The Aspen Institute Seminar

The Aspen Institute: A six-day Executive Seminar of Leadership, Values and the Good Society 

By Ethan S. Rafuse

In 1647, England was a bitterly divided society.  Among those who had taken the side of Parliament in its struggle with the crown, the question had arisen of just how far they should push their efforts to reform the country’s politics and society.  A group that came to be known as The Levellers championed a more expansive vision than had heretofore prevailed of who could and should be able to exercise leadership, one that reflected their goal of levelling social distinctions. This was all laid out in a document entitled, “An Agreement of the People.”  Others disagreed profoundly with this vision and did not hesitate to challenge the prescriptions of the Levellers and the views of society, human nature, and values.  In the end, the Levellers failed to achieve their goals in seventeenth century England.  Nonetheless, they and their adversaries left for future generations a profound discussion of their differences to reflect on as they wrestled with the question of what ideas and values can and should support a good society.


In May 2015, 13 individuals with experience with the many challenges of leadership in a variety of fields, from education to the law to the uniformed military, gathered for the Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar on Leadership, Values and the Good Society.  The purpose of this six-day seminar was to give participants a break from the day-to-day concerns of their professional and personal lives.  This six-day seminar was designed to enable participants, in line with the vision that inspired Walter Paepcke to found the Aspen Institute in 1950, to not only take the time to read the writings of philosophers, religious leaders, and others who have wrestled with the question of what values define and govern a good society, but reflect on, critically think about, and discuss the ideas contained in those works in seminars moderated by accomplished facilitators.

The purpose of the seminar was to stretch the minds of participants to bring a broader perspective to the challenges they face and better appreciate the complexity of the human experience, as well as instill a sense of personal and professional reinvigoration.  In addition, activities were built into the seminar schedule, such as a kayaking expedition along the Wye River, that not only contributed to the mental and physical reinvigoration of the participants, but offered opportunities to continue and expand on the conversations stimulated by the readings and discussions outside the seminar room.

Held at the Aspen Institute’s Wye River Campus on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the debate stimulated by that “Agreement of the People” served as the starting point for the seminar.  After engaging the arguments laid out in that debate, seminar participants studied and discussed the takes on human nature contained in the writings of Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others. This was followed by sessions devoted to the arguments contained in the Declaration of Independence, as well as the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, William Graham Sumner, Plato, John Locke, Ibn Khaldûn, and others regarding individual rights, liberty, and property, and an evening wrestling with the questions of law and human nature raised in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

The question of leadership is inextricably wrapped up in questions of community and the amount of weight equality and the pursuit of social welfare are given in the value structures that govern particular societies, matters for which writings by the likes of Karl Marx, Arthur Okun, Martin Luther King Jr. Alexis de Tocqueville, and Elizabeth Bishop offered compelling points of debate and reflection.  A production of Sophocles’s Antigone by seminar participants, who were free to put their own creative slant on it (aided by one who brought to the task experience in the theater in general and this particular play in particular), enabled them to not only have fun and indulge their creative and artistic sides, but wrestle with the questions the play raises regarding leadership and the challenge of balancing principles and practicality when dealing with problems.  The final sessions of the seminar were devoted to readings by Vaclav Havel and Ursula LeGuin that forced participants to consider the question of balancing competing values, and discussion of James O’Toole’s concept of the four poles—liberty, equality, efficiency, and community—which O’Toole argues, as they have for centuries, continue to “tug like polar forces at the American system of government and at society as a whole.”[1]

Participants in the seminar were not provided with clear-cut, prescriptive solutions to the challenge of leadership.  Indeed, the very nature of the endeavor ensures that what each participant contributes to the seminar, and takes away from it, will be as varied as the range of challenges the modern world presents to those who exercise leadership.[2]   What the seminar provided was a better appreciation of the complexities of human thought and the fact that disagreements over goals and the ways in which they are to be pursued are rooted in the nature of man.

Information about future seminars, which take place at the Institute’s campus in Aspen, Colorado, as well as at Wye River, and the process for applying can be found on the Aspen Institute Seminar webpage.

[1] James O’Toole, The Executive’s Compass: Business and the Good Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 27.  O’Toole developed the ideas in this work as a consequence of his experience participating in and moderating the Aspen Executive Seminar.

[2] The author, for instance, found insights from the Aspen Executive Seminar, especially O’Toole’s concept of the four poles of a good society, to be useful for framing discussions of cultural differences while leading seminars designed to prepare international officers for attendance at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

Ethan S. Rafuse is a professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the author, editor, or co-editor of eleven books.  He participated in the Aspen Seminar in May 2015, offering a wildly mediocre performance as Creon in its production of Antigone.