Purposeful Leadership

Photo: Toni Bird

In 1891, Jane Stanford wrote in her opening day address, “. . . I desire to impress upon the minds of each one of these students, both male and female . . . that you will resolve to go forth from these classrooms determined in the future to be leaders with high aims and pure standards.” In these endeavors she called on students to be “true to the best you know,” which she defined as being earnest, conscientious, helpful, cheerful and uplifting, rather than “going forth to acquire great wealth and great names.” Her words to students provide a valuable definition of purposeful leadership, involving a focus on improving the human condition, which guides our leadership and all that we do as a university.

Stanford and our country’s other research universities have a tremendous responsibility to nourish the brightest minds, to explore the universe’s most intriguing mysteries, and to tackle the most complicated challenges facing society, including: the profound human suffering and economic impact caused by diseases, from childhood cancers to Alzheimer’s and other dementias; environmental degradation and the accelerated loss of species; increased political polarization and the threat of war. Purposeful leadership is needed in every field to address these issues and so many more. Stanford is embodying such leadership in myriad ways.

In scholarship, some examples include assistant professor Manu Prakash, who has developed an origami-based paper microscope that costs 50 cents to make and can be used in developing countries as an ultralow-cost way to detect disease. He aims to deliver 10,000 Foldscopes to citizen scientists around the world. Professor Jennifer Eberhardt investigates racial bias and its impact on policing and the justice system. She is working with law-enforcement agencies to address implicit bias and design interventions to improve policing. Professor Raj Chetty’s research has shed light on the role of colleges and universities in improving students’ upward economic mobility, and impels higher education to do more. 

The Haas Center for Public Service provides our students with opportunities to cultivate leadership through community engagement. Haas promotes the realization of a just and sustainable world through service, community partnerships and leadership training programs. Haas is home to Cardinal Service, a university-wide initiative to elevate and expand service as a distinctive feature of a Stanford education. 

The new Knight-Hennessy Scholars program will prepare 100 students each year from around the world to address global challenges in the 21st century and beyond. The goal of the program is to develop a new generation of global leaders in all fields and disciplines, who are focused on ways to improve cross-cultural collaboration, strengthen communities and make lasting contributions to benefit society.

Our Graduate School of Business Executive Education programs offer leadership training for executives and managers in the private and public sectors. These programs explore the dynamics of power, strategies for understanding influence, factors involved in building cohesive teams, and benefits of diversity and collaboration. 

Stanford also values the importance of developing leadership within the university. We recently graduated 21 members of the faculty and staff from our internal Leadership Academy. The program is essential to building the leadership capacity of the university from within.

Given the many needs in the world today and those to come, we know that more must and can be done. As the provost and I engage in a university-wide long-range planning effort, we are considering ways for the university to further cultivate purposeful leadership. We are committed and look forward to Stanford’s being ever more true to the best we know.


Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.