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Cultivation of Character for Ethical Leadership: The Transformative Goal of Leadership Education at Culver Academies

Evan Dutmer, Ph.D., Senior Instructor in Ethics | Curriculum Leader; Susan Freymiller deVillier, Master Instructor in Leadership Education | Chairperson; Don Fox, Senior Instructor in Ethics | Richard W. Freeman Chair in Leadership Education

Jan. 17, 2023

In the fall of 1986, Culver Academies offered its first courses in the newly formed Department of Leadership Education. On the occasion of its inception, then Superintendent of Schools, Dean Ralph Manuel, said, “I really believe that if our students learn the values embodied in Culver’s Code of Conduct and the skills we’re trying to teach them in the leadership classes, they will be well-served.” (Culver Alumnus, Winter 1987: 30) The Committee on the Culver Experience, tasked with outlining the vision for this new department, wrote: “It is precisely because of our multi-faceted program that Culver is uniquely equipped to address itself to one particular over-arching goal, that of producing good leaders.” (26)

Over 35 years later, the Department of Leadership Education has grown and evolved, but it maintains its singular focus on this over-arching, inclusive goal integrated between Culver Girls Academy and Culver Military Academy: educating for the cultivation of truly great leaders, namely, leaders possessing virtues and values necessary for responsible citizenship and inspiring followers in a democratic society. We do this by building out from our institution’s core principles—the Culver Mission that asks us to educate students for leadership and citizenship as whole individuals, ancient and contemporary virtue ethics that centers the Cardinal Virtues of courage, justice, moderation, wisdom and the Culver Values of truth, duty, honor, service—and by drawing from the best of the last 60 years of interdisciplinary research into ethical, effective leadership. Our curriculum, as a result, builds on key findings in the psychology of leadership, character education, positive psychology, ethics, and effective teaming and integrates them into a cohesive, iterated, yearslong reflective learning experience for every Culver student.

Accordingly, with James MacGregor Burns, widely held to be one of the central leadership researchers of the 20th century, we believe and teach that leadership is a process shared among leaders and followers, managers and subordinates, team leaders and team members. Leadership, understood this way, isn’t just about the leader, and it isn’t just about rank and position.

Rather, it’s about the relationships between leaders and followers, the behaviors of good leaders and good team members, and about the co-constructed phenomenon of leader-follower interaction that binds teams, changes organizations, and uplifts human beings, inspiring both to achieve more and become better. It’s the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi in the transformation the Indian independence movement brought about in India and in him; the inspired leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose leadership mobilized followers into leaders themselves; in our time, it’s the voice and vision of Malala Yousafzai that arouses people around the world to advocate for the education of girls and young women.

Consonant with our deepest held values and our building from our central virtues as an institution, we emphasize that leadership is about lifting leaders, followers, and team members to better versions of themselves—more just, more courageous, more moderate, more wise—in pursuit of service to others and the flourishing of human societies.

This is the same belief that motivated Culver to carve its core values in stone at Memorial Chapel in 1952 (Culver Roll Call 1951), declaring haec signa duci metaeque accipimus (“these symbols we acknowledge as our guide and goal”). The Culver Crest, found on several buildings on Culver’s campus, is still borne by Culver Girls Academy on its signature blazer. This belief is what later inspired Culver’s Class of 1952 (auspiciously) to place eight bronze plaques at Leadership Plaza representing those virtues (justice, courage, moderation, wisdom) and those values (honor, truth, duty, service) which we hold to be the true markers of ethical, elevating leadership.

Burns captured this power of leadership when he distinguished the power of transformational leadership from the dangers of purely transactional leadership, a cold leadership merely of rewards, punishment, and “exchange of valued things.” In what the Harvard Business Review has called the dominant leadership definition of the past 50 years, Burns wrote in his 1978 Leadership that “transformational leadership occurs when leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation.” In essence, Burns confirms what Culver wisely put at its foundation in 1894: True leadership energizes us; it also inspires us to become better, more virtuous people, more committed to bringing our values to life in ourselves and in our communities.


Don Fox, senior instructor in ethics, talks with students.


Decades of research into this understanding of leadership—transformational leadership—has confirmed its effectiveness not just as an ideal for political or spiritual leadership, but as a workable model for leadership in any human organization. Scholars have identified key characteristics of effective transformational leadership in educational, business, nonprofit, and military contexts. And our students readily see the power of transformational leadership at work in their school. Christopher Mikesell, CMA ’24, reflected: “I found the lessons on transformational leadership very insightful, and how it could make me a better leader. I saw where I had already used it as first sergeant, and I plan to use it more in my current and upcoming leadership roles.” Accordingly, our curriculum inculcates students in a transformational approach to leadership using evidence-based tools across successive experiences in each year of their Culver leadership journey.

9th Grade: Learning, Living, and Leading

In our ninth-grade experience, students begin their academic leadership journey in Learning, Living, and Leading. This course begins from the understanding that effective leadership begins with self-awareness and, in effect, ‘management of the self’ (to borrow from Peter Drucker). Students learn about and appreciate what is best in them through the VIA Character Strengths Survey , in so doing connecting Culver’s virtues and values to an evidence-based character development framework in positive psychology. They study and apply Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research to their own lived experience at Culver, looking for opportunities to grow and develop as a team member, follower, and leader. They engage in study of the fundamentals of the brains of leaders, followers, and team members, singly and in diverse human communities—learning about human cognition, learning, memory, and exploring tools for improving their own cultural humility.

Ultimately, they bring this study together by recognizing and applying an evidence-based model of transformational leadership, the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, to their lives at Culver. These five practices—Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, Encourage the Heart—have been validated across a wide array of organizations and form an accessible foundation for effective, inspirational leadership for every learner and practitioner of leadership.

10th Grade: Teaming and Thinking

In 10th grade, Culver students enroll in Teaming and Thinking, a one term course that allows students to practice their VIA Strengths in a team-focused leadership learning experience, directly building on their work in LLL. In it, sophomores apply the Five Behaviors Model of Effective Teaming to their own mission-focused team projects that require engagement with their communities across campus and coordination within their teams. Students employ the industry-standard design thinking process as a vehicle to practice empathy, framing, and creative problem solving. Completing TNT helps students understand the importance of diverse voices and perspectives so they can engage with increasingly complex concepts during their junior year.

11th Grade: Ethics and the Cultivation of Character

Our junior course, required of every Culver student, Ethics and the Cultivation of Character (ECC), provides an opportunity for every student to engage in a structured plan of character growth and ethical reflection over one term. Students engage in intensive study in classical and contemporary virtue ethics, positive psychology, introductory ethical theory, behavioral economics (including study of cognitive bias), and transformational leadership, applying each explicitly to their leadership experience through structured journaling and reflection known as the ‘Character Lab’. Natalia Somma Tang, CGA ’24, wrote, “I think that my virtue work has made me more self-aware and cognizant of my relationships with these qualities. By working with them and reflecting each week, I was able to learn more about how I move through the world.” Through case studies, literature and film, design projects, collaboration, discussion, intensive reflection and goal setting, and composition in various genres, students acquire tools for charting, assessing, and directing their own character growth both within and outside the classroom. The Ethics and the Cultivation of Character curriculum is therefore deeply integrated within every facet of their leadership and character experiences at Culver, providing the foundation for our vision for ethical, transformational leadership for every Culver graduate. According to Gus Bilsland, CMA ’24, “I have found myself looking at the world from a new perspective and understanding the roles and impact of virtues and values in my life at Culver.”

12th Grade: Senior Leadership Reflection

“I recognized that leadership is not one thing you’ll one day attain. It’s an ongoing lesson that will continue to grow you.” –Eleni Kurtis, CGA ‘23

Every Culver student ends their academic leadership journey with the Senior Leadership Reflection (SLR), building out of one of the foundational insights of educational psychology of the last century: learning occurs best where there is sustained, directed reflection on the part of the learner. Therefore, in order to learn best from their intensive leadership experiences in residential, athletic, academic, and extracurricular spaces, Culver seniors pause, reflect, and discuss in a structured senior leadership seminar. Ultimately, they compose a thorough, thoughtful reflection on what they have learned about leadership through their experiences as leaders and what leadership competencies they have acquired.

Seniors focus their reflections on three key aspects of their leadership journey: responsible citizenship, team leadership, and community building. Their reflective essays are powerful illustrations of their Culver careers, embodiments to their charted course in the cultivation of character, and celebrations shared with the community to highlight their growth and achievements. These reflective experiences serve as inspiration for them to continue to fulfill Culver’s mission in local and global communities after graduation.

Electives: Introduction to Psychology and the Psychology of Leadership

In addition to the above courses, the Department of Leadership Education, building on its foundation in contemporary organizational and positive psychology, also houses Culver’s standalone psychology offerings. These two courses are Introduction to Psychology, a one-term study of human brains, behavior, and experience and a junior/senior-level class, Psychology of Leadership, a two-term research course into contemporary organizational, positive, and motivational psychology that culminates in a collegiate literature review on a research question of interest to each student.

Honors Seminar in the Theory and Practice of Leadership

Our final course offering, open to exceptionally motivated students and practitioners of leadership on Culver’s campus, is the Honors Seminar in the Theory and Practice of Leadership. In it, Culver students embark on college-level study in the interdisciplinary field of contemporary Leadership Studies, reading and reflecting for themselves on the foundational texts and approaches in the field. This seminar charts a course of rigorous, intensive study that results in a capstone project of collegiate depth and sophistication. Throughout this course students connect what they learn to their experiences of lived transformational leadership across Culver’s campus. By the end, Honors in Leadership candidates deliver community-facing academic presentations in Leadership Studies as the intellectual culmination of their Culver Academies leadership careers.

In sum, the Department of Leadership Education offers every Culver student something exceptional: several years of charted study, practice, and reflection of the best of leadership research of the last six decades, fully integrated within an institution that takes leadership and responsible citizenship as mission aims. Our department centers its work on cultivation of character—especially in those virtues that are conducive to the flourishing of individuals and communities—and in so doing evidences harmony between Culver’s deepest commitments to virtue inculcation and the best contemporary psychology on virtue and strengths development.

Thirty-five years ago, our community recognized the need for one, over-arching vision, integrated between Culver Girls Academy and Culver Military Academy, for leader and character development for young people in our care. We boldly now step into another decade under this vision—renewing our dedication to a transformative leadership education for every Culver student.


The plaques in Leadership Plaza that show the Cardinal Virtues of courage, justice, moderation and wisdom and the Culver Values of truth, duty, honor and service.

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