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DiStefano: We have a leadership crisis. Here’s how Colorado universities can help.

As we begin writing a healthier, anti-racist and more prosperous future, we need to keep our focus on building better leaders.

A fresh dusting of snow covers the Flatirons and the University of Colorado Boulder campus. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado)

Now, more than ever, I have been thinking about leadership and what it takes to become and maintain being a good leader. Maybe you have as well. 

Too often and for too long, I believe, too many have sought leadership positions for power, self aggrandizement and short-term gain, turning a blind eye to the long-term impact. 

From COVID-19 to social justice and inequality, the lack of recent leadership in the corporate sector, political system, nonprofits and, yes, even higher education will be felt for generations. The ends will certainly not justify the means. 

Philip DiStefano

As the chancellor of one of the top universities in the world, managing faculty, staff and students nearly 50,000 strong, I am constantly reflecting on how I can be a better leader – for those contributing to the University of Colorado Boulder’s success and for the future of our university. 

Our collective mission is to positively impact humanity, so the stakes are high. 

Amidst our national struggles – and transformation to how we live, work and learn – leadership has never been more important. There are perceptions of what makes a good leader, things like charisma, passion, commitment and decisiveness. But these are often the traits of manipulators, not leaders. 

True leaders have empathy, integrity, moral character, emotional IQ, relative intelligence and a sense of social responsibility. Leaders are conveners and collaborators who build trust. They are humble and selfless. 

Author Simon Sinek once said, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”

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At CU Boulder, another one of our core missions is to shape these leaders of tomorrow. That’s why we have researched and identified the traits of successful leaders across a variety of fields and developed an innovative curriculum to develop leaders for a changing world. 

Our goal is to help people – students, professionals, strivers of all ages – sharpen their critical thinking, improve communication, learn how to better understand others and view challenging issues through a constructive lens. 

Fifty-eight percent of professional organizations report their top priority is improving their leadership, so the imperative to invest in future leaders is not limited to academia. 

CU Boulder’s Center for Leadership, established last year, is a unique leadership platform in the country, bringing together 24 leadership programs from across the campus, including our athletics department, schools, colleges and graduate and undergraduate studies. 

By aligning our programs to harness expertise from throughout CU, we’re cultivating moral character and social duty and advancing innovative research efforts on leadership and leadership pedagogy. The vast majority of higher-education leadership offerings reside in business schools, but at CU Boulder we believe that leadership education must be ubiquitous. 

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Our program is also impacting students in other ways. Students with a leadership studies minor have a 98% graduation rate, 14% above non-leadership students. This is an astounding statistic in the world of higher education. Students also report a greater feeling of inclusivity in leadership classrooms. 

As we turn the page on 2020 and begin writing a healthier, anti-racist and more prosperous future, we need to keep our focus on building better leaders.

Every societal challenge we face and every industry that can possibly address these challenges requires the right leaders for the right moment. Universities can answer the call. 


Philip P. DiStefano is the chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and the Quigg and Virginia S. Newton Endowed Chair in Leadership, overseeing CU Boulder’s leadership programs. He is a board member of the NCAA, PAC-12 and Association of American Universities.


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