Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Continuing Discussions about Leaders Developing Leaders

What works in developing a campus culture in which leaders and leadership flourish, where risk-taking and innovation become part of the institutional DNA?

Two answers to that question from the PKAL perspective:

  • what works is when colleagues take time to discuss issues that matter, in the context of coming to grips with institutional challenges and opportunities for shaping such a culture: (PKAL Café Scientifique).
  • what works is when there are informal opportunities for conversations about what leadership is and what leaders do, given a specific institutional context.

The process of understanding what works builds from a collective understanding of what leadership is. From observing leaders in action and reflecting on wisdom from the field, the PKAL “work-in-progress definition of leadership” is that:

  • leadership is concerned with fostering change.
  • leadership is inherently value-based.
  • all people are potential leaders.
  • leadership is in essence a group process.

Leadership Reconsidered

The idea that all people are potential leaders seems to be a difficult concept, particularly for STEM faculty at an early career stage. Thus, we have been gathering reports from the community about how leadership emerges and develops in context, about how leaders create and sustain environments in which leaders and leadership flourish.

Members of the PKAL F21 Class of 2007 were invited capture the story of a senior colleague who represented the kind of scholar/leader they aspire to become. This was an opportunity for a rising leader to learn how a meaningful career evolves in context. The "capturing a story" strategy was designed to have impact on the personal relationship between leaders at different career stages as well as on the plans of a junior scholar as he or she plots a professional future. But we hope it also enhances the sense of community on the campus, building a culture in which such opportunities for sharing stories becomes part of the institutional DNA.

This was a new experience for most, taking time for formal and somewhat public reflections about what leadership meant, in the context of a specific campus culture. We “borrowed” questions from Creativity (the study by Mihaly Cskiszentmihalyi on the creative process) as a framework for the story-telling exercise, including:

  • Of the things you have done in life, of what are you most proud?
  • In what ways have colleagues been important for your professional identity and success? (Indeed, the insights from Creativity were one catalyst for shaping this story-telling initiative.)
  • What matters in shaping an institutional culture in which leadership flourishes?

As valuable as the individual stories are, it is also of value to note reasons given by the F21 members for their choice of “story-tellers.” For example:

  • I chose to interview a senior colleague who is also leader of the faculty hockey team, someone who is amazingly fast, can pass behind his back to either direction (almost impossible to do). He commands our respect because of his expertise and for his ability to organize sessions, to figure out how will play with whom and how often, and to keep us competitive....
  • I chose to interview my former department chair, because I learned from him how a leader shares the responsibility for getting something done, recognizing that the true learning about leadership occurs not by watching how someone else performs the task, but by doing it yourself....
  • I choose to interview the coordinator of undergraduate programs in my department, who insists on a spirit of openness. He makes a point of keeping everyone up to date on current issues in undergraduate education and ensures that everyone has the opportunity to contribute to a discussion on how we should address those issues....
  • I choose to interview my current department chair, who is a leadership fixture on our campus. He brings classical literature, Greek mythology, and historical perspectives into his bio-diversity classes. He suggests his ability to empathize with students is because he was put on probation in the middle of his freshman year in college. I spent my first year here as an adjunct, and he treated me as a full member of the department. Indeed, he attends to the practical and academic needs of all new faculty. His door is always open, and he has devoted countless hours to my professional development. Geographically blessed have I been with an office in close proximity to his....
  • I chose to interview a strong woman faculty leader on our campus, who wanted me to remember that leaders not only make a difference, but make a lasting difference....

Some insights on leadership from that final interview, responding to the question, “In what way(s) have colleagues been important for your professional identity and success?” She said:

    “What I think that question is getting to is mentoring. I think everyone needs a mentor, particularly women, who have so many other things going on. So I’ve always tried to identify someone who can mentor me, asking right up front, “would you mind being my mentor?” The person I latched onto when I came to this campus was someone with a macro view of things, with a certain intuitive sensitivity to how things are going that others did not seem to possess. Because of that, I think some think she is always too much ‘on the edge,’ but I like being on the edge on occasion.”

    “Most hierarchical organizations, which unfortunately still exist, are overflowing with policies and procedures. I love that stuff— bylaws and all— but the fact of the matter is that when we’re all so structured in trying to do things methodically, we’re missing out on the real fun part— finding the great ideas that come when you step off the path and get into some other zone that is much more creative. There was never a time that she put me off, always asking questions— which I think is another characteristic of a leader: they ask questions and they listen to the answers.”

    “How many not-so-great leaders do we know? They just talk and talk and talk, and they don’t sit back to really scan the environment, to ask some hard questions— even obvious questions, and then sit back and really listen to those answers.”