates realities, sort of Vaclav Havel. He says, “Yeah, but what if your consciousness is creating something and the person next to you is creating something completely opposite? Then you’re stuck.” I said, “Oh, okay, you’re probably right about that.” He wasn’t sort of metaphysical like that, but he enjoyed it, I think. He enjoyed me having a different perspective that way. Another really important thing I learned from him is you never, never, never, never, never cancel an appointment because somebody better came along. You don’t cancel a student’s appointment – I know this because we were driving down to Charlottesville once to give a talk, and Hillary Clinton’s office called me on my cellphone and they wanted to know if he could come and talk to her on a certain day. He looked at his calendar, he had a student meeting. It might have been with Michael Seelman, but don’t tell him that; it’ll go to his head. He said, “Well, no, you’re going to have to tell her I can’t do it then.” I said, “Are you kidding me? I’ll call Michael myself, or whatever.” And he says, “No.” That was just steadfast for him, especially students. He did get to know Hillary later, but he didn’t go that day. So, that’s definitely influenced me too. I’m not as good at it as him, but I don’t cancel appointments when somebody better comes along. He was a great gardener. He inspired me with his gardening, for sure, and I
know I couldn’t get him to come out during strawberry season, blueberry season or corn season. He just wasn’t going to leave Williamstown when the corn came up. I’m a gardener too, not a good as he is, but that helped me understand about priorities. Just when you’re young, you think you can and want to do everything...
Scarpino: I remember.
Sorenson: … yeah. So, if somebody calls you up and wants you to give a talk there or whatever, you do it all because you think you can do it all. But he really learned to – especially as he got older, I guess, but he probably was always like that – he really focused on what his plan was. In fact, every day he’d want to have a meeting to have a plan. I don’t want to have a meeting to have a plan, but he did. He had meetings all the time, to plan things. I don’t know, I’m not very planful, I suppose. I don’t know if he influenced me that way, but I admired it from afar.
Scarpino: Well, it sounds like you made a good team.
Sorenson: We made a good team, yeah.
Scarpino: I’m going to talk to you some more about James MacGregor Burns later on, but I want to ask you a more specific question about the field of leadership studies. You clearly, as we’ve been talking, knew Burns very well, was influenced by his thinking. As a person with graduate training in
psychology, what do you think that you brought to that field or to that collaboration?
Sorenson: Well, I definitely think he shifted to seeing leadership as more of a role in the group. He always was one of the first people I think to look at leadership and followers and their relationship. So, he knew it wasn’t a single person, but I think he came to see that it’s more about a group-wide phenomenon. So, that was true. Psychology, hmm, he was very astute. He may not have had training in psychology, I don’t know, but I don’t know that I taught him a lot about psychology. He was good friends with Al Goethals, who was a psychologist, and so he was influenced by Al, too. I think I probably helped him some in terms of women’s leadership, you know understanding why women were reluctant to go into politics, for example. We had several good meetings about that.
Scarpino: Why are women reluctant to go into politics?
Sorenson: Well, I know that he originally thought – and I’ll tell you my point of view, too – he originally thought that the political system was just too brutal for women who he felt were more sensitive, but also more practical. They didn’t want to put themselves through something that was so distasteful, but the climate has changed somewhat and women – he was a great fan of Hillary’s. He thought she was a transformational leader. I thought she was amazing too. I think that she kind of broke some of those barriers.
She got out there and slugged it out, which he really admired. That’s about all I can think of right now.
Scarpino: You knew Hillary Clinton?
Sorenson: Well, I don’t know what know means, but I...
Scarpino: Had you met her? Spoke to her?
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: How would you assess her as a leader?
Sorenson: I think she’s a planner, a strategist, extremely smart, really good with people. I know she was unpopular with some people, but her staff would stay on for like 10 and 20 years. I mean, they loved her. If their kid got sick, she would go to the hospital, you know, to see the kid, and these are all the things people don’t know about her I think. Maggie Williams was her Chief of Staff and Maggie’s sister, Ermet (SPELLING???), was my student for many years. I had very good access and I think it’s just totally reprehensible that we didn’t elect her, to be honest, but it says more about the American people, I think, sad to say.
Scarpino: On the subject of leaders and followers, what do you think it says about the American people?
Sorenson: What do I think about what? Hillary Clinton something?
Scarpino: You said it had to do with the American people.
Sorenson: Oh yeah, yeah. I think the American people are misogynists as a group, yeah, sad to say, but I’ve been in enough countries now that elected women leaders. I mean, our record, in terms of women’s leadership in the U.S. is abysmal compared to other countries. I’ve been invited to go give talks in Uganda or whatever, Hungary, Japan, and I’d say, “I don’t know why you’re asking me these questions; you have a much better record than we do.” So, I think we pumped it the up with as a year of women in all the media and stuff like that, but we’ve never elected a woman president. A fourth of our women are in Congress now, but it was like 10 people back then. Some countries have parties that require a certain number of people on the ballots have to be women. Uganda has more women in Parliament now than men. So, I think it’s still a big problem for us.
Scarpino: When I introduced you with the statement that I read, I mentioned The Encyclopedia of Leadership. Where did that idea for having such an encyclopedia originate?
Sorenson: Well, it was with Al Goethals. Al Goethals was given a call by a woman who was a consolidator really for SAGE, and she did these encyclopedias of other things too, so she didn’t know about leadership, but she knew how to consolidate things. So, Al and Jim and I jumped on it. It was one of the most rewarding projects, I have to say. In fact, we’re going to probably do another one; they called again. I just think it’s a really helpful reference book for people and they did a good job.
Scarpino: How would you, as one of the editors, assess the impact of that encyclopedia on the field?
Sorenson: Hmm, it’s hard to know. I guess I could find some more data from the publisher, which would be interesting. I’ve been trying to get the data, but he says the consolidator person has most of it and she didn’t want us to do the second volume until we paid her $100,000. I don’t think so. You don’t know one thing about leadership – you did a good job, but, you know. So, we said no to that. It was one of the four things that Jim felt was important, and he based it on the French Enlightenment period where they invented the concept of an encyclopedia so people would have broad knowledge. So, that part felt really good; it’s hard to know the impact though, for me. It certainly was, a lot of people know about it and it was wonderful to work with all the authors. It was also cool to have some new people be able to write and publish.
Scarpino: Do you think just the act of doing that and recruiting the authors and bringing in new people and established authors helped to develop the field?
Sorenson: Absolutely, yeah, and you know the Kellogg Leadership Studies Project did that too back then because there were some scholars – there were Bernie Bass and Ron Riggio and Gill and Al, and just people all over, Bob House – but they didn’t know each other because back then, we didn’t have a leadership association – that was one of our four things – have a
professional organization – and their universities wouldn’t pay for them to go to all these conferences, so they’d have to go to their disciplinary conferences, whether there was management or sociology or whatever. So, the Kellogg Leadership Studies Project knitted those people together. I have a really interesting SNA, a social network analysis, of how that happened because I’ve interviewed people and saw where the connections were and stuff. We got to be friends, really good friends, and we didn’t even know each other before. We read each other’s work, but we had no association to go to to get to know people. I don’t think anybody knew anybody then – Ron Heifetz – we were all solos in our own disciplines, sitting in our own schools basically by ourselves. The Kellogg Leadership Studies Project just knitted us together. I think there are good and bad things about that. I think the good thing is this wonderful community, including ILA, of people and shared purpose and all that other stuff. The hard part was that we began to influence each other’s work to a degree that the work began to kind of get homogenized, whereas if you look in Europe, there can be a person writing in the Journal of Leadership, Keith Grint and David Collinson started, and they might have somebody submit an article about how ants demonstrate leadership or something; some botanist or biologist wrote it. I mean, so there were really unusual things and they weren’t influenced by each other. So, there’s good and bad to that.
Scarpino: You worked with Russell Mawby at Kellogg?
Sorenson: Oh yes, yeah. I didn’t know him well, but I spent quite a lot of time in there. Do you know him?
Scarpino: I did, yes.
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah, what a tremendous leader.
Scarpino: I interviewed him, but he also helped to start the Center of Philanthropy at IU Indianapolis.
Sorenson: That’s right, okay, yeah. What a good man.
Scarpino: Yes. Just wanted to get that in the record, I liked him.
Sorenson: Yeah, everybody did. Of course, I worked more directly with Larraine and Roger because he was the President, but he was...
Scarpino: Larraine Matusak and Roger...
Sorenson: Roger Sublett, who were program officers, yeah.
Scarpino: So, I talked to Peter Shapiro about your career and he mentioned system psychodynamics...
Scarpino: … with an emphasis on irrational behavior of groups, including the roles of Margaret Rioch and Kenneth Rice. You kind of mentioned that in passing, but can you talk about the significance of system psychodynamics in your own intellectual journey?
Sorenson: Yeah, it’s of tremendous importance.
Scarpino: You have to tell the recorder what that is because it doesn’t know. Neither do I.
Sorenson: Right. Okay, well, this work grew out of the Tavistock Institute in England and the work of Wilfred Bion, who was a psychiatrist who worked with returning war veterans who had posttraumatic stress syndrome. And Tavistock Clinic, which I understood last night, Jonathan Gosling’s father was the director of some of the clinical part of that. Yeah, so that was so interesting to me. So, Wilfred Bion began to look at phenomena in groups and he understood that when a group was working together, or was together – let’s put it that way – that it worked toward the task sometimes, but also had a lot of irrational features which subverted the task. He consulted to the irrational features in the group, and some of those are the need to fight somebody, the need to flee something, the need to pair as a kind of metaphorical aspect of the group. You’ll see groups sometimes create kind of a pair in which they deposit a lot of their feelings about something and then they watch the pair fight it out, right, as a way of projecting what the group is struggling with. And a consultant who is smart enough that can help the group see what they’re doing and get back on task. So, it’s just tremendously important work and I’m really convinced, apart from giving birth, which is the number one event of my life, life-changing, I would say group relations work is the most important part of my work. Every job I ever got was because I could look at the
system and people say, “Well, how did you get a job in the White House?” I don’t know; it wasn’t because I was the most brilliant social scientist; it’s because I could look at the system and consult to it. It’s just so important.
Scarpino: Did your interest and ability in doing that pre-date your connection with Tavistock?
Sorenson: My interest in doing that? No, I’d say that Tavistock definitely blew my mind with Margaret Rioch, as an undergraduate.
Scarpino: So, tell us, Margaret Rioch.
Sorenson: Margaret Rioch was one of my early mentors. She started the A.K. Rice Institute, which is the American Tavistock version, and she lived fairly close to me. I was at the San Francisco Zen Center after I came back from Japan and I couldn’t handle American culture. I’d been away for three years or something, but it just had changed so much. I had severe culture shock. I saw America as very materialistic, very racist, very consumer-oriented. It was very different than Japan at the time, and so I went to live at the San Francisco Zen Center. Eventually I wanted to get back in the world and a person there told me, “Well, there’s a person in Washington, DC, named Margaret Rioch and I think that you should go do therapy with her,” is what I think he said. So I said, “Okay, time to go.” So, I talked to the visiting Roshi then who was Katagiri Roshi, because Suzuki Roshi had died, and he said, “Okay, I think you should go out in the world, but I want you to put all your stuff in the attic and not give away
all your stuff like you wanted to do, just go see what it’s like out there,” and I said okay. So, I came back to Washington, met Suzanna’s father, among other things, and also went to Margaret Rioch and she said, “Well, I’m really not taking patients now, you know, full-up.” And I said, “Oh, God, I just moved from California,” and she said, “but why don’t you come be my student at American University, it’ll be the same thing.” So, I did that. She had an experimental program that was funded by NIH in which we had a Quonset Hut at American University and a certain number of people – like 150 young people, students – and all of our work had to do with group relations. So, we met together as a group. We might work individually, but we would also process things in a group. Charles Ferster was a part of that program, which is sort of funny because he is a behaviorist...
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah. He studied with Skinner, I guess, yeah.
Scarpino: B.F. Skinner?
Sorenson: Um-hm, yeah. And so I was relatively a big trouble-maker in that program because I spoke out.
Scarpino: Alright, I’ll bite – how did you become a trouble-maker in that program?
Sorenson: Because, I don’t know, I just wanted it to be better. So, I kind of mobilized a few things. We can get into that if you want to, but one was sort of a
revolt at a mental hospital. At any rate, I don’t even remember where I was going with that story.
Scarpino: So, a revolt in a mental hospital. You were encouraging the patients to ask for better treatment, or...?
Sorenson: This was Chestnut Lodge. It was a very esteemed place. They put people in cold wet sheet packs, you know, schizophrenic people – and my brother was schizophrenic, so I have some sensitivity about that. It actually was a program that kind of worked, you know. Cold wet sheet packs do calm you down, but to me, it seemed barbaric. They were sending a lot of American University, from our program, they were sending interns out there, and I just really complained a lot about it. Eventually I got a grant from the Washington School of Psychiatry where three or four of these young mental patients at Chestnut Lodge, which was $300,000 a year, by the way, they came to live with me. I sort of learned that you’ve got to put your money with your mouth is.
Scarpino: We started this line of conversation by you mentioning that you spent three years in Japan.
Sorenson: Yeah, or more, yeah.
Scarpino: I was going to ask you about this later, but as long as you brought it up, I’m not going to leave threads dangling in the breeze here. Why did you go to Japan?
Sorenson: Well, because my father was a Diplomat. In World War II, he was a soldier. So, after World War II, we went to Japan as a part of the reconstruction period. That’s why I said I spent more than three years. I went there three different times, and then he became a chargé d'affaires of an embassy and military attaché and so forth. I was just going with my family.
Scarpino: But the last time, when you mentioned coming back and having trouble adjusting to U.S. culture and so on, at that point, you were an adult, right?
Sorenson: I was an adult, yeah.
Scarpino: So, what took you there that time?
Sorenson: Yeah, my family was still in the Philippines and maybe I was 21 or something, and I wanted to go to India. I never went to India in my life, but I always wanted to. So, I got a space available on some military plane and it was going to Japan and I thought I want to go, that’s the way for me. I hooked up with some professors who were there on sabbaticals and sort of did my own thing when I was there. I didn’t work.
Scarpino: Is that how you encountered Buddhism?
Sorenson: Definitely it’s all around there, although Japan is more Shinto country, so I think it must have been because that’s why I went to San Francisco Zen Center afterwards. I knew I could have a community that I could heal from that.
Scarpino: When I talked to Peter Shapiro, he mentioned your involvement in group relations including Wilfred Bion and the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations, and I want to put something in here because most people aren’t going to know what that is and I had to look it up.
It’s a nonprofit based in London that specializes in applying social science to modern problems. Their website describes the mission as follows:
“The organization is dedicated to the study of human relations for the purpose of bettering working life and conditions for all humans within their organizations, communities and broader societies and to the influence of environment in all its aspects on the formation or development of human character or capacity.”
Which is a massive mission, but how did your life intersect with that?
Sorenson: If you got that mission statement, you could say well, there’s probably 3,000 organizations that might have that mission statement, right? It’s a noble mission statement, but their theory of group phenomena, which undergirds all the work they do in a consultative stance, is so profound. I don’t even know how to describe it, and the thing is that you can’t really describe it. I mean, we’ve written about it, but you have to go do it. You have to go and participate and see it. I’ve had some great consultants, like Margaret Rioch and John Johnson, people that are just so gifted at seeing group phenomena.
Scarpino: How did you find out about Tavistock?
Sorenson: I found out through Margaret Rioch. So, when I came from the Zen Center, I went to study with her. This whole program that I was in – I can’t remember the name of it, but it was funded by NIH. I don’t know if it had a name actually. Maybe it was just called the Learning Center, I’m not sure. Anyway, so she had a group relations conference on campus and that was sort of the beginning.
Scarpino: And you actually went?
Sorenson: As a member.
Scarpino: To Tavistock?
Sorenson: Oh, no. This was at A.K. Rice.
Scarpino: Okay, alright.
Sorenson: Yeah, no. I’ve never done a conference with Tavistock. The conferences are such that you can get real value out of different periods in your life. When I went to Tavistock at the beginning – or sorry – to (INAUDIBLE) conferences, I was young, sort of sexualized in the group, and I saw that people saw me a certain way that I didn’t see myself. It was very hard actually to be a young attractive woman in a group.
Scarpino: And not many women in the group?
Sorenson: Well, I think there were a fair amount of women, not that, but I just mean in society women, there’s just a lot of dynamics for young women, but there’s a lot of dynamics when you get married too. I went to conference after I got married also and saw how complicated that was. I think that if I went now as an old woman, I would be seen as an old woman who had old-fashioned ideas maybe. I don’t know what, you get projected on. Do you know what I’m saying?
Scarpino: I do.
Sorenson: I’ve been sort of afraid to do that one even though I know it. It’s true. That might be interesting to go though anyway. So, you could do the same conference in stages in your life and get so much different – When my parents died, I went to a conference and I felt this sort of wrenchingness of being alone in the world and felt that in the conference, and it was in the conference too and it was consulted too and it’s just a different way. I don’t feel like I’m being very articulate. The thing about group relations too is they always tell you you just have to go do it, you have to be there in person. But Peter’s gone very far in the work, I think – Peter Shapiro.
Scarpino: Yeah. He and I (INAUDIBLE) talking to him.
Sorenson: Peter was a crazy guy I met on the Mall one day. Remember I said I had to go out and get students? Well, I went out to this student thing on the Mall and there was this guy with an earring, and he says, “Oh, that’s interesting what you’re doing. I’m thinking of running for office.” I said,
“Well, you’ve got to take that earring out, it’s not going to work in Maryland.” He says, “Well, I’m not taking it out,” and I said okay. So, I worked on his campaign, door knocking, I think it was for Mayor or something and he won and he kids me about it. He took the earring out about 30 years later; I think his wife made him take it out. But he’s a guy I just met on the Mall and thought he had a lot of potential and you know.
Scarpino: I bet you met on the Mall. Did you just walk up and just say hi?
Sorenson: I think he walked up to me, frankly. I don’t know why. He said he was running for office. That’s how it started and I said, “Well, you’ve got to be part of what we’re doing, but you first have to take that earring out.” “No.”
Scarpino: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of group relations in your thinking on leadership?
Sorenson: Yeah. Well, looking at the Trump phenomena, which nobody understands, I think group relations probably could give us some insight into how we elected someone that is so disturbed, really. There are some theories about you project all your unwanted stuff on leaders because we’re so afraid of leadership in some ways. We’re afraid of giving power to other people and so we project the most unwanted things, and I think we really did that with Donald Trump and other people, I suppose. So, I don’t know. What did you ask again? I’m sorry, Phil. I guess I’m sort of spacey today.
Scarpino: That’s alright. I wouldn’t actually describe you as spacey. What I asked was the impact of group relations on your thinking about leadership.
Sorenson: It’s with me all the time. Just like my Buddhist practice is with me all the time, but you don’t see it and I’m not always good at it, but I carry it with me everywhere. It’s impossible to be in a room without looking at things systemically and dynamically for me.
Scarpino: When you started to answer the question, you mentioned the election of President Trump. How does that fit into a relations framework?
Sorenson: I don’t know, I don’t know if I want to go there. Let’s skip that.
Scarpino: Alright, alright.
Sorenson: I think the short answer is we projected all of our unwanted parts of ourself onto a leader because of our ambivalence about leadership. We’re all ambivalent because leaders were our parents and our parents who socialized us a certain way and, you know, even if we had good parents, which I did.
Scarpino: Do you think ambivalence about leadership is an American quality or a quality of human beings in general?
Sorenson: That’s a very good question. I think everybody. Maybe it’s a little more exacerbated in the U.S., but yeah. We all are humans in social groups and had families and a parent or grandparent or someone who raised us
who told us we couldn’t do things, and we have a lot of internalized rage about that that we have to find a place for.
Scarpino: Another question about group relations, and I’m going to go back to something you mentioned in passing that you’ve been significantly involved with the A.K. Rice Institute for the Study of Social Systems headquartered in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, right?
Sorenson: No, it’s in Washington, DC.
Sorenson: Well, I guess A.K. Rice is different, but the Washington/Baltimore Center, which I’m a part of, is in Washington.
Scarpino: Okay. So, we’ll focus on that, but it is still A.K. Rice?
Scarpino: Okay. I got on their website, and just so readers can kind of understand what we’re talking about here, they say they aim to deepen understanding of complex social behaviors by providing experiential learning opportunities called Group Relations Conferences, as well as through research, publications, symposia, professional meetings, organizational consulting, and so on, and they’re sponsoring a conference in January 2020 called Leadership and Membership in our time. So, can you talk about your involvement with the A.K. Rice Institute?
Sorenson: Yeah. I brought the word and the term leadership back into their culture, which not everybody knows, but some people do, because when the Tavistock Institute and Ken Rice wrote a book called Learning for Leadership actually and they were very much focused on leadership because they came from Wilfred Bion and the military model and so forth. But for some reason in America, we focus on authority and chaos and authority and whatever. So, I guess it was about 25 years ago, I was the Chair at the annual conference and I called it something like Learning for Leadership, and now it’s so cool because so many conferences have the word leadership in it, which I’m just thrilled about. They’re going back to their roots with Ken Rice and Wilfred Bion and stuff.
Scarpino: Is there a difference between authority and leadership?
Scarpino: Could you talk about that?
Sorenson: Well, I think Ron Heifetz wrote “no easy answers,” sort of the best explication of what that means, but groups have to authorize a person to work with them. Even if you’re in a workplace and you work in a unit and you have a leader or a boss, more of a boss, I suppose, you have to subscribe to where you’re going with that leader. A lot of people don’t and they subvert the leader, as you can imagine. I remember when I went to the Army War College, the first time I walked in and somebody, General Huntoon’s secretary called me and said “he’d like to give you a book,”
when I first got there. I said “oh, that’s great.” So I finished typing what I was doing and maybe 25 minutes later, I walked down the hall and I see the General like this in the hallway, and I see the secretary standing next to him like that. I said “oh, this is command leadership; this is different,” you know what I mean? And I had worked in the White House by then, so I knew about having a boss and having to get things right, but I realized that in the Army, they have command leadership, which is very, very different. But the thing is that’s so interesting, after I stayed there a year, I realized they might have command leadership, but they still have to trust and respect their leader; and if they don’t, they sabotage it. One way or another, they might get booted out of the Army, but they have to develop the same kind of trust and relationship with their team as everybody else does even though it’s command leadership.
Scarpino: You mentioned a General. What was the General’s last name?
Sorenson: Huntoon, H-U-N-T-O-O-N.
Scarpino: That’ll help the transcriber a great deal.
Sorenson: Yeah, thank you.
Scarpino: Alright, so one of the things that stands out about leadership studies is the explosion of books and articles in the past like decades...
Scarpino: … so, given the vast number of books and articles that are now available for people to read on the subject of leadership, can you name a few, less than five, that you think are essential reading?
Sorenson: Yeah, okay. Well, obviously Burns’ book on leadership. I think Jerry Post’s (SPELLING???) book on leadership is very good. I think Peter Northouse is a good general book to use in an undergraduate class, very, very good. Of course, I have my own quirky favorites like the Tao Te Ching, which has got everything you need to know really right there.
Scarpino: The title of that again?
Sorenson: Tao Te Ching, T-A-O T-E C-H-I-N-G, and the translators I like is Gai-Fu Feng. The thing about the Tao Te Ching, which was written by Lao Tzu after Confucius, and there are many translations, but I love my translation. I read that book hundreds of thousands of times maybe and I didn’t really get what it was trying to tell me and I was buying the books and giving it to hitchhikers. I was really an advocate even though I hadn’t had my ah-ha moment, but at some point, I really understood what they were saying, what he was saying.
Scarpino: Can you put that into words? When you finally had the ah-ha moment, what was it saying to you?
Sorenson: Because Tao Te Ching is written in stanzas or verses or whatever; and standalone, they seem fine, but how do they all knit together, I wasn’t sure
of, you know, and most of the things in the Tao Te Ching are paradoxical. It’s the hole in the wheel that makes the wheel useful and the hole is empty. Why do we care about emptiness? In America, even when Gill and I wrote Invisible Leadership, we thought well, no one’s going to buy that because in America, you don’t want to be invisible, particularly if you’re a woman, you know, you kind of need to show up, but I saw the connectedness between the verses and it just, it was an amazing book, just an amazing book.
Scarpino: Is there anything else you could put on that list of must-read?
Sorenson: Ah, you wanted five, right?
Scarpino: I don’t need five; I was just giving you a chance to...
Sorenson: Let me think about this. Well, I like Jean Lipman-Blumen’s work; I like Ron Riggio’s work. I think those are some of the main books, I’d have to say. Really, you only need the Tao Te Ching. I could even leave off leadership.
Scarpino: I’m going to ask you another question about that large body of leadership-related scholarship. Since 1978, the literature of leadership studies has proliferated, it’s exploded. Some of the work is narrative and qualitative in approach and I think of, in addition to James MacGregor Burns, Jean Lipman-Blumen’s The Connective Edge, nominated for Pulitzer Prize. On the quantitative side, I think of pioneering work of like Fred Fiedler,
undertaken at University of Illinois in association with the Group Effectiveness Research Laboratory and his Least Preferred Coworker scale. Or, Alice Eagly and her work on meta-analysis...
Sorenson: I went to Japan with Fred once.
Scarpino: That must have been interesting.
Sorenson: Yeah, no, actually it was China, now that I think about it.
Scarpino: … and I’m going to note that you have written Theory and Practice: James MacGregor Burns, Leadership and the Humanities. So, here’s the question – why do you think the field of leadership studies developed over the past several decades in a manner that’s dominated by social scientists as opposed to humanists, like Burns was?
Sorenson: Well, there’s a good leading group of people that are humanists. I mean, you know, there’s even a new journal, I think Terry Price, and maybe Michael Harvey, I’m not sure, edited it. Joanne Ciulla was a big advocate of that, liberal education and history and so forth. So, I’m not sure it’s all social science. It’s all over the place, you know. They have leadership in conducting, and leadership in group preparation or whatever. You can’t get bored because it’s everywhere, although I have to say I am a little bored. I’m waiting for my next breakthrough.
Scarpino: Your own personal intellectual breakthrough?
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah. I mean, to kind of -- we’ve got so much now, what’s the next horizon?
Scarpino: Well, any thoughts on that?
Scarpino: Preliminary thoughts?
Sorenson: Gill and I wrote an article with a bunch of other people.
Scarpino: Gill Hickman?
Sorenson: Yes. It had to do with communities of care, how we can learn to care for each other and be kind to each other and what it could be like if we had societies organized that way, where we cared about every person in them, in the group. Dick was such an advocate for that article and I loved him for it because it was written before, you know, a long time ago.
Scarpino: And Dick is? Richard Couto?
Sorenson: Oh, yeah. He was wonderful about that. So, something about the practice of living together in communities that truly care about each other and now I’m sort of involved with this man named Béla Hatvany. In fact, I was writing a book about him; I put it aside for a while. He’s created sort of a guaranteed income kind of idea.
Scarpino: And what’s his last name?
Sorenson: Hatvany, H-A-T-V-A-N-Y, he’s Hungarian. Oh, he’s British, but he came from Hungary, lives in France and he’s a Buddhist, which I love. He’s in his 80s now. He was the inventor of the compact disc and also touch screen on TV when he was a young man and he sold those patents for millions of dollars. Then he used that money to seed other organizations that were doing God’s work, so to speak. Now he’s into not only the guaranteed income thing he’s doing, but creating groups of people that live -- like less than 2,000 people, and how you can manage a group or a community of 2,000 people and kind of step away from the global citizenship and just focus on your home, your hometown. I think the direction will be to create these compassionate communities using leaderly skills, much smaller, more self-contained, more caring, more sustainable. He’s very into sustainability, too.
Scarpino: When James MacGregor Burns published his volume on leadership, there was not a vast library of material. I mean, he wasn’t the only person that ever wrote about leadership, but there was not a large body of scholarship. That’s certainly not the case now. There’s a massive body of scholarship. So, when you think about the trajectory from a few works to more than a human could read in her lifetime, what do you think the cumulative impact of all that scholarship has been?
Sorenson: Yeah, well, I think it’s created a community of scholars, for one thing, who are interested in some of the same questions, making a better world through leadership. It sort of remains to be seen in some ways because
it’s sort of the young people that are going to have the next chance at trying to get something done. I think if they feel empowered and they don’t feel like you’re invisible because they’re black or because they’re a women or whatever, I think that would be better for everyone.
Scarpino: One of the things that I admired about the book Leadership and that I greatly admire about James MacGregor Burns the brief time I had to meet him, was the capaciousness of his mind. I mean, he saw the big picture...
Sorenson: He saw the big picture.
Scarpino: … but as the field develops, people take smaller and smaller slices of smaller and smaller slices. Do you think that that’s a positive trend?
Sorenson: That’s a good question.
Scarpino: Because that’s the way scholarship develops in my field too.
Sorenson: Right, yeah. Well, I think that there’s a Western way of seeing it and an Eastern way of seeing it. The Western way is go to a symphony, listen to the violin section, listen to the soloists, watch the conductor, notice the drum section, whatever, just sort of drill down into the specifics about why this was a great experience. The Eastern way is more – just to generalize, but this is how I think of it – the Eastern way is a more holistic kind of, well, it’s my experience in the room as the music is playing, I think, and they’re both important, right? Don’t you think?
Scarpino: I do.
Sorenson: Yeah, so I try to have an Eastern mind and a Western mind at the same time. This drilling down, they call adjective leadership. You know, it’s invisible leadership or whatever.
Scarpino: Well, actually, I wouldn’t put your book, Invisible Leadership, in the category of narrow, but I say that for the record, but go ahead.
Sorenson: Right, right. So, people are taking their little slices, their little Western mind slices, and this all helps, it all helps, but do we have really big thinkers? One problem, I think, with the scholars that have the most capacity to be really big thinkers is that their academic system requires them to kind of develop a theory, get graduate students to replicate it, promote your own theory, you know, blah, blah, blah, and you sort of don’t really get a chance to use that big mind because academia wants you to replicate over and over again.
Scarpino: Is academia an enemy of vision?
Sorenson: I think it might be, yeah. I mean, it’s good because it gave us a comfortable place to do it, a legitimizing place to do it, but I don’t think you can be a big thinker. Maybe when you get older you can, but most older people are promoting their own theories, which I find, I don’t like it.
Scarpino: Well, that’s why I asked you the question about which few of the many would you recommend because I ask everybody that, and I’m trying to come up with a must-read list in the field.
Sorenson: Do you mind if I think about that and write you back, too?
Scarpino: Sure. At some point, I also have to talk to you again, so you can think about it or you can send me an email or something.
Scarpino: Do you think that leadership scholars talk to each other across disciplinary boundaries?
Sorenson: Yes. I think it’s become interdisciplinary, finally. Before, as Barbara Kellerman would say, it was multidisciplinary.
Sorenson: Yeah, and I think it’s becoming more interdisciplinary.
Scarpino: Referring back to James MacGregor Burns, when he published that seminal work Leadership in 1978, which is a few years before you earned your PhD, if I’m doing the math right here...
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: … and he says on page two, he said: “There is, in short, no school of leadership, intellectual or practical. Does it matter,” he asked, “that we
lack standards for assessing past, present, and potential leaders?” And then we mentioned, since the ‘70s, there’s been an explosion of literature. So, the question is, given the proliferation of leadership studies and literature, have we, in the present, developed the standards for assessing past, present, and potential leaders that Burns said we didn’t have in 1978? Are we better off now with all this stuff than we were when he wrote that book?
Sorenson: Peter said that you were a tough questioner. He really enjoyed talking to you, by the way. He thought it was very inspiring to him.
Scarpino: Well, I enjoyed talking to him as well.
Sorenson: Yeah, that’s good. Are we better off, is that what you said?
Scarpino: Yeah, in other words, when Burns, and I go back and read this thing every once in a while just to remind myself of what he said. He said: “There is, in short,” he said in 1978, “no school of leadership, intellectual or practical,” then he asks the question: “Does it matter that we lack standards for assessing past, present, and potential leaders?” And then, the question is, with all the scholarship explosion of literature, are we now in a position to do what Burns said we couldn’t do in 1978?
Sorenson: It could be. Even the ILA is thinking about credentialing and professionalizing, and Ron Riggio’s work – I don’t know what that number is called in libraries where they number the books, you know, that they do
at Oxford, I think. We need our own numbers for our books and so forth. There’s a lot that has to be done. We’ve had this argument in ILA for many years now about whether we want to standardize or license and, of course, everybody who makes money does that, starting with the Good Housekeeping Seal or something. Most people were kind of reluctant to do that I think. That’s more toward licensing or credentialing organizations rather than people though.
Scarpino: Maybe I’ll ask it a different way.
Scarpino: He writes this book and publishes it in 1978. It’s still a must-read for anyone who’s in the field. Do we really understand leadership now better than we did in 1978?
Sorenson: Yes, I think we do. It went back to the five goals that Jim had before. One was to create a school for leadership which he called monolith to the Greek paideia. I tried to do that at Cambridge because when I have students that come to Cambridge, I put on my formal gown and I take them for a walk along philosopher way and we talk. Whatever comes up, comes up and I try to kind of make it a place like the paideia where you can be outside and have big thoughts and be able to talk with someone who’s older. So, I think we’re a lot further along than when Jim wrote that book because he was really in the middle of nowhere then. Of course, he had lots of help. He had a wonderful research assistant, Milt, who did a lot
of good work for him, and Al Goethals consulted with him a lot too about the psychology of things. I don’t know that there’s anything new beyond Leadership, the book Leadership. Back when I went to China, they say, “oh, Jim Burns got it absolutely right about Mao Zedong” because I think he must have said that he was a good leader or something, I don’t know what, but that’s their interpretation of it.
Scarpino: I don’t remember that actually.
Sorenson: Yeah, I should look, but I said, “okay, alright,” and they translated his book into Chinese and gave me a copy of it. Jim’s book is sort of cool because you can read almost anything you want to into it, which is why people are always saying they wish he had operationalized it more, been more specific about what the characteristics are or what the, you know…
Scarpino: But maybe that’s the staying power of really good literature, that it speaks across generations because it’s not so specific.
Sorenson: Well, it’s genius then.
Scarpino: I don’t that, but I love that book.
Sorenson: Yeah, me too, me too. I first read it going up to his house on the train up the Hudson River. I remember reading it and just being absolutely – I think it might have been the second time I met him or something. Just a mind-blowing experience to read that book, although he used to think of it as a kind of dead brick and nobody could get through it, which is also true,
too. It’s not easy to get through. It’s well written because he had that gift, but it’s dense.
Scarpino: It is. Given the explosion of leadership studies and the literature of leadership since 1978, does that help us do a better job of assessing the effectiveness of leaders?
Sorenson: I think so.
Scarpino: Can you elaborate on anything?
Sorenson: Well, even if you look at Kouzes and Posner’s work on followers, and they had probably 100,000 people and they were subjects in 40 countries or something, I don’t remember, but it was a lot, I really learned new things about how followers perceive leaders. You can also say apparently not because we have people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who are outliers.
Scarpino: Well, but in a sense, haven’t we always had people like them? I mean, they’re not brand new in the history of humanity.
Sorenson: No, but we usually don’t make them President.
Scarpino: That’s true, that’s true.
Scarpino: So, I’m going to ask you some questions about your own intellectual development. You are clearly a scholar of leadership, and I’m saying this so the recorder will capture it, but do you think of yourself as a leader?
Sorenson: Well, it’s interesting. In looking back at my career at the Academy, for example, I don’t think I was a particularly good leader. I was a good leader for certain kinds of people, a certain kind of people who are self-starters, who had their own ideas, hard workers that wanted to make a difference, had good values and so forth. Those people did wonderfully at the Academy, but there were plenty of people that wanted me to just tell them what to do.
Scarpino: You’re talking about the Burns Academy?
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah, and one of whom was Kathy Whitmire who was the Mayor of Houston for 10 years. We’re quite good friends, but she came to A Leadership Scholar or Leader in Practice, or something like that, at the University for a few years and she kept saying “well, tell them what to do, if you’re not going to tell them, I’m going to tell them.” I said, “well, Kathy, they’re getting things done,” just because I don’t have a staff meeting to remind everybody what our goals are, but I could see that a lot of people want someone to tell them what to do and then they want to go home and have their real life. I understand that now. I don’t know if I would really change that much. I would probably be just certain about the people that I hire.
Scarpino: What do you think your strengths are as a leader? What are you good at?
Sorenson: What am I good at? I care about people; I see people; I make a real point of being able to see people and acknowledge them, whether they’re homeless people or whatever; and I try to be uplifting and try to support their efforts, whether with letters of recommendations or whatever. I’ve written 10,000, like you have I’m sure. So, I think those are a really good part. My values probably are really pretty important, although some of them are a little...
Scarpino: How would you describe your values?
Sorenson: Well, I was thinking about my love of animals and toward the end people were sending me their resumes with a picture of their dog. They knew I loved dogs.
Scarpino: If it makes you feel any better, my cats get worked into all my presentations.
Sorenson: Well, exactly. Yeah, cats are great too. I had squirrels follow me down the hall for a peanut until some people said we just can’t have squirrels walking around in here.
Scarpino: Are you good at developing others? Encouraging them to develop themselves?
Sorenson: Yeah. I think it’s been a hit or miss kind of thing. Sometimes you can affect people and sometimes you can’t. I think you asked me a question earlier that was related to that. I notice that some people, it’s good to help lift them up if you can, as much as you can. And some people are out in their balloon, like the student government types maybe, and you have to kind of pull them down a little bit. So, there’s both kind of lifting and pulling down. I still feel that about young people. Even my students are not with me or something, I still feel like it’s my role to give them feedback if I think something’s amiss, yeah. It’s not always easy, but I do.
Scarpino: Do you consider that to be your responsibility, as a teacher, to provide constructive feedback even when they don’t want to hear it.
Sorenson: Yeah, absolutely, right. Mostly they do want to hear it, though, it’s interesting, but I think that younger people, when they get to be like 40 and 50, of course, they have their own ideas about things, but I think they always appreciate an outside perspective on something, most of them do. I think it’s really important. I try to do that hard work. I had a discussion recently with a student about how – a former student – about how I thought his behavior needed to be adjusted a little bit, and he took it well. What’s so funny? You knew somebody?
Scarpino: No, I’m just thinking that I probably had that conversation a few times. Do you think leaders should be mentors?
Sorenson: Should be mentors? Well, I think mentoring is a really important part of the leadership transmission. It’s sort of like Buddhist transmission in a way. I don’t think all leaders are good mentors. Sometimes they can be distant role models. I remember interviewing Shen Tong, who was a student leader at Tiananmen Square. He was wonderful and read Martin Luther King, he read Gandhi, he read Myles Horton, Paulo Freire, I mean, he had read all these Western people and they were his mentors. They were very important to him, even though they were dead.
Scarpino: And he never met them and...
Sorenson: Never met them, never will, but it was really important to him. So, I think you can have distant remote mentors too.
Scarpino: Myles Horton at the...
Scarpino: Yeah, Highlander Folk School.
Scarpino: Did you have mentors...
Sorenson: Oh, yes.
Scarpino: … besides James MacGregor Burns?
Sorenson: Right, yeah. I think Margaret Rioch was definitely a mentor. She wasn’t warm and fuzzy, but...
Scarpino: I don’t think that’s in the mentor requirement list.
Sorenson: Okay, well, she wasn’t a warm and fuzzy mentor. She was kind of tough, but really important, and Jean Lipman-Blumen...
Sorenson: … yep, we worked together at NIH, no, NIE for a couple years. She’s the godmother of my daughter and she was a very important mentor to me.
Scarpino: Very smart woman.
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah. I wrote her a letter when I was about 19. I said – I had seen her give a talk about her achievement style stuff at some government agency during Women’s History Month, or something – and I remember when I said, “I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing, but I want to work with you.” She called me a year later, a year later. She said, “remember that letter I wrote you (sic)?” and I said, “well, yeah,” and she said, “well, why don’t you come on down today.” This is Jean, you know, and I said okay.
Scarpino: And come on down like...
Sorenson: Oh, to her office.
Scarpino: … in California or...?
Sorenson: No, I think she was in the domestic policy staff then, or she might have been at the NIE – National Institute of Education – and she got there, she found out it was the day to move her office or something like that. So, we spent the whole day packing up her books and moving her to a different room, but I still wanted to work with her.
Scarpino: So, you cold-called James MacGregor Burns...
Scarpino: … and you cold-wrote a letter to Jean Lipman-Blumen.
Sorenson: Yeah, it was kind of cold-callish, yeah.
Scarpino: Do you think everybody would do that?
Sorenson: I think it’s good for people to do that. I’ve been cold-called a lot of times too and when I respond, it’s usually important. I remember this young man, Krish Mabal (SPELLING???). He’s 50 now, but he was 19, he wrote me a letter saying “I just discovered a book on leadership” – he lives in England – “and I heard about the Burns Academy and I want to learn about leadership. What’s your definition of leadership?” and I said oh, no – this was an email. They still want to talk about my definition of leadership, but we became very good friends.
Scarpino: Well, if it makes you feel any better, I got an email – it was a letter – from a middle school young lady who asked me when did history begin?
Sorenson: Oh, there you go. You beat me.
Scarpino: I wrote her an answer.
Sorenson: Good for you. That’s a good question, really.
Scarpino: As you self-assess your own career, are there any aspects of your leadership that come up short of your own expectations?
Sorenson: Oh, many.
Scarpino: Such as?
Sorenson: I think it’s a good practice for a leader to get to the office first and leave last – that wasn’t me. So, I knew it was the right thing to do, but I didn’t want to. I think the planning part – I’m not much of a planner; I’m more of noticing opportunities and moving with it. I think if I were a better planner, it would focus me more.
Scarpino: But do you think that maybe the ability to self-assess and know those things is what sets some people apart from others?
Sorenson: I think it’s really important to know yourself, yeah. I think it’s really important to know what your strengths are and know what your weaknesses are, and I did a lot of analysis at A.K. Rice. After a while, my therapist just threw me out and said, “you’re ripe, go.”
Scarpino: When I introduced you, I mentioned some of the things that you’ve done in government service and as an academic. Did you ever find that you had
to work harder than your male colleagues in order to achieve the same level of recognition? Let’s start with government?
Sorenson: Okay, well, I began government by working for Jean Lipman-Blumen. So, that’s a good start. Then I went and worked for Sandra Tangri, who was a wonderful sociologist at the Commission of Civil Rights. I probably had a lot of women bosses, which helped. Then I worked for Sarah Weddington in the White House. So, I never felt under-valued. I tell you, I did feel the barrier of age sometimes because I was a lot younger than some of the people I supervised sometimes, and I found that difficult. I didn’t know really know how to deal with that. Yeah, I found that difficult.
Scarpino: So, you never found that being a woman put challenges in front of you that a man might not have had to face?
Sorenson: Yeah, I think so. I do think so. I could tick off things that – not being able to rent a house because the person thought it’d be better to rent it to a man or a family with a man because more stuff would get done. I was a single mother. Or, when I went to graduate school, they said well – this was so long ago; they would never say anything like this now – but this was at Howard University actually when they said, “well, can’t your husband afford to pay for your school?” I even had a dentist that once consulted with my husband about my teeth instead of me, you know, “she really needs to do this and that.” I said, “I’m right here, they’re my teeth.” There was some of that.
Scarpino: People used to talk about women going to college to get their MRS degree.
Scarpino: Did you encounter that sort of...?
Sorenson: Yes, I was going to apply to the School of Management at American University and they said, “well, no one will ever listen to a woman consultant in organizations, so don’t go that way.” I said, “well, that’s kind of strange.” So, that definitely happened.
Scarpino: Given the world that you came up in, do you think of yourself as sort of paying it forward when you mentor and teach young women today or in the recent past?
Sorenson: Well, I feel like – I’m 72 – I feel like almost all of it is now paying it forward because they’re the people that are going to inherit this. I’m very aware of that. Yeah, I try to make a big effort to do that.
Scarpino: Do you ever talk to them about how it was different when you were a young woman?
Sorenson: Yeah, sometimes I do because when I worked in the White House, I worked on women’s issues, women’s employment issues – that was my little niche – and it was really different back then. Women couldn’t have credit cards in their own names, they couldn’t inherit their own family farm,
even if it was their father’s farm. We couldn’t get loans from banks. We couldn’t do apprenticeships to learn a trade. There were many, many changes that have occurred in my lifetime. I worked really hard on women’s issues in particular. There was a great cadre of women, including Jean Lipman-Blumen in Washington, and Joy Simonton and Leslie – I forgot her last name at the moment – Leslie Wolff, and Nancy Pelosi was there. I mean, there was a cadre of women in Washington that were working for change and so we passed 110375, Affirmative Action Executive Order, and to see it dismantled has been sad.
Scarpino: That was a Clinton era Executive Order?
Sorenson: No, it was before then. Let’s see...
Scarpino: I know they’re all numbered, but I haven’t memorized the numbers.
Sorenson: It was Carter, yeah.
Scarpino: Carter, okay. So, talk about that Executive Order, what your role and who else was involved.
Sorenson: Well, I was still a kid. So, Jean was kind of...
Scarpino: Well, if you were down there working, you were an adult.
Sorenson: Right, but compared to these women, you know, I was a newbie. So, I basically did whatever Jean told me to do. If she had a salon and when
she had Gloria Steinem come and invited a group of women into her home to give a talk, I would probably do the logistics, for example.
Scarpino: So, she told me about those salons. Were you a participant?
Sorenson: Oh, yeah. They were wonderful. Did you one of Jean?
Scarpino: I did.
Sorenson: Oh, I haven’t seen that yet. It’s in the Tobias Center?
Scarpino: It should be. It should be on the ILA’s website too.
Sorenson: I feel so good about the Tobias Center doing this. It’s so important and it’s such a great niche.
Scarpino: Speak into the mic. (LAUGHS)
Sorenson: It will be phenomenal. I mean, it is.
Scarpino: I’ll tell you about my experience with Jean when I have the recorders off, but I absolutely enjoyed meeting her. She was just gracious to both myself and my wife. As a highly successful professional, do you consider yourself to be a role model for younger women? And you have to be honest.
Sorenson: Well, I guess I think role models, the best we can do is to be who we are, the quirky, crazy, irresponsible parts too. I’m pretty disclosing to people, maybe more than I should be, I don’t know, but I think offering up your
authentic self is all you can do really. Some people appreciate it and other people think they want someone to tell me what to do. I just love my former students though. I stay in touch with all my former students, if I can. There’s thousands and I really enjoy it. Now that I’m older and not very well, they’re around me helping do things or just being there really. It’s not that they do that much because Suzanna organizes all that. I feel very protected and cared for by my students.
Scarpino: That’s a nice legacy, isn’t it?
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: We talked a little bit about you becoming a professional woman in a different time. We also talked about leadership a lot. Do you think that there are differences in the way men and women understand and practice leadership, or does one size fit all?
Sorenson: No, there are definitely differences, but it might be more how people are perceived than how they are.
Scarpino: But that’s part of leadership, isn’t it?
Sorenson: I guess it is, yeah, and the good news is that research shows the more people have worked for women bosses, they tend to be more supportive in the future of women bosses. When I was young, that was pretty unusual to have a woman boss.
Scarpino: So, you’ve been the woman boss; in what ways was your leadership style and approach different from the men who were leaders around you?
Sorenson: Well, at some point in my academic life, I didn’t know I would be an academic particularly, but I did know that people didn’t assume that women were leaders. I can’t remember what you asked me, Phil. What did you just ask me?
Scarpino: I asked you if, in your experience, coming up, did you practice leadership in ways that were different than the men around you?
Sorenson: Right, okay. I remember making a choice about the time I had Suzanna that I was going to be a good enough mother and a good enough academic, but I wasn’t going to be like some of my male colleagues. You know, I probably wouldn’t be a superstar because I saw that they had lots of support from their families and wives and whatever that I, as a single mother, didn’t have. It was very important to me to be a good mother, but I knew I would only be a good enough mother, and a good enough scholar. I kind of came to terms with that.
Scarpino: So, how did a good enough mother and a good enough scholar become a superstar? I said that. You don’t have to agree with me, but you are.
Sorenson: It’s called longevity.
Scarpino: No, I’m not going to buy that.
Sorenson: I had very good mentors, like Jean. Jean was fabulous, a fabulous mentor for me. Jessie Bernard was another one.
Scarpino: Speaking of Jean and the salons that she had, did attending those have an impact on the adult that you became? I mean, just being in those places and listening and interacting with those people?
Sorenson: Tremendous, yeah. These women were older than me, a little bit older than me, in some cases, but it was fabulous at the time because we felt like we were making progress on women’s issues and affirmative action. There were all kinds of programs in government that focused on women, women in apprenticeships, women in higher education or whatever. Jean was a catalyst because she’s such a gracious host and so smart and she had a beautiful house in Washington. Just being with them, you know, like I said, I probably just did the logistics for her, it was an incredible time in Washington to see women move through all those barriers.
Scarpino: When you think about barriers, what still remains to be done?
Sorenson: Well, I think we have to elect a woman President – that’s a big one. I’d say continue with women’s research, which is pretty robust now, I have to say, sort of with Alice Eagly and Jean and other people. I’d like to keep seeing the women’s research on women’s leadership. I think women are kind of invisible in lots of ways still, unless they’re really out there. I learned, for example, that men can be self-depreciating in a speech and kind of expected when a male, a prominent male says something, that’s
considered kind of a gracious, modest thing to do. Women can’t do that and I didn’t know that until...
Scarpino: Until you did it?
Sorenson: … I would do it and the women in the audience would say why in the world did you do that, you know, kind of thing. I said well, men do that, but women can’t do that and I understand that now, which is kind of a straightjacket in a way. There are certain things you can say or not say.
Scarpino: That are different from what men can say or not say.
Sorenson: Yeah, I think that’s right, yeah, but I’m pretty outspoken. When I read Kegan’s book about leadership, Robert Kegan at Harvard – K-E-A-G-A-N (sic), I think it is – and he said, “well, by the time women are 50, they can speak their mind and they don’t have to be liked by other people.” I had a little bit of that needing to be liked, not a lot, but some. I remember telling my dean one time, at the University of Maryland, we were in a group of other department chairs and I said, “well, I’m 50 now, I can tell you what I think,” and he said, “oh, my God, you’ve been telling us what you think for 10 years.” I said, “well, you’re probably right about that.” Yeah, I think the need to be liked is a burden for some women. I’m not sure men feel it quite the same way, although probably all human beings want to be liked, but I think women a little bit more maybe. They want to be likable.
Scarpino: One of the people that I talked to gain some insight into your career is your daughter, Suzanna Fitzpatrick. She told me that one of the things that you’ve done is surround yourself with students who want to make a change. So, you agreed that that’s right, so what kind of changes do you hope your students will make?
Sorenson: Right. I want them to know themselves and to find their authentic voice and to be not afraid to use it and to see people that are unseen, to be of service or help in any way that you can. I think you have to figure out what your values are. A student taught me – this was something that I learned from Jim that’s really important – we all have the same values, sort of, U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, you know, but it’s how you prioritize them, how you make one more important than the other, which changes over history, culturally, whatever, and so I did some work on that. For example, I had a dream in which I had to choose between a donkey and a Picasso, or a snake and the Constitution, or a dog or something else. So, I decided, for me, that being helpful to a living being was always more important than an idea. So, if I’m going to a meeting and I see a lost dog, I’ll stop and help the lost dog and I’ll be late to the meeting. People now expect it because I know what my values are. I’m not going to turn away from some living being that’s suffering, and I don’t care how important anything else is at the moment. So, that’s helped me understand myself better. So, think young people can know themselves, know their values, know the hierarchy of their values. It helps them make
decisions, frankly. It helps you make decisions to know what you really believe in, and to feel empowered or authenticated or credentialed or whatever it is for them to put their gifts forward. I’ve since done some interesting work on myself about -- I’ve helped a lot of African-American students get PhDs and I realized later that there’s a certain white privilege in that, as you can imagine. I don’t think anybody regretted getting their PhDs, I don’t mean that, but I sort of was offering them a door into the world of privilege and maybe I didn’t listen as carefully to what they really wanted to do. So, I’ve learned more about that, too; I don’t necessarily think that everybody should go get a PhD. You’d better finish yours. (LAUGHS)
Scarpino: One exception. Yesterday, I talked to Wanda Portis (SPELLING???) and one of the things that she talked about sort of overlaps with what you just said, and that is: how does somebody from a minority group, in this case Hispanic, enter the world of white privilege and be successful and not lose who they are? Do you ever talk to your African-American students and others that you’ve encouraged to move forward along that path about those sorts of things?
Sorenson: There have been some of my students who didn’t finish their PhD and so I don’t push them anymore, and I don’t know how to answer that.
Scarpino: We’ll wrap this up in two hours, but I’m going to put some basic information about you in here. I didn’t want to lead with that because
that’s kind of ho-hum. Ask you when you were born, you know. So, I’m going to do that now. When and where were you born?
Sorenson: I was born in Abilene, Texas. I lived there four days; my father was in the Army and we were in some kind of base. I did go back there about 30 years ago when I gave a talk at Permian Basin, and I thought it was in the middle of nowhere. So, I had sort of more insight into my parents. I’m 72 years old. That’s where I was born and I think we went to live in Atlanta, Georgia, after that. My father went to war...
Scarpino: So, you were born in 1947?
Scarpino: Okay. I know that because I’m one year younger than you are, just so you don’t feel like...
Sorenson: There you go. Yep.
Scarpino: Alright, so where did you grow up?
Sorenson: I grew up in Atlanta when my father was in the war and then, of course, I don’t remember much of that, and then we went to Japan three times, or I went to Japan three times, two times. We lived in the Philippines for six years, I think. Mostly I consider Washington sort of my home base.
Scarpino: So, you lived in Japan as a young child?
Scarpino: You lived in the Philippines?
Sorenson: Yeah. I was older in the Philippines, yeah.
Scarpino: But you were still, I mean, with your family, you said you were growing up.
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: How did living outside the United States influence the adult you became?
Sorenson: It’s extremely important, I think, for people to have international experiences. I think you just see that there are no givens. The way you do things is just the way you did things; it’s not the way someone else does things. That’s why I sat at a table yesterday learning about international student education experiences because I just think it’s really one of the most important things for somebody to travel or live in the wilderness a bit, like you did. I think it’s really good to get out of your frame.
Scarpino: When you were actively teaching graduate students, were you encouraging them to do that?
Sorenson: Yeah, definitely, yeah. I even give credits to students that wanted to go abroad and would just write me a journal. You go out there and do it and just stay in touch and give me your learning goals and let’s see you accomplish them.
Scarpino: How about your childhood experience with the military – how did that have an impact on the way you understand leadership now? Although, I mean, I understand that you were a young person and you probably were not in the mix of it, but I’ve been in the military and I know that the whole family is in.
Sorenson: Right, the family is in the military, right. That part was kind of hard, I'd have to say, and I definitely rebelled against my father. It was in the ‘60s, so I was anti-war. He was chargé d'affaires of an embassy and he had people following me to make sure I didn’t get into too much trouble. I hung out with Vietnam deserters, so it was very different, I have to say. I came to really appreciate my father later in life and we had very good rapprochement. We talked about how he could’ve been a better father and I could’ve been a better daughter, but I was a product of the times.
Scarpino: A product of the late ‘60s.
Sorenson: Yeah, but I wasn’t a hippie though. Suzanna thinks I probably was a hippie, and I really wasn’t.
Scarpino: Neither was I; my draft number was 36.
Sorenson: Oh! And you move around so much in the military too. It’s hard, very hard.
Scarpino: Did you ever feel as though you came away from that experience with a difficulty of making friendships with other people because they’re just going to go away?
Sorenson: Yeah, I think so. I think there’s great books on military families, you probably know, but it does really change you and I really didn’t like it when I was younger, but when I was older, I saw how incredibly valuable it was. And of course, being in the Army War College, a lot of those guys were from military families, too, and we had good talks about that. It’s a very disruptive life, and I think my brother’s schizophrenia was exacerbated by him not having any strong roots – like he had to move in the middle of high school or something. So you had to be kind of strong and tough and self-reliant, particularly for someone who didn’t particularly buy into the culture. But I also went back to the Army War College and really came to appreciate the work that the Army has done on leadership.
Scarpino: I’m going to respect the time, but I’m going to ask you one more question, and this is relatively complicated, but you’re a scholar of leadership, so I hope this will work. October 2011, I interviewed Manfred Kets de Vries at the ILA meeting in London. In getting ready for that, I read an article that he published in 1994 called “The Leadership Mystique,” published in the Academy of Management Executives. I’m going to read two lines out of that and then I’m going to ask you a question. So, he says in this article:
“All of us possess some kind of inner theater and are strongly motivated by a specific inner script. Over time, through interactions with caretakers, teachers, and other influential people, this inner theater develops… Our internal theater, in which the patterns that underlie our character come into play, influences our behavior throughout our lives and plays an essential role in the molding of leaders.”
I like that phrase of his, inner theater, and what I’d like you to do is to tell me about your inner theater.
Sorenson: Oh, boy. That is a wonderful quote and he’s a very smart man.
Scarpino: I loved talking to him. That was so much fun.
Sorenson: Yeah, he’s very smart. I’ve met him, but I don’t know him. I think he’s very smart. Well, I think my inner theater has to do with perseverance. Sometimes, you know, now that I have this sort of life-threatening illness, I look back on my life and I think, well, I actually had a pretty hard life, and I think probably most people do. We all lose our parents, I lost my brother too, moved around a lot, had to fight my way into academia in some ways. So, I think there’s a lot of perseverance and overcoming obstacles, but I don’t sort of think of myself that way.
Sorenson: I’m happy, I’m thrilled – I mean, ILA is such a great organization too. I think they really appreciate and honor me as a founder, and that’s kind of unusual, I think, in groups. Most people are threatened by people before them. Not so at ILA. I don’t was them to deify me either, but I think they have to walk a really wonderful line of appreciating the past, but also doing their forward work without me, and I like that. I’m going to fewer board meetings and I don’t think I need to be there.
Scarpino: The next time I talk to you, I want to talk to you about the founding of ILA, but you clearly are one of the people who made this organization come into existence. So, you talked about perseverance and those kinds of things, do you think that having had that life experience makes you a better teacher of leadership?
Scarpino: In what ways?
Sorenson: I think I can appreciate people that have mental illness in their family or themselves. I know what that’s like. And I think having to struggle, I know a lot of people that struggle and I appreciate their struggle. I don’t know anything more to say than that, but...
Scarpino: Before I turn these recorders off, because we’ve gone a little over two hours and that’s about as long as two human beings should talk.
Sorenson: You’re right; you’re hanging in their good.
Scarpino: Well, I’m coming up for air. First of all I want to thank you on behalf of myself and the Tobias Center and the International Leadership Association for being kind enough to sit with me today. I’m going to look forward to a wrap-up session at some point, and I will come to you when you’re feeling better, and we’ll look forward to doing that. Thank you.
Sorenson: Okay. Thank you very much. That was fun.
(END OF RECORDING)
Scarpino: The mics are live and today is Sunday, October 27. I am doing a second recording session with Georgia Sorenson, and we are both at the International Leadership Association meeting in Ottawa, Ontario.
When we had the mics off, I asked you if there was anything that you wanted to add, thinking about what you said yesterday, and you said yes. So, we’ll start with that.
Sorenson: I just remembered the university that Dick Couto was at when he started all this Appalachian work was at Vanderbilt.
Scarpino: We were both struggling to remember that yesterday. As I said, again when the recorder was off, I’m going to ask you some questions about your education, then we’re going to shift to the founding of ILA and the next time we talk, we’ll fill in with what’s left.
Let me start by asking you, if I can do the math right, you started high school in 1965?
Sorenson: That’s when I graduated.
Scarpino: Or when did you graduate?
Sorenson: 1965, it might have been ‘64, if I remember.
Scarpino: And where did you go to high school?
Sorenson: I went to Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia.
Scarpino: And that was a public high school?
Sorenson: Yeah, it was a good school.
Scarpino: When you were in high school, were there any individuals who had a significant influence on the adult that you became?
Sorenson: Yes, I would definitely say so. Martha Delaney did AP classes and she really felt I had a talent in writing and art, so she really mentored me, I think. She was a wonderful person. There were many people, but she stands out. Carolyn Glenn, who was the faculty sponsor for the high school literary magazine, she made me the editor, so she was really important and I learned a good lesson from her, just to let you know. She selected me as editor. My best friend was incensed because she was very good too, and she suggested we’d be co-editors. So, me being whatever I am, I went to Carolyn Glenn and said, “I want us both to be co-editors,” and she said, “no, that won’t work for me.” So, I had to sort of sit with – well, I guess I did the right thing by suggesting my friend, but that was a good lesson.
Scarpino: Most of the time when I ask people if there was anyone in high school that influenced them, and if they mentioned teachers, I always ask did you ever go back and tell them what they meant to you?
Sorenson: Yes, I did actually. It’s really important. Yeah, both of them.
Scarpino: I wish I had done that; I didn’t. When you were in high school, were there any events that took place that had a significant impact on the adult you became?
Sorenson: In terms of leadership?
Scarpino: Well, leadership or your character as a person, which I guess is also related to leadership. I’m not just talking about what happened in high school, but what happened around you.
Sorenson: Yeah. Well, I got elected the chair or the president of a sorority. Then when I became president, I didn’t know what to do and people were mad at me. So, I saw it’s not just getting elected; it’s doing the work. That was pretty significant. I was kind of on the boundary between high school and being out in the world, so I spent a lot of time at St. John’s College in Annapolis. I think part of it is I didn’t feel like I really fit in high school. I think everyone must feel that way, but I...
Scarpino: I think that’s a universal feeling.
Sorenson: … yeah, yeah, but I felt like I didn’t fit either.
Scarpino: I know it’s a long time ago, but when you were in high school and when you were graduating high school and getting ready to go to college, where did you imagine or hope your life was headed?
Sorenson: I always thought I would be a writer or an artist. My parents both went to college. My father went to college when he was older. My mother went to Miami University. My family wasn’t particularly college-oriented, but it wasn’t like I was starting from zero. So, I think I thought I would be a writer.
Scarpino: You did kind of become a writer, didn’t you?
Sorenson: Yeah, I guess I did, yeah.
Scarpino: When you graduated from high school, you matriculated at the University of Maryland, earned a BA in Psychology in 1974, if I did the math right...
Scarpino: … why University of Maryland?
Sorenson: It was a state school and my father went there, so it was easy to get into and I didn’t have a lot – I wanted to go to St. John’s, but it was really, really expensive, so I never even brought it up to my parents, who had four children. They were middle class, and I think that’s one thing I’ve carried into my work is there’s an awful lot of young people who feel like their parents can’t really afford to send them to college and so they opt out. They don’t realize that they can get scholarships or help, student loans, or whatever. I found that particularly true with the local high schools in Maryland where particularly African-American students, some of them had single mothers, they would come to our leadership work at
University of Maryland and they had no dreams of going to college. And I would say, “it does work out. You can’t let that be the barrier. You’ve got to make your grades good.” I think the cost of higher ed was a factor. So, there was really nowhere else I planned to go.
Scarpino: Why psychology?
Sorenson: Did I graduate with a degree in psychology?
Scarpino: That’s what I read on your resume you sent me, so I...
Sorenson: Yeah, that’s odd. I can’t remember, to tell you the truth. Why psychology? I was always psychologically oriented. I liked to understand what motivated people, and sort of the interior aspects of being a human was attractive to me. I had some very good -- I had Margaret Rioch, as you know, was a psychologist, and Sheldon Kopp was my clinical supervisor when I did internships. I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t want to just do individual focus after a while. I felt that that wouldn’t make a kind of world I wanted.
Scarpino: When you were an undergraduate student at American University, right?
Sorenson: That’s where I went to school.
Scarpino: Yeah, I misspoke earlier, American University. Sorry about that.
Sorenson: Yeah, I did my PhD at Maryland, so I said, “did I really get a psychology degree at Maryland?”
Scarpino: Well, I’ll plead not enough coffee this morning. I actually knew better, it’s American University. So, when you were an undergraduate at American University, were there any individuals who had a significant influence on you?
Sorenson: Well, that would be Margaret Rioch...
Sorenson: … who, as you remember, encouraged me to join her classes and be a part of this experimental program. It was amazing, actually. Really good for me.
Scarpino: We talked about it a little bit yesterday, but in a few hundred words, what was this experimental program all about?
Sorenson: Yeah, they got the grant for actually, from NIH, Margaret Rioch and Charles Ferster, to train paraprofessionals in psychological counseling. So it wasn’t exactly a program that intended to produce PhDs, for example, but to get community people out there.
Scarpino: Was it things like suicide prevention and that sort of thing, or...?
Sorenson: We never got to any of that part. I don’t know that we really learned how to help other people, but we learned a lot about ourselves.
Scarpino: And you were an intern in that program or a student?
Sorenson: I was a student, yeah, but I did an internship at Chestnut Lodge Hospital, yeah.
Scarpino: When you were an undergraduate student at American University, were there any events that took place in the world around you that had a significant impact on you?
Sorenson: Well, it was around the time of Martin Luther King’s “I Had (sic) a Dream” speech on the Mall. I went to that...
Scarpino: 1968, I think?
Sorenson: … I went to that. That was in ’68?
Scarpino: I’m guessing.
Scarpino: But you were there?
Sorenson: I went there, yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: Oh, wow!
Sorenson: I hooked up with Joan Baez there, which was fun because she was an anti-war activist and kind of a hero of mine, but I was a little bit more of a spectator then. I was pretty young.
Scarpino: How does one meet Joan Baez? I mean, did you just walk up and say, “hi, I’m Georgia?”
Sorenson: Yeah, I actually I just sort of bumped into her. She had a little pen there, she was strumming her guitar, practicing kind of thing. And it turns out that she and Stuart Burns, Jim Burns’s son, lived together in a commune in California, a non-violent commune in California. Yeah. There was sort of a circle there.
Scarpino: That’s interesting. Did you maintain contact with her afterwards?
Sorenson: Yes, yeah, a bit. I was just a fan really, but a bit, although I did weigh in on the fact that she wanted to go to Walter Reed and sing to soldiers, and Stuart was so opposed to that, Stuart Burns, because he’s so anti-military. Of course, his father was quite pro-military. He was in the Army as an Army historian. But I admired her for understanding that wounded soldiers are not the same as the policy of the Vietnam War.
Scarpino: And so she did go to Walter Reed, didn’t she?
Sorenson: She did go. Yes, she did, yeah.
Scarpino: When you graduated from American University, at that point, where did you imagine or hope your life was headed?
Sorenson: I thought I would probably -- I was still interested in psychology. I loved the idea of group relations work. I thought it was very, very impactful and could help people make big changes. So, I took away that whole experience of being involved in the A.K. Rice Institute and other things. I don’t know that I had a big imagination about it. I think I got married. The
Grateful Dead came to campus and I was elected the person to go and greet them, and so I made them this wonderful breakfast, and this is an aside, I suppose, but Jerry Garcia was not sure about me. So, he wasn’t sure he was going to drink the orange juice I made because it might be spiked or something. So, that was kind of interesting.
Scarpino: So, you met Joan Baez and Jerry Garcia?
Sorenson: Right, right.
Scarpino: You were in high school and college in roughly the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s, a real period of social activism in the United States and particularly on campuses. Were you involved in any of that?
Sorenson: Our campus didn’t do that. Maryland did, big time. They had tanks there and later on -- I wasn’t there for that -- but it was under siege I think. I don’t know when I went to the Philippines, but it was soon after that and that I lived in New York City for a while – I really should have thought about this better, but anyway; it’s kind of a blur.
Scarpino: You said you went to the Philippines.
Sorenson: Yeah, when my father was assigned to the Philippines. I was living in Greenwich Village. I guess that’s partly what I thought, you know, because I like music, I like art, and now I’ve gotten involved with these people and so I moved to Greenwich Village and was really poor. It’s not
good to be poor in New York City, but it was a really exciting time, in terms of the hippie movement and music, in particular.
Scarpino: Were you a part of that hippie counter-culture movement?
Sorenson: I don’t think I was really a hippie, but I definitely was anti-war. I didn’t organize events, but I went to them. I was interested in Joan Baez’s work, you know, through music, on war and so forth. I got to meet Bob Dylan – he tried to buy my boyfriend’s motorcycle – the Lovin’ Spoonful and you know, just Paul Simon I met in the park. This is a funny kind of thing – Paul Simon wrote “The Sound of Silence.” He was working as a cook or restaurant worker or something like that; he was young like me, and he played me this song in the park, you know, called the “The Sound of Silence.” I think then he was calling it “The Sounds of Silence” and I told him it needed more work, and that is a really important lesson to me, you know, that I don’t necessarily know things like that. I still think about that. It’s kind of funny and I bite my tongue sometimes and I thought like I really screwed that.
Scarpino: So, Paul Simon was working in a restaurant, you meet him in a park, and he plays this song he’s working on for you, hadn’t yet been recorded or published.
Sorenson: No, yeah, and I was a tall blonde woman with an autoharp sitting kind of in Tompkins Square Park, I think it was, and he just walked over and he had his guitar and he played the song.
Scarpino: How did you meet Bob Dylan?
Sorenson: Bob Dylan wanted to buy my boyfriend’s motorcycle...
Sorenson: … but he was so stoned that you just couldn’t even have a conversation with him. He was really wrecked back then. That was kind of disillusioning.
Scarpino: Well, sometimes it’s interesting to find out the people you admire are just people.
Sorenson: Exactly, yeah.
Scarpino: Anybody else interesting that you’ve met when you were living in Greenwich Village?
Sorenson: Maybe not the star quality that you would recognize.
Scarpino: At some point, it was time to leave Greenwich Village.
Sorenson: Yeah, my father came and got me. He decided I was going to hell in a handbasket, which he was probably right. He came with my brother and they literally packed up everything in my apartment and put it in their VW bus and drove back to Washington, DC, and then shipped me off to the Philippines with the family.
Scarpino: Thinking back on that time, living kind of free and easy in Greenwich Village, what did you experience there that stayed with you?
Sorenson: Being part of a community of outliers and free thinkers and sort of the mix of culture and art and music and all the wonderful things about New York City, you know, that was very liberating.
Scarpino: But then Dad decided he’d had enough of that.
Sorenson: Yeah, I was ready to go.
Scarpino: We talked about some of the things you’ve done, but when you completed your bachelor’s, you then went on to Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, where you earned a master’s in psychology. How did you pick Hood College?
Sorenson: I applied to city schools, to Maryland for graduate school and Hood. They were within driving distance of my home and I was married at the time. I didn’t really feel empowered to pick a school outside of where I lived and Hood was an all-girls school. I wanted to experience that, although the time I was there, they transitioned to coed. I became the President of the Student Body and helped with the transition of making it coed. There were a couple of really interesting professors there, but it was a long schlep driving an hour every night.
Scarpino: You were taking night classes?
Sorenson: Mostly in the night. At least I would be driving home at night. So, I think it was probably part of my ambition, you know, I was going to go. I was only wait-listed at Maryland, so I didn’t want to count on getting in.
Scarpino: Had you been a good student as an undergraduate?
Sorenson: I’m a very good student actually, a very good student, but I didn’t really know how to -- I didn’t have a kind of coaching and counseling and help with deciding what’s the best thing for me – because, I’m going to say this too, in middle school, we took an aptitude test to sort of show you where your strongest aptitudes are. Mine was a car mechanic, and I was a girl. You know, actually, I am really good at fixing things and I do tinker with my car; simple, not electrical. But telling a bright girl with a 4.0...
Scarpino: You’re being a car mechanic.
Sorenson: … yeah, kind of strange, yep.
Scarpino: Well, if it makes you feel any better, when I took one of those tests, I wanted to be a forester so bad and I deliberately answered all the questions to slant them that way, so I could persuade my parents that I was really destined to do that. It didn’t work out for me though. So, you earned your master’s in psychology and, again, if I did the math right, it was 1976. Do you remember when you walked out the door with that degree in your hand what you really wanted the rest of your live to look like?
Sorenson: I don’t think that I was that visionary about my own trajectory, to be honest. I just knew I wanted to keep on going and find a way that was inexpensive enough and close enough to home so my husband wasn’t threatened and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe I thought about being a politician, I'm not sure. No, I guess I wanted to be an organizational consultant because then I went to business school and they said nobody will listen to a women, and I thought well, okay.
Scarpino: And that was at the University of Maryland where they told you that?
Sorenson: That was at AU.
Scarpino: AU, oh, American University, okay. So, 1970s, really smart woman, 4.0 as an undergraduate, I’m sure you blew the top off your courses as a master’s student, career ambitions – did that fall within the boundaries of what most young women imagined for themselves at that time period?
Sorenson: I don’t think so, yeah. I think there might have been a cohort that had families that were more knowledgeable about how to direct a kid into the next steps maybe, but I just put one foot in front of the other.
Scarpino: You clearly though had some sense that there was more than...
Sorenson: Being married and ...
Scarpino: Well, you said it; I didn’t, but that’s where I was going, yes. For the benefit of anybody listening, I’m not criticizing the institution of marriage, I’m just
saying that you had a sense that there was a bigger world out there and you wanted to be a part of it.
Sorenson: Right. That’s definitely true.
Scarpino: I’m going to shift over to ILA and we’ll fill in the next time we talk because I really want to be sure we’ve done this and I can tell the ILA people I did it. So, I’m going to set this up for the benefit of anybody who’s looking at this.
You are one of the founders of the International Leadership Association, but sometime in the early 1990s, you met Larraine Matusak, who directed the Kellogg National Fellowship Program, which we will be talking about later on. She was responsible for all the grant-making in the area of leadership and she served as the Kellogg Foundation’s first Leadership Scholar. I understand that you applied for fellowship there and didn’t get it...
Sorenson: That’s right.
Scarpino: … is that one of the few times in your life you didn’t get something you applied for?
Sorenson: Well, what happened, no, I’ve had my ups and downs, like everyone. What happened was Roger Sublett came out after my interview and said, “the Committee is not going to offer you a fellowship and we decided you were overqualified, but we’re going to give you a $2 million grant so that you can continue to work.”
Scarpino: Well, that was my next question. You didn’t actually have to apply for that first grant; they just said wow, here’s $2 million.
Sorenson: Yep, yeah, well I think they wanted me to write a proposal, but that was his strategy – like we’d rather empower your work than spend time developing you as a leader.
Scarpino: At that point then, you already had considerable leadership experience.
Sorenson: I think I did, yeah.
Scarpino: And did you already think of yourself as a leader, or did you think you needed to be a fellow to become one?
Sorenson: Well, I became advisor, Kellogg advisor to the fellows, which was really fun. I don’t think I really thought of myself as a leader. I thought of myself as a troublemaker and I realized that some people might interpret that differently when I was still in undergraduate school, I think, because whenever they had a funder come through American University, they always sent me to have lunch with them at the Cosmos Club, you know, like Jerry Hunt, you know, came and was evaluated for a grant or something. And I thought like well this is strange; they know I’m a troublemaker, why are they sending me as a representative of the students? So, that gave me a clue that other people recognized that what I was doing was a kind of leadership and I was articulate about the program maybe.
Scarpino: And who was Jerry Hunt?
Sorenson: Jerry Hunt was a psychologist from Texas A&M, I think. He wrote many good books actually, and then he was just an evaluator for some foundation, I don’t remember. There was more than once that I went to the Cosmos Club. The other thing is the Cosmos Club, at that time, didn’t let women walk in the front door. They didn’t have women members and they didn’t let women walk in the front door; they go in the side door. So, afterwards, I organized with Senator Stewart Bainum a whole mass protest about Burning Tree Country Club and the Cosmos Club about admitting women and we won. Yeah, so that was probably the last time the Cosmos Club ever wanted me to come along.
Scarpino: Well, they’d probably like you to be a member now. So, you got the grant, the initial grant for $2 million and I think you used the grant to pay for the Kellogg Leadership Fund project?
Sorenson: For the what?
Scarpino: Kellogg Leadership Fund project?
Sorenson: Oh, the Kellogg Leadership Studies community, we spent on that, which helped develop the ILA, as I recall.
Scarpino: Was there additional funding from Kellogg that came after that first $2 million?
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: Did I correctly read that you applied for a $5 million grant and got it?
Scarpino: Yeah, so we’re up to $7 now?
Sorenson: I think we got up to $10. It just shows you that if you find the funder that you resonate with, heart to heart, vision to vision, value to value, I think because it was Midwest, there was something about my mother – background from Minnesota and the Midwest of Michigan – I mean, I guess they were my people.
Scarpino: When you applied for the second grant for $5 million or so, did you have to sell the idea to them? What did you have to tell them you were going to do with the money?
Sorenson: Right, okay, so we wrote a proposal called 2020, what things we wanted to happen by 2020, and you know, they didn’t just hand money. You’d have to write a proposal, but they’d invite you to write a proposal. Yeah, it was quite an elaborate proposal, mostly a staffer at the Academy wrote it, Wanda Gerber (SPELLING???), but I did the political interface with the Kellogg Foundation.
Scarpino: Do you remember what you wanted to see happen by 2020, or some of the elements?
Sorenson: Yeah. We wanted to have -- it was sort of like Jim’s and my four things that we wanted to get done. We wanted to have a leadership library, we wanted to have a school of leadership, we wanted to have an encyclopedia of leadership, and we wanted to have conferences on leadership, a community of leadership people. So, we just plugged along doing that. We also created something called Civic Source which was a first pass at an internet way of connecting community people with resources, which I don’t think was particularly successful. I think it was just too early.
Scarpino: And so, James MacGregor Burns was a participant in these grants? Was he on the grant, so to speak?
Sorenson: I’m probably pretty sure we paid his salary from the grant, but I’m not really positive. I will say certainly he was involved in the Corecon (SPELLING???) and the conference at the beginning of ILA. So, the answer’s yes.
Scarpino: So, Corecon was what?
Sorenson: Yeah. Well, what he called it.
Scarpino: And what was that?
Sorenson: Well, he felt like we had a number of leadership scholars that didn’t know each other, like I said, that we were bringing together, and he felt it seemed, it was like a metaphor for what he called the founding period of
our country, where the Federalist Papers were correspondence between these great thinkers and resulted in so many important things. So, he kind of wanted to have a founding fathers – and mothers, I guess – correspondence, but we did have to convince him that people don’t write letters anymore, and I don’t think even email was up and running then, maybe at the beginning, but he adapted to the idea that we wouldn’t be doing the correspondence, but that it was sort of the same principle.
Scarpino: You got everybody together face-to-face.
Scarpino: Do you remember when that was and where?
Sorenson: I will find out for you.
Sorenson: Is it on that...?
Scarpino: Probably. We can look it up later.
Scarpino: And I’ve actually seen it, I was just trying to get it in the record. We will look it up later. You got this initial money and then you got another $5 million and you’re working on this leadership project and it had elements that you mentioned and one of those was Leadership Scholars, and then,
if I did this correctly, there was the Salzburg Seminar on Global Leadership Concepts?
Sorenson: Yeah, we did do that.
Scarpino: In Austria in 1995?
Scarpino: And then there was a gathering called Leaders/Scholars Association at the University of Southern California?
Sorenson: That’s true.
Scarpino: Okay. I want to ask you...
Sorenson: That was the first time that Warren Bettis met Jim Burns.
Sorenson: It’s just like they didn’t know each other. Of course, they read each other’s work and Bernie Bass met Jim Burns at the University of Maryland.
Scarpino: I was supposed to interview Warren Bettis and it didn’t work out because he’s not... So, the Leadership Scholars, and there are about 30 or 40 of these Leadership Scholars...
Sorenson: I’d say probably, yeah.
Scarpino: … what was the purpose of those Leadership Scholars?
Sorenson: Well, I think one was to build a community of face-to-face people who were doing work in leadership. That was really important. In fact, it was called the Kellogg Studies Leadership Project, but we changed it to Community at the end, but it was also to thrash out how we saw leadership, what the role of followership was, whose work could contribute things. We eventually divided it up into work groups and there was a group on followership, which Ed Hollander ran, and there was a group on transformational leadership, I think Jim ran that. There was one on leadership and change where that important paper I think I told you about, about compassionate communities came out of. We wrote little pamphlets that were about this big, something like the Federalist Papers that people could stick in their pocket or their purse, but had things for people to think about in the area of leadership and followership.
Scarpino: Did James MacGregor Burns persuade you that you were one of the founding mothers of this discipline?
Sorenson: Yeah. Jim, by the way, I wanted to tell you, at 72, having written books and so forth, it’s awkward to call myself a leadership scholar. It sort of seems distancing in a way to me from other people. But Jim was really pretty insistent that all of us are students of leadership and that we actually should take on the term of leadership scholar, whether we were a practitioner or in a university because we were students of leadership trying to learn about leadership, and I think that was wonderful. As a
young woman, it was exciting to be a leadership scholar. Now, and in these times, it’s weird, you know what I mean...?
Sorenson: … in the Trumpian era where experts are looked down on.
Scarpino: I’m going to ask you a question right now that I was going to ask you later. Yesterday, we talked about leadership and your definition of leadership and we actually talked at some length about that. The question I didn’t ask you because I was saying it for later, was in order to be a leader, does a person have to be doing good? In other words, is a dictator or some unscrupulous criminal mastermind, are they leaders?
Sorenson: No, and that’s one thing that came out of the Leadership Studies project, which went on for like five years or something. Jim absolutely took the leadership on this. He said, “I want to reserve the term leadership for people that are doing good work in the area of public values” and that those other people are dictators, are tyrants – we can use words like that – and of course that goes back to the normative versus descriptive view of leadership. I mean, obviously people who do descriptive work could study Trump as a leader and make what assessment they have about it. But we were sort of more in the normative lane and, with Jim’s guidance, tried to preserve the word leader for those who were doing the kind of work that we wanted to do.
Scarpino: But there could be some debate over what constituted good work in the world.
Sorenson: Yes, that’s true. Yeah, yeah, and Jim kind of narrowed it to the core public values, so that helped somewhat, but yes, it’s kind of relative.
Scarpino: What did he have in mind about core public values?
Sorenson: Things like equity, freedom, justice, fairness, you know, things that are core American values.
Scarpino: It is true that there’s a line in one of our famous documents that says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” When they wrote them, they meant men. They meant white men.
Sorenson: That’s true, landed white men.
Scarpino: Did you all ever think about the fact that those core values at the time that you were espousing them really didn’t apply to everybody? Was part of your mission to make the universe bigger?
Sorenson: Well, yeah, I mean I did work on the ERA campaign to include women in those documents and then pass it. Because we didn’t pass it, I decided not have my baby in Virginia because they didn’t affirm it and I got out of the hospital bed and went to Georgetown University. So, I’m pretty stubborn about stuff like that.
Scarpino: So, you were in the hospital ready to have the baby and you moved to a different hospital?
Sorenson: Yeah, um-hm. Yep, because at that time, the ERA didn’t pass in Virginia. So, that was a little mini-crisis, but we knew by then that women were full partners in our aspirations for justice and so forth. I mean, we might not be in the Constitution, or the Declaration, but we knew.
Scarpino: How were the Leadership Scholars selected?
Sorenson: I have no idea.
Scarpino: Why don’t you check on that?
Sorenson: Probably sitting there with Jim. I imagine asking other people.
Scarpino: Did people have to apply or were they asked?
Sorenson: No, they were asked.
Scarpino: Looking back on it, how would you assess the significance of that Leadership Scholars program?
Sorenson: I think it was incredible. I give Kellogg credit for the foresight of taking the lead and understanding that our community of scholars, you know, it would be beneficial to work with our community of scholars on public leadership.
Scarpino: Did anyone at Kellogg ever tell you why the Foundation decided to spend a period of time putting a lot of money into leadership?
Sorenson: It was during Russ Mawby’s tenure. I’m quite sure Larraine is very outspoken and she has a strong vision. So, I’m sure she was a part of that.
Scarpino: International Leadership Association’s website says the following: “The Association's international roots can be traced back to 1995 and the Salzburg Seminar on Global Leadership, Concepts and Challenges held in Austria, co-chaired by Georgia Sorenson and James MacGregor Burns, and attended by scholars and leaders from fifty countries.”
So, given that you co-chaired this, do you agree that the international roots of ILA can be traced to the Salzburg Seminar?
Sorenson: Well, not exactly, and that’s written in the Encyclopedia of Leadership, which I edited, but I didn’t probably read that article, but it was definitely a part of it. At the Salzburg Seminar, I told Jim we were about to name the Academy for him, that it would become the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, and he cried. It was really sweet, but I think we had already had the conversation about the International Leadership Association.
Scarpino: The people that came together for that Salzburg conference, were they also people who then went on to become involved in ILA when it was created?
Sorenson: Oh, yeah, many people. Yeah, many, many people. I just got a text message from Ivana Moskova (SPELLING???), who is from Hungary, and she was there and she came to the Academy for a while, she came to Cambridge a couple of months ago, she’s in touch with Gill Hickman about writing. She’s now in the military academy teaching leadership.
Scarpino: In Hungary?
Scarpino: One of the people I talked to about your career was Gill Hickman and...
Sorenson: What interviews have you done so far?
Scarpino: Oh, I’ve actually done full-blown interviews with Gill, but I called her to ask her about you as part of my research, and she was extraordinarily gracious. She’s a really nice lady and I’m sorry she’s not here. I like her. But when I talked to Gill, she said that many of those who attended that Salzburg conference were what she called emerging leaders from different countries in the world...
Sorenson: I would say that’s right.
Scarpino: … and so, did you deliberately recruit people in the emerging leader category and bring them there?
Sorenson: Well, we wrote the Mission Statement for the Seminar and actually I think embassies nominated the people they wanted to come.
Scarpino: Did you ever follow up on any of those folks who came to the Seminar and then went back to their countries as emerging leaders to see how they did?
Sorenson: That’s a really interesting thing. I mean, we are in touch with a lot of people, even though it was many years ago, but not in a systemic way of finding out what exactly they’re doing now. I’m sort of thinking about what people were doing and they all became at least intellectual leaders.
Scarpino: This Salzburg Seminar, where did that idea come from?
Sorenson: Well, I think the Salzburg Seminar has been in existence for like a hundred years. It was seen as a post-war institution that would be neutral that could work with primarily kind of the European countries and the U.S. maybe, to help build peace through discourse between countries. They’ve done a wonderful job and I think Kellogg helped to fund some of them. Cyn Cherrey’s very involved with them now.
Scarpino: And who?
Sorenson: In the Salzburg Seminar.
Scarpino: Cherrey, yeah.
Sorenson: Yeah, our President.
Scarpino: I also talked to her about you.
Sorenson: Oh, okay.
Scarpino: On the phone.
Sorenson: Oh, my gosh. I can’t hide.
Scarpino: She was nice enough to visit with me on the phone.
Sorenson: She’s here, of course, you know.
Scarpino: Yeah. You were a participant in the planning of that?
Sorenson: Oh, yeah.
Scarpino: What were you imagining you wanted to have happen when you were doing the planning?
Sorenson: Well, we built in small lectures and so we had the right people giving small lectures. We did a group relations conference that Zachary Green (SPELLING???) coordinated. We had a lot of experiential stuff and there was a lot of down time too, where people would go to the pub downstairs
and drink a beer and dance all night. So, it was all part of the plan, to have people have a little bit of down time, but also have little pockets of information and ideas that they could further study themselves if they wanted to.
Scarpino: That’s a formula for a memorable conference, isn’t it?
Sorenson: It was really fun. It was in a beautiful castle and they had toasts, you know. The last toasts were like four hours long. People toasting the experience because it’s kind of a European tradition, and I thought I was going to fall down it was so long.
Scarpino: And it was the castle where the “Sound of Music” was filmed?
Scarpino: Is that right?
Sorenson: Yes, yeah. If you have a chance to go, you should go.
Scarpino: It’s on my list. When the Kellogg Leadership Studies project was over, there was a conference organized called Leaders/Scholars Association coordinated by Barbara Kellerman...
Scarpino: … hosted by Cynthia Cherrey, University of Southern California, and the group decided to continue to meet and sometime later adopted the name International Leadership Association.
Sorenson: That’s right.
Scarpino: So, is that really the final step to the creation of...
Scarpino: … International Leadership?
Sorenson: That helped me understand the history because I couldn’t quite remember when we started it, but we had that conference first in San Diego, with Warren and Jim and others, and I hired Barbara to run the program. Then Kathy Whitmire came and managed the grant I think after that.
Scarpino: The Leaders/Scholars Association meeting that gathered at the University of Southern California, was that a by-invitation conference?
Scarpino: As you look back on it, what, how would you assess the significance of that gathering?
Sorenson: Right. I actually was sick, so I stayed in my hotel room a lot. I only learned from other people from the conference proceedings about it.
Scarpino: But would it be correct to say that that was sort of the final organizational step before ILA came into existence?
Scarpino: Again, thinking about the formation of ILA, do you remember where the idea came from to have a professional organization organized around leadership for scholars and practitioners of leadership?
Scarpino: It was his idea?
Sorenson: It was one of the four goals we had to developing the discipline. How it actually came into being was Jim and Larraine and I were sitting around the Harvard Club at New York City, because Jim belonged to it, and we just had a talk. She said, “What’s up next, what do we do next?” because she’s a funder. Jim told her about the Corecon (SPELLING???) idea and how we wanted to develop these conferences, and my contribution was that it had to be international.
Scarpino: And it was, of course that was...
Sorenson: It was.
Scarpino: … was that Jim’s original idea to be international?
Sorenson: No, that was mine. That was my sole contribution. Larraine gave the money, Jim came up with the idea.
Scarpino: Well, I’m not going to buy it that the only thing that you did was to suggest it be international. So, by the time of this meeting at the University of Southern California, you had established a pretty impressive network of
leadership scholars. I ran across an interesting description of what you did for establishing this network. It was referred to as exponential networking.
Sorenson: What does that mean?
Scarpino: Well, I assume it means exponential growth, you know, and that you had such a talent for networking that you created a network that grew exponentially.
Sorenson: Yeah, I’d say that’s true.
Scarpino: Is that a fair assessment?
Sorenson: Yeah, I think when they did the Gallop Poll, they said I was a multi-relater, which means I like to go between groups, between ideas and kind of say, “Boy, have you met Philip Scarpino, he’s a great historian and I think he’d really like your work and you’d like his.” I do that a lot.
Scarpino: Part of what you contributed to this was this really almost magical ability you have as a networker to get people together with some common sense of where you wanted them to go.
Sorenson: I think that’s right, yeah. Although I’m an introvert so I don’t get it, but it did happen though.
Scarpino: I know, you told me that. So, do you think that the ability to network is an important quality of a successful leader?
Sorenson: Well, some leaders, some kind of leaders. Obviously intellectual leaders maybe not so much, but connecting people is real important for any leader I think.
Scarpino: I’m going to actually just ask you one more question, I think, and we’ll wrap it up for today. I talked to Cynthia Cherrey, who’s now President and CEO of the International Leadership Association. She told me that you and James MacGregor Burns worked together toward the goal of making leadership a profession, that the two of you put some of the pieces in place, which you have already talked about the four pieces, that moved leadership toward a profession, including the Encyclopedia of Leadership, encouraging a body of leadership-related scholarship and the formation of the professional organization, ILA. So, here’s the question, did you and James MacGregor Burns develop a plan to make leadership a profession that included ILA, the Encyclopedia and encouraging a body? Was that a plan that actually put together?
Sorenson: Right. Well, that was Jim’s planning. He said, “If we want to professionalize this, what are the things we need to do?” We started basically from scratch.
Scarpino: As you look back on it now, it all happened.
Sorenson: It did happen and it’s really fun to see, yeah.
Scarpino: What do you think about when you realize that plan that you cooked up with James MacGregor Burns so many years ago has now come to pass, that there’s a profession, there’s an organization, there’s a body of literature, there’s training programs?
Sorenson: It’s so wonderful, it really is. When I come to ILA, I’m titularly on the Board as Emeritus or something, but I go to maybe one Board meeting a year. Basically, as Jean Lipman-Blumen said, “I might be too much, to come in as a founder and have an opinion about anything.” So, she was helpful. You know, I said she was a mentor of mine. But when I come to ILA, I feel like I planted this perennial garden 30 years ago and it’s just so fun – I’m going to cry – it’s so fun to see what they’ve done with it. I still see Jim here and my daughter’s now here for the first time. It’s incredibly gratifying and you know a really key part of it is their respect for the founder. It’s not like they make me front and center. I come here and there’s 800 people that I don’t know and they don’t know me, but they have a lot of respect for Jim and I and Larraine. It’s unusual.
Scarpino: It’s also a pretty amazing and wonderful thing, isn’t it?
Sorenson: It is, it’s really wonderful.
Scarpino: I need to, because I think I told you that the hotel is going to make us get out of here at 12:15...
Sorenson: Oh, that’s right.
Scarpino: … so, I'm going to wrap this up for now and I will be back in touch to see what your schedule is and how you’re feeling in the December 5th, 6th timeframe?
Sorenson: Sure, yes.
Scarpino: Alright, so let me get these things turned off, but before I do that, thank you very much.
Sorenson: Thank you, Phil.
Scarpino: It’s just been such a joy to talk to you.
Sorenson: It was amazing.
(END OF RECORDING)
Scarpino: I see now that we do have a live mic. I will say that today is December 4, 2019, and I’m doing a fourth recording session with Georgia Sorenson and we’re at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. There is quite a bit of biographical information on her associated with the first recording, so if anybody wants that information, they can look it up there.
When the recorder was off, we talked about your affiliation with Cambridge. I’m going to start by asking you to explain the nature of your appointment and particularly what you’re doing teaching leadership over there.
Sorenson: I’ve been there five years now and it was kind of a magical, serendipitous occasion really. I had a close colleague, Chris Reval (SPELLING???), who’s now at Oxford and leads a group called Faith in Leadership, which is religious leaders meeting and talking about leadership and group relations and so forth. He was doing something for Churchill College – he went to Cambridge too – and they mentioned that they would be interested in thinking about leadership. He said, “Well, I have just the right person for you,” and so they immediately called and sent a ticket and the next week I was there talking to them. I didn’t know I was looking for a job, but sometimes that’s the best way to be, right? So, we talked and Gillian Secrett and I had just an instant connection. I really got her vision, which is that she has a wonderful big executive conference center as a part of Churchill College, which is part of Cambridge, and they do executive-level training and management and so forth, but she wanted to
branch out into leadership. England is in kind of a different place than we are, in terms of leadership. They’re now bringing a lot of American scholars over to kind of help seed the movement, and they got a kind of fresh start with Tony Blair, who began to institute leadership things into community colleges. In the prestigious colleges, like Oxford and Cambridge and so forth, they just felt well, we’re already training leaders, we don’t need to have any leadership, which happened in the U.S. too back 30 years ago with me when I went to Vassar, for example. They didn’t understand why we want to focus on leadership because they were already doing that, and they have a point too. So, I was thrilled about that and we began just to kind of -- I went over there once a month for about a week and worked with their faculty and staff and their Master Athene Donald, who’s a physicist, but interested in leadership. She’s the Master of the College. I don’t actually teach leadership there because they don’t have classes in the same way – they have tutors. So, I work with students that have a component of leadership in their thesis. For example, Ally Jones just finished her doctorate in history and she did a study of the German social movements in the 1960s, and she wanted to look at leadership too, so we worked together on that. Another student is doing one on decision-making and managers, so she had a leadership component. So, those are the kind of things I work individually with students, but I also work with staff and give lectures and work with faculty on helping seed leadership into their curriculum. It’s been extremely
rewarding. It’s very interesting to see the development of leadership studies in another country. You’ve probably seen this too, but so often it’s been derivative of American leadership studies. So, I’m always very cautious about making sure I look at the deep roots of the own leadership learning in different countries. England has its own monarchical and other aspects, and you know they had the World War II experience. I mean, they have a lot of different experiences that impacted how they view leadership. Then, Jim and I had this plan, as you know, it was four points, and so I thought well, I’ll chip away at his four points. Sometimes they come here and visit with me, and sometimes I go there.
Scarpino: When did you start there?
Sorenson: It was about five years ago.
Scarpino: Okay. One of the things that we talked about in one of our first recording sessions was the fact that leadership, in some ways, is a cultural construction. Even though in the U.K. everybody speaks English and we have some common roots, what differences did you note?
Sorenson: Well, I think Europeans are more suspicious of leadership than we have been, in general, because they went through the World War II experience. They’re also more suspicious of organizations, and I know Hal Levitt (SPELLING???), who was a friend, wrote a book about how Americans tend to think of organizations as benign or even instrumental or helpful, in terms of human activity, but, in Europe, they don’t necessarily think that
and I think that they’re probably wise. Also, because Americans have been working together through the Kellogg Leadership Studies Project that we were involved in, we obviously influenced each other, worked together, our work’s been heavily influenced by each other, so it’s kind of more of a growing body of research. There’s not complete agreement, I don’t mean that, but it’s a different kind of process, whereas theirs is just more eclectic. You could, for example, see an article in Leadership, which is a journal started by Keith Grint and David Collinson...
Scarpino: In the U.K.
Sorenson: … yes, and you’ll see more eclectic articles. You might see a person talking about ants and leadership, or you might see, you know, you know what I’m saying? It’s just out of the blue, and it’s interesting. It’s not all built upon Burns or Hunt or Bass or whatever; it’s their own construction. But that kind of opens up your mind creatively too, to look at articles that are not so heavily influenced by each other.
Scarpino: Do you think that having leadership studies developing in European countries actually enriches the field overall?
Sorenson: Well, definitely yes. I think the more we are inclusive, obviously, the more we’ll have a richer view of leadership. Leadership is not one model. It’s very different in communal cultures or matrilineal cultures or whatever. So I think it’s a very good idea to have diversity in the view. On the other hand, I know Jim and the general theory of leadership group, we’re
looking for kind of what are the common constructs across all countries, across all time and in all situations. We didn’t exactly find that, as you know, but we understood sort of where we were in that conversation anyway.
Scarpino: I’m going to go back now and pick up where we left off last time.
Scarpino: What I was going to ask you when we ended last time was I was going to make a reference to the citation that went along with the Lifetime Achievement Award that you received from the International Leadership Association. You received that award in 2015, but I’m going to read a few lines in that citation, and I’m not trying to embarrass you, and then I’m going to get you to comment on this.
Sorenson: I don’t know if I’ve heard this.
Scarpino: It has really nice things to say about you. The citation says, in part: “One must seriously consider the question, would there be a field of leadership studies without Georgia Sorenson? Drawing upon historical lessons learned from the creation of the fields of sociology and psychology, Sorenson, with colleague James MacGregor Burns, developed a systematic plan more than 30 years ago to establish the field of leadership studies.” So, I think that’s true, but here’s my question. We talked quite a bit about your relationship with James MacGregor Burns and his influence
on you as a person and as a scholar. At this point, as we talk about this citation that credits your relationship with him, is there anything that you want to add about you and Dr. Burns developing a systematic plan for the field of leadership studies?
Sorenson: Jim was a very planful person. If he had five minutes and you were sitting in the airport or something, he’d want to have a meeting. I felt like, I don’t want to have another meeting, I just don’t because I know what it means – your ideas about what I should do. Although he was a full partner in getting everything done, I don’t mean that, but I was more of an operational person at that point. So he was very planful and I was very spontaneous and we had that dialogue our whole lives, what the value of both is. I really do believe that thinking that far ahead about what was needed was just remarkable.
Scarpino: I’m going to bring up two topics, or bring in two topics that I hope will bring your career and your expertise on leadership and organization into focus, as well as your relationship with James MacGregor Burns and your long association with University of Maryland. I’m going to start with James MacGregor Burns. I’m going to remind anybody who uses this interview that in his seminal volume Leadership, Burns introduces and describes two kind of leadership, transactional and transformational, with the former focusing on the relationship between leader and follower and the latter being where leaders concentrated on the beliefs, values and expectations and needs of the followers. We’ve already talked about your relationship
with James MacGregor Burns, but I noticed when I read your resume something that fascinated me, and I don’t believe we talked about this yet. Under courses taught, you listed Philosophy and Leadership; Presidential Leadership with James MacGregor Burns. When did you teach that course with him and what were the circumstances?
Sorenson: Oh, my goodness. I’m so terrible with dates. Well, a long time ago, at the University of Maryland, we did teach an honors course on presidential leadership. I think we did two courses. One was Twentieth Century Presidents and one was Early Presidents, I think. I think we did try to weave in the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers and English philosophers into that course. We had some wonderful people in that class. I remember Michael Seelman, who’s now still really involved with me at the Churchill Center, and David Marks, who’s now a county council member. They were young students back then, and Jim lived in the Honors Dorm actually. He was probably in his 80s and they were taking him to the cafeteria for dinner. It was just wonderful.
Scarpino: He was a good sport, wasn’t he?
Sorenson: Yeah, he was. He was really good about that.
Scarpino: So, what was it like teaching with him?
Sorenson: Oh, it was easy. He liked to listen a lot and there’s a variety of reasons why he did that, some are more noble than other maybe. He would listen
to students a lot and I’m sure he took the lead, as I recall, about the presidents he’s written about. I tended to kind of bring things into the modern times sometimes, you know, the issues about women and things like that.
Scarpino: You and James MacGregor Burns interviewed President Bill Clinton?
Sorenson: Yes, we did.
Scarpino: When and why?
Sorenson: Well, we wrote a book called Dead Center, which was we thought the problem with presidents who run in the middle and then try to govern in the middle. The Clintons and I are members of a group called Renaissance Weekend, so I had gotten to know them somewhat well, and their daughter went to my daughter’s school at the same time, so I had enough exposure to them to ask if they would do it.
Scarpino: So, this is not a cold call?
Sorenson: It wasn’t a cold call, no, no, but I wasn’t their best friend or anything, but he did do it, and it was fascinating to be there in the car. I remember our first stop, because we drove around town to these events that he had to go to, and Bill would stick his hand out and wave to people and then Jim would say, “What about court packing?”
Scarpino: So, you did this interview driving around in a car while he was basically running errands.
Sorenson: Right, going from event to event, yeah, yeah. That’s so true. What’s so interesting is, of course, Jim knows his history really well, but so did Clinton. It was so interesting to see how Clinton’s mind was thinking about his presidency because I don’t think he’d been elected yet, or maybe he had been elected but he wasn’t in office yet, I’m not sure. We did interview Hillary too, but I let my graduate student do it with Jim because I wanted to give him a little treat; now I kind of regret it. They had a wonderful time. Jim just loved Hillary and she loved him.
Scarpino: When I talked to him once upon a time, it was clear that he was a fan. How did Bill Clinton strike you as a leader?
Sorenson: I was more excited about him than Jim was. Jim thought, just after he’d been elected, that he might end up being like a C+ President. I don’t exactly know why he thought that. Maybe he thought he wasn’t going to be bold enough probably, and that was kind of true in some ways, but he changed over time. He began to think that he was a more successful president over time, but he was really in love with Hillary.
Scarpino: Jim was?
Scarpino: Jim MacGregor Burns.
Scarpino: But again, when you think about Bill Clinton, President of the United States, how does he measure up against your standard of good leadership? I’m actually not looking to trash him. I’m looking -- because most people know who he is, so that if you talk about that, they’re going to know who he is and that’ll help.
Sorenson: I was more interested in his centrist philosophy frankly. He did things according to his centrist philosophy and pragmatism, and he got done what he could get done. He was obviously really brilliant. He had some fatal flaws, obviously, and it was interesting. I remember doing research for the book. I think I was the first one to discover that when he put his hand on the Bible to take the Oath of Office, it was on a verse that he would be faithful to his wife or something pretty explicit. He already knew he had that problem and so did Hillary. I think Barack Obama was pretty phenomenal, but there were parts he could have been more bold about, too.
Scarpino: I’m going to ask you about him in a minute, but you knew Hillary Clinton?
Sorenson: Pretty well.
Scarpino: How did she strike you as a leader, measured against your understanding of good leadership?
Sorenson: Yeah, I think she would have been a phenomenal president, honestly I do. Her staff stays on for 20 and 30 years. If somebody’s kid got sick or the staff, she’d go to the hospital and she didn’t make a big thing of it. So, she had a personal touch with her staff and she also had a big vision, too. I think she would have been pretty phenomenal.
Scarpino: Did you know Barack Obama?
Sorenson: No, I didn’t actually.
Scarpino: Why did he strike you as a good leader?
Sorenson: I liked his calm measured dignified balance, brilliant kind of stance in life and the fact that he kept it all together without scandals. I guess, thinking about the election this time, I don’t know where I’m going to go, but it’s nice to have a calm and steady leader who’s smart.
Scarpino: I noticed when I walked up to your house that you have two signs that say “resist.” What are you resisting?
Sorenson: Well, to be honest, I’ve been resisting the Trump Administration. I try to do two things a day, whether it’s give money to a group that’s doing something, or last week I went down and marched in front of the White House with a little sign that said “we’re better than this,” after Elijah Cummings. So, I try to do two things a day to kind of not to be complacent.
Scarpino: I want to talk about your long association with University of Maryland at College Park. You were involved with the Project for Women and Politics established late 1970s, also called GAP in Women’s Studies Department...
Sorenson: Yes, very good.
Scarpino: … so, I’m going to ask a really dumb question – what does GAP stand for?
Sorenson: GAP stood for General Assembly Project.
Scarpino: Okay, I was looking for women in that title and I couldn’t get it.
Sorenson: Yeah, it’s not there, but the GAP problem was at the Maryland General Assembly is we didn’t have hardly any women senators or delegates, so we were trying to close that gap, which we did.
Scarpino: Part of what you did on the Project for Women and Politics was to try to close the gender gap in the Maryland State Legislature?
Sorenson: Right, which we did.
Scarpino: Okay, and what did that involve to close the gender gap?
Sorenson: Yeah, well, one is writing about it; two is I wrote “The History of Women Legislators,” it’s on their website; three was we held trainings called Ready, Set, Go. Ready was for women who were thinking about running for office, get Set was those who were more serious, and Go was the
people who actually had decided to run for office and had filed and everything. So, we did these three-step trainings for a lot of women in the community and a lot of them won. I think we have probably 50 women legislators now. I mean, it’s just amazing.
Scarpino: Do you remember when this GAP started?
Sorenson: I would say in the ‘70s.
Scarpino: Okay, so it’s been going on for a long time...
Scarpino: … and it took a while to achieve some gender balance?
Sorenson: I’d say it took 10 years. It’s not completely gender balanced, but it’s a lot better. When we used Rosabeth Kanter’s work, “The Tipping Point,” we wanted 26% of the legislators being women so that they could speak for themselves, not just for all women, and we did achieve that. We had some independent researcher do a study, too, about how our interventions made a critical difference in getting more women in the General Assembly, which I was happy to see.
Scarpino: Did you, in part, see this as an issue of leadership?
Scarpino: In what way?
Sorenson: Well, I just think that if the table is more diverse with women and people of color, you know whatever, people with disabilities, you’re going to get a better outcome. That’s from a business point of view, it’s also from a moral point of view and a societal point of view I think. Back then, I was a little bit more sure that women were more noble and more honest and all that. It’s true that they often win after corrupt male politicians, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a characteristic of women, but women tend to vote for things I care about more than men, too.
Scarpino: Such as?
Sorenson: Community, family, healthcare.
Scarpino: As you were attempting to bring about some gender equity in the Maryland State Legislature, were you successful in recruiting women from different backgrounds?
Sorenson: Yes. I would say that, I mean, I took women, who were Republicans, for example, and I got a lot of heat for it, but mostly more progressive people signed up to do it. It was sort of self-selection.
Scarpino: Women of color?
Sorenson: Yeah, oh definitely, yeah.
Scarpino: You established the Center for Political Leadership and Participation in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Maryland.
In the background reading I did on this, I understand that James MacGregor Burns’ views on transformational leadership were what inspired you to establish that Center for Political Leadership and Participation, which I believe you founded in 1982. Is that true? Is that a correct conclusion?
Sorenson: Well, the part that’s a little murky in my mind, maybe I could look it up for you if I can find it, but I established the Center 10 years before Jim came. So, I already had a passion. I had worked for Carter in the Women’s Office, so I already had a passion for that. Then I spent a long time studying charismatic leadership and met with Bernie and...
Scarpino: Bernie Bass?
Sorenson: … yeah, and Jerry – what was his name? Gosh. At Wharton. Not Jerry Hunt, no.
Scarpino: If he’s important, I can look it up later.
Sorenson: Okay. I don’t know why I can’t remember it for the moment, but I’m getting old. Then I decided I didn’t want to do that. That’s when I talked to Jim and he said, “Well, let’s get together and talk.” So, I’d say Jim was very instrumental in my work, but he didn’t actually start my work, but my work drew him to the Academy.
Scarpino: When you were creating this Center for Political Leadership and Participation in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the
University of Maryland, this was more than an academic exercise for you, right?
Scarpino: You were looking to use the Academy to change society? Is that a fair conclusion?
Scarpino: How do you think you did?
Sorenson: That’s interesting. People were telling me like well, maybe we can close the Academy now because we have Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; our work is done. Well, maybe, you know, but probably not. So, did we change things? I think we changed things, well, yes, I’d have to say women became more plentiful in the General Assembly, many more books were written about leadership, we brought in scholars for sabbaticals and people from abroad, Outer Mongolia, you know, a woman came, Enthuya Odivan (SPELLING???) who was a nonprofit leader and she ran for Parliament in Outer Mongolia and won. So, there were people like that sort of scattered.
Scarpino: I’m going to ask you to say that name slowly so the transcriber can get it.
Sorenson: Yeah. Enthuya, I think it’s E-N-T-H-U-Y-A, Odivan might be O-D-I-V-A-N.
Sorenson: I can look it up for you.
Scarpino: Well, we can look it up too. So, you founded the Center for Political Leadership and Participation. I understand that this was the first academic program in the United States designed to serve emerging leaders who were seeking elected office?
Sorenson: Yes, but I would say it was really focused on under-represented groups, yeah. That’s where it was really a first. The University of San Diego had a program, a graduate program, had a very good one, and Richmond was starting up its Jepson School of Leadership. So, there were a couple of others that were doing the same kind of work.
Scarpino: They were also focusing on emerging leaders to an elected office. That was kind of your niche, wasn’t it, to begin with?
Sorenson: Yeah, I would say that’s true, yeah.
Scarpino: How did you identify a need for a program like that?
Sorenson: I’d worked for Carter, he lost the election, I took a year off and I read Dumas Malone’s History of Jefferson. I don’t know how many volumes it was, it was like four or something...
Scarpino: I think it’s four, yes.
Sorenson: … yeah, yeah, which was wonderful and I lived up on top a hill that overlooked the river, so I just kind of spaced out for a year and thought
about what I wanted to do next and I probably had a young baby then too. I told myself, alright, so here’s an opportunity, I want to sit back and think about what I really want to do and not necessarily what things are pushing me toward. I knew I wanted to work with women’s issues, I wanted to work on leadership, I probably wanted to influence government on women’s issues because I had worked for Jean Lipman-Blumen at NIE – National Institute of Education where we did women’s work – so it just seemed like a natural thing. Then, when I started talking to college presidents, because I was trying to figure out where I’d want to go, it just seemed like Maryland was a good fit. I liked John Slaughter a lot. He was the President, but also they had a civil rights indictment, I forgot what you call that – civil rights, when the Justice Department – injunction, I guess...
Scarpino: Injunction, yeah.
Sorenson: … maybe, to have more faculty, black faculty and so forth like that. So, they had a need, too. They wanted to look good in terms of their work on women and people of color. So, it was a nice fit. They needed something and I wanted to do something.
Scarpino: The question I was going to ask you is how did you persuade leadership at the University of Maryland to support the founding of the Center, and it was because they saw it in their interest as...
Sorenson: I think there was some of that, yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: How did you organize this Center?
Sorenson: How did I organize it? I started off just, Murray Polakoff was the Dean and I told him he could give me three-quarters of what my White House salary was. I didn’t have any other money from him. He gave me a little space and I worked with student interns. Anybody that signed up to do an internship, we would work on things like reports on women in politics or...
Scarpino: Graduate students, undergraduates?
Sorenson: I think they were mostly undergraduates at that point, yeah. Some really good ones.
Scarpino: Were you teaching classes?
Sorenson: I did teach classes, but not until later.
Scarpino: How did you attract students?
Sorenson: Well, I think if you have a clear mission and you let people know what it is, they’ll be drawn to you. If you don’t have a mission, it’s pretty hard. I remember I had a business card that just said “inspiring the next generation of women political leaders” and it had my phone number on it. I didn’t have a job, right, and I would go to a dinner party and say, “Well, I've got to tell you about my daughter, she’s only in third grade, but she’s really fantastic.” So, I really just followed my leads in my serendipitous way. It was kind of random, in a way, but made friends at the University
and did my share of administrative duties for them and brought in a lot of media, that helped.
Scarpino: When you started this Center with the focus on women leaders, to what degree do you think, in general terms, there was an expectation among, say, college-aged women that they could be leaders? Were you helping to nurture an expectation, or were you taking advantage of one?
Sorenson: Yeah, I would say it was definitely more of a nurture, but the movement had already started. It was people like Leslie Wolff and Jean Lipman-Blumen and Joy Simonson in Washington, we had these salons and there was already a big push toward making it more inclusive. So, it was more of a nurture thing, but also I noticed that a lot of women and people of color didn’t like the term leadership. They saw themselves as service oriented, helpful team member, you know, whatever, but that was kind of anathema to them, so I would have to go out a lot and find students like that and convince them that this is not just for student government association students, I want to try to nurture…
Scarpino: And the salon you’re referring to was hosted by Jean Lipman-Blumen when she lived in the Washington, DC, area.
Sorenson: Yeah, mm-hm. Have you interviewed her yet?
Scarpino: Yes, I did. I flew out to California and spent a fair amount of time with her. It was a real delight, a real privilege to talk to her.
Scarpino: As you look back, how would you rate the impact of the Center for Political Leadership and Participation?
Sorenson: I don’t know how to answer that.
Scarpino: When you started, you had an idea that you were going to encourage women to not only think of themselves as leaders, but to get some training and be leaders. Did it work?
Sorenson: Yes, but it’s sort of interesting. We never really measured impact kind of in the way that you’re probably asking me for. Occasionally, other scholars would do a study of us or write a dissertation about us, and so that was interesting, but we didn’t really do that. It was more free-flowing than that in some ways, but, you know, I look at my legacy too. So, my legacy are my students of which there are thousands now. I’m in contact with a lot of them all the time really. Our connection is very strong. Of course, they’re all in their 50s now, a lot of them.
Scarpino: We all get older.
Sorenson: I know, it’s true. I’d say, “You have a grandson, what?”
Scarpino: I know. I have graduate students that have children and their children have children.
Sorenson: I know.
Scarpino: So, in 1982, you established the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, which later became a nonprofit. What was the relationship between the Center on Political Leadership and Participation and the Academy of Leadership?
Sorenson: Well, they were two sort of distinct things. It was only the Academy of Leadership for about 10 days before the provost decided we could name it after Jim and go to the Library of Congress and have a big event. I just made sure that we trademarked the name, because I didn’t know what would happen in the future. After that, of course, we give money and did things with them.
Scarpino: You have an Academy of Leadership, you have a Center of Political Leadership and Participation. Centers cost money. Was it part of your job to raise money?
Sorenson: Oh, yeah.
Scarpino: How did you persuade people to invest in your activities?
Sorenson: Oh, well, again it’s, I think, having a really clear mission. I think Jim was part of that, too. People knew him very, very well. You had to find the right funding partner. Not all people, even people that agree with your mission, are the right people. Kellogg was a major funder for us. I think the Midwestern roots – my mom was from Minnesota – you know, Larraine Matusak, just something felt right about it and their humble
approach to working with people. I mean, we got grants from other places, obviously, but Kellogg was a big force.
Scarpino: Larraine Matusak was the grants officer there?
Sorenson: Yeah, and then Roger Sublett later.
Scarpino: Why did you decide to establish the Academy of Leadership?
Sorenson: Well, like I said, after Carter lost the election, I just sort of tried to figure out what I wanted to do, and I figured those had the components of what I wanted to do. Then I just started talking to people, college presidents and so forth in the area, because I wanted to live in the area, and it just grew from there.
Scarpino: Again, for anybody who’s using this, I believe in 1987, the Academy of Leadership became the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership and became a nonprofit and subsequently moved to the Moller Institute at Churchill College Cambridge University in the U.K. in about 2016. James MacGregor Burns joined the Center for Political Leadership and Participation in 1993, and the Center was named in his honor in 1997. I hope I got that right.
How did you persuade him to join the Center?
Sorenson: Well, it was so interesting because we were at Richmond, we took a walk and we walked across the James River on a bridge. That’s why you’ll see
a lot of paintings of bridges around here. We got to the middle of the bridge and he said, which he wrote on a card later, which I’ll have to look for, he said, “I feel we have some kind of destiny together and I don’t know what it is, but I feel we do have some kind of destiny,” and that was sort of it. He had a girlfriend, so it wasn’t that kind of destiny.
Scarpino: He did. He had a long-time girlfriend.
Sorenson: Yes, yes, Susan.
Scarpino: If that’s the right word to use for an adult, but he...
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah. So, I didn’t have to convince him; he wanted to come. He wanted to take leadership out into the field more. Jepson, at that point, had established themselves as kind of a research institute. With Dick Couto’s help and others, it broaden it too.
Scarpino: I did talk to Dick Couto before he died for quite some length. So, was part of Burns’ contribution then to take leadership out of the Academy and into the field?
Sorenson: Yeah, yep. So, we had things like community action schools. People would come from all over the country in Greyhound buses and they’d bring their children, and we’d have like seven days of field training at the University of Maryland. I felt like we were busting the doors of the University open to the real world. My role was I was in charge of childcare so I played with the kids. It was so perfect for me. Then the rest of the
faculty did the training. I just loved those days. Shelly Wilsey did those for a while for us.
Scarpino: You had these field schools that brought people in from around the country who were emerging leaders?
Sorenson: Yeah, some of them were already community leaders.
Scarpino: Most of them women?
Sorenson: I wouldn’t say most, but a lot, yeah.
Scarpino: In about 2016, the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership became part of the Churchill College in the Moller Institute at Cambridge University in the U.K. Why that move?
Sorenson: Well, at that time, they considered the Academy on hiatus at the University of Maryland, which meant that they didn’t know what to do. So, that was just their tagline in the media and that was fine. So, I went and talked to them about it. I went to Cambridge just as an individual, as you know, but I felt like well, let’s continue the work here, and everybody was fine about that.
Scarpino: So, the University of Maryland administration decided that they didn’t want to put support behind the Leadership Academy at some point?
Sorenson: Well, the Academy was pretty self-sufficient. It did get some money from the University for sure, and there’d been two directors after I left. If you’re
not bringing in the money, you’ve got to worry, right? The two people that followed me weren’t so good at fundraising, not everyone is. So, it kind of went into hiatus.
Scarpino: That’s what you mean by hiatus, the money wasn’t coming in to sustain it.
Sorenson: I think that’s right, yeah, yeah. I never went the tenured faculty route, although one of our directors was in theory tenured; they didn’t really want to give it to her. It may be more vulnerable. I’d do things differently now, yeah.
Scarpino: When you moved it to Cambridge, were they supporting it financially?
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah.
Scarpino: So, it’s got more of a promise of permanence.
Sorenson: Yes. They built a library, which is really beautiful, a resource center with a lot of leadership books, a place to sit down and a lot of media stuff. They pay my salary and then they pay for visiting scholars to come and visit. It’s not a big robust budget; they have to raise their money too, oddly enough, but it’s plenty.
Scarpino: I’m going to ask a different, but related question on your career as a scholar and teacher of leadership. So, 2005-2006, you served as Inaugural Chair and Professor of Transformation of the U.S. Army at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania...
Scarpino: … offers graduate-level instruction to senior military officers and civilians to prepare them for senior leadership assignments. How did you obtain that appointment with the U.S. Army War College because I’m thinking you told me you were a pacifist?
Sorenson: I am, and a Buddhist too.
Scarpino: That too, yes.
Sorenson: My father was an Army officer in his younger days, so I had that affiliation for the Army and Jim was in the Army too. He was a combat historian. I don’t believe in war, but the Army has much more of a diplomatic role now anyway. Anyway, I remember, at the time, the Academy director said that she couldn’t lead while I was there, even though I built myself a tiny little office in the library way down the hall from everyone that you couldn’t even get to. I said, “Well, I don’t know what to do, Nance, I can’t die, you know, I’m here, I’m out of your way, I don’t go to meetings, I don’t make comments about anything.” But she was young and kind of threatened by that, to be honest. So I just looked for a place I could go for a year that I could drive to, and I went to Richmond for a year, I think, and I went to...
Scarpino: To the Jepson School.
Sorenson: Yeah. I was a visiting senior scholar, I think. That was a lot of fun, and the Army War College was a lot of fun in its own way.
Scarpino: What were your responsibilities as the Inaugural Chair and Professor of Transformation for the U.S. Army?
Sorenson: This was a scheme hacked up by Donald Rumsfeld, believe it or not. He called it Transformational Leadership. From his point of view, what it meant was integrating the different services – the Air Force, the Navy and Marines and so forth – because he felt like they all were competing with each other and not necessarily coordinating, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and he wasn’t wrong about that. So, I didn’t know anything about that and they didn’t know anything about transformational leadership, so it was kind of a period where we learned about that.
Scarpino: I guess what I’m trying to get at, you were clearly an established scholar of leadership and with a towering reputation. The military has some experience training leaders and deploying leaders. So, what is it that they hired you to transform?
Sorenson: That’s a good point. Well, I don’t think they really knew, to be honest. I think Rumsfeld came up with this, each of the colleges, West Point too, hired somebody. We had meetings, the Transformational Chairs all over the country really, and it was very interesting to me. I feel like my work was more of on an individual basis. I met quite a lot with the Commandant General Huntoon and the chair of our department. I made good friends with the faculty there. Some of them got civilian jobs teaching for deans of
colleges now. They’re sort of spread out. The Army is brilliant about leadership.
Scarpino: In what way?
Sorenson: Well, they just have a whole system, beginning with the privates all the way up to the generals and officers, of education and training for leadership and a real systematic way of doing that. Eisenhower started funding the first research on leadership, and West Point was the first college in the country to have a leadership studies department. Then Ed Hollander’s wonderful work on followership came out of his work on the Navy. So, I just wanted to go where I thought the cutting edge research was being done, and it was being done. They were doing things like studying – which people do now, but this was a pretty long time ago – human robot interactions and teams and things like that, and how do you fight the war in the mental model of your mind, not the war that’s out in front of you. It was pretty astounding really.
Scarpino: Do you feel you made a contribution?
Sorenson: I feel like a made contributions on an individual level, with individual people. I can’t say I changed the department much probably. I think they’ve hired more women since then though. I was one of only two, like 190 men or something teaching there.
Scarpino: At the Army War College?
Sorenson: Right, and you’d walk down the halls and there’d be portraits of all these generals, you know, white men. I think it’s changed some, but I don’t know whether it was my contribution. Wonderful people there.
Scarpino: So, what is it that you were trying to persuade them to do?
Sorenson: Yeah, I would say I was not as proactive in that one as I am in other ways because I really just wanted to get out of the Academy, go someplace different to see leadership from a different point of view, and I really believe in that concept, by the way. I worked with some NBA players and I worked at the San Francisco Zoo looking at the orangutans. You can learn a lot about leadership if you take the lens and look at it sideways. I thought it was a sideways look. It probably educated me more than it helped them, to be honest. It probably helped them because they could say they had a woman scholar there.
Scarpino: What did you take away from that experience?
Sorenson: Just the incredible contribution of the Army to our understanding of leadership. I took away looking at their culture. It’s so different than working in the White House or working in academia. When someone asked you to do something, it’s really different in the Army than it is in other places. So, it was interesting to see a whole culture in a different way.
Scarpino: In a culture where hierarchy is pretty rigid and with rank comes authority, whether you’re a good leader or not, what did you feel that you could contribute in an environment like that where if the major or the captain, the captain can order the lieutenant and the lieutenant can order the platoon?
Sorenson: Well, the Army had been wrestling with that problem anyway. So I did write a paper with George Reed about the new kind of soldier, which is the soldier that makes decisions on the battlefield by the mental models of the war as it appears to them, whereas before if you had some problem with discipline in the ranks, the general would get fired. The generals still do get fired, but it’s a lot more accountable on the individual level than it used to be and I think that’s a good thing, although you can imagine I don’t take well to people ordering me what to do.
Scarpino: Well, that also occurred to me. I was trying to think of a way to bring it up.
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah, right. So, everybody else would get there at six in the morning and I’d get there at 10. They all were in uniforms and I’d wear unstructured coats. I was pretty different I guess, but I just was myself, and I made friends with people that I resonated with. I wrote a book there too, by the way.
Scarpino: Which book?
Sorenson: I think it was called, with Mark Grandstaff, The General’s Art of War, which was a summary of how the Army teaches leadership.
Scarpino: What do you see as the main differences between leadership in the military and leadership in the civilian sector?
Sorenson: Well, one, it’s leadership in extremist because if you make a wrong mistake you get shot or blown up or whatever. One is the incredible focus on teams so that soldiers feel really loyal to their platoon. The command structure is a little different because if you’re commanded to do something, of course you do it, but you still have to build up trust with the people that you’re commanding. If you don’t build up trust, they find ways to sabotage you. So, it’s just a little bit more circuitous, but you still have to do the hard work of developing your team and building trust among your subordinates.
Scarpino: One more question about people who were important in your life and your scholarship. In 2013, you coauthored with Gill Hickman The Power of Invisible Leadership...
Sorenson: Yeah, we did.
Scarpino: … so, can you talk about her as a professional colleague?
Sorenson: Oh, yeah. Well, Gill’s one of my best buddies. We’ve gone through a lot together. Jim introduced us. It’s the only time I ever remember him saying, “you should meet this person.” So, we did. We were on a panel together at American Political Science Association, and we were close friends ever since. We knew what we were working on, and the other
scholars wasn’t exactly how we felt about leadership, so we wanted to kind of figure out what that was.
Scarpino: What is invisible leadership?
Sorenson: Well, to me, invisible leadership is the idea or the value that draws people to want to work together. So, it’s a concept, it’s an idea. It’s not a person, although leadership does rotate around depending upon the needs of the group, of course, but I think that strong compelling public value, whether it’s freedom or equality or justice or equity or whatever, those are kind of the driving forces. The more you’re clear about what your values are, the more you attract the right people.
Scarpino: You look around the political landscape of the world and the country in which we live today, it seems to be becoming increasingly more divided. What does that say about invisible leadership?
Sorenson: That’s a good question. Well, it’s a kind of scary question too, isn’t it? Yeah, and it was addressed at last year’s ILA, I think. Here were our leadership scholars and what have we got? It’s pretty much of a mess out there. But I do think leadership is occurring at the lower levels, you know, in mayors and in individuals in communities and in women’s collectives and so forth. I think it’s all out there, it’s just more hidden. Like I’m working with these kids, they’re preserving the trees, it’s at this house knock-down. So, I have a whole little platoon of kids in the neighborhood. We’ve been on television a lot.
Scarpino: So, you’ve been organizing the neighborhood children to save the trees across the street?
Sorenson: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know if I organized them, but I helped once they decided to do it, yeah. There’s always work to be done, Phil. You know that.
Scarpino: I do. On February 14, 2014, you authored a piece in the New York Times with the interesting title “Looking for Leadership in All the Wrong Places.”
Sorenson: Oh, that was it, yeah.
Scarpino: What are all the wrong places?
Sorenson: We were looking for people then, individual leaders, and it really is ideas I think.
Scarpino: With that kind of a construct, how do people fit in?
Sorenson: Yeah, well, people embody those ideas or they voice those ideas or they become identified with those ideas. So people are important, of course, but without that, then you just have individuals who are trying to promote themselves or organize an outing to the beach, I don’t know, it could be anything.
Scarpino: Do these ideas have to be positive in order to count as leadership?
Sorenson: Well, that’s a controversial question, isn’t it?
Scarpino: In other words, I mean, just to pick something extreme, the Ku Klux Klan has some ideas about what they stand for and people become leaders of the Klan and they follow – are they leaders or are they something else?
Sorenson: Well, yes. That goes back to the whole descriptive/normative thing and we decided we’re kind of in the normative lane, although there’s room for people studying leadership in the Klan. We want to know about that too. We sort of just took for ourselves the view that leadership would be seen as a positive force.
Scarpino: I’m kind of at a crossroads here. I said I was going to keep you for an hour and we’re coming up on 52 minutes, because I can look at the clock on there. So, I’m going to say that if people are interested in your early career that they can look it up because I want to spend the few minutes we have left asking you some wrap-up questions.
Sorenson: Sure, sure.
Scarpino: I’ve got this under the category of final questions. We’ve talked a lot about the field of leadership studies, about its development, about your role in it, about James MacGregor Burns’ role in it, other scholars and so on, and the question that came to mind as I was getting ready for this interview is, do you think the field of leadership studies has contributed to a broader understanding of leadership that influences non-specialists, ordinary people, voters and so on?
Sorenson: Right. I definitely would say yes. There’s more in the media about it, there are more experts on leadership that the media calls, there is a recognition that leadership is present and available in everyone for a while. We did some polling a long time ago and discovered that people of color didn’t feel like their children were being groomed for leadership, and this was a Gallop Poll too. So, I think a lot of barriers have been knocked down that way, yeah.
Scarpino: You said “we” did some polling...
Sorenson: University of Maryland and I had Don – I've forgotten his name; he was the President of Gallop; he was on my Board.
Scarpino: Okay. So, he was on your Board of the Leadership Academy?
Sorenson: Academy, yeah. And so, I think he offered us a question on the Gallop Poll or something.
Scarpino: Who else was on that Board?
Sorenson: Bill Bradley was...
Scarpino: The Senator and basketball player, Bill Bradley?
Sorenson: Yeah, uh-huh, yep, and he actually, before his presidential campaign, he came to the Academy and rented a building actually, in Georgetown, and had sort of an outpost group doing research on policy things that I’m sure he used for his presidential campaign, but it was good work by the way.
Jim was on the Board, Carl – I’ve forgotten his name now – he was the Vice President of Disney, so a lot of good people.
Scarpino: How did you persuade these people to do it? I'll ask in a different way. Do you think of yourself as an excellent salesperson for leadership studies?
Sorenson: No, I don’t.
Scarpino: So, if you’re not an excellent salesperson for leadership studies, how did you get these people to do this?
Sorenson: I can take that back, I guess, yeah. You’re kind of right. I’m a natural introvert, but during this period, I had to be an extrovert and that takes some effort.
Scarpino: But you really are a person who not only helped conceive of this field with James MacGregor Burns, but proselytized for field.
Sorenson: Yeah, that’s true, yeah, yeah. So, I guess I was a salesman in a way. I could have gotten richer, but...
Scarpino: Well, I didn’t ask you if you got rich selling.
Sorenson: Yeah, right.
Scarpino: I talked to several people when I was getting ready to interview you at ILA, International Leadership Association. One of the people I talked to was Suzanna Fitzpatrick, who is your daughter. She told me, she said that
every day you seek to make a difference. So the question is, as you look back on your life, where do you think you’ve really made a difference?
Sorenson: I like to think that I am open-hearted to people, young people in particular, and I try to be kind, as kindness is really important to me. I’m a Buddhist, so I do practice reflection and I sort of figured out what my values were fairly early, which is good. Jim helped me with that really because he said values, we all have the same values; all you have to do is look at the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and we all agree, blah, blah, blah, but you have to figure out where your values are ordered when you have to make a choice between the quality or excellence or whatever. So, he helped me figure some of that out. So I think being open-hearted, kind and also inspiring other people to do their own work or supporting them, if I could, I think has been really important. The consistency is really important. I’m a vegetarian, so I’m kind of an animal lover. Right now I have a mouse and I’m trying to inspire the mouse to go outside. His name is Rocky. I built him a little house out there and everything.
Scarpino: Is it working?
Sorenson: Semi-working. It works for about two weeks and then he wants to come in where it’s warm. People were sending me their resumes with pictures of their dogs, so I knew I had gone too far at that point, but I do love dogs.
Scarpino: As you think about, reflect on the field of leadership studies and compare the way it is now with the way it was when you helped to create the field, I
asked you a minute ago what did you find most encouraging, now I want to ask you what do you find to be discouraging?
Sorenson: Right. I think we’re a little bit in a rut about leadership right now in the research. We keep getting gems among a number of journalists, you know, pieces, but I don’t know that they take us to the next step. I’m not sure when that breakthrough will be, but I’m sure that’s just a natural part of the scientific process. It feels a little stuck to me.
Scarpino: In the years that you have been (a) you helped create the field, and (b) have been a participant in the field and then an observer, leadership studies has become established as an academic field, has that helped it?
Sorenson: Yes, I mean it was a slog at the beginning, but then other schools benefited from the fact that so many of the earlier ones got the work done, and I’m very proud of ILA. It’s so fun to go to ILA because I didn’t do anything really for them the last 20 years, and they’re just this great organization and they have this oral history project, and it’s just amazing what they do.
Scarpino: It is a pretty vibrant organization, isn’t it?
Sorenson: It’s wonderful, yeah, and it’s a very kind group and great people. I mean, I’m just really happy about it.
Scarpino: As you think about the field, what is high on your list of things that remain to be done or should be done? I don’t mean watering your plants and things, but I mean the field of leadership studies.
Sorenson: I think increasing intercultural global perspective would be good; a dialogue of people. You know, we’re a little stuck because English-speaking countries have an easier time, obviously. Translations are behind sometimes. Finding out the indigenous roots of leadership in different countries and working with people to support what they’re doing and not have me to replicate the American experiment, but, you know, they can borrow from it, if they need to. There’s a lot to offer out there.
Scarpino: As you think about your career, what are you proudest of?
Sorenson: I’m proudest of my daughter, yeah. She’s wonderful. I guess my loyal and long-time friendship with Jim, for sure, was an important part.
Scarpino: As you think about your career in leadership studies, is there anything you would change, if you could?
Sorenson: Those early fights were hard. Talking deans into certificates and majors, it takes a hard long fight, particularly at a state university. You might know something about that. I mean, it’s easier if you’re a small liberal arts school and the president wants to try something different.
Scarpino: Jepson could do that, right?
Sorenson: Jepson can do it, yep, or other people, but the big, big Michigan State and Washington State, Maryland, it was harder.
Scarpino: Sort of figuratively, you helped arm wrestle the field into existence in those places?
Sorenson: Well, some of them, but I paid the price still. I had friends, but I had enemies also.
Scarpino: Do you consider yourself to be a work in progress?
Scarpino: What are you working on now?
Sorenson: Of course. Well, I’m working on staying alive for one thing, which is a full-time job right at the moment. I am also working on integrating the research part in books into the Moller curriculum. Ron Riggio is going to be giving a lecture out there for some alums. Also, I asked him if he would do one with the faculty and staff, and just sort of pushing harder to get it more integrated.
Scarpino: Professionally, who do you look up to? Who inspires you?
Sorenson: My role models, you mean?
Sorenson: Well, Rachel Carson, Mr. Rogers...
Scarpino: Rachel Carson?
Scarpino: Why does Rachel Carson inspire you?
Sorenson: Oh, I think she...
Scarpino: And I’m going to, in case people don’t know this, she wrote Silent Spring and she died in like 1963 or ‘64. So, did you know her?
Sorenson: No, I didn’t know her.
Scarpino: Alright, so why did she inspire you?
Sorenson: She didn’t live far from here, yeah, Silver Spring. I just thought she was an incredible person who wrote beautifully, who took the time to be in nature, whether it was the sea or farms or whatever, New England she spent a lot of time, but wrote beautifully. She wrote in governmental publications so that it reached a lot of people. She made a tremendous impact in terms of public policy about pesticides and so forth. She took care of her sister’s son when she died, and her mother. She was a pretty well-rounded person who made a big impact.
Scarpino: Mr. Rogers?
Sorenson: Yeah, I saw the movie recently, but I always liked him anyway. I just think he was very thoughtful about the work that he did with kids. He had a real knowledge of developmental psychology and had people work with him
who did, and he brought it to the greater public. Of course, he testified in Congress too. I guess I like people that are willing to do the hard work who are introspective, who love nature, but also are willing to slug it out in the public forum.
Scarpino: And they were both leaders.
Sorenson: Yeah, to me they were both leaders. Of course, Jim Burns was an intellectual leader for me.
Scarpino: So, three final questions. What do you hope your legacy will be? We’ll narrow it down to leadership studies, for now.
Sorenson: Leadership studies, yeah. Well, I think I connected up people, connected up foundations, connected up scholars, connected up countries, connected up grassroots groups. In Gallop, they called me a multi-relater, which is I see what beauty you have and I mention it to Peter, and then he figures out something. I think it was kind of an invisible, more invisible leadership.
Scarpino: Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn’t?
Sorenson: Why are you doing this?
Scarpino: Why am I interviewing you?
Sorenson: No, the project in general.
Scarpino: The project is actually a project of the Tobias Center for Leadership at Indiana University and ILA, and the goal here is to interview a body of distinguished leaders and lifetime recipients of ILA to try to put together a body of information on leadership.
Sorenson: Isn’t that great. It’ll really tell the whole story of the discipline, won’t it?
Scarpino: I hope it will. I really hope it will. Last question, is there anything that you wanted to say that I haven’t given you a chance to say?
Sorenson: I’ve just been so impressed with your research, Phil, and I will send you some more stuff, but I’m sure you want to round this up, but we’ll get there. I want to look for one thing. Can you wait one minute?
Scarpino: I’m going to turn this off.
Scarpino: Let me make sure we do not have a live mic. So, before I do that, thank you very much.
Sorenson: Thank you very much.
Scarpino: It’s been a real joy to talk to you.
Sorenson: Yeah, you too.
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