I am the leader of this ship.

Musings on Leadership, Organization, and Administration.

I am the leader of this ship.

Conditioned for Competition

December 4th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

Recently a few of my friends and I watched Michael Moore’s Capitalism:  A Love Story.  It was framed through the context of Moore’s critical eye on the government and its tendency to pander to large corporations; Moore has every reason to be critical.  Corporations, once the site of unionized workers and varying degrees of economic stability, worked to provide a whole lot to very few.  This, unfortunately, has become a dominant thought in many of the corporations that essentially run this country.  The conduit for it all?  Our economic structure—capitalism.

In reading the article on servant-leadership, I saw the companies that have outlined servant-leadership in their mission.  These companies, in the grand scheme of American companies, are anomalies.  I think of my brother’s line of work and wonder how to convince folks in his work to embrace servant-leadership or find the love in the working together as outlined in Wheatley’s article “Love and Fear in Organizations.”  He works in the financial industry for a corporation that works with on bankruptcy buy-outs and mergers and acquisitions.  His industry has a primary motivation—money.  In times of economic hardship like those in which we find ourselves now, money becomes even more central to these firms.  Bonuses are used as incentive leverage.  The idea is to keep moving up in the rank because of the financial opportunities available.  Your colleagues are your competition.  This, from what I understand, is the dominant thought in this big business society under capitalism.  It has become a thought that spread beyond the confines of Wall Street and into the schools of small farm towns.  We are a society conditioned for competition.

Knowing this, it is possible that humans change.  I have to believe that.  I have to believe that there comes a time when people cannot stand the competition and reject it.  It is a matter of how one comes to realize that money is not the conduit to happiness.  I believe that is hard for folks in our society to understand.  But it is possible.  I think of those anomaly companies I hear about on the radio or on the news—the companies that want to make work fun and egalitarian.  Jobs at those firms are hard to come by; the fever’s catching on.   I’d love to see an insider look at those firms now, in tight financial times.  Do they look the same?  Are folks still happy even if they had to take a pay cut?

We, as Americans, have a sickness.  We vote on others’ identities on the basis of financial considerations.  We do things just for a tax cut; we’ll even hire someone to help us find any way to not part with our money.  We hire people to help us get more.  We bought into the false consciousness that our material worth correlates with personal worth.  It is a tough one to undo.  But we can.

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Playing the Professional

December 4th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

“Do the right thing.”  “Be professional.”  “Lead by example.”  I think about the folks who write articles about professionalism and wonder how well they abide by the suggestions they put forth.  These are all noble attributes for which one should strive, but I think people not abiding by these is a result of human error and lack of cognizance.  How do you work with folks who consistently err and do not come to a self-realization of these errors?  Whose responsibility is it to help leaders realize their blinders?

Freeman and Ryan write, “Failure to maintain a focus on leading with professionalism will make it probable that your actions and words will lose a connection with your personal values.”  This presumes that one’s personal values are reflective of an overall sense of professionalism, however one might define that ubiquitous word.  How is one’s set of personal values conducive to professionalism?  Could Marquis de Sade lead an organization with his personal values defining a sense of professionalism?  I think of the Wheatley article we read at the beginning of the course talking about the effectiveness of terrorist organizations in accomplishing something.  Is that toxic leadership, duping others into falling in line with one’s personal values to accomplish something greater (and potentially more harmful)?

Last night I was talking with a friend of mine about Ram Dass’s work Be Here Now.  A teacher friend gave it to me in my last year at the school when my frustration level and concern about the future ran amuck.  It reminded me to re-orient myself, to revel in the present and try to really BE HERE NOW.  Though I do not view working in an organization in a spiritual sense, there are enriching experiences that can lead to greater spiritual and personal understanding.  But we so often neglect to be in the moment, in the present.  It makes me question how much we actively listen versus how often we pretend and let the thought-train in our minds drown out the sound of someone else’s verbalized thought-train.   I know so often I’ve only caught pieces of conversation because of being pre-occupied with thoughts of things I have and want to do and whatever obsessions may be holding court in my mind.  In a future-oriented world, where we anticipate needs and projected outcomes, how do we stay grounded in our work in the present?  It requires much self-checking and a re-training to combat the socialization of productivity ideals.  We live in the future; how do we begin to savor the process instead of the product in terms of professionalism?

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Building Together

November 15th, 2010 · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

I am struck by Margaret Wheatley’s essay “Relationships:  the Basic Building Blocks of Life.” It is not that Wheatley reveals anything necessarily novel; it is the calling attention to the importance of relationships that resounds.  The United States values individualism as a core part of its founding.  As a result, the tendency to operate in silos pervades.  Organizations are divided into a hierarchical structure and the folks on the floor of an operation may rarely see those at the administrative top of an organization.  This begs the question of how to build a shared vision with someone whom one never sees?

For productivity as an organization, there must be an element of buy-in from those involved in the organization.  Wheatley notes that many people surveyed indicated that relationships with colleagues tend to be at the top of the list for employee measures of satisfaction and comfort.  These relationships add to one’s sense of purpose in an organization.  If someone is never or rarely ever acknowledged for one’s work or simply one’s presence, from where does one generate purpose in the organization?

I think on my own experiences and how they were shaped by the relationships developed within each context.  I gush over the Academic Success Center here at OSU because it feels like what I like to call a “professional home.”  Everyone works hard at and feels passionate about their respective roles.  There is a general sense of collaboration; on a given day, I speak with at least three of the folks in the ASC about student concerns, questions about procedures, or just as a means of connecting.  There is a reason for me to come into work; I know I am surrounded by folks who feel similarly about working with students and education in general.  We each have our own beliefs about education and maintain some sense of individuality but that only makes our shared vision stronger.  We each bring with us a unique perspective about the overarching value we share.

This was not the case, however, at the school at which I taught in New York City.  The vision for the school was unclear aside from our administration stressing the importance of students achieving particular standardized test scores.  There was no shared vision of education because we did not have the chance to interact about this as a staff.  The principal’s door was often closed, a silently loud indication that she was uninterested in relating.  The same could be said of all but one of the assistant principals.  The one assistant principal whose door stayed open was the most connected to the staff; she was the only person of the administrative staff to have a true sense of the pulse of the staff.  And she was the one most scrutinized by the administration.

I believe in humans’ sheer need for interconnectivity.  As Wheatley says, relationships are the building blocks.  We are better together, even in disagreement.  We will learn through interactions with each other.  We will give each other a reason to come into work.  Great things were built only through the collaboration of others.

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Leadership False Consciousness

November 8th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

As I think of what makes a good leader of an organization, I return to the importance of a leader standing by what s/he believes in.  If that is absent, what is the leadership of the organization?  Leaders must have a clear vision of one’s beliefs for the organization to be the visionary who sees an organization through progress.

I committed to being an advocate, ally, and promoter of social justice when I saw differential treatment for my students in New York.  Students’ ethnic identities were used divisively to explain behavioral issues and learning differences.  The students were divided as well, creating alliances with others as a means to build an oppressive presence to those not in the selected ethnic identities.  I heard it daily and began talking about this as a problem; I met some support, but a lot of opposition from my colleagues and supervisors.

I sought to develop my leadership for diversity at a national institute last week.  Prior to attending, I envisioned a forum for rich discussion, examining institutional oppression and talking about how to create community that disrupts these stale institutional policies.  It was connoted a safe space, drawing people from multiple identities and perspectives to join a conversation aimed at furthering social justice work.  I was excited to meet these like minds and the person who spearheaded the entire organization dedicated to this work.

I quickly learned that the way this organization and its leader aimed to create this dialog was through provoking participants’ catharsis surrounding experiences with oppression.  The idea was to learn about oppression and the way others view oppressive acts through one’s own experiences.  Confidentiality was suggested by a show of hands of those who would not take others’ stories out of the confines of the institute.  People cried, exposed raw and vulnerable parts of their personal histories, and directed the individual to say what they would have said in the moment of the oppression, often after someone “playing” the oppressor repeated the bigoted or oppressive statement the participant heard in the experience.  This was meant to build coalition.  I am still unable to understand this link.

Perhaps I am unable to understand because of the hypocrisy between the words and actions of the leader of this organization.   After caucusing about what each identity group did not want others to say, do to, or think about each group, the groups shared these with the rest of the participants.  In an one-on-one interaction with the director of this organization, I was silenced by her oppressive actions, doing exactly what the caucus had outlined as unacceptable twenty minutes prior to my interaction with her.  When I brought this to her attention, her dismissive apology cemented my disbelief in her ability to lead, at least me, in doing social justice work and coalition building.  For the next two days, I listened to how to facilitate this coalition building, hearing the ideal ways to handle a situation—all practices she failed to incorporate in her interactions with me.

I would have spoken out about the oppression I experienced at this “leadership institute,” but when I confronted a small group leader about it, the leader did not feel it was right to speak-out about the injustices imposed on me by the organization’s leader.  It made me realize the dangerous nature of organizational leadership that relies on the idolatry of one leader and the inability to admit mistakes.  A valued leader, to me, is one that will admit his/her wrongs and make it a teachable moment.  I wish I could say I was witness to this at this acclaimed institute, but I left silenced and feeling a strong sense of oppression for the first time in months.  This is what happens when a leader does not practice what s/he preaches.  My father used to say, “Put your money where your mouth is.”  I urge her to do the same.

a mural painted on a wall in Coney Island. It is part of a larger mural, the first thing I see when I get off the last stop on the D train.

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Environmental Change

October 31st, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

I firmly believe environment is the greatest influence in how we experience life.  I feel this exceptionally so in autumn.  It is my favorite season, but one with significant emotional hills and valleys for me.  On sunny days, when the leaves are aglow and electric, I feel invigorated and really alive.  When the rain starts pouring and the chill feels like it will not leave my bones, my mind feels damp, oversaturated, bogged.  But I can walk into a bright room on a rainy day and feel more energetic than before entering; that man-made environment cues my mental and socio-emotional state to respond to it and let the responses to the natural environment subside.  While nobody can control the rain, we can create spaces dry from the rains that provoke positivity.

Margaret Wheatley and Geoff Crinean’s article on solving complex problems took the complex idea of inter-organization miscommunication/conflict and made it a simple fix of adjusting seating environment.  Changing the seating creates more complex ways of dealing with a problem rather than the easy situation of allowing the problem to be handled by administrators only.  Instead of creating a “culture of blame,” they suggest creating an environment of support and vocal equality.  When I think about each one of the seating suggestions for the five steps outlined, it makes great sense.  I found myself sending this article to a couple of my teacher friends, saying, “If only I had read this when I was still in the classroom!”  Though the seating is not going to solve the problem, it helps create a diffused environment, where energies can be directed instead of fostering aggression.

This had me thinking about the environmental design in the offices in which I work.  What do each of these offices project to me, individually, the other folks in the office, and to those who visit these offices?  Why is it that I feel at home walking into the Academic Success Center but nervously sit down at my desk in 500 Kerr?  Are these spaces created and maintained with a level of intentionality?  How often do offices or the architects of those offices, those from actual firms and those that get to decide how the office is arranged (administrators, faculty), think about the socio-emotional impact of the way the space is set up and presented?  How many of these space architects know the school of thought from which Wheatley and Crinean come?

I often hear folks in student affairs talk about “who’s at the table” for conversations that breed decisions.  How often are folks present, but only physically, at the table that will produce great impact because the design is not conducive to sharing one’s voice?  We live in a structured society that allows little wiggle room for bureaucratic change—imagine if each one of these small environmental changes created waves in organizational thinking and, over time, organizations heralded the open question and the quest for the answer.

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Organizational Change

October 24th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

At the core of every organization, hopefully there lies the desire to change something.  Manufacturing, the service industry, education—each one of those, though seemingly different professions, each exist with the perspective to change something.  Manufacturing looks to changing the market and products used to make processes better.  Services exist to aid in those changes sought by clients/consumers.  Education stands to change the ways others view and understand the world.  With this ideology, however, comes great resistance.  I’ve heard many say, “Why fix it if it isn’t broke?”  If I never changed the oil on my car, the cost to fix it when broke would far outweigh small investments in routine maintenance.

While the core of an organization may be to produce change, changing within the organization itself can meet great resistance.  Who gets a seat at the table talking about organizational and administrative change?  And do those folks actually represent the good of the organization?  I started to think about the way in which OSU goes about handling this change.  In my experience so far this year, I’ve seen divisions within the institution take on very similar projects without knowing other divisions were doing essentially the same.  I wonder how much communication goes on between divisions.

This all ties into how much communication exists between departments, colleges, and units.  This year I am fortunate to have the experience working in academic affairs and interact often with student affairs.  I see significant overlap between the two, yet wonder how much these two divisions actually communicate on varied levels (read:  not just top administrators for each).  I wonder if there is any direction on how to collaborate between these units.  How often do these units interact now?  I find it antithetical that we, as university professionals, expect students to make broader connections between subjects and the world, yet the university remains a series of silos.

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Lasting Environmental Legacies

October 18th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

The idea that we are products of our environment seems to be both a blessing and a curse.  I think of the different environments in which I’ve worked, interacted, existed; I scoff at some and revere others.  Each one has, however, shaped me in some capacity.  In those environments at which I scoff, I learned what not to be or do.  There was something valuable in that.  In environments I’ve revered, I watched progress in which I wanted to take part.  In between these extremes, I exist, fluctuating between better and poorer versions of myself and the environments that helped shape me.

In my mental processing of a friend’s death this weekend, I thought about the lasting legacy each interaction we produce has on others.  Every word is a careful consideration of loaded histories, intentional gestures, and lasting impact.  We are the public image of the words that come out of our mouths, or stem from our hands in the form of published media.

Considering this, how often do we, as Larry Roper writes, “call out our ‘stuff?’”  Will the lasting legacy I have on another be my acknowledgment of my personal deficiencies in cultural awareness or the fact that I acknowledge that alone?  Will I be viewed as ignorant or cognizant in that situation, in that legacy?

I worked in a school for a few years where honesty earned you a top spot on the administrator’s shit list.  My naïve loose tongue in my first few months at the school earned me early shit list warnings.  After that, I closed up like an anemone and seethed with each seemingly ill-informed decision the administrator made in regards to burgeoning pubescent selves.  As someone who tries to live without regrets, it haunts me.  I did not have the tools to “manage from the middle” and, frankly, did not see possibility in it.  Instead, I watched the way the environment created by these decisions shaped my students.  I watched tone develop and animosity become part of individual lasting legacies.  And I stood, listened with open ears and a silenced mouth.

How do we create environments where honesty is a shared value?  What happens when honesty results in shattered egos and shut-downs?  Is there a way to open shut doors back up and elicit absolute honesty?

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“Typical” leadership

October 10th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

How does one help another realize one’s capabilities in leadership?  The world of higher education aims to develop skills for students to take with them post-college life.  Many foster these skills through extra-curricular involvement.  What happens to those students who struggle academically and, therefore, limit their involvement?  What happens to students who view leadership in a different light than what is “typical?”

Perhaps the problem, as I see it, lies within the typical idea of leadership.  We think of students who lead student organizations by holding a title that is supposed to bestow upon them certain rights and responsibilities.  Is a student considered a leader if they are active within an organization, but does not hold a standard leadership role?

The world of student affairs envisions personal development for each student.  In this personal development, what is the message we project about leadership to these students with burgeoning senses of self?  I like to think of understanding one’s sense of self is the starting point for understanding how to draw on personal strengths to contribute to something greater.  But in this assessment-rich world, is there a qualitative view on student personal development?  Can this be measured?

I think of working in student affairs in higher education as being a facilitator to self-discovery.  Though I was an active member and so-called leader of student organizations in my university experience, I refuse to make that the standard.  I look at the ways in which each person I know has come to understand his/her place in the world and how different those avenues look for each.  Defining leadership for students is, in some ways, creating a bound mold.  If we want students to push independent and critical inquiry, we must create an environment for that, an environment where leadership can evolve organically and be defined within individual contexts.  One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickenson, lived as a recluse for years in Massachusetts, corresponding with people only through letters.  Considering her isolated life, many would question her leadership potential.  To those who study English literature and poetry, however, she is a lead female writer, carving a voice into a male-dominated canyon.  Leadership can look as different as a fingerprint; it is the legacy of our actions that determines the greater effect we have on the world outside our minds.

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I am my father’s daughter…

October 3rd, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

I grew up in a small town in Upstate New York.  My father is a funeral director there, a position of civic leadership about which many do not seem to know much.  I liken being a small town funeral director’s child to being the child of a mayor.  My mother, the daughter of a preacher, expresses the same sentiments.  My father’s position as the person to bury the town’s dead taught me early about the facets of leadership.

My brother and I were public servants of my father’s brand of core values.  Our everyday interactions with people in the community were the constant reflections of my family’s business.  There were two other funeral directors in town and we needed to present as the family one would be most likely to trust.  This meant attending various civic functions, playing nicely with the other children, and relatively clean hair cuts.  As my brother and I grew up, we understood the importance of being involved in organizations as an extension of the family brand.  My brother became involved in student government in high school; I started in 7th grade.  We became officers in different student clubs during our time in our hometown, mirroring our father and fulfilling his unspoken expectations.

In college, my views of leadership changed.  I could take on causes for which I felt passionately, as opposed to what was expected of my former Catholic self.  I realized at the heart of my desire to lead was compassion and the need for expression.  Advocacy became crux to the fire that fueled me through the obstacle course of realizing my adult self in the university setting.   I became much more aware of injustices and became pissed off.  After the initial anger and shock to realizing the world outside my town, I decided to do take some action.  I became involved in organizations that brought advocacy and awareness to the public on different levels for varied causes.  I like to believe it is when I fully discovered my Libran self, aiming to balance the scales and refusing to stop thinking about and learning how to do that.  I learned something through every interaction, every experience a mini-education not afforded to me in a classroom.  I continue to believe in this, that in every word exchanged with another, we are building some kind of connection—positive, negative, perhaps even neutral—that will sway another’s idea, if for only a split second.

I saw this most clearly in my time as a New York City Teaching Fellow.  I taught between 33 and 36 7th grade students in what I believe is the one of the most turbulent physiological and socio-emotional years one experiences.  The development of self in each of them popped up at varied times; it was like a Whack-A-Mole game of puberty.  Every interaction the students had with each other, every interaction I had with each student, every day in the classroom, somebody was learning how to be a leader.  I learned about the need to understand where somebody is coming from.  My students learned how to navigate the vulnerability of their peers.  In departmental and all-staff meetings, we learned the value of solidarity while retaining microcosms of individuality in our classrooms, tight-rope walking between standardized expecations and gauging our students’ energies and needs.

As I transition to higher education, I consider the intersection between the classroom and citizenry.  Who/what is right?  How do we teach what is right?  Can diametrically-opposed ideas come together and achieve?  I question how to merge each individual’s brand of core values into one fluid mission.  How do we help others realize each interaction is learning?  How do we measure what is gained through our Little Acts of Leadership?  Will the product/service model create a society of people who do not value that which has no perceived or predicted outcome?  Who will fund human interaction?  What leads us to leadership?

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