Kjarkur, leadership and life stories

Surrounded by lava fields, mountains and glaciers, Davenport University Professor Chris Hamstra spent a few chilly weeks at Bifröst University in Iceland last summer.

As a guest instructor, Hamstra shared his perspectives on leadership life stories and servant leadership with students from around the globe as part of “Connecting Across Borders,” a pilot program at DU.

The program, supported by a grant from the M.E. Davenport Legacy Endowment Fund, encourages faculty members to travel abroad for research or teaching purposes.

“If we want to get where the world is going, we should be able to do that as faculty,” said Hamstra, who has taught at DU for more than a decade. “We live in this really big world and we get focused in narrowly. An opportunity abroad helps you see the bigger picture. Learning can surprise us when we open our eyes and get out to explore.”

Exploring leadership and courage at Bifröst

Bifröst University, which sits in the shadow of a long-dormant volcano, is a private nonprofit university in a small community. But its programs attract students from around the globe.

“We had 27 students from 13 countries, including from India, Austria, Germany, Canada, Brazil, the U.S., Spain and Columbia,” he said. “I was the only faculty member from the U.S. Others were from Iceland, the Netherlands, Germany and Mexico.”

In addition to time spent in the classroom, Hamstra had the opportunity to experience Iceland alongside faculty and students during planned excursions.

“We met an entrepreneur who is running a strawberry farm, toured a brewery, saw an Icelandic horse farm and visited the farm that houses goats used in Game of Thrones,” he said. “It was neat to see the entrepreneurship, cooperation and stubbornness of Iceland.”

The life experiences and formative moments of meeting new people, discovering cultures and facing challenges lead to what Hamstra defines as leadership life stories, which tie to personal and professional learning and success.

“Leadership life stories are based on communication and an interaction,” he said. “Instead of leadership being influence, you are co-creating knowledge with people. In my mind, leadership life stories are about developing personal identity and professional meaning.”

The development of identity and pursuit of new experiences takes “kjarkur,” Hamstra said. While there is no direct translation, this Icelandic word most closely connects to the idea of courage.

“While courage certainly means to be brave in difficult situations, the Nordic understanding adds a level of intensity,” he said. “Kjarkur is deeper and explains a gut-based sense of purpose and action, an engagement of risk. Let me get specific: Kjarkur means being bold and getting the work done.”

It takes kjarkur to engage in personal growth, to collaborate and to lead others, Hamstra said.

“While many view leadership as influence, I choose to see leadership as a co-constructed process that is built through the dialogue of human communication,” he said. “Kjarkur in the context of leadership life stories recognizes that each day we have the choice to interact with others.”

Within these interactions people engage in not only their life stories but also the opportunity to contribute to the life stories of others, Hamstra said. It is an ongoing process of co-construction, community, courage and adventure.


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