Lessons in Global Leadership

Fox Leadership International celebrates five years of shaping the next generation of global problem-solvers.

Monday, May 6, 2019

By Ava R. DiFabritiis

Photos courtesy of Joe Tierney

Energy development, extreme poverty, environmental protection: Major global problems like these may seem insurmountable given their complexity and scale. Can any one person truly effect change?

“‘Light a single candle rather than curse the darkness’ is the right response. But we want you to learn how to build the electric company,” says John DiIulio, Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society and Founding Director of Fox Leadership International (FLI).

In the five years since its inception, FLI has prepared hundreds of students for roles as effective leaders who work to advance human well-being. FLI programming builds aptitude for global leadership and problem-solving through classroom training and on-the-ground experience, including international fellowships and cultural immersion trips.

The program originated as an offshoot of Penn Arts & Sciences’ hub of leadership education, the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program. In 2014, a gift from namesake benefactors Robert A. Fox, C’52, and Penny Grossman Fox, Ed’53 enabled Fox Leadership to expand its reach beyond U.S. borders. In the tradition of its forerunner, FLI aspires to help students discover their passions and harness them to address the world’s challenges.

“Fox Leadership International expands the reach and influence of leadership education. Our students receive globally minded training and, through a combination of classroom learning and fellowships, have the opportunity to effect real change,” says Steven J. Fluharty, Dean and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Pharmacology, and Neuroscience.


(L–R): Ambassador Zhang Qiyue, Consul General of China in New York, and John DiIulio, Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society and Director of the Fox Leadership Program, at a breakfast for Global Leadership and Problem Solving summer program students in July 2016.



While FLI programming encompasses a broad range of countries, China is the focal point. This emphasis not only capitalizes on Penn’s growing engagement with China, but enables students to study one of the world’s most influential nations. DiIulio views China as a “pedagogical goldmine” for teaching students how to contribute and serve in any environment, given its massive population and rapid pace of development. “Here was an opportunity to use our leadership and problem-solving approach in a completely different context with a completely different political, economic, and social system,” he says. “Yet so many of their problems—environmental, eldercare, traffic congestion, on and on and on—are not radically different from problems you find everywhere else.”

Through the efforts of over 50 staff, faculty, and affiliates from Penn and beyond, FLI has become a powerhouse of global civic impact. More than 100 Penn students and alumni have traveled to 15 countries through FLI fellowships. The annual Global Leadership and Problem-Solving summer program for Chinese college students has doubled in size and become a model for U.S.–China cultural exchange. And to kick off FLI’s fifth year, the team developed its first degree-granting program, an International Master of Public Administration (I-MPA) that was launched in fall 2018 in partnership with the College of Liberal & Professional Studies.

Designed for students with proficiency in Mandarin, the one-year I-MPA program imparts the skills needed to work collaboratively across borders and sectors. Students are challenged to become “ethical, effective, and entrepreneurial leaders,” says FLI Executive Director and I-MPA Instructor Joe Tierney.

“In the I-MPA, globally minded students will find the tools they need to build high-impact careers in public service, NGOs, and commerce,” says Nora Lewis, Vice Dean for Professional and Liberal Education. “The program’s comparative approach exposes students to the shared challenges facing public-sector leaders around the world and demonstrates how local context influences decision-making and solutions.”

The inaugural cohort of 13 students will be followed by one nearly four times the size in fall 2019. Together, the cohort moves through courses in contemporary Sino-American relations, public administration issues, and leadership ethics. The program culminates in two capstone projects: a group exercise in confronting global challenges, and an independent biographical analysis of a public leader.

Infused into the curriculum is FLI’s signature “principled but pragmatic” brand of global leadership. I-MPA instructors emphasize that global problem-solving is “not just about good intentions” and well-crafted policy, says DiIulio.


Chao Guo, Associate Faculty Director of FLI and Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management at the School of Social Policy & Practice, lectures at an eldercare workshop in Nanjing, China, in June 2018. Back on campus, Guo serves as faculty director of the newly launched I-MPA program.



“Intellectual strength as a pure good is wonderful,” he says. “But being able to think about, in practical terms, how to translate ideas into action—that’s a different art and science.”

“It’s all about implementation,” says Tierney. “A great idea poorly implemented is often worse than an average idea well implemented. The implementation makes the policy better or worse.”

The I-MPA curriculum takes a case-based approach to illustrate implementation techniques. Students analyze and solve issues unfolding in real time, from malaria control in Africa to food security in Bangladesh. The deepest dive of the program’s case studies is the eldercare crisis in China.

As China’s elderly population swells—at the current rate, it will equal the entire U.S. population by 2050—the nation faces a critical shortage of nurses and institutional care options. Attitudes on eldercare are influenced by filial piety, the Confucian virtue of respect for one’s parents that is central to Chinese culture. The inverted-pyramid family structure that proliferated under the one-child policy places great responsibility on the shoulders of only children.

The FLI team has witnessed the resonance of this issue through interactions with students, many of whom have shared concerns about supporting their families. “There is a Confucian saying: ‘Wherever you go, go with all your heart.’ We followed Confucius and chose an issue close to people’s hearts,” DiIulio says.

The I-MPA’s group capstone asks students to collectively design a plan to address China’s eldercare needs. To aid their inquiry, the cohort taps into the expertise housed in FLI’s Joint Project on Eldercare in China (J-PEC). This research and service partnership with Chinese universities and corporations aims to enrich understanding and promote public awareness of China’s eldercare challenges. J-PEC affiliates, which include Penn School of Nursing Science faculty, investigate topics like healthcare services, development of the geriatric workforce, and population characteristics.

The eldercare case study spans a diverse array of fields, including cultural anthropology, sociology, economics, nursing, and social work. This is emblematic of FLI’s interdisciplinary nature.

To teach students how to weigh competing viewpoints and make decisions, FLI integrates knowledge from fields like behavioral economics, positive psychology, and game theory. This multifaceted approach prepares students to lead in complex environments. “We preach boundary-spanning leadership, which means across sectors—government, for profit, and nonprofit—and across international boundaries,” DiIulio says.

Whether through international fellowships, interdisciplinary research projects, or academic programs, the FLI team hopes to give students confidence in their leadership ability. Tierney regularly shares his mantra with students: “I have to help you identify, develop, and apply your unique skills.”

Equipped with leadership principles and comparative perspective, FLI’s students are poised to join the next generation of global changemakers. “We want them to believe that there is capacity, even for a single individual, to make a difference,” DiIulio says. “And not just a small difference.”


Global Leadership and Problem-Solving summer program students visit the Supreme Court in 2017.



Fox at 20

The Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, the sister program to FLI, celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2019. Founded through a gift from Robert A. Fox, C’52, and Penny Grossman Fox, Ed’53, the program has sought to empower undergraduates to become civic leaders through service and research opportunities, service-learning courses, and mentorship. Fox Fellowships, the centerpiece of the program, have been awarded to over 1,100 students and alumni over the past two decades. Guiding the future of Fox is John Lapinski, Robert A. Fox Professor of Political Science, who succeeded John DiIulio as the Faculty Director of the Fox Leadership Program in 2018.