New Seminar Creates Collaborative Space for Robertson & Morehead-Cain Scholars

“When I first heard of the seminar and the deliverables – creating your own sense of guiding principles – I thought, ‘oh that doesn’t sound hard,’ but it was shockingly challenging.” Kendra Tse (UNC ’23) is a newly minted Robertson Alum who participated in a brand-new program, The Principled Leadership Seminar this past spring.

“Being a senior, there was definitely a lot of uncertainty and indecisiveness about what I want to do, what’s next after leaving this phase of my life. And I was so drawn to the idea of thinking about your values, your principles, and how those will drive your life and everything moving forward.” That’s why Kendra opted into the semester-long pilot created by Robertson Alum Mark Laabs (UNC ’06) and his brother Keith Laabs (UNC ’08).

Robertson Alum Mark Laabs (UNC ’06)

The Principled Leadership Seminar was a novel pilot program, seeking to provide seniors with a framework for making thoughtful and intentional decisions. The program was piloted in partnership with Morehead-Cain, brining scholars from both programs together to explore leadership, collaboration, and creativity. “We really wanted to create a space where those networks could mold and merge, and draw off of each other. It’s powerful being in a vulnerable place, with a little less structure. It helps amplify relationship-building compared to a normal class they may be in,” Keith shared.

“I can’t really put it into words, but there was this unexplainable thread across the sessions – in that we all care about the world, our communities, but also each other in that space even if we didn’t know each other’s full stories. There was a genuine desire to see everyone succeed and thrive, in a uniquely supportive way that I haven’t experienced before,” said Morehead-Cain senior, Sophie Cho (UNC ’23).

For Mark & Keith, the reason for a seminar like this was clear: making an impact on the world around you requires leaders who can act in alignment with the values they hold. “I think it’s really easy to be a passenger in life – and sometimes that’s the right place to be, and it can be quite nice and comfortable, but every once in a while, it’s important to be the driver. And in order to drive wisely you’ve got to know what your directions are,” Mark shared. “So, for me, this seminar started from the idea that you could create a thoughtful forum, that would bring Scholars through a process, thinking through the act of writing guiding principles that they’re taking with them out of the cumulative undergraduate and program-related experiences they’ve had, into whatever their next steps might be.”

Keith Laabs (UNC ’08)

“Both Mark & I lead organizations that are focused on making an impact in the world. I lead an organization that provides therapy to children with autism across the state, and Mark is focused on renewable energy. But we wanted to take a twist on impact – and what we realized is that a lot of what drives us to do what we’re doing, and how we make decisions, is this list of values and principles. Mark had a more written-out formal set of ‘guiding principles.’ I had my list of core values. It was truly impactful to think about how we used these in the career choices we’ve made and the people we surround ourselves with, and that ended up being a big part of the syllabus we were drawing out,” Keith added.

Over the course of the semester Robbies and Morehead-Cains would gather and explore big questions regarding their values, purpose, and leading from a place of authenticity. “As they got into some of the exercises, they had to put things on paper, and quite a few said that it was harder than they expected. They looked back on decisions they made historically, and they weren’t necessary in line with what they had written down. A lot of interesting dialogue came from that – reflecting on decisions where multiple guiding principles or values came at odds,” Keith said.

Those helping to guide reflections were alumni and friends of RSLP & Morehead-Cain including, Yousef AbuGharbieh (RSLP Duke ’10), Tafadzwa Matika (RSLP UNC ’16), Jonathan Reckford (Morehead-Cain UNC ’84), and Caroline Whistler (RSLP Duke ’08); sharing their wisdom on a variety of topics including making big decisions, leading dynamic teams, learning from failure and holding true to guiding principles in hard times.

“It was a super small intimate group, less than 15 students. And the level of vulnerably from the speakers and the students was at a level that you just can’t get with a materially larger group. It’s that vulnerability both with themselves and reflecting on these personal issues that we knew would help to create a space that doesn’t always happen within our culture, to go a bit deeper. It magnified the experience and learning for everyone involved,” Keith shared.

The alumni speakers provided valuable lessons for Kendra, “You know as a senior in college, we’re constantly thinking and asking, ‘what are we going to do with our lives? What even matters?’ and it was so good to be in a space to really think about those things. It was comforting to hear from those speakers about the windy paths that people take in their life, and be grounded in the actual idea of guiding principles for confronting the unknown and the future. They gave us really interesting insights on their life, and their experiences, and how they thought about crafting their own guiding principles.”

The insights shared from alumni helped Sophie refine her definition of leadership, “Leadership isn’t a grandiose thing, it happens in day to day simple living, how you choose to be present, treat yourselves, and others. It’s the sum of those little choices you make in becoming the person you want to be, and its really about keeping those promises to yourself and letting that spread to other parts of your life.”

“Hearing from other leaders that bring intentionality to the work they do, and the place they’re trying to create in the world is important. There are these flash point moments that will stick with the scholars, but if I had to guess what will be most durable one, five, ten years from now, it will be going back to how the articulated values are reflected on and how they’ve evolved at intervals going forward. They should be subject to change as you learn and grow. That’s why we already have a one year, five year, and ten-year anniversary zoom planned for this pilot group,” Mark said.

For Kendra, it’s an exciting proposition – to reground and reconnect with her classmates in the coming years and revisit their guiding principles, “Ultimately leadership is about knowing yourself really well and for me this series was a lot about digging deep into ourselves and what we’re interested in, what’s going to drive us in life, and to be true to our own values. That’s something that the Robertson does well, and I think this course really puts you in the space where you’re critically thinking about yourself and your deepest values and purpose. That’s a space you don’t get to be in a lot, but I realized it every time I was in the classroom with Mark & Keith. Giving us that space is actually a really powerful leadership exercise.”