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9 Virtues Blog

7 Ways to Become a More Humble Leader

by Karl Haden and Rob Jenkins

08/25/2016

(Note: One of the things that makes The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders unique among leadership books is the “homework” at the end of each chapter—essentially, practical suggestions for putting into practice, and thereby internalizing, the virtue discussed in that chapter. This excerpt is from Chapter 5, “Humility,” and serves as an example of what readers will find throughout the book.)

Humility is often said to be the most elusive of virtues because the moment you think you have acquired it, you have lost it. While there is a lot of truth to that statement, it also is true that humility, like any other virtue, can be developed over time through practice and attention. What follows is a list of exercises, for lack of a better term, that you can practice in your own leadership situations in order to become more humble.

Bear in mind, once again, the idea we outlined in Chapter 1: although acting humble may not be the same thing as actually being humble, over time the two become the same. If you behave with humility often enough, and for long enough, you eventually will in fact become humble.

Embark on a “listening tour.” Set aside a significant amount of time, scheduling it as necessary, specifically for the purpose of listening to people within your organization, especially the people whom you lead. You can do this in group meetings, but in that case you must be extremely careful to listen to what others are saying and not give in to the temptation to do the talking (which may be exactly what you are accustomed to doing as group leader). You also can arrange to visit with people individually in their work spaces; these meetings should not be in your office unless people come to you of their own volition. We have found that people tend to be much more at ease, and therefore more talkative, when they are in familiar territory and do not feel that they have been “called on the carpet.” Most of them also will appreciate your taking time out of your busy schedule to come and see them.

Either way, your task is to ask leading, open-ended questions—such as “What do you think about the direction of the organization right now?” or “What can we do better? How?”—while also inviting questions from them. Then sit back and let them talk while you listen. Do not allow yourself to become judgmental or defensive, and do not let what people say in these sessions influence your attitude toward them or your relationship with them. Once they see you are really listening and not holding anything they say against them, they will be much more likely to talk, to tell you things. You may be amazed at what you learn.

Learn someone else’s job. Resolve, over the next few months, to learn the job of one person in your organization, preferably a job with which you are not already familiar. At first the person whose job you are learning probably will be extremely uncomfortable, but as you explain what you are doing and why and demonstrate your earnest desire to learn—making it clear that you regard your colleague as the expert—two things will happen. First, you will learn how important that particular job or function is, perhaps more important than you ever imagined, and how it fits into the overall scheme of the organization. Second, the individual who is teaching you will become more confident and competent in his or her job, which also benefits the organization.

Read up on a topic of interest. Over the next year, commit to increasing your knowledge of some topic not directly related to your job or profession: history, art, literature, music. You could choose a historical period or event that interests you but you do not know much about, such as the French Revolution or Manifest Destiny, and read as many books and articles about it as you can find. Or read the collected works of Shakespeare, William Faulkner, or Maya Angelou.

Practice empathy. The next time a subordinate comes to you with a problem, instead of just dismissing it (politely or otherwise) or showing impatience or frustration at the interruption, try a different approach. Listen carefully as the person describes the problem, attempting to hear what is not being said as well as what is said. Pay close attention to the person’s tone and body language in order to determine his or her frame of mind. Is the person nervous? Anxious? Frustrated? Angry? Afraid? Given the problem being discussed, why would he or she feel that way? Try placing yourself in that person’s position—on the other side of the desk.

Deflect praise. The next time someone (especially someone above you in the organization) praises you for an accomplishment, immediately think of all the other people who were involved in that success. Then, give them credit for their contributions, mentioning them by name and outlining the specific roles they played. For example: “Thank you, but I couldn’t have done it if Greg hadn’t done such terrific research and if Marsha hadn’t created such a sophisticated spreadsheet. Eric and Wanda also contributed by taking care of the day-to-day chores while we worked on this project.” Remember that you can do this without being utterly self-effacing. The point is not to play down your own role, in an “aw, shucks” kind of way; rather, you are giving credit where credit is due—and recognizing that you are not the only hard-working employee in the organization.

Nominate someone. If your organization has a mechanism for recognizing people for their good work, by handing out awards or other perks, be sure to nominate the people you lead as often as possible—which is to say, when the opportunity presents itself and when their work merits it. Remember that when they look good, you also look good.

Lead a service project. Identify a project that would benefit a large number of people in the organization, such as updating the lunch area or repainting the lines in the parking lot. Organize a group of volunteers among the staff to carry out that project during their off hours, and solicit donations of money and materials as needed. Be sure to make very clear that participation is purely voluntary and will not reflect on anyone’s evaluation. Of course, you should participate in the project yourself, visibly contributing as much and working as hard as anyone. You may even want to ask someone else to serve as group leader, so that while working on the project, you are just one of the gang and not the boss.

Alternatively, you could identify a worthwhile service project in your community and organize a group to address it, following the same steps outlined. When choosing a project, you may want to solicit suggestions from others in the organization or allow the group to vote on it. Again, be very careful how you approach the project: the idea is for the people you lead to see you in a different light, working hard to serve others.

By enacting some of these suggestions, or taking other similar actions that you identify for yourself, over time you will not only develop a reputation as a humble leader; you will actually begin to acquire humility. When that starts to happen, be careful not to brag about it. If you did, you would have to start all over again.

The 5 Core Functions of an Academic Department Head

by Rob Jenkins

08/19/2016

The job of leading a department can differ greatly from one college to the next, and even from one department to the next on the same campus.

Some department heads are more like assistant deans — their jobs include fund raising as well as departmental oversight, and they teach very little, if at all. Others are merely first among equals — meaning they continue to teach but may be granted some release time from classroom obligations to handle scheduling and other administrative tasks. Some play a major role in hiring and evaluating faculty and staff, while others do little more than manage the paperwork. Some oversee huge budgets, with a great deal of say in how the money is spent, even as others struggle to find a few dollars for dry-erase markers.

Regardless of the job description, however, if you’re thinking about taking on the job of department head, you will have to fulfill at least five core functions to be effective. Some readers might argue there are more than five. But having worked at seven different colleges and served as a department head at two of them, I have identified these five as the most universal and the most important of a chair’s responsibilities.

Advocate for faculty. DH’s occupy a unique and sometimes ambiguous position between the administration and the faculty. To add even more ambiguity, many aspire to reach the upper levels of administration, while others view the position as a temporary tour of duty and look forward to returning to the classroom full-time.

If you fall in the former group, it’s natural to think of yourself as primarily an administrator and to therefore embrace the party line on issues where the faculty and the administration might be at odds. But that is generally a mistake. In my experience, the most effective department leaders see themselves as faculty first and administrators second. Their primary role, as they see it, is to advocate for their department — for its programs and especially for its inhabitants.

Of course, faculty members are not always right, and the department’s needs don’t always supersede those of other departments or the college as a whole. Good DH’s understand that and are prepared to make principled compromises where necessary. But a DH who is not seen, first and foremost, as the department’s advocate with higher-ups will likely have a tumultuous and perhaps brief reign.

Represent the administration. This may sound contradictory, but the fact is: Department heads are administrators, even if they occupy the lowest tier. There will be times when you have to present some policy or decision to the faculty, on behalf of the administration, knowing it will not be well-received. In many cases, you will not be thrilled with the latest edict either.

In a perfect academic world, with shared governance, faculty will already have been involved in the decision-making process, so the chair won’t be put in such an awkward position. But that ideal is hardly ever realized, and as DH, you will often find yourself charged with "selling" something to the faculty that you aren’t entirely sold on yourself.

I’ve heard people say that DH’s have a duty to get on board and support the administration, even if that means faking enthusiasm for some odious pronouncement. I disagree. I think it’s fine for a DH to say, in essence: "Look, I don’t agree with this either, but I don’t have any more say about it than you do. We’ll just have to make the best of a bad situation." That sort of candor generally earns the respect of the faculty (if not of the deans and the provost) and enhances the DH’s effectiveness within the department.

Your faculty members will appreciate knowing you are on their side, even if you are similarly powerless. At least you’re powerless together.

In such difficult situations, you will have to use your powers of persuasion to help faculty accept and adapt to the new reality and to prevent morale from plummeting. You must strive to appear as positive and optimistic as possible: "This may seem bad, but we’ll figure out a way to deal with it together." And you must be creative in identifying ways to respond to the new mandate without inconveniencing faculty or disrupting the work of the department any more than necessary.

Build consensus. As DH, you will have very little control over whether your institution as a whole embraces shared governance. But typically, you will have a great deal of influence within your own sphere. You can employ the principles of shared governance within your department, regardless of what anyone else at the institution is doing.

That means, first of all, enfranchising all members of the department, including assistant professors, non-tenure-track faculty, and adjunct instructors. It means making sure the committee structure within the department exists not just to perform the necessary "scut work," like selecting textbooks and making adjustments to the curriculum, but also to serve as a vehicle for shared governance. It means ensuring that those committees are as inclusive as possible, with everyone who has a stake having a seat (or at least a representative) at the table. It means listening to those groups and taking their conclusions and recommendations into account. And it means seeking departmental consensus on any decision that will affect the entire department.

Provide a forum. Speaking of inclusivity, one of your most important roles as DH is to create a "safe place" where faculty members who feel that their voice is not being heard can speak out freely. That certainly includes adjuncts and other contingent faculty, who may feel — with good reason — that the only place they can be heard is at the department level. But it might also include tenured professors who feel totally disenfranchised at the institutional level — again, perhaps with good reason — and who rely on the department as a forum for offering their ideas (good and bad), expressing valid concerns, or just venting.

That forum might take the form of a departmental meeting. You should probably consider holding regular meetings whether you want to or not. When I was a DH, I didn’t like meetings (I still don’t) and was inclined to cancel or postpone them if I didn’t think there was anything particularly important to talk about. I quickly learned, however, that just because I didn’t think certain topics were important didn’t mean others in the department had the same perception. Faculty members, even though they might not like meetings either, nevertheless need them occasionally. That might be the only place they have to raise an issue they are concerned about.

In addition to scheduling regular department meetings, you should also maintain an open-door policy, allowing faculty members to drop by at their convenience to talk about whatever is on their minds. Keep in mind: Their convenience isn’t always convenient for you. As DH, your job exists primarily to serve faculty.

I’ve known DH’s who closed their office doors for a couple hours each day so they could get some work done, but I’ve never believed in that. If I was in my office, my door was always open. (Of course, I was known on occasion to tell my administrative assistant I had a meeting, then sneak off to the library to slog through paperwork in some remote alcove.)

The end result of all this listening might be just that — simply listening, providing a sympathetic ear. DH’s can’t necessarily do anything about the issues that concern faculty, especially when those issues are above your pay grade. But often you can take steps to make department life a little easier for faculty, and sometimes you can take their concerns to the people above you and push for change. Occasionally you might even be successful, particularly if you band together with other like-minded chairs.

And if just listening is the best you can do — well, at least faculty members will feel like they’re being heard by someone, and that’s often better than nothing.

Provide vision. This is the crucial one. Over the years I’ve been amazed to observe that — no matter how independent-minded individual department members might be — the department as a whole tends to take its cue from the DH. A leader who is generally positive fosters optimism among faculty, whereas one who is negative generates pessimism.

Beyond that, you are responsible for imbuing faculty with a feeling of shared purpose and an understanding of their individual and collective roles. It’s up to you and your department’s faculty whether you want to draft a formal "vision statement." I’ve always thought of vision as something more abstract — implicitly understood rather than explicitly spelled out. But I know that some prefer to spell it out.

If your department does wish to create a mission statement, here are some important questions for the group to consider:

  • What are our core beliefs and values?
  • What are our most important functions?
  • What do we want this department to be known for?
  • How do we accomplish that?
  • What are our professional standards and expectations?
  • How do we fit into, and complement, the larger institution?

Note: That last one is especially important, as your department’s vision must mesh — or at least not entirely conflict with — that of the institution.

Many have observed that the department head’s job is probably the hardest in all of higher education, caught perpetually between administration and faculty, neither fully one nor fully the other. I’ve certainly experienced that in my career. But it is also the most personally rewarding job I’ve ever held, in that I felt I had the opportunity to make a positive difference in people’s lives, both faculty members and students, every single day.

Despite its inherent difficulties, the job becomes more manageable once you understand why, mundane tasks aside, you’re there. And that is, ultimately, to serve faculty, students, and the institution — in that order.

A Must-Read for Self-Proclaimed "Change Agents"

by Rob Jenkins

08/12/2016

One of the issues I have with the modern leadership movement is what I perceive as an emphasis on change for the sake of change. These days, leaders (or prospective leaders) clearly expect to get a lot of mileage from proclaiming themselves “change agents.”

Whenever I hear someone brag about being a change agent, I think to myself, “Big deal. So is hydrochloric acid.”

Sure, change is inevitable. Many changes are good. Some obviously need to happen. But sometimes, change in an organization can be harmful or counterproductive. Sometimes, there’s a reason “we’ve always done it that way”—because it’s the best and most efficient way of doing it. Many traditions and institutional norms are vital to the culture of the organization, and can be replaced or dispensed with only at the risk of significant damage.

It seems to me that the leader’s main job is not simply to institute change—and certainly not to make changes for the sake of making changes, or (worse) for the purpose of burnishing the old resume—but rather to determine what needs to be changed and what doesn’t, and to initiate only those changes that will ultimately benefit the organization. That requires a great deal of humility, wisdom, and courage—all indispensable qualities of the best leaders, as Karl Haden and I have discussed at great length in The 9 Virtues.

Given my views on this subject, I was thrilled to see a recent post in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Allison Vaillancourt entitled “You’re No Messiah.” Vaillancourt, who serves as VP of Human Resources at the University of Arizona, is always a good read, one of the wisest people writing today about higher education and leadership. In this case, though, she has outdone herself, at least in my estimation.   

Here’s a brief excerpt: “Let’s begin by talking about the mode of operation employed by rookies and megalomaniacs. Believing themselves to be organizational messiahs, those individuals delight in identifying all that is wrong and all those who are incompetent. They ask no questions upon arrival because they assume no one else has anything of value to contribute. They use phrases like ‘legacy employees,’ and discount the value of institutional history. ‘I’m sure we’ll figure things out,” they respond when others suggest caution about tossing out people with strategic relationships or specialized knowledge.”

That should give you the flavor of the piece and whet your appetite for the rest, which you can read here. I strongly encourage you to do so—especially if you’re one of those people who likes to go around bragging about being a “change agent.”  

Chronic vs. Acute Micromanagement

by Rob Jenkins

08/04/2016

In an earlier post (“The 5 Biggest Employee Morale Killers”), I identified micro-managing as one of the leader’s worst sins. As I think about it, though, it occurs to me that there are at least two distinct types of micro-management: chronic and acute. And, while in medical terms, “chronic” is usually worse than “acute,” when it comes to leadership, the latter may be just as problematic if not more so.

Chronic micro-management refers to the day-to-day nagging of managers who simply don’t trust their employees to do a good job on their own. It involves looking over people’s shoulders—perhaps, in some case, quite literally; making constant corrections, often not so much to fix something that’s wrong as to conform to the manager’s vision of how things should look or sound; and neglecting or refusing to delegate tasks that really ought to be delegated. The chronic micro-manager is a person whose motto is, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

As I noted in my earlier post, that sort of behavior is entirely antithetical to productivity and over time creates a toxic work environment. People who are convinced that everything they do will be viewed as wrong will eventually just not want to do anything at all. And if their supervisors insist on taking on every task themselves, why should they do anything? These are natural human responses to micro-management, yet they inevitably lead to apathy and emotional disinvestment.

Moreover, a key identifier of the best employees is that they are self-motivated. They have the necessary skills and experience to do their jobs, and they have an innate desire to do them well. They want, more than anything else, to feel trusted and valued. Just let them know what you need them to do, give them the tools to do it, and then get out of their way.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen if they’re working for a chronic micro-manager—and the most frequent response is simply to look for another job. That’s not good for the organization.

And yet, as bad as all that sounds, acute micro-management might even be worse in some ways. Acute micro-management occurs when someone in authority, but who is not involved in the daily operation of the unit—perhaps a corporate executive—shows up occasionally and promptly tells everyone else how things ought to be, often without any understanding of the environment, the reality on the ground, or even the true function of that unit.

A story I heard recently provides a good case in point. My nephew is a pharmacist with a large regional chain who just happens to work in the city where that chain has its headquarters. In fact, he once spent several months at the location nearest the corporate offices, in the neighborhood where many of the executives live. According to him, all the pharmacists in the company hate to be assigned to that location.

Why? I asked.

Because, he said, execs are constantly coming into the store to do their shopping and then demanding changes, even though many of them know little to nothing about that site, its customers, or even the way a pharmacy is supposed to operate. They might understand retail, in terms of the big picture, but they don’t understand the specific needs and challenges of that location because they aren’t there every day.

For example, he told me, one time a corporate big wig came in to the pharmacy and had to wait in line for a few minutes because there were two customers in front of him. He declared this unacceptable and decreed that another cash register had to be installed. This necessitated some fairly extensive (and expensive) renovations to the check-out area to make room for the additional register.

What neither he nor anyone else at corporate headquarters saw fit to do, however, was to budget more money for that store to hire an additional employee to run the extra cash register. So now you not only still had people waiting, but they were all looking at that shiny new register just sitting there unused and wondering why someone didn’t open another line. 

In other words, that leader’s “fix” actually made things worse. He saw only one part of the equation—the customers (including himself) lined up at the sole check-out station—without fully seeing or understanding the rest—that the store manager was only budgeted for so many employees. His detachment from the day-to-day operations of that unit, and his failure to recognize as much, led him to conclusions that were not only false but harmful. And that’s precisely the problem with acute micro-management: it might only happen every now and then, but when it does it can be disastrous.

As a leader, you may have authority over areas within your organization that you frankly don’t know much about. Acknowledging that fact requires humility and wisdom, both vital traits in an effective leader (as my co-author Karl Haden and I point out in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders). Don’t automatically assume that you know more about a unit than the people who work there every day. Don’t hesitate to seek out knowledge and informed opinion from those who have the experience and know the most about how that unit is supposed to run.

It may well be that some things need to change, but by listening first and then working collaboratively to identify and institute those changes, you can avoid the kind of drive-by damage so often inflicted by acute micro-managers.