Out of the Blue

Forever young

The joys of adult education, including exercise at dawn.

Ellen M. Iseman ’76 is president of Issues Management International Inc., a communications consulting firm she founded in New York City.

“Will Navy SEALs really be there?” my 13-year-old son asked as I hauled my bag toward the elevator.

"Retired ones, for sure, and maybe some still in the service," I replied. "Find out, if you can, who killed Osama bin Laden," he requested.

While that fact will remain forever undisclosed, I promised I would do my best to learn more about the raid in Pakistan. I also hoped to share with him what it felt like to be a student again as an adult: I was on my way to Virginia for a two-and-a-half-day seminar at the McChrystal Group. I always loved being a student, and learning in later years has been a special treat: a return to youth but armed with the experiences of adulthood, with no papers due and no tests scheduled—a mini-vacation for the mind.

The McChrystal Group was cofounded by General (Ret.) Stanley A. McChrystal, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and, since 2010, a senior fellow at Yale's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. The course I had signed up for, CrossLead for Executives, is designed for those "seeking to grow as leaders as their responsibilities increase." Beyond my own business turf, I have recently found myself thinking about the qualities necessary for effective leadership in difficult times, when institutions struggle with less yet face more challenging conditions. On a personal level, I have needed to figure out how to lead my own household, having been widowed five years ago with a child to raise. My father had been a role model, but he died in the same period as my husband, and I became suddenly responsible, in unexpected ways, for an array of new tasks.

CrossLead began at dawn each day with exercise, led by Navy SEALs. The curriculum dwelled on corporate culture change, team building, communication, and processes for shaping behavior, but the dialogue was often framed in military terms. In a discussion of how values can become embedded in an organization's culture, General McChrystal cited the example of the Army Ranger Creed, with its promise never to leave fallen comrades behind. He used military history to highlight the importance of leadership. One example: Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" cabinet, a group that was able to collaborate despite political differences and therefore to help lead our country through the Civil War.

A theme throughout the seminar was that leadership is not demonstrated only at the office or command center, but must carry over to other facets of your life. At the beginning of the course, the maxim "When it's darkest, men see the stars" had flashed across the screen at the front of the classroom. It led me to thoughts of Winston Churchill fighting World War II from his London bunker—but also reminded me that in my own life, clarity of purpose can arise, suddenly and unexpectedly, in times of profound loss and confusion.

I came away at the end of the course thinking about my personal life and the kinds of leadership it reflected or lacked; about my professional life and how I could lead better; and about broader concepts of what truly constitutes a leader, such as producing imaginative solutions in unforeseen circumstances.

I'm hardly alone in going back to school. In 2009, more than 3.4 million adults aged 35 and older attended degree-granting institutions nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—about 30 percent more than in the previous decade. Yale itself has increasingly created opportunities for adult education. Open Yale Courses offers 35 online courses (lectures plus syllabi) free to alumni and the general public. In physical Yale College classrooms, alumni now make up roughly a third of the Yale-affiliated auditors sitting in on Yale courses. With the introduction last summer of a two-week curriculum called Directed Studies for Life—classes on ancient Greek history and literature, modeled on the freshman Directed Studies program—Yale College is piloting a series of intensive summer classes for alumni. One alumnus who took the course told me it removed him from his daily routine of problem solving at the office and propelled him into a state of "pure mentation."

Once back in New York, I was eager to report to my son on my military learning experiences. I had done calisthenics with a Navy SEAL—so early in the morning that the sky was pitch black outside—and I expected to impress.

Not a tad. "Did you wear a camouflage fatigue? Were you in a helicopter?"

My continuing education next time may take me into Army Basic Training.


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