“It’s not about you. It’s about those who come after you.” That’s what leadership means to gubernatorial candidate and Heathwood alumnus and parent James Smith (’86), who spoke with Upper School students on October 3 as part of the Studies in Leadership program.
“Leadership is about a commitment to be there for people and a knowledge that they will be there for you,” Smith said. “We should all be doing all we can to make things better than we found them.”
Smith’s own commitment to leadership runs long and deep. He has served in the S.C. Legislature since he was 27 years old, and served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He credits his upbringing—most notably his parents and his Heathwood education—with shaping his aspiration to be a servant leader. It was his father who encouraged him to be focused on others ahead of self. And it was the Heathwood faculty who helped him find his voice and use it effectively.
“I was always encouraged to speak out and voice my views, in a safe and supportive environment,” he said. “My teachers pushed me to take risks and taught me to always choose the more challenging route because it will also be the most rewarding one.”
So what’s his advice for students looking to hone their own leadership skills? “Find your place," he advised. "Each of you has a place in this democracy of ours, and all of you have the ability to make your communities better than they were.”
Leadership, he added, “is a sense of love and devotion. The same things that make you a good brother, sister, spouse, or friend make you a good leader—that you care about people and look out for them.”
Smith’s talk was one in a series hosted by Upper School Government Teacher Julie Firetag’s Studies in Leadership and Applied Journalism class, in which students not only study leadership theory and the essentials of good journalism but also apply what they’ve learned by interviewing leaders in various fields and creating a leadership podcast as a way of sharing all they’ve learned with others. Governor McMaster has also been invited to be featured, and other speakers include leaders in athletics, business, and more.
For Smith, returning to Heathwood to talk about leadership was especially meaningful because of the role Heathwood played in helping him get through one of his greatest leadership challenges. “When I was in Afghanistan,” he recalled, “I kept a Heathwood ball cap with me, and I tied a piece of Heathwood tartan to my rifle. It kept me connected to things that gave me strength: faith, family, and community.”