Leadership

Thoughts and Experiences Concerning Leadership

On September 1st, 2019 I assumed the responsibility of Department Chair for the Department of Life Sciences at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. The Department of Life Sciences has 30 tenured or tenure-track faculty, 5 professional assistant faculty and over 1,200 science majors.  It offers B.S. degrees in Biology, Biomedical Science, and Clinical Laboratory Science, M.S. degrees in Biology, Marine Biology, and Fisheries & Mariculture, and a Ph.D. in Marine Biology.  New degree programs planned include Biomedical Science M.S., Marine Biomedical Science Ph.D. and Fisheries Ph.D.  The selected faculty and associated laboratory will be housed in a new state-of-the-art three-story building, Tidal Hall, which will support 9 new instructional labs and 34 research labs.

My philosophy of leadership has evolved over my thirteen year involvement as a tenured faculty member, program chair director, Principal Investigator on several funded research and teaching initiatives, and four years as assistant to the life science department chair. I’ve helped different department chairs who each had their own styles of leadership. And I’ve worked with leaders who are in much higher places than myself in the academic hierarchy and observed how they lead. I’ve experienced some awesome examples of leadership, and have seen some examples that had little success. I’ve found that leadership is not something you are born with or something you decide you have. Real leadership takes courage. You will know failure, disappointment, setback, and sometimes even heartbreak. Real courage in leadership is rare – you are vulnerable and it’s not about winning or losing. Real leadership means you show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.


Seth Grodin (2008) wrote that, “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead, making leadership valuable. It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers (or those who were once your colleagues and friends – and now are being evaluated by you- CM). It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle. However, when you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader”. So, with all this discomfort, how do you find your comfort zone as a leader? The following has worked for me.

First, remember I’ve been here for 13 years – these faculty and staff have been my friends and allies over the years. I realized what was needed in our department was a change in culture where we could work together to make our department stronger. This requires a culture of honest, constructive and engaged feedback. Without feedback, there can be no transformative change. When we don’t talk to the people we are leading about their strengths their opportunities for growth, we begin to question their contributions and our commitment. Disengagement follows.

Two major issues that I identified after interviewing faculty about feedback were:

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We are often not comfortable with hard conversations, so ‘hand-wavy’ decisions are being made that lack any real purpose and fail to provide direction.

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We haven’t been giving or receiving feedback that moves people and processes forward.

We are wanting feedback – we all want to grow. We need to learn how to give feedback in a way that inspires growth and engagement. Feedback may be uncomfortable, and that is a normal part of the process. Letting faculty know that it is going to be uncomfortable is a good strategy. The simple and honest process of letting people know that discomfort is normal, that it’s going to happen, why it happens, and why it’s important, reduces anxiety and fear.  A big challenge for leaders is getting our heads around the fact that we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as part of growth. Honest engagement around expectations and behavior is always fraught with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure for everyone involved. There is no vision without vulnerability and vulnerability is at the heart of the feedback process. This is true whether we give, receive, or solicit feedback.

The good news is that if an organization makes the creation of a feedback culture a priority and a practice, rather than an aspirational value, it can happen. By taking a ‘strengths’ perspective, we have the opportunity to examine our struggles in light of our capacities, talents, competencies, possibilities, visions, values and hopes. This perspective doesn’t dismiss the serious nature of our struggles, but does require us to consider our positive qualities as potential resources. By examining the relationship between strengths and limitations, we look at what we do best as well as what we want to change the most. This way, we go through the majority of our ‘faults’ and ‘limitations’ and find the strengths lurking therein.

So, instead of “armoring up’ to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of giving and receiving feedback, we engage, envision, and allow ourselves to get entangled in the strengths and opportunities as we discuss things while sitting on the same side of the table.

 

As a leader, I am willing to do the following:

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I’m willing to sit next to you rather than across from you.

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I’m ready to listen, ask questions, and accept that I many not fully understand the issue.

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I want to acknowledge what you do well instead of picking apart your mistakes.

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I recognize your strengths and how you can use them to address your challenges.

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I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you.

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I can genuinely thank you for your efforts rather than criticize you for your failings.

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I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to your growth and opportunity.

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I can model the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from you.

(adapted from Brene Brown, 2012).

When these feedback strategies are used, phrases like, “Thank you for your contributions. Here’s how you’re making a difference,” and, “This issue is getting in the way of your growth, and I think we can tackle it together. What ideas do you have about moving forward?”, and “What role do you think I’m playing in the problem? What can I do differently to support you?” can be used with authentic, deliberate and intentional solicitation yielding productive feedback.

During conversations, the following phrases should be used openly and often:

I don’t know.   I need your help to understand.  I’d like to give it a shot. It’s important to me.   

I disagree – can we talk about it?    It didn’t work, but I learned a lot.   Yes, I did it.

Here’s what I need.  Here’s how I feel.  I’d like some feedback.   Can I get your take on this?

How can I do better next time?    Can you teach me how to do this?    I played a part in that.

                                  I accept responsibility for that.        I’m here for you.

A leader practices courage, compassion and connection. A real leader looks at the situation and the people around them and says, “I’m all in.” Leaders crave purpose, and are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement. Leaders are willing to take risks, embrace their vulnerabilities, and be courageous. Leaders ask that their associates engage with them, show up beside them and learn from them. They understand that feedback is a function of respect; when there are less than honest conversations about strengths and opportunities for growth, they question their own contributions and their commitment. Instead of controlling, a leader takes risks and cultivates trust.

Last and not least, leaders insist on accuracy and accountability. If there are rumors or the media misrepresents the truth, a leader confronts it head on with the people affected by it. Honesty and integrity mean not allowing rationalizing our way out of a conundrum and letting things slide. Earning respect through accountability means we don’t take the fast and easy way out. If we want to have a climate of gratitude and respect, we don’t take things for granted or tease or act disrespectfully. Leaders set limits and boundaries, and abide by them – we also abide by the boundaries and limits that have been set for us by others. We pay attention to the space between where were actually standing and where we want to be. Most importantly, we have to practice the values that we’re holding out as important in our culture. We don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with action.