The Columns

Philosophy of Leadership: Paqui Toscano ’17 ODK National Leader of the Year Paqui Toscano talks about his approach to leadership.

— by on September 5th, 2016

Paqui Toscano '17

“What I think becomes the challenge for the leader — especially in this environment of late-capital America, the home of rugged individualism — is to accept the help, the support, the encouragement of others.”

At the ODK National Convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in June, W&L senior Paqui Toscano was awarded a Gen. Russell E. Dougherty National Leader of the Year Award. Paqui took some time to answer questions about the award and how his time at W&L impacted his approach to leadership.

What were your thoughts when you found out you had won the award?

I was humbled and honored, thrilled and surprised, honestly. The whole experience was surreal. I’m profoundly touched that my peers saw fit to nominate me and that our ODK circle’s voting faculty members deemed me worthy of representing Washington and Lee in this way. That being said, I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that this year we had an especially impressive crop of student leaders and leader of the year nominees who achieved extraordinary feats in the contexts of Mock Convention, academics, campus life, tennis, dance, and, most importantly of all, in the sense of just being wonderful people — people, quite frankly, to whom I look for inspiration in many facets of my life. So you can imagine my shock when I realized that I would be the alpha circle’s candidate for the national competition. Because this distinction reflected the feedback of both peers and faculty members, I have to say it is one that I will continue to treasure for years to come.

The society-wide award-winners are announced at the national convention, which the circle of Grand Valley State University, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hosted this year. It was a two-day experience that afforded me the opportunity to grow in my leadership capabilities and meet a whole host of galvanizing peers, administrators, circle advisors, and notable leaders, such as the athletic director at the University of Memphis. ODK recognizes one Leader of the Year in each of the five phases of campus life: athletics; scholarship; journalism, speech, and the mass media; creative and performing arts; and community, campus, or religious service (including campus government). Then, one of those five is chosen as the overall leader of the year. The whole process remains fairly secretive, to the extent that each of the circle nominees from across the country receive the same e-mail informing us that ODK nationals would love for us to attend the convention, but that the winners will not be notified until after the merriment in Grand Rapids comes to a close. So, of course, I was elated — and caught off guard! — when the presenter began reading biographical information for the scholarship Leader of the Year. I thought to myself, I wonder who this is — until it dawned on me: they were describing me. But what proved to be even more thrilling was being associated with four such stellar student leaders who have so earnestly worked to improve their campuses and our world in other phases of campus life that don’t simply impress, but motivate and empower.

What does “leadership” mean to you as you apply it to day-to-day life?

I believe that leadership begins with the people around us, with amity — in the classical, Aristotelian sense — and empathy and empowerment. In other words, “teamwork” is part and parcel of successful leadership.

If I’m looking for examples to back me up on this front, I need look no further than the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In athletics: the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, a title given to the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, which boasted the most World Series appearances of any MLB team in that decade. Hall-of-famer Sparky Anderson was their manager — and, thus, nominal leader — but his players included hall-of-famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez and hit king Pete Rose, too. Together they won back-to-back World Series titles.

In government, consider the effective mobilization capabilities of iconic figures, and Nobel laureates, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and anti-landmine activist Jody Williams.

In the creative arts, reflect upon the impact that artists have had when they work together: beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and the San Francisco Renaissance they headlined brought to the forefront of our cultural consciousness a new kind of writing that captured the exhaustion of post-World War II America. Before them were the the modernist expatriates Hemingway, Pound, Gertrude Stein, et al., whose influence continues to loom large in this post-postmodern world.

In journalism, think of the team of Washington Post reporters who took down a president: Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, their associates, and the fearless Katharine Graham.

And in academics, recall the many Nobel Prizes that have been shared, such as one for physics by the Curies in 1903 or for medicine and physiology by Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier in 2008 for the discovery of AIDS.

I always find it interesting that people are surprised to discover that works like Homer’s “Iliad” or Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” are “overdetermined,” which is to say that the significant plot-points (i.e., the fall of Troy or Camelot) are not precipitated by any one character but rather can be attributed to a whole score of different precipitates — because, to my way of thinking, all major events or achievements that are worth discussing are “overdetermined.” And while that may not seem to be a revolutionary insight (because it isn’t) what I think becomes the challenge for the leader — especially in this environment of late-capital America, the home of rugged individualism — is to accept the help, the support, the encouragement of others. Put simply, to need others is a state that we all too often scramble to avoid like the plague.

But we’re all needy, at least to some extent. The trick, then, is to harness that neediness in healthy, positive, effective ways. An essential part of doing that, I think, is letting others know you care about them, which is another feat that often proves challenging (for me included). But if we can forge strong, interpersonal bonds, and if we can avail ourselves of these interpersonal networks for the sake of a greater good, whatever that may be, then real change can be effected.

The phrase may be hackneyed and trite, but it’s true — as a fellow ODK member and best friend have reminded me time and time again: “teamwork makes the dream work.” What surely isn’t clichéd, however, is John Donne’s legendary words from “Meditation XVII”: “no man is an island.” I think his sagacious insight is worth remembering.

How has Washington and Lee helped you to understand and implement this concept of leadership?

I’ve been a member of the Student Judicial Council for four years, chaired it my senior year, and served on two committees during my time here at W&L: the Student Body Constitutional Review and the White Book Review Committees. So did a number of other people, and it would be remiss to leave out the dedicated students who spend myriad hours making substantive contributions to Washington and Lee while serving on the Student Faculty Hearing Board and the Executive Committee.

I mention all of this because I believe that the hallmark quality of W&L is the degree to which the faculty and administration trust students to govern themselves, and to play active — no, integral — roles in shaping the nature of that government in the first place. To the casual onlooker, letting the “inmates run the asylum” might seem tantamount to insanity, but we know better. We know that this university cultivates a community of responsible, accountable leaders who, from the very commencement of their college careers, have had this notion inculcated within the gray matter of their minds: coming to Washington and Lee is about more than coming to college. It’s about becoming a member of a community — and not in the passive sense. On the contrary, each of us become empowered — from the first time we hear President Ruscio in Lee Chapel, from the first speech we hear from the EC president, and even from the very first pamphlet we receive in the mail — to help shape and build and form this community of honorable students. We speak truth to power. Yes, we reap the benefits of the Honor System, but each of us — each of the members of Washington and Lee’s student body — also sows its seeds. We’re expected to do so. That’s the W&L way. It’s the way of community building at a time when we’re often faced with the inexorable deluge of narcissism.

Nevertheless, because students hew the contours of the Honor System and conduct standard at this university, students feel a greater sense of ownership, and that’s why it’s not simply a code but a way of life. That’s why student self-governance has been so effective, and that’s why the Honor System has been a, if not the, defining attribute of this institution for over 100 years.

Did anybody in your family help to instill this quality in you while you were growing up?

Yes, they did! My gratitude for all that my parents did and do and for their dedication to helping me become the person I am today is nothing short of ineffable. In fact, one of the greatest teams of which you’ll ever be a part is your family, whether in the biological or handcrafted sense — or both.
When I was two, I was diagnosed with a hearing impairment that, had it gone untreated, could have significantly impacted my life. As it happened, however, my parents were on top of their game: they had me tested and procured the hearing aids most conducive to my impairment; when the time came, I began speech therapy at school and in private sessions with a speech pathologist on a weekly basis. Although they did my exercises with me — and hounded me on the differences between “three” and “free,” much to my chagrin at the time — what my parents most emphasized was that a key aspect to coping with life’s vicissitudes is maintaining a positive attitude, or at least a perseverant one.

Of course, my hearing loss could have been quite a bit worse — in fact, a whole host of things could have happened that would have been far worse — so perhaps it was easier for us to work in this optimistic mode. But I was taught from an early age that there was nothing I couldn’t do because I had “bionic ears” as classmates inevitably referred to them, i.e., there was no reason I could not be an effective communicator. So when I became enthralled with musical theater, began auditioning for community productions, got involved with speech and debate, and developed a passion for presentations of any kind, really, my parents said, “OK,” so here’s what you need to do: you’ll have to take your speech therapy seriously, but we’ll be there to help you do that, every step of the way. Even beyond the money they spent on hearing aids, which goes without saying were essential, and on speech therapy sessions, it was their willingness to sit down with me, to combat my bouts of impatience, that elucidated this key lesson of empowerment: relentless compassion and, if appropriate, empathy reside at the heart of successful relationships, professional and otherwise. What I mean by this is that understanding someone is hurting is one thing — being able to say, “I know this is very difficult” is one thing. But not letting them give up — well, that’s what the leader must do above all else. My parents held my feet to the fire when it came to honing my communication skills, but it has empowered me to become an active member of the teams I’ve been a part of over the course of my college career.

I suppose since I was the scholarship winner I should add too that a large part of why I want to do what I want to do these days, i.e., study and discuss literature for a living, is because I was raised to love books. It wasn’t just a matter of my parents reading to me each night — which is important, and they did. Both sets of grandparents were in on it too: one set would take me to a local bookstore in my hometown every Monday after school, and I was allowed to pick out a book or two. All four of them were always eager to read anything that I had written, and I’m pretty sure my Italian grandma from Little Italy in Manhattan even brought one of my essays to a family viewing once. As I got older, my aunt and I would exchange book recommendations, and then we would talk about them when I got up there to visit. I think we underestimate the potency of reading sometimes. Sure, knowledge is power, but not just in the Machiavellian sense. Reading confers power because it bridges the gaps between individuals, brings people closer together, gives them something to talk about, discuss. It helps us grapple with the difficult and the personal via a fictional world. And most importantly of all, literary fiction can bolster our abilities to understand one another and, in turn, find compassion within our hearts for our fellow human.

If you had to pick one incident during your college years that solidified for you the importance of quality leadership, what would it be?

The summer after my first year of college, a truck struck me down from my bicycle. I suffered a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed below the waist for about a week before, at a gruelingly lackadaisical pace, functionality began to return with the help of a rigorous regimen of inpatient physical and occupational therapy — and then eight more months of outpatient therapy. It was a scary time for my family and me. I was vulnerable. And I was heartbroken when we made the decision for me to withdraw from W&L for a semester. But my interpersonal proximity soon eclipsed the physical distance from W&L I was now forced to endure.

In other words, my Washington and Lee family showed up in full force to support me in the aftermath of the accident. I won’t start a list here, at the risk of leaving something out, but I will say that flowers, candies, cards, shirts, postcards, W&L swag, cookies, DVDs, and even a teddy bear were all part of care packages I received from faculty, staff, and students alike. Friends texted and called. My roommates and I Facetimed regularly.

I’ll be frank: this voluble showing of love made all the difference in the world. It was the first time I realized that some objectives are too gargantuan to go at alone. It may take a village to raise a child, but here’s what everyone seems to forget: we suddenly don’t stop needing that village just because we’ve hit the other side of puberty. This realization has become a core pillar of my leadership philosophy ever since.

That first birthday after the accident, three of my best friends and roommates, who had navigated every turn by my side in the aftermath of the accident, presented me with a new cane — a wooden, antique, elegant cane. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes. How fitting that three people who had done so much to get me through those darkest months of my life now bought me this perfect present, one that literally would support me. It seems to be a metaphor for something — a reminder that we are only as good as the people with whom we associate ourselves, the people who are willing to prop us up in the good times and the bad. Or that we’re only as sturdy as the cane they give us. That’s what I think good leadership is really about, finding those kinds of people who relentlessly support you or the project you’re working on together (which is to say that they’re not just yes-men), figuratively, physically, and with an imaginative birthday gift here and there. With them, you can accomplish your goals, and even the broken might well get up and walk again.

How do you think national political leaders today could benefit from ODK principles?

What I most admire about the ODK philosophy is that the society approaches the topic of leadership from every aspect imaginable because too often, I think, the student government officer doesn’t understand the awesome — in the sense of awe-inspiring — ways in which the athlete is exhibiting leadership, and vice-versa. Or the journalist is focused on reporting the next story without attending the latest play, where the performers force us to examine the human condition in ways we never have before, and these performers were perhaps too busy from tech week to read the latest report on the school newspaper’s blog. You see where I’m going with this. My point is that ODK forces us to be mindful of one another’s accomplishments and, more importantly still, one another in general. It is a rare thing we try to foster — contemplativeness — especially in this era of bitter polarization, ubiquitous screens, and the 24-hour news cycle. And so, without delving into the political landmines of this current election, I believe it’s this mindfulness, this multi-faceted approach to leadership, of which our leaders too often lose sight — especially since we have begun to conflate rudeness with the ostensible defiance of political correctness, and under this guise tacitly countenance vulgar remarks regarding someone’s gender, ethnicity, or state of ability.

With this award you will receive a $1,000 scholarship for graduate-level study. What are your post-graduation plans?

I’m very thankful for the funds this scholarship affords me. Right now, my plan is to pursue a Ph.D. in English with a specialty either in contemporary American literature or early-modern poetry, focusing on John Milton and the metaphysical poets John Donne and George Herbert. When I began college at W&L, I was fairly certain that a legal career was in my future, but I soon realized that I want the opportunity to pay the invaluable love, support and encouragement I received from so many members of the W&L community forward. And I want the opportunity to help others realize the reparative and empowering and inspirational potential of literature because writing and reading were such important pillars of my rehabilitation. They still keep me sane! After working as a research assistant in the classics department for my advisor Dr. Rebecca Benefiel and a summer scholar for my English advisor Dr. Genelle Gertz and, perhaps most importantly of all, completing my English honors thesis on the importance of place in Marilynne Robinson’s award-winning “Iowa Cycle,” I couldn’t help but realize the way that academic work brought me joy and fulfillment — how it was challenging and trying and all the more rewarding because it was intellectually engaging. Plus, the atmosphere of the academy is one I would very much like to continue to be a part of.

Ideally I would begin my doctoral work in the fall of 2017, but I’m also considering other options, such as interning and/or teaching at a private high school, enrolling in a master’s program, or going abroad, should I be so lucky to be accepted to a U.K. fellowship. There are some amazing disability studies programs focusing on the depiction of disability in literature as well as classical reception postgraduate courses in England that sound as though they would complement my research interests marvelously. But ultimately, as I mentioned before, the goal is to become a teacher-scholar, like so many of the people who have most inspired me at W&L, and hopefully write some fiction, probably creative non-fiction, about my experience too.