*Adapted from keynote presentation for the VCU Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute luncheon, October 13, 2017 in Richmond, VA.
In April 2002, I received an anonymous email – a very threatening and untraceable anonymous email sent from a remailer in Milan, Italy. The email informed me that I was unqualified for the position at Virginia Tech that I had just been offered and accepted. The position is the one I hold today and was similar to the one I had held at my previous institution, a research land-grant university very much on par with VT. The email further indicated that I (and my partner) would not be welcome in Virginia because “they kill gays in Roanoke”. And, of course, the author provided the link to a newspaper story that detailed the September 2000 murder of Danny Overstreet (and wounding of six others) inside a gay bar in Roanoke, Virginia, by a man who said he wanted to shoot gays. I would later learn that a hateful and homophobic email announcing my hire was sent to the VT administration and members of the VT Board of Visitors, resulting in the BOV taking unprecedented action to further discourage me and my partner from moving to Blacksburg, Virginia. In July 2002, we drove 2701 miles to begin our new life at Virginia Tech.
This was definitely a moment, one of many in my professional career through which I was able to face the obstacles, eventually find empowerment, and continue my journey as it would unfold. This moment was actually transformative. All of us have moments in our lives, but what we choose to do with them, how we choose to learn from them (and not be defined by them) provide the foundation for navigating the roles and responsibilities that come with leadership positions and opportunities to lead.
Moments are sometimes called learning moments or Aha moments! Some are brief and some extend over time. One of the first lessons that I learned from that moment in 2002 was to understand that although it was and felt very “personal,” I could not take it “personally” or respond in a personal way. It is important to understand the impact of these moments personally and professionally because it is likely that some of our decisions will create intentional or unintentional ‘moments’ for others.
I was honored to speak at the VCU Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute that is the legacy of Dr. Grace E. Harris. I have faced challenges in my academic career as a woman, but as a white woman I have been allowed to benefit from the systemic racism in our culture and institutions. Dr. Harris defined herself as a transformative leader in spite of the discrimination she faced. I can only imagine what kind of ‘moments’ she confronted throughout her life and career as an African American female challenging the racially exclusionary system of our society and of higher education. Returning as the first African American faculty member at VCU, to the very institution that had years earlier denied her admission as a graduate student due to her race, providing 32 years of exemplary service and serving as Provost and Academic Vice President (and twice as interim President), her story, her journey, and her determination to turn obstacles into opportunities are inspirational.
In my presentation, I offered two initial reflections about leadership which I learned mostly from life’s unexpected ‘moments’ – nuggets of authentic experiences that offer great insights, assuming that we are able to listen and learn from them. First, leadership occurs everywhere and should be recognized in everyday life. Leadership often happens without an official administrative title or position of leadership. Second, when we hold an administrative title or leadership position, one of our primary responsibilities lies in providing opportunities for, and encouraging, others to feel empowered and to act as leaders in all that they do.
While some leaders have their careers planned early in their lives and know where they want to be by a specific date, others chose a different path or, more accurately in my case, a different path choose me. Although paths do vary, I believe strongly that career development is more of a journey that unfolds across time. The path isn’t necessarily straight and the journey should be dynamic; and, as such, it will naturally include many unknowns. We need to look for doors, or the slightly ajar doors, the spaces that open up sometimes unexpectedly that one can move into and explore. We need to be willing to seek and work to open doors when they are slow to open. I’m not arguing for complacency, nor am I suggesting that we wait passively for something to happen. I am suggesting that keen observation, and an attentiveness and willingness to explore the unknown, will lead to unexpected opportunities. This requires us to understand that there will be times when we will be outside of our comfort zone, that will we need to embrace being open and vulnerable, having courage and a willingness to accept risk.
Today higher education faces the challenge of change and the challenge to change. Throughout the 21st century, many issues have surfaced and challenged higher education, including the cost of higher education, access, accountability, diversity, the meaningfulness of a degree, ethics and more. There have been numerous calls for reform to which higher education must respond and leaders are those who can embrace transformational change. Transformation occurs over time, is intentional, is deep and pervasive, affects the whole institution, requires changes in policies, procedures, programs and people; and ultimately, it can alter the institutional culture for the better.
Due to recent events, including #charlottesville, higher education has been challenged to engage with issues of academic freedom, freedom of speech, civil discourse, and protests. There is much unrest and tension in the nation and in the Commonwealth right now and university leadership must find a way to navigate these waters and move our institutions forward; the solutions and paths forward will require strong and transformative leadership from both current leaders and the next generation of leadership in academe.
Transformative leadership is a broad umbrella term under which I’d like to highlight specific aspects and actions. Included among these are thinking differently; looking for that which is the ‘unobvious’; having a vision and framing a positive agenda with long-term perspective; identifying the problem that we are trying to solve; focusing on the underlying principles, and to “live a life of meaning and worth” as articulated by the late African American law professor, Derrick Bell in his book, Ethical Ambition (2002).
In sharing my musings and reflections about transformative leadership, I want to begin with the “meditations” found in Ethical Ambition: Living a life of meaning and worth. This book helped inform and enriched my journey since my initial reading of the book following the transformative moment of 2002. In particular, Bell wrote:
“Ethics requires us to think deeply about our positions on issues, and to take principled stands as a result of those positions.” (p. 50)
“Ethical life is not a life of sacrifice; it is a life of riches. The satisfaction of choosing ethically enriches the fabric of our daily lives in ways we might have otherwise thought impossible.”
Bell (2002) challenges us to choose to work with passion and integrity; to be authentic, courageous and assume risks; to find moments of inspiration, build relationships and a sense of community, and to do all of these with humility. From a leadership perspective, I would expand the notion of humility to include prioritizing institutional over personal ambition.
Leadership is about having vision (which, in my view, should sometimes include ideas not fully in focus, rather than adherence to a preconceived plan, etched in stone) and direction (a general path to follow but also allowing the journey to unfold). It is about clarifying and identifying the problem we are trying to solve before considering solutions or possible outcomes. This seems like it would be intuitive, but we are not often enough encouraged to carefully assess the problem and reflect on possible solutions, before the institution tries to move forward.
Leadership is also about examining our underlying assumptions and identifying the principles by which we will consider and make decisions. In the decision-making process, I will often ask what are the principles that we will use in making the decision. This also requires that we ask “why” and “to whose benefit” more often than we do. If there isn’t an immediate satisfactory answer, I often put something on the “stop-doing-this” list while answering the why and who benefits questions. And, of course, we must see and understand the whole and not just the parts as depicted in the visual of the blindfolded individuals and the elephant.
Not only does transformative leadership require a holistic view, but it also requires us to think differently and look for that which is not necessarily obvious – seeing the arrow in the FedEx logo. It is about seeing and seeking that which is “unobvious”.
It is about seeing the subtle messages and seeing that which becomes clearer only after more observation (how many faces).
Transformative leadership must be focused on inclusion and diversity and in that order. If we focus only on diversity, we might never achieve inclusion. But if we focus on inclusion we will have diversity.
Transformation leadership requires us to act: to respond and not react. Leadership is action and we need to balance patience and perseverance. There are times when our actions are seen and sometimes our actions go unnoticed except by a few.
And, we must also remind ourselves that “silence is the voice of complicity.” As I mentioned in the beginning, higher education is in need of transformative leaders. These are leaders who are not afraid to speak out. Leaders must think about the future and be willing to take some risks – to be ‘futurisktic‘.
Gandhi is often credited with saying be the change you wish to see in the world. I would encourage us to embrace this as individuals, but to also suggest that it is our job as leaders to help our institutions of higher education “become the change we wish to see in the world.”