George Goethals headshot

Q&A with George Goethals

May 5, 2023

Social psychologist George R. (Al) Goethals joined the Jepson School of Leadership Studies faculty in 2006 as the E. Claiborne Robins Distinguished Professor in Leadership Studies. From 1970-2005, he was on the faculty at Williams College, where he also served as provost and founded and chaired the Leadership Studies Program.

Goethals’ research focuses on presidential leadership and heroism. The author or editor of more than 20 books, he is the recipient of numerous national and international awards and fellowships, including, most recently, the International Leadership Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. On May 4, on the eve of his retirement, he received the Jepson School Award for Leadership and Service and the designation professor emeritus of leadership studies.

What follows is a Q&A about his 53-year career in higher education, including his 17-year tenure at the University of Richmond.

How have you connected your social psychology discipline to leadership studies?

I was always interested in the presidency. As a high school student, I watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960 with fascination. That same year, I picked up a paperback copy of “John Kennedy: A Political Profile” by James MacGregor Burns. Ten years later, after joining the Williams faculty as a young assistant professor of psychology, I met Jim Burns, by then a nationally acclaimed presidential biographer and senior political science professor at Williams.

Other meetings followed. Particularly memorable was an impromptu conversation in 1972 when Jim told me he wanted to understand the psychology behind leadership, what motivates leaders and followers. He seemed entranced as we discussed psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In 1978, Jim introduced his theory of transforming leadership with the publication of “Leadership,” widely regarded as the seminal book in the leadership studies field.

Years later, in 1997, after he was retired, Jim prodded me to start a leadership studies program at Williams, which I did. In spring 2004, I taught at the Jepson School while I was on sabbatical from Williams. Jim was serving as Jepson’s senior scholar, at the time, and was working with leadership scholar Georgia Sorenson on a general theory of leadership. I became very involved with this book project. In 2006, I joined the faculty of the Jepson School, where I have continued to research presidential leadership. 

Which research and book projects were most fulfilling?

Researching presidential leadership has been most meaningful. “Presidential Leadership and African Americans,” published in 2015, looks at the race relations record of eight presidents. “Realignment, Region, and Race: Presidential Leadership and Social Identity,” published in 2018, delves into how and why the Republican Party, once the party of emancipation and Black rights, and the Democratic Party, once the party of white supremacy, swapped places. I’ve also enjoyed writing books on the psychology of heroism with University of Richmond colleague Scott Allison, now professor emeritus of psychology.     

What did you enjoy most about teaching?

I enjoyed the small, discussion-based classes. If the first digit of my class roster was a two, I didn’t like it. When I served on the committee that recommended the creation of the first-year seminars, I fought to limit the class size to 16. The ideal class size is 16 to 19 students.

I also enjoyed my class trips. When I took my Civil War Leadership class to Gettysburg and my Presidential Leadership class to Monticello, the students could see how leadership happened on the ground in a real situation—something they’d only read about previously. I enjoyed watching them revel in the moment of learning and bond with each other during meals. They learned a lot, and the trips made the classes feel like a collaborative process. I am grateful the Jepson School has the resources to support these kinds of experiences.

What’s next?

I plan to research how the political landscape has changed over the years and the key players. I’ll look at the relationship between leaders and followers. Who is leading? Trump or his base?

My wife and I will continue to split our time between Richmond and Raquette Lake in the Adirondacks, where we have a summer home. Maybe I’ll take up the guitar again!