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Gov. Holcomb talks leadership, core values with Culver Academies students

Tom Coyne
Culver Academies Head of Schools Doug Bird '90 (left) and Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (center) with Common Council members Celeste Gram, Kari Teglia, Ansen King, Aidan Ji, Linda (Yijia) Lin, A.J. Black, Johnny Jimenez and Ava Borland. (Photo by Ken Voreis)

Aug. 29, 2023

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb visited Culver Academies and talked with student leaders about his perspectives on leadership, core values, how joining the Navy changed his life and the importance of taking time to care for mental health.

Holcomb spent about 45 minutes Friday sharing ideas with members of Culver’s Common Council, a group of nine seniors who serve as a link between the Culver Girls Academy and Culver Military Academy leadership systems and the school’s administration.

Much of the discussion focused on leadership because Culver Academies is a boarding school in northern Indiana that seeks to teach its students by focusing on leadership and responsible citizenship through whole-person education that emphasizes cultivation of character.

Senior Prefect Kari Teglia asked Holcomb about leading with integrity and how to get everybody on board when there’s so much opposition. Holcomb said it was a timely question, pointing to the National Governors Association kicking off a program last month called “Disagree Better: Healthy Conflict for Better Policy.”

The goal is to eliminate some of the divisiveness and ugliness in politics today and bring people with differing viewpoints together to understand one another and create a more positive approach to political and social discourse.

“It’s about how we disagree better. How we have conversations.  How we listen and learn from one another. Not how do we compromise your integrity or your principles. But how we ultimately, hopefully, solve problems. How we even have the conversation,” he said.

Holcomb explained his approach.

“I try not to get drawn into the national temptations or pressures,” he said. “Around the state of Indiana, I try to appeal to the why of what I’m doing. Not what, not how, but the why, and appeal to the person. Why are we, first of all, having this conversation. Focus in on the why.”

Natalia Somma-Tang, CGA diversity chair, told Holcomb his answer sounded similar to the approach used in Ethics Bowl competition, where teams give thorough discussions of a problem, including thoughtful consideration of opposing viewpoints as they build toward possible solutions. Holcomb said he hadn’t heard of Ethics Bowl.  She told him Culver had won the Indiana Ethics Bowl championship last year.

Somma-Tang then asked Holcomb how he keeps sight of his personal morals, his personal values while having these collaborative conversations.

“I wish I could stay here all day. This is good stuff,” Holcomb said.

Holcomb said that despite the pressure of politics, he’s committed to staying “who I am at the core – spiritually, morally, ethically. I’m willing to lose friends over it.”

“If you have a core that you cultivate and pay attention to -- it could be reading scripture, it could be whatever you are tethered to -- that matters,” he said. “Those daily reminders matter.”

He said the goal is to remain true to your core principles.

Holcomb arrived at Culver Academies on Friday afternoon, meeting Head of Schools Doug Bird ’90 outside the Schrage Leadership Center. Once inside Schrage, he strode over the words “Mind,” “Body,” “Spirit” inscribed on the floor, looked up at the cupola, and said: “I love this place!”

After meeting privately with Bird, the meeting with the students then started with them introducing themselves, telling Holcomb where they are from, including two from Indiana, two from Illinois, and one each from California, Florida, Wisconsin, Denmark and China.

“You come from all these different places. It’s fantastic,” Holcomb said.

Culver Academies has a diverse population of about 830 students who come from 40 states and 24 countries.

A.J. Black, the regimental diversity officer, asked Holcomb what single experience most impacted him. Holcomb said it was his six years in the Navy.


Gov. Eric Holcomb talks with members of Culver Academies' Common Council. (Photo by Ken Voreis)

“Because it burned into my brain the necessity to be organized and always body, mind, spirit. It taught me what I saw walking into the building. It taught me about the necessity for core values. Without those, that foundation becomes very sandy,” he said.

Culver also puts an emphasis on its core values, which are forged in bronze plaques that are part of the Leadership Plaza in the middle of campus: duty, honor, truth and service. Those values, along with the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, are emphasized as the foundation of the school.

“The Navy gave me the foundation and then it sparked something that had to do with diplomacy and maybe even international diplomacy. I love to go all over the world and bring the world back to Indiana to simplify it,” Holcomb said. “Had I not had that experience, I don’t know where I’d be today.”

Holcomb said no one in his family had been in government or politics and no one in his family had been in the military. His father was an engineer and his mother was an elementary school teacher. But he said they were always supportive of him.

Aidan Ji, the honor captain, asked Holcomb if he had any role models. Holcomb quickly named two: Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, saying they “would be two people I’d just put up on a pedestal.” The Lincoln answer wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Holcomb. He held his bachelor party at a Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Holcomb said he’s had numerous other role models, including two teachers, one of whom he expects to see in the next two weeks, and someone he met in the Navy. He said he learned a lot of “little things” from them.

“Like how he spoke to his wife. That was an example. So it wasn’t the technical, professional things. It was looking at them and how they conducted themselves,” he said.

Celeste Gram, honor chair, asked Holcomb how he handles the pressure of being a leader. Holcomb said taking time for yourself should be part of everyone’s schedule.

“I have to schedule time for me, or you’ll just get eaten up,” he said. “That allows me to have a clear head going into anything that is adversarial so I’m less edgy.”

He said his stop at Culver was an example of that. He was in nearby Plymouth to announce a new statewide initiative to fund new facilities to train and promote local firefighters so he asked if he could stop by Culver Academies.

“This is a real treat for me because I get to reach out to you and ask if I can do this, thank you,” he said.  “I try to keep some freshness in the schedule.”

 He also said basic health care also matters, including getting enough sleep and proper nutrition.

“Don’t lose sight of those things,” he said.

Holcomb last visited Culver Academies on Aug. 29, 2017, when he awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash Award, one of Indiana’s highest civilian awards, to Elisabeth Davis for her 81 years of service to the school. She began working for the school in 1936 and retired the week she turned 100. Davis died Sept. 15, 2018.

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