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Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 20, 2018

A culture of leadership

IW students dive into understanding their strengths through president-led seminar
By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News | Mar 12, 2018
Photo by: Grace King For four weeks, 10 IW students gather at the university president’s house for dinner, fellowship and to participate in the Presidential Leadership Seminar, which empowers students to focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses through the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment.

Some students bowed their heads and closed their eyes as if in prayer. Others stared blankly at the wall as they centered themselves during four minutes of silence at Iowa Wesleyan University President Steve Titus’ home on E. Washington St.

This was the final of a four-part series for 10 students who applied for the Iowa Wesleyan University (IW) Student Leadership Seminar. The class is focused on uncovering student’s strengths using the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment and empowering them to develop those strengths rather than focus on their weaknesses as they gear up for graduation and are sent into the workplace.

While the low sound of phones vibrating could occasionally be heard during the four minutes of silence during their session Tuesday, March 6, students remained concentrated on their thoughts, preparing themselves to dive into the discussion of the day, which was “Purpose.”

After the four minutes were up, Titus asked students if they noticed anything different from the first time they had practiced just one minute of silence four weeks ago. Students responded that they had become more confident in the quiet. Instead of it making them uncomfortable, it gave them time to unpack the events of the day.

One student even said that one or two minutes of silence wouldn’t have been enough, and that he needed the full four or even more to meditate on the day and set aside what wasn’t important in the moment.

“You could sense the energy settle,” Titus concluded. “This is a gift that must be practiced,” he said in encouragement.

The 10 students at Titus’ house Tuesday were the fourth cohort to graduate from the Student Leadership Seminar, which is a part of the university’s 2020 strategic plan to establish a center for leadership formation.

The seminar was launched two years ago with the idea of serving as an intimate, intense experience for junior and senior college students. The StrengthsFinder is an assessment that determines a user’s personal character attributes. The theory behind the assessment is that there are 34 themes people possess and it identifies a person’s top five themes or character traits that they can then focus on to develop into strengths.

The themes are derived from four domains: strategic thinking, executing, influencing and relationship building. Examples of the 34 themes are analytical, futuristic, ideation, achiever, discipline, communication, competition and significance.

As someone with formal education in leadership, Titus said understanding a person’s character traits can help them gain insight into what they metaphorically bring to the table and how they can leverage it.

As a certified StrengthsFinder coach, Titus has used this strategy with various teams he has worked with over the years. IW Vice President Wes Brooks also has been a certified StrengthsFinders coach for 18 years. The two of them want to create a culture of leadership at the university that extends throughout the region of southeast Iowa.

“This program is a microchasm, reflective of what we are doing universitywide,” Titus said.

Brooks said that only two out of 10 people play to their strengths. People are conditioned to focus on their weaknesses. The goal of this seminar is to reverse that perspective and allow students to see how their strengths can play into the next phase of their life.

Another benefit of participating in the seminar is that each student gets a one-on-one hour of coaching with either Titus or Brooks.

“I hope it communicates to students that they’re really important,” Titus said.

As the program continues to gather recognition, Titus said he is hearing faculty, staff and students talk about it around campus. “There’s an awareness around this program I didn’t expect.”

In fact, senior IW student Christian Henriksen, who participated in the seminar last spring, took the initiative to introduce the StrengthsFinder Assessment to the football team in the fall. Brooks said that is just another way the leadership class has influenced an additional 75 students.

Head football coach Mike Richtman said that it was a good opportunity, not only for the players, but as a coaching staff to learn their strengths and how each person adds value in different ways.

“It was a way for us to start talking about how even those guys who maybe don’t have as much of an opportunity to contribute to the football field bring gifts to the program that aid us and help build a stronger team,” Richtman said.

Going forward, Richtman hopes to expand the impact of StrengthsFinder on the team, having the new players take the assessment in the fall and incorporating that into their smaller mentor groups.

As a graduate of the first-ever Student Leadership Seminar and now staff at the university working as coordinator for student engagement, Matt Klundt said that it’s great to see the class continue to receive recognition.

“Ever since this program has started, leadership on campus has been more present,” Klundt said.

Allegra Collette said that participating in this program has helped her pinpoint her strengths to discuss with potential employers. She also said it is showing her what she needs from herself to reach her full potential.

Ariel Smale agreed with Collette that before coming to the seminar, she focused on her weaknesses. Although Smale and Collette admitted they applied for the seminar because they have a hard time saying no, they are both grateful for the opportunity to grow in their strengths instead of just seeing points of weakness.

Austin Willis said he didn’t realize how quickly he would be able to use the skills he learned in the seminar. Recently getting the opportunity to be a head resident assistant on campus, Willis said knowing what his top strengths are have been very useful in the additional responsibility of overseeing students.

This semester’s seminar also included two international students — Rosemary Montoya, from Honduras, and Vadym Naiko, from Ukraine.

Montoya said that the different leadership concepts are important to her because her country has “very bad leadership.” Now, when she returns to her country, she possesses knowledge that will help her be a leader in her community.

“What I think is very fascinating is not only are we reaching out to southeast Iowa or Mt. Pleasant, but this is really a global program,” Brooks said.

As the word gets out about the class, Titus plans to implement the StrengthsFinder assessment into freshman orientation in the fall, allowing the opportunity for every student on campus to come into college knowing their strengths.

The university also will work with faculty members to get them certified as StrengthsFinder coaches. Titus hopes that having academic advisers who are also trained in StrengthsFinder will help students who might be struggling with choosing a major.

“Imagine having this conversation with a freshman,” Titus said.

Students who completed the Student Leadership Seminar will participate in an awards ceremony on April 4.

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