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Reflections on Leading by Listening

Leadership positions in higher education are changing to accommodate a more holistic approach grounded in empathy and listening. Good listening is indivisible from effective leadership. 

Listening and discernment skills are often given inadequate attention in lessons on leadership.  Of course, the leader should be articulate and show clarity in verse when expressing a vision and communicating to stakeholders.  But how can the leader be certain that the direction or even the goals are understood if he or she does not listen with their eyes and ears?  How can one see a vision for the future without knowing the ground on which to take the first step, whether by learning from those active now or from those who helped create the past.

Leadership consists of several dimensions. These include listening with eyes and ears; reading prose and poetry in order to refine our use of language as well as to expand our knowledge and understanding of different cultures; speaking in formal as well as in informal settings and using these occasions to remind others about the institution’s mission; writing personal notes as well as essays and speeches; reflecting on the purpose of education and what we can learn from our experiences; empathy; and context, the circumstances in which leadership is required. In this essay, I attempt to add some texture to the discussion of leadership.

One of the more insightful comments on the topic I attribute to Freddie Mercury in the film Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of Freddie and the band “Queen”. The scene takes place in their lawyer’s office, when Freddie is asking to rejoin the group in order to perform at “Live Aid” in Wimbledon. One of his bandmates, still stung by Freddie’s departure from the group after being offered a large solo recording contract, challenges him by saying, “You have your own band now, why do you need us?” Freddie replied, “Yes, I have my own band and more money, but it is not the same. They do everything I tell them, and that is the problem. They do not challenge me to be better, the way you did.”

Whether fact or fiction, the scene demonstrates vividly that leadership requires integrity, humility, and reflection–the recognition that a leader cannot act alone and be most effective. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of those in leadership positions who demand fealty instead of welcoming pushback. An effective team is one in which the total is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Such teams require trust, not blind loyalty oaths. They know that sharing information builds alliances and that control of data threatens trust.

Another common leadership trait is to act as if the organization’s history started on the day they took office. To paraphrase an old quote, institutions are the lengthened shadow of past leaders. Institutional history and heritage are essential starting points for continuity and change. The founders’ values should undergird the vision of the future.

A variant of this style is found in leaders who decide that they want “their own” team and either remove or force out members of the inherited senior administration before even getting to know the institution’s culture. Not only does this ignore the importance of institutional memory but it can destabilize long-term external and internal relationships.

This pattern was more common in corporations than in colleges and universities, but as corporate executives have become more prominent on institutional boards, the practice has grown in higher education. While the board should not prohibit such changes, it should give guidance to the new leader, especially if there was an inside candidate for the post. After all, the board’s role is to protect the institution of the future from the actions of the present.

Another pattern borrowed from business is the “CEO” president, who fulfills their mandate by focusing on scale, delegation, money, and markets while giving only lip service to mission. One consequence of this approach is that a president can talk about “shared governance” with faculty but treat them as employees rather than as governing partners. I prefer the CPO (Chief Purpose Officer) model of leadership; he or she must mind the money, of course, but also demonstrate commitment to student success and real shared governance.

Recently, I was leading a session with a president and his senior team when the president paused while reflecting on his style and some problems that had resulted from it. After he said that the troubles would probably keep him from having another presidency, I said, “With your willingness to reflect on what you did and why, and your commitment to changes in your approach, you may have just started your second presidency.”

Listening, reading, speaking, writing, empathizing, contextualizing, and reflecting are essential dimensions of leadership. The greatest of these is the self-awareness that comes from reflection and inquisitiveness.

Here are some lessons I learned from my experiences as a campus president: 

Calling an alum or donor

I once called an executive at a cosmetics company that had supported a program on campus. I was fascinated by how he described the company’s culture and asked if I could visit the labs where they did research on plants to develop skin creams. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the head of an important research lab was an alumna and that she was supervising ground-breaking treatments for skin health. I asked if she would come to campus to talk with students about her work in biochemistry and if she would take students as interns. She agreed to both requests.

Asking questions on campus

During my first semester on campus, I sat in on a new student seminar and asked a commuter student where she hung her coat and stored her books during the day. “My car,” she said. After class, I called the vice president of administration to ask how many lockers and lounges we had on campus. The number shocked me, so I asked him to join me on a tour of campus. I wanted to identify places for students to store coats and books as well as to relax between classes. We added hundreds of lockers and set aside numerous locations for lounging and informal studying.

Buildings and grounds supporting mission 

I once attended a seminar sponsored by the Japan Society on Tokyo department stores as theater sets. I began thinking about a college campus in the same way and concluded that walkways and plants on campus could support our vision. After all, campus design was part of our narrative. In addition to landscaping and architecture, we could have sculptures and labels on trees and shrubs for continuous learning opportunities. So, I asked the head of the theater department to tour the campus, evaluate it as a stage set, and then teach me what he learned when he joined me on a tour of the grounds. On our way, we arrived at what I and most people thought of as the rear entrance, with a neon sign and dumpsters greeting us. When I asked the staff what percentage of those entering campus each day came through this entrance, I was appalled to learn that over 50% did. We removed the neon sign and changed the location of the dumpsters. We confirmed the second “front door” to campus even as we changed some paths and added signs urging those passing by to respect, welcome and help others.

Students finding summer jobs

During the Great Recession of 2008, many students were having trouble finding summer jobs. At the same time, many of the nonprofit groups for which we provided professional development and governance training were losing employees due to budget cuts. So, I asked the director of the career center to draft a proposal for a spring term course to prepare students for work in the nonprofit or “third” sector of the economy. I then asked leaders of community organizations with which we worked to hire these specially prepared students as interns doing serious work for ten weeks of the summer. We allocated some funds for the effort and then raised more from donors to make it work. We also asked the organizations to provide a little funding on their end. The program was such a success that an alumna gave enough money to name the program.

Having a faculty fellow

When I was with the Indiana Commission on Higher Education, I realized one day that my colleagues and I were referring to university presidents and provosts in unflattering terms. We were in a bubble, a “truly” ivory tower of policy analysis, and had little sympathy for the complexities of campus leadership. So, I convinced our staff to allocate one person a year for a faculty fellowship, through which a senior professor from one of the campuses would work with me on statewide academic planning and degree program reviews. The fellow’s presence changed the dynamics of staff discussions; we became better at planning and analyzing, and we improved our communications with campus leaders.

Questions are better than prescriptions

At a board meeting, a trustee recommended that we cut tuition by 10%. None of us knew he was going to do this. He referred to a widely reported news story about a college that decided to reduce tuition by that amount and garnered national coverage for its action. Another trustee, a senior faculty member and former dean at another institution, asked the first if he knew much about a second one in the news. “No,” he said. Well, it turned out that this college’s tuition would still be almost twice ours and that its endowment was nearly three times as large. Furthermore, this private college was in a fairly remote area and was surrounded by public institutions. Still another trustee suggested that we discuss the rationale for our tuition rate and how it compared to other universities in our region. By asking these questions, this trustee prompted a policy discussion whereas the first trustee’s prescription for action did not.

Lack of clarity in questions

One year, a group of students submitted a petition seeking to start fraternities and sororities. The senior staff and I were skeptical about Greek Life, given the stories of student misbehavior at other institutions. Several trustees were vehemently opposed. However, the Deputy Attorney General assigned to our public college said that we could not deny the petition just because of what we feared what might happen. Fortunately, at a board student affairs committee meeting where we heard from the students, and some trustees expressed opposition, another trustee said the following: “Fraternities are an answer; what is the question?” With that simple act of finding the questions hidden by an answer, we were able to work with students to craft a fraternity system that reflected the campus’ mission and values.

Listening is critical. Be sure you know the question being asked. It also is important to remember that total listening requires more than the ears alone.  It also requires the eyes to see the face of the other and to observe their body language. The eyes can serve as a complement to the ears, which register word choice, tone, and the nuance of language. Listening matters; leadership requires listening.


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