Inspiring Aspiring Leaders

Tina Seelig
4 min readJun 10, 2022

What is leadership? Some see leadership as a set of management skills, some believe a leader’s role is to set a vision, and others hold a leader responsible for driving results.

Without a shared understanding of what leadership comprises, we are often left talking past one another. Therefore, it behooves us to craft a definition for leadership that can be applied across any field, organization, or role.

At Stanford University’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars (KHS), where we prepare hundreds of graduate students from across the university to tackle important world challenges, we define leaders as follows:

Committed to the greater good, leaders set a bold vision and inspire others to drive meaningful results.

Essentially, leaders mobilize groups to reach impactful and ambitious goals. This is reflected in the KHS leadership model, which captures the traits and behaviors required for effective leadership, as well as our goals for the program:

  • Traits include nine internal characteristics that effective leaders embody;
  • Behaviors include six skills that leaders develop and demonstrate;
  • Goals capture our specific objectives for the Knight-Hennessy scholars.

The KHS Leadership Model informs and motivates all KHS programming, which spans up to three years of a graduate student’s academic experience. For example, we know that it is important for leaders to be effective communicators, therefore all of the incoming scholars take part in yearlong storytelling workshops, meeting weekly to learn and experiment with new communication tools.

We know that effective leaders must make decisions under uncertainty, so we teach living case studies with domain experts in fields as diverse as biotechnology and journalism. This enables scholars to practice making challenging decisions, in different contexts, across a range of disciplines.

We believe that all leaders need to be action-oriented, so we launched our KHeystone Projects (all KHS programs playfully begin with KH,) to give scholars an opportunity to form teams to tackle problems that are meaningful to them. It is energizing to watch these emerging leaders develop the skills needed to tackle the problems they are passionate about addressing.

In the 2021-2022 KHeystone Project, scholars presented ideas at the Fall Ideas Festival, and then formed diverse teams that worked together throughout the year with formal mentors and in workshops. Projects include:

  • Education Justice Academy is creating tools and training for potential school board members from underrepresented communities;
  • Young African Research Network (YARN) is providing support to aspiring African scientists with mentors, funding, and networking;
  • American Investment Marketplace is a platform for midsize cities to market themselves to target companies looking to expand;
  • Public Service Interest Group is helping scholars learn how to run for office and take on government roles;
  • Documenting Families Experience with Illness is teaching kids to take photos in order to capture their personal experiences with severe illness;
  • Immigrant Love is a coffee subscription service and marketplace that sells coffee from refugee and immigrant entrepreneurs;
  • Language Workouts is building tools to help students build muscle memory for a new language through strategic repetition;
  • GEODES is developing ways to connect skilled talent pools in emerging markets, such as Africa, with employers and opportunities in the global north;
  • Continuous Health Tracking is designing a vest that tracks circulating inflammatory markers to help enhance human health;
  • KHarbon Neutral Case Study spent the year creating a roadmap for making the Knight-Hennessy program carbon neutral;
  • Abortion Storytelling Project which is tackling this complicated topic by capturing the stories of those who have received abortions; and
  • Imagine a World Podcast is producing a series of interviews with KH scholars about their dreams for a better world, and how they are contributing to bringing them to life.

These projects bring together scholars from across disciplines and cohorts, allowing them to practice a range of leadership skills, including creativity, collaboration, decision-making, and implementation.

Knight-Hennessy Scholars recently selected its fifth cohort of scholars, who will begin in the Fall of 2022. Last Spring we graduated the first cohort of scholars who matriculated in the Fall of 2018. The full impact of the program will unfold over time as graduates take on leadership roles around the globe and leverage the knowledge, skills, mindset, and community developed through the program.

It is inspiring to work with these aspiring leaders!



Tina Seelig

Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Stanford. Author, What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20, inGenius, Creativity Rules