Giaimo ’11 Teaches Leadership Forum through Roundtable Discussions

At right, Joe Giaimo '11 leads a student forum May 2. His guest lecturers have brought a series of diverse perspectives on what defines a leader. (Photo by Brian Katten)

By Ben Cohen ’10, physical education intern

Ask any group of NESCAC student-athletes why they chose their respective institutions, and each will likely mention the conference schools’ strength in both academics and athletics. But Joe Giaimo ’11 has taken things one step further. Giaimo, a captain on the Cardinal football and baseball squads, is leading a student forum this semester, CCIV420-02: “Leadership, Mentoring, and Coaching.”

The forum evaluates effective forms of leadership, seeks out answers to what is leadership, defines it, dissects the changing conceptions of leadership, analyzes the psychology of leaders, and eventually discusses the difference between leadership and power.

The roundtable discussions are made up of many future Wesleyan leaders in business, medicine, law, teaching, religion, and athletics.

“It’s almost like a talk radio show throwing around ideas and observations,” Giaimo says.

Although the course is taught by one of the campus’s most prominent student-athletes, Giaimo and his 14 students have by no means limited their case studies to coaches. Leaders studied in the class have ranged from Fortune 500 CEOs to Barack Obama. Of course, sports figures are well represented in the curriculum, as the class has also studied New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden and Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, among others. Giaimo also arranged for frequent guest lecturers, including Wesleyan baseball coach Mark Woodworth ’94, football coach Mike Whalen ’83 and Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78.

“Wesleyan has given us the opportunity to go off and study this heavily interesting question in an academic environment amongst our peers,” says Giaimo, who serves as vice president of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. “The forum is going to be an inspiring journey that is going to allow people who may have never been in leadership positions before to find their inner leader, because according to Former Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi: ‘Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.’”

Some students, such as men’s ice hockey co-captain Tom Salah ’12, are not enrolled in the class but have been able to follow its progress via the blog. Salah praised the real-world applications of the course in a guest post.

“I enjoyed your links between leaders throughout social scenes and various interactions,” Salah wrote. “I had an interview this past week for an internship at a bank in Boston and I answered many of the woman’s questions by relating them to sports….[F]or me, it felt right. I think your tie between a firm, team, parish, and family is right on. This was the direction I headed in my interview….I would have to say that leaders of all different groups should value many of the same things.”

Students in the forum have not had to leave campus to apply the lessons they have learned in the classroom. In a guest blog post, men’s tennis co-captain Steve Hauser ’11, who is also a member of the football team, wrote about the parallels between a Sports Illustrated article on Kansas City Chiefs team president Scott Pioli and his goals for the tennis team.

“As a newly appointed captain for the Wesleyan men’s tennis team, I am attempting to ‘model the way’ for my teammates,” wrote Hauser. “After reading these accounts and listening to the discussion in our forum, I decided to gather the team and we created a mission statement. Like Pioli, we found keywords that harkened back to the origins of our beliefs and those words were effort, aggressiveness, and teamwork (a.k.a. EAT). With a catchy mnemonic and a basic creed, our team now has concrete aims.

“Sustainable success, however, is not simply granted upon the creation of a mission statement; it must be earned through action. With our goals now concretely formulated and proudly shown on a large banner, these words must continually resonate and be religiously practiced. It is my responsibility, as a captain, to make sure we continually move forward in line with these virtues.”

Giaimo’s guest lecturers have also brought a series of diverse perspectives on what defines a leader. For example, Woodworth spoke of his view of the parallels of coaches and CEOs.

“Coach [Woodworth] then introduced his idea that a leader or a coach is a CEO,” wrote Giaimo in a blog post after Woodworth’s lecture. “What does a CEO do – they oversee and manage a company. Coaches need to be CEOs and CEOs need to be coaches – it’s about getting people to do what they need to do. It’s as simple as that. The CEO implements a vision, has a set of convictions and morals that guide an organization. A coach implements a vision for his team, has a set of convictions and morals that guide his/her players. It’s an interesting concept and something that we talked for a long time about.”

“I think that what’s great about having guest speakers in class is that you can learn so much from people who’ve been through it and who are real world leaders,” Giaimo continued. “The key word is learning – learning something new every day is what makes life so beautiful. I think that being open minded and willing to learn is in fact one of the keys to making people great leaders.”

Despite the differing perspectives, however, the underlying themes of leadership have remained the same. As Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) chair and baseball team captain Jon Sheehan ’11 explained, “The most interesting thing has been that all of our readings have, in some way, hit on the same themes: Treating those under you with respect, getting those you lead on board, and leading by example.”

Giaimo has certainly excelled at leading by example through his time in the Cardinal and Black, most notably in the aftermath of an injury suffered during the 2008 football season opener at Tufts. In the fourth quarter of that game, Giaimo was sacked and broke his leg in half on the play, ending his season and forcing him to miss the entire baseball campaign as well. Giaimo worked tirelessly to “get that athletic edge back,” as he put it, and when the football coaches decided to move him from quarterback to tight end last fall, his efforts throughout the transition did not go unnoticed.

“Joe approaches everything with a positive attitude and unbelievable enthusiasm,” offensive coordinator Jack Siedlecki said at the time. “His leadership has been invaluable to our success this season.”

While many of the class’s guests have been alumni, Giaimo has not shied away from bringing in fellow students to lecture. Kennedy Odede ’12, who started an organization called Shining Hope for Communities to combat gender inequality in his hometown of Nairobi, Kenya, was the semester’s third guest speaker.

“Kennedy’s definition of leadership is how the leader is able to influence others,” Giaimo wrote in a blog post. “Leadership to Kennedy happens when you don’t do it for yourself. You can’t force it. A leader is a person who can connect with people and a good leader is someone who ‘leads from behind.’ When things are bad the leader takes the blame and he shoves attention away to the members of the group when times are good….Kennedy explained that leadership is not easy. Leadership is a responsibility…and leaders don’t have to know everything, but they have to be able to work with what they have. Good leaders inspire hope in people who have no hope in life.”

Above all, Giaimo noted that leading the forum has made him further appreciate the leadership qualities of the Wesleyan faculty, in addition to giving him an experience he will treasure for a lifetime.

“I have a newfound appreciation for what teachers and professors do when I think about how hard it is to get through to kids and really inspire them,” he said. “I’ve been surprised about how hard teaching is. But I love connecting with my students….It’s been an awesome experience having Wesleyan award me this opportunity. I was so honored…to be able to lead a class and try to inspire others. It’s what a teacher does, and that’s what I’m doing.”

Wesleyan offers several other student forums, and allows students to create them. For more information go here.