Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Building leaders, lesson by lesson November 24, 2008 by David Revere • Published 11/24/08

Photo by Kelly Gorham
"Give back... contribute... make life better." -Carmen McSpadden

A worn quote taped to the door of Carmen McSpadden's office announces that here is a place "...where your deepest gladness and the world's deepest hunger meet."

The quote by writer Frederick Buechner has helped shape the life of McSpadden, the inspirational director of MSU's Leadership Institute who in turn, influences the growing number of students involved in the program that cultivates young leaders.

"When there's an alignment of your values and beliefs with what it is that you're doing, you get lots of energy," she says. "I personally get lots of energy from working with students."

McSpadden grins when she's talking about her students, which she likes to do frequently. She has been a force of tireless energy for the five years she has directed the institute, a center launched by the Associated Students of MSU in 1997. She says the position has given her an opportunity to both facilitate and practice a values-centered style of leadership.

"One of the best things you can do in the world is give back, contribute, and make where you live and work better," she says. "We expect students to lead here. This isn't about the future leaders of the world. This is about leading right now."

McSpadden's team of 10 student interns has given back by organizing the recent campus visits of a number of international thinkers, such as novelist Salman Rushdie, primatologist Jane Goodall and Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. The students learn a great deal by coordinating the lectures, and the Bozeman and university community is enriched by the messages of world-class thinkers.

Working with history-makers has left life-changing impressions, says Zach Stordahl, a 21-year-old senior from Moorhead, Minn., majoring in electrical engineering and a senior associate at the Leadership Institute. Stordahl was inspired by Ishmael Beah, a 27-year-old human rights activist and former child soldier from Sierra Leone, who visited MSU in 2008.

"Here's someone our age who has already done so much," Stordahl says. "When I started working here, I never thought I would get the chance to meet national and international leaders like him."

Beyond bringing in high-impact leaders to visit and speak to students on campus, McSpadden says the Leadership Institute functions as an entry point for students interested in leadership opportunities. Whether they're organizing congressional debates, hosting panel discussions on hot-topic issues such as gun control, or providing resources for leadership scholarships, her interns get plenty of opportunity to exercise their team-building, communication and organizational skills.

"This is so much more than what you can learn in a classroom," Stordahl says. "It's hands-on."

McSpadden doesn't plan on slowing down any time soon. Stacks of paper cover the surface of an entire desk in her office. "Opportunities," she affectionately calls them. The papers are printouts of potential projects she's mulling over.

One such project, a collaborative effort involving the Leadership Institute, ASMSU and the new University College, is sure to explode the opportunity for leadership training at MSU. Beginning in spring 2009, MSU will offer a "Leadership Fellows" certificate option for undergraduates. Students who take the 16-credit, interdisciplinary course will develop leadership skills through a combination of class work and community service and receive an "MSU Leadership Fellows Program" designation on their transcripts.

Carmen McSpadden, Photo by Steven Hunts.
Under Carmen McSpadden's direction, MSU's Leadership Institute has developed the potential of scores of students. -Photo by Stephen Hunts

"This is very interdisciplinary," McSpadden emphasizes. "Someone who is getting a nursing degree could absolutely get this leadership certificate. It's important, if you want to be a leader in your field, that you tie these two things together."

McSpadden's own story is a case study of proactive leadership focused in a number of different fields.

Her first experiences in leadership were as captain of three varsity sports during high school in Essex Junction, Vt. At the University of Vermont, McSpadden earned a degree in political science and also spent a year as an intern for the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. She says these early experiences combining observation and practice were fundamental in her own life-long passion for student leadership.

That passion was deferred for several years, however. When McSpadden's two sons were growing up (both are now in college), she chaired the Anderson School Board and served as president of the Montana School Board Association. She and her husband Doug had already owned, operated and sold a successful outdoor adventure company, Backcountry Bicycle Tours, when she joined the Gallatin County Planning Board. She chaired Montana's first open lands board, and helped Gallatin County secure a bond of $10 million to preserve open space. In recognition of her years of community service, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle recently selected her as the 2008 Woman of the Year for its Balance magazine.

In her personal time McSpadden hikes and rides her bike, and she participated numerous times in the 260-mile Tour of the Swan River Valley bike ride.

"I have taken the time to discern what it is that inspires me," McSpadden says. "Sometimes that's recognizing that if it's a sunny, beautiful day, even though the paperwork and dishes are piled up and there's three loads of laundry to do, I still need to take advantage of what would be the best and most energizing use of my time when it presents itself."

Kent Norby, a member of the Leadership Institute advisory board and former North American vice president of human resources for Cargill, says McSpadden's energy is contagious. "She motivates and challenges her staff."

Norby sees McSpadden's style as an asset to students because she is invested in their success.

"She is not going to be the loudest person in the meeting, but she will assign her students tasks, hold them accountable, and let them make mistakes as they grow," he says.

That's the kind of impact Stordahl says will carry him far into his career.

"I know I can get an electrical engineering degree in a lot of places. But what's going to set me apart from the other engineers is having those communication and team-building skills I've learned and developed from her."