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The Aspen Seminar – Leadership, Values and the Good Society

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” That statement, written by Socrates, is used by Todd Breyfogle, Ph.D., director of seminars at The Aspen Institute and aptly sets the stage for what you will experience when you participate in their popular Aspen Seminar. From the Aspen Institute website:

For almost sixty years, the Aspen Seminar has challenged leaders in every field to think more critically and deeply about the good society. Our proven method of text-based dialogue offers participants a neutral forum in which to reflect on timeless human values, pursue common ground, and cultivate a richer understanding of the human condition. Participants emerge from the Aspen Seminar personally renewed, professionally re-focused, and better prepared to lead as they confront the difficult choices of our ever-changing world.

Several years ago I had the great fortune to participate in the Aspen Seminar as a result of a Rhode Island Foundation fellowship. The Aspen Seminar is advertised as a life-changing experience and I can confirm that it is.

First of all, the setting is absolutely stunning and the facilities are very comfortable. Since pictures speak louder than words, here are a few that I took during the week.

The setting is breathtaking but, make no mistake about it, once you get into the Seminar it will not be a distraction!

The Aspen Seminar is centered around examining leadership through reading and discussing classic and contemporary texts by great thinkers and authors such as Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, Marx, Rousseau, Melville, Simone de Beauvoir, Vaclav Havel and many more. I found the program to be rigorous and demanding. From the website:

In a setting conducive to thought and fellowship, each seminar convenes a diverse group of 15-20 leaders for lively, intensive roundtable discussions led by skilled moderators. Classic and contemporary texts reflecting the breadth of human civilization form the starting points of a rich conversation in which the questions posed by the group are frequently as illuminating as the varied, timeless wisdom of the texts. Countless seminar graduates report that they leave the seminar personally and professionally invigorated, more skilled in making decisions, and often so transformed by their experience that they chart a new course of action.

As cliché as this will sound, the thing that sets the Aspen Seminar apart from many other executive leadership programs is the people. You will find your fellow participants some of the most intelligent and accomplished leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors and the moderators are experts in keeping the ideas and conversations flowing. Some of my fellow participants included a former Clinton deputy-chief of staff, a COO of the largest foundation in the world, a CIA leader, an investment banker, several nonprofit leaders, state prosecutor and many other interesting people. Sitting in a seminar room with 15-20 of the smartest individuals you will ever meet and examining leadership and life for five days is exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. I can’t recommend this experience enough!

The Aspen Seminar is held sixteen times a year; 11 times on the Aspen campus and 5 times on the Wye River campus in Maryland.

The Aspen Institute has lots of other very exciting programs including their annual Aspen Ideas Festival (June 29 – July 5, 2009) and the upcoming Aspen Environment Forum (March 25 – 29, 2009). While these programs can be rather pricey, there are fellowships available for nonprofit leaders.

Finally, in case their programs are totally out of reach, you can still explore their great video archive. The Aspen Institute website has a multimedia link at the bottom which will take you to a blog that is full of interesting videos and they also have a YouTube channel as well.

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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