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February 15, 2022

Seminar Gives Students a Leg Up on Leadership

By Bruce Gerson

Nature vs. nurture. When it comes to molding effective leaders, it takes a little bit of both, says Michael Murphy, creator of a popular seminar that asks students to step up, lean in and dig deep to unleash their leadership abilities from within.

“I often tell my students that I don’t know if you can teach leadership, but I think you can learn it,” said Murphy, who created the Leadership Development Seminar in the College of Engineering about four years ago at the urging of Provost Jim Garrett, then dean of the college. “I see it as more of an awakening of someone’s self-confidence and bringing themselves fully to the table. Everyone has it, but you have to nurture it.”

Murphy knows a thing or two about leadership. The distinguished service professor and executive director of the Center for Leadership Studies was dean of Students Affairs at CMU from 1990-2005. He was vice president for Campus Affairs from 2008-2016, and recently senior advisor to the deans in the College of Engineering and Heinz College. Murphy was a recipient of CMU’s Doherty Award for Sustained Contributions to Excellence in Education.

“I have learned so much from people who have worked for me and with me, and who have been honest with me. That’s an important part of my evolution,” he said. “Jared Cohon (CMU president emeritus), one of the great leaders of all time, has been incredibly influential in the development of the course.”

The Leadership Development Seminar, which has expanded from the College of Engineering into the Dietrich College, builds on the foundation of six pillars of leadership: visionary, ethical, engaging, tactical, technical and reflective. The course structure includes a rich array of activities, including class discussions; readings, videos and podcasts; weekly reflective journaling; experiential opportunities, such as interviewing people they admire, and attending lectures on campus; one-on-one meetings; and many guest speakers from industry, government, higher education, and even Hollywood.

Micheal Murphy in classMichael Murphy knows a thing or two about leadership. He was CMU's dean of Student Affairs (1990-2005), vice president for Campus Affairs (2008-2016) and most recently senior advisor to the deans in the College of Engineering and Heinz College. 

The podcasts have included ice cream magnates Ben & Jerry and American talk show icon Oprah Winfrey. The class watched the movie “Hidden Figures,” the story of a team of female African-American mathematicians who played a critical role at NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.

“I think the lessons of leadership are the lessons of life, or vice versa,” Murphy said. “One can harvest lessons on leadership in history, film and fiction. It surrounds us.”

Anthony Attipoe, a 2020 CMU graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering, said the seminar was one of his most impactful classes, citing the class discussions, journal writing and the one-on-one sessions with Murphy as being most influential.

“I think the lessons of leadership are the lessons of life, or vice versa.”  — Michael Murphy

“The takeaways still play an active role in my day to day life,” said Attipoe, who is now a software engineer at Google. “I am more aware and make better decisions when it comes to my finances, relationships and other aspects of my life.”

Emily Tolmer, a 2019 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, is now a customer experience associate with LinkedIn. She was inspired by the guest speakers’ stories.  

“Hearing leaders from across industries share their paths to success — and the uncertainties they felt, too — was a tremendous source of comfort and inspiration,” Tolmer said. “Our guest speakers went out of their way to connect with students, hear our stories, and provide support as we were figuring out our own paths. In my career today, I feel very comfortable engaging in the spaces in which I want to be involved and leading with confidence as a younger member of the workforce,” she said.

Jared Cohon speaking to students in the seminarCMU President Emeritus Jared Cohon speaks to students in the seminar. Murphy said Cohon has been "incredibly influential in the development of the course."

Murphy now teaches the seminar in the Dietrich College and Mara McFadden, a mechanical engineer who earned her MBA at the Tepper School, has taken over teaching the class in the College of Engineering.

McFadden has worked for Johnson & Johnson and Philips Medical Devices, and is currently CEO of Endolumik, a medical device company that has created a scope that illuminates the endotracheal system. She’s been a guest speaker for Tepper School Professor Peter Boatwright’s Creating Breakthrough Products course. McFadden said she tailors the course to engineering students.

“Having worked in industry for a long time, I can offer engineering students a bit more exposure to how leadership is going to look for them in real life,” she said. “We spend a lot of time thinking about what leadership responsibilities are as an engineer — how we make decisions about safety, ethics and sustainability.”

“It taught me how to live a better life.” — David Oladosu

David Oladosu, a junior mechanical engineering major, said the class was life-changing.

“It taught me how to live a better life,” he said. “Mara’s warm, amiable personality combined with the heavily discussion-based model of the course made for thought-provoking conversations that had most people engaged every day. It prompted meaningful dialogue, exposed me to different leadership styles and encouraged me to engage in reflective thinking.”

Jennifer Yang said the seminar has helped her as a resident assistant and leader of House Council in E-Tower.  She liked the class discussions, guest speakers and one-on-one sessions.

Mara McFadden and a guest speakerMara McFadden teaches the seminar in the College of Engineering. She's pictured here with recent guest speaker David Motley, general partner of Black Tech Nation Ventures and CEO of MCAPS.

“My favorite part of the course was the structure,” said Yang, a junior mechanical engineering major. “I was inspired with new methods to include in my leadership techniques, helping me better lead the House Council.” 

A testament to the seminar’s impact is its alumni network, which gets together on a bi-monthly basis via Zoom to continue the discussions.

“We talk about the experiences they’re having as young professionals and that’s been extremely rewarding,” Murphy said. “The hope is that the course has been positive and beneficial as they’re launching their careers. It’s been fun.”

“The relationships I’ve made [through the seminar] have been invaluable." — Emily Tolmer

In addition to support from the deans of the colleges, a  number of alumni and friends of the university contribute to help pay for seminar expenses, for which Murphy is grateful.

“Seminar courses are costly,” Murphy explained. “There are often travel expenses for special guests, and we do fund some experiential opportunities for students, so alumni support helps us to make the experience that much more positive and less constrained.”

Tolmer said she’s a proud member of the alumni network.

“I’ve kept in touch with the seminar’s student alumni as well as with speakers who have visited our class. The relationships I’ve made have been invaluable,” she said.