The Heart of Leadership

September 1, 2015
Tom Anderson, MTS '98, brings ethics to business, higher education

The students in HDS alumnus Tom Anderson’s class on social ethics at Case Western Reserve University’s (CWRU) Weatherhead School of Management are hard-driving business leaders. They’ve been successful in a hypercompetitive marketplace that often provides strong incentives to cut ethical corners. Over the course of the semester, Anderson challenges them to consider the morality of their behavior as they wrestle with a question that’s as old as civilization: How then shall we live?

“We all live in morally toxic environments,” says Anderson. “While some environments are better than others, we all have to make ethical decisions on a regular basis. The question is…how do we live moral lives in spite of our environment?”

"There is a profound and fundamental connection between religion, ethics, public life, and leadership. HDS tied all those things together in a way that made sense to me and allowed me to think more deeply about them."

A passion for questions of ethics, leadership, and character has driven Anderson, MTS '98, throughout a career in academia, higher education administration, consulting, and more. But his 50 years of work with nonprofits—mostly colleges and universities—did not begin with an explicit focus on morality. Anderson spent much of the 1960s and 1970s working in admissions and in residential and student life. After earning a graduate degree in student personnel administration and a law degree, he took on the challenge of building the first Office of University Student Affairs at CWRU. Before long, he had responsibility for a staff of 75 and, given his experience in the field, was the expert on his team. Anderson’s success in student affairs led the university president to ask him to take charge of development and alumni affairs—a field in which he had almost no experience—and later, CWRU’s $350M campaign goal. Suddenly, he felt like a novice.

“I went back to the president and asked him ‘What were you thinking when you asked me to do this job?’” Anderson remembers. “He said, ‘Tom, I didn’t select you for your technical competence. I selected you for your leadership and character.’ As I went on in my career, I realized that success wasn’t about being the guy who knows everything. What really made the leadership difference was ethics. That’s what took me eventually to consulting—and to HDS.” Anderson moved from CWRU to become a vice president at the California Institute of Technology and was nearly 30 years into a successful career when he decided to take what he calls “a timeout.” He thought about going back to school and was attracted by the Program on Religion, Ethics, and Public Life established by former HDS Dean Ronald F. Thiemann. He says that the School and its emphasis on reflection and ideas “spoke to me.” He talked to students. He talked to faculty. He talked to his family about the prospect of going back to school. Finally, Anderson decided that HDS was for him.

“There is a profound and fundamental connection among religion, ethics, public life, and leadership,” he says. “HDS tied all those things together in a way that made sense to me and allowed me to think more deeply about them.”

Anderson says that the School’s faculty left a big impression on him. Professor Preston Williams encouraged him to view theological studies as “a master’s of great ideas,” and the HDS curriculum gave him plenty to think about: Hebrew scriptures with Jon Levenson; theology with Sarah Coakley; Christian studies with Peter Gomes; and, of course, ethics with Bryan Hehir and Arthur Dyck. Anderson says that he came to see the School as a place that “educates ethical leaders for a broken world.”

“HDS not only educates moral leaders,” he says, “but by virtue of doing that, it actually provides moral leadership in a broken world. That’s important work and we need to keep doing it.”

After graduation, Anderson took the HDS mission to heart and brought it to his work for Marts & Lundy, a philanthropic consulting firm in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. He says that he saw himself as a teacher helping leaders find ethical solutions to challenges at institutions like Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, London Business School, and Brown University.

“Sometimes a client has a technical problem,” he explains. “I have the answer. They don’t. My job is to transfer the knowledge and help them implement it. But the really interesting work is when an institution has an adaptive problem—one that nobody has ever faced in quite the same way before. At that level, strategic consulting is a lot like teaching: you help the client wrestle with the issue, understand it, and find their way to an answer.”

While at Marts & Lundy, Anderson also returned to the classroom in 1999 as a senior lecturer and then adjunct professor at CWRU’s Weatherhead School of Management. There, he taught courses on applied ethics and leadership to mid-career professionals in the doctoral program.

Anderson says he’s fascinated by the contrast between the way that people perceive themselves as moral actors and the reality of their behavior.

“If you ask a group of people who’s the most moral person in the room, somewhere between 70 to 80 percent will pick themselves,” he says. “But we all do things that don’t live up to those standards—and are sometimes completely contrary to them. What I care about is how we imagine ourselves, what we actually do, and why there’s so often a gap between the two.”

Anderson left Marts & Lundy in 2011 and retired from the faculty of CWRU in May 2015. He continues to consult with—and speak to—philanthropic organizations and is deeply involved with the Campaign for HDS as a member of the School’s Dean’s Council and Campaign Advisory Committee. As someone who has worked with some of the country’s preeminent institutions of higher education, Anderson says that he thinks HDS plays a special, critical role in the world.

“The Divinity School has incredible gathering power,” he says. “It brings people together to talk about things that are really important, and then sends them out as better people than they were when they showed up so that they can make a real difference. HDS just does a disproportionately large amount of good in the world relative to its size. I think that’s worthy of support.”