Winona State University student Caleb Gernes tied a bow tie while reciting the Latsch Leadership Academy creed last Thursday.
by CHRIS ROGERS
The audience watched the ritual. With the mayor and the provost at his back, Caleb Gernes stood in front of the small crowd in a sleek black suit and a bow tie hanging loosely around his neck. He tied it ceremoniously, reciting the group’s creed with each loop.
It was a new ritual for a new group. The Winona State University (WSU) College of Business founded the John A. Latsch Leadership Academy this spring, and on Thursday, the group inducted new students into its ranks. What is it exactly?
Gernes — a WSU student who helped College of Business Dean Hamid Akbari found the Latsch Leadership Academy this year — likened the academy to an honor society. Students are invited to join the academy by the dean. To be eligible for induction, they must have good grades, participate in at least one organization — preferably in a leadership role, attend academy activities, and read a book on leadership and discuss it with fellow prospects, the members explained. The group’s mission and values seem to stress social responsibility to these future business leaders.
“The idea is to recognize people who have already gone above and beyond in the student community or on campus,” student and academy member Chris Welsh said. He added that the academy aims to teach students “to do the right thing, whether someone’s looking or not.”
“I love the idea of servant leadership — that we become leaders by serving others, not by bossing other people around,” Gernes said, adding that the group was also about networking. “For me, it’s meeting like-minded people, very ambitious,” he stated.
The academy organized a food drive this fall that collected over 100 items, and its members said they hope to do some kind of community service project once a semester. “The idea is to use our collective skills to better the community, and we’re getting valuable leadership opportunities by doing so,” said academy member Jonathan Ta.
Around the room at Thursday’s ceremony, flat-screen televisions displayed messages about the group’s commitment to ethical, humble leadership and the values of environmentalism and community service demonstrated by early-20th-century Winonan John Latsch.
“We follow not only the legacy and values of John Latsch but of Native American tribes and communities,” Akbari said during Thursday’s ceremony. Winona is on ancestral Dakota land, he stated, adding, “We recognize and respect that.”
Lastch was a turn-of-the-century businessman and avid canoeist who became a local hero for using his personal fortune to buy up tens of thousands of acres of private land and dedicate them to be public parks and preserves, as well as for his generosity with his employees and less fortunate Winonans. In recent years, the bow tie has become his symbol. Mary Farrell, the maker of a documentary film on Latsch and the founder of the Winona Catholic Worker, wore one while she told the business students, “Let’s celebrate the legacy of John Latsch, a man of great wealth who chose to use it for the good of community.” Peter Shortridge, a local developer who recently renovated one of Latsch’s former downtown buildings, spoke about how Latsch gave his employees bonuses and time off and how Latsch’s will ensured that his employees would have jobs for years after his death. “He really treated employees like family. There’s maybe a little bit of that missing today. Please try to embody it in your businesses going forward,” he told the students.
“At first, I thought it was unusual. For a guy who is this important to the community, I don’t know much about him,” Ta admitted. However, he added, “[In Latsch] I see a lot of the things I like about this school and this town and a lot of the reasons why I wanted to come here … There is a feeling of neighbors helping neighbors, and there’s this very close camaraderie.”
Akbari said that part of the goal of the academy is to foster more connection to Winona history and the Winona community among students, so that when they graduate, they remember not only their college experience but that they were part of Winona itself. “Societies everywhere in the world have been dependent on leader role models, and the best leaders and role models are local and community-based,” he stated.
Ta graduated from WSU on Friday with a resumé full of achievements on campus and a job lined up at the multinational auditing and consulting firm Deloitte. He was given a lifetime membership in the academy at Thursday’s ceremony. Asked what that lifetime membership means, Ta thought for a second. “As you go on in your life, as you go on in your career, do your best to uphold those John Latsch values,” he said, adding that that means putting the betterment of people and the betterment of the community first.
Asked if he saw a lot of that kind of ethical leadership in the business world, Ta replied, “I don’t know. There are definitely people, successful people out there that are very Latsch-like.” Shortridge had pointed to Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett as examples of that, and Ta cited Whole Foods CEO John Mackey as another. “You can be very successful in business; you can be very wealthy and not do it at the expense of people,” Ta stated.