Published on 2018/06/05

22 Musings: Reflecting on 34 Years of Community College Presidency

The EvoLLLution | 22 Musings: Reflecting on 34 Years of Community College Presidency
As a longtime community college leader reflects on his career spanning four decades, he shares some musings and advice with his colleague who’s preparing to step into his role.
Editor’s Note: After Bruce Leslie announced his Fall 2018 retirement, The EvoLLLution provided him opportunity to reflect back on his four decades of experience as a community college leader and 34 years as a chancellor or president. After much consideration, he framed the article as an open letter to his successor, Michael Flores, providing musings on 22 key lessons he wanted to share. With Dr. Flores’s permission, we’ve published the open letter below.

Dear Michael,

As you prepare to take the torch of leadership at Alamo Colleges, with my retirement coming quickly, I’ve had a unique opportunity to reflect upon and share my “musings” after 34 years as a community college president and chancellor. Many who have followed my career are now encouraging me to speak my mind, assuming that (given the public scrutiny and political environments in which I’ve functioned for 34 years as a CEO) I would take this opportunity to let people know how I really feel.

This open letter—which you’ve graciously allowed me to share—provides me a unique opportunity to say what I really feel—and it is all so positive!

Initially this article was going to be a simple list of lessons I’ve learned over the course of my career, and as I was beginning to write this article the Alamo Colleges Board of Trustees selected you, Dr. Michael Flores, currently the President of The Alamo Colleges–Palo Alto College, to become my successor. The more I thought about it, it became increasingly obvious that what I wished to muse upon may be a benefit to you as well as to all new college leaders. After all, one of the most important responsibilities leaders have is to continuously create and nurture new leaders.

So, with your permission, I have framed this as an open letter to you regarding some personal leadership lessons I have learned.

I am so pleased, Michael, to have watched and nurtured your maturation as a leader over your years with The Alamo Colleges so that you have successfully earned this opportunity. Because you have helped frame our progress, you know our strategic focus, our board’s policies, our systems and amazing culture. But more importantly, you understand our energy, discipline, intentionality, appreciation for detail and the “Alamo Way” system that we have all so collaboratively built.

So, Dr. Flores, these musings over a very long career reflect how I really feel and some modest advice to guide you along this exciting journey of community college leadership as the next Chancellor of The Alamo Colleges, one of the finest community college systems in the nation.

I have organized my thoughts into three categories: Personal, Organizational and Board of Trustees:

1. Personal:

Musing #1: Gather, utilize and keep your mentors.

I have been so blessed to have had mentors along my entire journey. Leadership teaches us very quickly that we can’t achieve our vision or charges alone, especially with the reality of diminishing resources, greater demands for high performance and lots of folks who “know how to do it better!” We also must have others to whom we can vent, seek advice and obtain affirmation when we are most vulnerable.

Musing #2: Love your employees (regardless of everything they may do toward you) and act, not as a corporate CEO, but as a nurturer.

All of us in leadership roles, male or female, are flushed with testosterone. It gives us the bite we think we need to be strong and effective, but it may actually inhibit our ability to ask for guidance, to seek help or to show any “weakness” or vulnerability in our actions and decisions; we believe that we’ve got to show everyone how capable and tough we are; you know, when the going gets tough and all that. But I have come to understand that softness is more powerful than strength, that calmness and peace among the noise is so powerful and even expected of a leader in order to garner respect.

I have adopted a leadership concept from a book of daily devotions entitled “Leading Like A Mother.” it says: “as a leader, no matter your age or gender, … look more like a mother and less like a corporate CEO.” As a guy, that challenged my perspective, but the message affirms that effective leadership expresses itself “more like a mother,” because mothers create and hold people close and nurture them. This jibes with Vince Lombardi’s very bold philosophy that “as a leader, we must love our players and associates. Love is loyalty, love is teamwork, and love respects the dignity of the individual. This is the strength of any organization.”

This perspective affirms that softness and love, are the most powerful and important strengths you should pursue and to constantly show that affection to all, especially those who persist in their efforts to negate you.

Musing #3: Forgive, but stay the course until the desired ends are achieved.

Forgiveness is the flip side of this approach. When employees or community push back, when some become nasty and do all they can to embarrass, humiliate and terminate you, when the votes of no confidence are spread nationally by the media and you are isolated and angry, when you just can’t take it home or publicly defend yourself, this is when we must understand that this is our academic culture. It is an expression of fear of change and certainly it is selfishness being directed at you. Always remember that it is not YOU, but rather your position and role, which is being attacked.

No matter how much you care and express respect for your communities, they will assert their opposition when they disagree. We must understand this even when it is our purpose to save their jobs, to better serve students, to undo years of inefficiencies and systems failures and when you know with great certainty that you are pursuing the appropriate and necessary actions.

We must understand, forgive, perhaps reroute our direction a bit to calm the storm or even compromise to show good faith, but we must never cease in performing our responsibility to make the organization better, to improve student success, to serve all of our employees with dignity. Persistence must become your greatest tool to ensure that you ultimately achieve the goals fully so that the strategies implemented have the greatest intended effect.

Musing #4: Own everything, grasp the opportunities everywhere and so ensure systems are in place and everyone is well prepared and capable to continuously improve.

We leaders are responsible for everything, we cannot blame others or outside forces, we cannot become the victim. I often advise leaders to utilize the Kaizen continuous improvement system, and ask ourselves “why” five times. When we confront ourselves at a continuously deeper level (certainly everyone watching us is), we will always start by seeing the problem as being caused by others, but ultimately, we must always return to ourselves as the real cause of the problem. Perhaps it was my lack of planning, my lack of attention and focus, my inability to see clearly, or my failure to listen to others. Whatever it is, others trace the fault back to us anyway.

So accept the responsibility willingly, and in doing so, we actually become better listeners, better planners, better developers of organizational leadership and talent, better implementers of systems and on and on. We can’t do everything by ourselves, but as we say at the Alamo Colleges, we must create “a leader in every seat” in order to have the confidence that all systems are working and accountability is actualized throughout the organization. Then, when the emergency occurs or the crisis hits, we have the confidence in our teams and organization that everyone acts like a leader, will do their job and handle the event appropriately. To this point, see every crisis as an opportunity. When the large state funding cuts occurred in 2010, we pulled everyone together, proclaimed the crisis as an opportunity before us, protected our employees from layoffs or salary cuts and developed 25 strategies that have had a powerful positive impact on our greater student success and performance.

Musing #5: Own your failures and learn from them. They are the best teachers.

Failure will happen whether you want it to or not, but your responsibility is to protect the organization, so you must take risks and encourage your employees and organization to take risks. Failure is likely to occur anywhere within the organization and you must own your own and the organization’s failures, not as something to be ashamed about but as an indicator of the organization’s growth and maturation. Unfortunately, there will be those who can’t wait to proclaim failure, usually before the initiative has even had time to be fully implemented, and will seek to punish you by proclaiming that they told you so. So either way, how you own and handle failure matters.

Musing #6: Sweat the small stuff!

Pay attention to the details, be fully engaged, be persistent for you are the only one who can keep the organization progressing, the employees focused and on task and the desired outcomes achieved. You must delegate, and you must trust your leaders to act on your behalf, but you must always be engaged, inside and outside the organization, to continuously be visible, to assess, to grow, to know, for you must ensure that the details are aggressively pursued; for you see better than anyone how the inattention to the details can negatively impact the organization’s strategic agenda, its brand and its ability to achieve its goals.

Musing #7: Think Big.

We academics think too small; we’re focused on the rectangular shapes of our classrooms, a certain number of students semester after semester, our specific discipline, our books. But in today’s world, our organizations must think broadly, innovatively and in a global context. Everything is changing and we must, if we are to effectively fulfill our mission and vision, be continuously changing as well. Thus, you are charged to help the organization and all of its employees think big, to continuously challenge the small minded, to introduce everyone to new ideas and ensure all are aware of the movements of our environments, to educate all employees in systems that encourage everyone to be aware and proactive, to take responsibility to engage around big important opportunities.

Musing #8: Pursue your work as an art form.

Leadership is a skill developed over time. It requires experience, testing and maturation. It is much more than management, and you are not charged to maintain equilibrium, but rather to be disruptive, to make the organization the best it can be. What you are creating is an expression of your ability to move a large, complex organization to realize its full potential. This requires as much creativity as you can muster and the ability to motivate and move 5,000 employees and many other stakeholders and elected officials to achieve the District’s vision. The result will be a masterpiece, and if you do it well, your brush strokes will be invisible.

Musing #9: Proclaim your character.

You will be harangued, chastised, criticized and demeaned each time you make a decision. Your strength comes from your visible character, your morals and values and your purpose in pursuit of our mission and vision. At the same time, you are acting on the behest of the Board’s policies and should remind those who oppose you that your charges come from those elected or appointed by the community.

2. Organizational:

Musing #10: We must operate as efficiently and productively as possible and must, therefore, use models, systems and practices that help us perform at the highest and most efficient levels in order to serve our students, employers and community as they require, not as we determine is most convenient for us.

We don’t use organizational performance models well in higher education. Unfortunately, our culture contends that “business practices” are inappropriate. This is a huge burden that we have inherited, and I believe it has led to the inefficient, ineffective and often incompetent organizations within which we are supposed to achieve the expectations of our students, their families, stakeholders, employers and elected officials. As a result, legislators and governors have asserted their authority to direct us, through their tools—funding and policies—to be more productive, and we all see how well that’s working! You’ve often heard me say that we have the moral imperative to be the best, most effective and most student-centered organization in the country because this is our mission and, frankly, because our salaries are being paid by the taxpayers, students and other stakeholders who want to trust that we are strong and responsible stewards of their dollars. But more importantly, because they need what we are supposed to provide and want to trust that we can deliver the career preparation and employment they are working so hard (and often paying so much) for, we must aggressively pursue our vision of becoming the best in the nation.

Musing #11: Developing trust is everyone’s business, not just senior leaders—the trustees and CEO—but everyone. You must lead and be the first to express and extend your trust to the employees and community.

Trust is absolutely critical for an organization to be successful as trust overcomes the skepticism, cynicism and negativity that is, unfortunately, built into the academic culture. Trust between the trustees and CEO, between the CEO and employees and trust between the institution and the public in order to achieve our purpose, often in the form of tax or bond initiatives. The absence of trust prevents institutions with great talent and potential to fail and, conversely, institutions without inherent talent improve dramatically when trust is evident.

Musing #12: Ensure we create a culture of continuous leadership development, not just academic discipline developmentthat we “sharpen the saw” for all.

Our mission is to educate and train our society, but we typically do not educate and train our own employees let alone ourselves. Many employees may have superior academic credentials and capabilities but to fulfill our mission in a dynamic environment every employee must gain leadership skills so that everyone has the ability to contribute a responsible and proactive voice to ensure our college prospers. I prefer the concept of participatory leadership rather than shared governance because leadership includes accountability, proactive and innovative actions and structured, continuous improvement; shared governance entails lots of politics.

Musing #13: Force yourself, your team and your board to ensure you create the space to nurture your family, yourself and your organization and that every employee does the same.

The demands on our lives, our family’s lives and our energy are enormous. The job will consume you, separate you from your loved ones and friends and pull you away from the things you love outside of your duties. Everything you do is reflective of your role as Chancellor, every moment of every day. You must learn to keep your focus on your family, to delegate well so you are not out every night and early every morning. Take your vacations. Being the martyr by asserting how hard you work hurts your spouse and children and allows you no space to regroup, to find the important moments of peace and to keep your perspective about what is important, both at home and at work. Make the time to be self-reflective.

Musing #14: Lead through values and purpose, challenge others to achieve your high standards, lead by example, help everyone become better, be the rock and make your decisions upon your values and standards, not upon the basis of political pressures and expediencies.

Clarify your personal, not just your organizational, mission statement. Clearly define what you stand for, what will guide and affirm your purpose and values. There are a thousand pushes and pulls each day reflecting the self-interests of all those around you, including members of your board. You must be the moral role model and voice for the culture of the organization as it is through that culture that both the individual employees and the Alamo Colleges District will become great. Nurture future leaders, including future community college CEOs, as there is talent everywhere around you because we have hired well.

Musing #15: The theologian John Henry Newman said: “Growth is the only sign of Life.” He didn’t mean size but rather continuous improvement. The absence of such continuous improvement is decline. Your job is to ensure growth, for yourself, for everyone in the organization, for the organization itself and, of course, for all those who depend and benefit from the organization. So, keep everything moving!

Be the shepherd; continuously pull and prod, be the voice of collaboration, synergy, alignment, innovation, brand elevation, communication and continuously greater student success outcomes. Keep all the priorities progressing, don’t allow the whirlwind to consume everyone, especially yourself. Build organizational systems that create “flywheels” so that continuous improvement is automatic throughout the organization. Maximize the talents of everyone and their focus on the District’s WIG (Wildly Important Goal). Leadership at the CEO level is accomplished best through affirmation, encouragement, recognition, systems and standards. Thus, keep encouraging everyone to push the flywheels so that each member of your team affirmatively leads. Keep pushing throughout the organization so that you gain the maximum effect and synergy of everyone pursuing the same WIG and all the other initiatives that make that possible.

Musing #16: Release everyone’s potential as well as your own by continuously and deliberately pursuing individual, collective and organizational growth and development.

Leadership is an evolution, you will be a better leader years from now if you continue to develop yourself. Your job, therefore, is to continuously develop yourself, your employees and your organization. You must promote systems that automatically continuously improve all elements of the college, not just the academic mission; this is why we’ve been so successful using the Baldrige model. You must nurture your employees, community, trustees, and students to grow and evolve, but most of all, you must nurture yourself. You must hire team members who are better than yourself and set them forth to do their jobs as best as possible, but “possible” means potential, and your job is to fully develop the potential of everything and everybody.

Musing #17: It’s all about the money!

It’s all about the money!

Musing #18: Be grateful for the trust you have been granted to lead, and always strive valiantly, stay in the arena.

You are blessed! Blessed to have this opportunity to lead, in this city of San Antonio and the surrounding counties, and to impact the lives of 100,000 students each year and all of their families, area businesses and employers and the many communities we touch. Never be intimidated by the challenges you will face, always see from the perspective of the joy of leadership, of service, of innovation and benefit. Remember Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, “The Man in The Arena”: It’s not the critics or those who point how the strong man stumbles. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena who strives valiantly.

3. The Board of Trustees:

Musing #19: It’s all about student success.

Michael, it’s all about student success and it’s your responsibility to ensure the board understands and focuses its policies and organizational accountabilities on students. If this is done well, then the rest of the organization and its suppliers and supporters will also have the proper focus!

Musing #20: Train, educate, and nurture the board of trustees so that they act as a policy-making advocate for the vision, mission, values and strategic agenda of the college district and act with one mind. This is the path that prevents disfunction.

You no longer report to a Chancellor, but to an elected body of individuals moved by their own ideas and the pressures from their constituents and employees. Your job is to lead them, but quietly from behind! You must guide and nurture them, help them become well informed and as passionate as you about the mission, vision and values and the strategic plan of the District. You must guide them to work as a policy-making body, not another administrative function of the organization.

Musing #21: Protect your trustees, keep them informed, never allow them to be surprised, consult with them regularly, engage them actively in the work of our community and District and educate them to ensure they avoid any inappropriate activity.

Treat each trustee equally and communicate frequently with them individually and collectively; especially those that may be a challenge. Ensure that they each feel respected and don’t let any one of them feel that they are being excluded. Consult with them individually and collectively, help them understand what is before them so they can support the agenda and include them in as many ways as possible in the work and celebrations of the organization. Help them succeed by working closely with legal counsel to ensure trustees collectively and individually avoid any acts that may be deemed inappropriate.

Musing #22: Always act, through your Chair, to maintain the collaboration and cooperation of your board.

Work closely with your Board Chair and utilize them to move the agenda and prevent disruptions and political infighting among your board. You are not in a position to handle difficult trustees or internal disagreements. You must encourage the Chair’s engagement, educate the Chair and ensure the Chair acts when necessary. But understand that this is one of your greatest challenges and you must be sensitive and politic. But always act as soon as disruption develops, otherwise you won’t be able to stop it and your very career could be jeopardized.

Be Excited For the Future!

Mike, each of these 22 Musings—though certainly not an exhaustive list!—has its own set of complexities and subtleties, most of which are not understood or appreciated by those who have not been in this role. Thus, you will have a steep learning curve, but you are blessed to have a great board, leadership team, family and friends to support you along the way.

I have also been blessed at the Alamo Colleges to have had the best board of my career, one which has been active in the appropriate way as a policy body, one which has been composed of honest, thoughtful, committed and dedicated individuals focused on our mission of student success and high performance, and one that has kept the vision and values clearly in their sights. They have actively engaged in the framing and implementation of our strategic agenda and supported our collective strategies, especially when the opposition became loud and politically active.

Mike, you will be similarly blessed if you focus your attention on keeping all of the trustees together, focused and intentional in the pursuit of our mission, values and vision. This must be your top priority if you are to accomplish anything else!

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