Barry Mills on Developing the Social Capacities to Lead

Citing the need to harness human creativity to spark innovation and echoing the call for a greater focus on entrepreneurship, President Barry Mills writes of Bowdoin’s place in the development of the sophisticated skills required to thrive in a creative economy.

I recently read an intriguing article in The Atlantic by University of Toronto Professor and Atlantic Senior Editor Richard Florida. In “Where the Skills Are,” Florida describes how cities spark innovation and promote human creativity. I experienced this correlation first-hand when Karen and I lived and worked in New York City. But the phenomenon can also happen elsewhere. In fact, the article in many ways supports the work that Karen did here in Maine (and continues to do nationally)—creating clusters of innovation where groups of people who are geographically close can learn from and support each other in their business endeavors. Not surprisingly, a strong concentration of analytical skills in a dense population apparently creates the environment for innovation.

Florida writes that innovation and a creative economy require highly developed social skills, and he draws a distinction between these skills and “mere sociability.” According to the author, these social skills include “persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people, and a keen sense of empathy. These are quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations and launch new firms. They are highly complementary to analytic skills—and indeed, the very highest-paying jobs (and the most robust economies) usually require exceptional skill in both realms.”

In the broadest sense, a Bowdoin education develops the analytical skills and intellectual capacities of our students, while our residential life program builds and focuses their social skills. This intense environment, where students live together for four years and are involved in so many ways on our campus, also develops the social capacities of our students to lead.

Florida also notes that given the importance of this social sensibility, it is remarkable how we devote so few educational resources to the development of these skills. In a world so focused on math, science and technology, our educational focus is much less focused generally on social intelligence.

Florida writes, “today’s students need a stronger focus on teamwork, persuasion and entrepreneurship; a better integration of the liberal arts with technological literacy, and an emphasis on the social intelligence that makes for creative collaboration and leadership.”

My Convocation talk this year—which is apparently making the rounds at other colleges and was published recently in abbreviated form by Inside Higher Ed—touched, in part, on this nexus of the liberal arts, technological literacy, and the educational opportunities available because of technology, so I agree with Florida’s point here. I also agree with his call for a greater focus on entrepreneurship. But as we think about Bowdoin and our history of graduating so many important leaders in the U.S. and around the world, I also believe we are largely successful at doing what Florida advocates.

In the broadest sense, a Bowdoin education develops the analytical skills and intellectual capacities of our students, while our residential life program builds and focuses their social skills. This intense environment, where students live together for four years and are involved in so many ways on our campus, also develops the social capacities of our students to lead.

As I think about my Convocation talk, it occurs to me that this is one of the many things that make Bowdoin’s form of education critical. This is a place where a student unquestionably receives the sophisticated education necessary for the 21st century (just examine the Bowdoin curriculum and our faculty achievements). But, it is also a place—through its size, the composition of its community, and the opportunities available to each student—that is especially suited to the development of the “social” capacities necessary to lead. Because of this, Bowdoin holds a very special and enduring place in the educational landscape.



  1. Brad Hunter '78 says:

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments here or those made by you at Convocation. The education our students receive at Bowdoin must obviously include requisite emphasis on academics, but equally important, must also place similar emphasis on developing one’s social skills. In the end, we are all human beings and our ability to understand one another, work and yes, even “play” together is all important.

  2. Tim Hayes '00 says:

    Florida’s point in the article is about the role of population density and the built environment to increase the likelihood of opportunities for creative collisions, leading to innovations for human progress. The knowledge economy therefore favors the platform of cities that can put people with diverse ideas in touch with each other – often informally (e.g. elevators, cafes, streets, civic clubs, athletics) – better and more often than low-density – or poorly built – places. Toss in a digital divide of communications infrastructure and the disparity in such opportunity is even greater. The issue for Bowdoin, then, is how much it can claim responsibility for the innovations among its small study body while in Brunswick, ME relative to student experiences in larger venues both before admission and after graduation. Bowdoin can do more to cultivate the seeds planted in its fertile campus incubator. But the college faces the same trade-off as other small-town schools: a tremendous experience in a beautifully bucolic setting, but with less proximity-based opportunity for collisions with other top-notch students, faculty and alumni at the corner store, athletic club, high-rise elevator, or Y-Combinator-type event. So, as I think President Mills hints, Bowdoin must work that much harder to force these creative collisions inside and outside its campus and classes.

  3. James Talpey says:

    Barry, Thanks for the update. Fostering clusters of innovation is what college at it’s best and many business places teach. Any creative collisions I’ve ever had tended to be at places like school, work, or professional meetings. They certainly never happened in elevators or on city streets where people’s interactions tend to be brief and impersonal. I believe what we are talking about here is collaborative effort where one person’s ideas and a colleague’s add up to something greater, a greater discovery or breakthrough than either one alone would have got. It isn’t strictly a numbers game of population density. I don’t think such collaboration can be “forced” but rather is encouraged by creating opportunities for smart people to problem solve together. If cities provide more of that than a place like Bowdoin, that’s news to me. As for social intelligence, or social capacity, that is the cornerstone of team work.

  4. David Webster '57 says:


    I am delighted to read as always of the visionary wisdom of Barry Mills. The addition of an “entrepreneurial component” to a Bowdoin Education is a PLUS. Like many Bowdoin undergraduates like me who have gone to Babson College for their MBA’s can testify, small business entrepreneurship is the core of their blended education with the liberal arts. Their commitment includes emphasis on Social Entrepreneuship, a component of Bowdoin’s Common Good activities.

    David Webster ’57

  5. Bryan Hansen says:

    Dear President Mills,

    Your students are so bright, friendly and considerate that when stopping in the Bowdoin student union I find myself almost hoping to have “one more question” simply to engage another student for another moment. Forty five years ago I left Minnesota on a train, climbed off the train in Providence, and later was lucky enough to finish Brown; yet even that wonderful place never inspired me to buy a mug or a hat or sweatshirt. “Maybe’ age kicks in a bit at 63, but your Bowdoin students are so impressive and welcoming that whenever I walk your campus I’m hard pressed not to buy another Bowdoin hat or shirt to commemorate the visit.

    When strangers have seen my Bowdoin hat on the streets of Boston, they have stopped me to proclaim that they, too, know ‘Bowdoin ways.’
    One smiling, bow-tied retired professor near Harvard Square, about 85, saw my hat, so stopped me and proudly said his daughter was a Bowdoin grad. He then added he wished he had chosen Bowdoin, too, and finally apologized — with only half a smile — for somehow, 65 years ago in careless youth, choosing Harvard.

    So in short, or ‘not so’ short, your Bowdoin students and community seem sure to continue to excel wherever they are and wherever they go.

    Best regards,
    Bryan Hansen
    209 275 4915

  6. Steve Gogolak '05 says:


    Spot on. I was impressed with your knowledge of the online channel and social media when I read your convocation remarks and I’m thrilled that you’re pushing responsible use of technology and see it as an educational asset.

    Sitting right in the middle of creative, technology and business, I can’t help but look back at what Bowdoin provided me with great appreciation. Finding a way to meld right and left brain thinking with a sense of compassion, respect and empathy is exactly what Bowdoin does. Daniel Pink would be proud.

  7. Of course one of our (relative)handicaps is that innovatively/entrepreneurially minded Bowdoin students have limited physical exposure to large networks of like minded peers and support resources (eg., like Cambridge, New Haven, et. al).
    Would a series of on-campus seminars involving alumni and friends with entrepreneurial experience be a worthwhile vehicle for supprting these objectives?
    David Potter ’72

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