Mindful Speech: Required for #HigherEd Leaders

In 2016, wise leaders speak carefully, after listening and thinking, to avoid disrupting their communities.

March 24, 2016

Speaking carefully is so important that the Buddha recognized it as one of the eight steps leading to awakening. And among the hundreds of rules for Buddhist monks are dozens that relate to being mindful about how you speak, when you speak, and what you speak.

But you don’t need to be a Buddhist to know that words have an impact or to understand how ill-chosen words can create disruption in a tight-knit community.

Leaders need to be especially careful about what they say. This is especially true when institutions face difficulties and they need to muster support from stakeholders to advance potentially unpopular or disruptive changes.
Just consider two recent examples.

First, there may have been plenty of reasons to be concerned about Simon Newman’s leadership at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland. But is there any doubt that he wouldn’t have gained such widespread notoriety so quickly if he hadn’t compared students who were in academic trouble to struggling bunnies that needed to be drowned or talked about putting a Glock to their heads?

That’s an arresting soundbite, one sure to be widely reported. As it was. And it’s an appalling image. One condemned by many, including the AAUP and fellow Catholic university president Patricia McGuire, who decried Newman’s words and actions.

Then there’s J. Bruce Harreld at the University of Iowa. Before he even started, people raised questions about what appeared to be preferential treatment by the Board of Regents during the search. So what are we to make of his statement, before a facility and staff group, that instructors who weren’t prepared to teach should be shot, or his (explanation? apology?) that when he’d used the same image before, no one had objected?

Wise speech helps leaders to build the support they need in order to affect change of any kind. And we all know that these are troubled times in higher ed. So leaders who must deal with issues that affect the current health and future stability of their institutions don’t need the distraction of a crisis of their own making.

That doesn’t mean that leaders need to downplay the seriousness of a crisis or avoid taking controversial positions. There are ways to do that without causing unnecessary conflagration.

To start, it’s important to remember that any member of a group you’re speaking to is a potential reporter, carrying a device that can record and broadcast your every word.

It’s also important to relfect that in difficult times or times of crisis, listening carefully to what others have to say, considering their points of view, thinking about what you say, and who you’re saying it to -- before speaking -- makes a huge difference.

There are plenty of examples of campus leaders who have dealt with controversies at their institutions without further inflaming them through provocative language or ill-phrased retorts. For example, in another essay, Patricia McGuire recounted how through reflection, humility and careful listening -- a necessary concomitant to wise speech -- she was able to lead her institution through a time of racial unrest.

That’s just one example of wise leadership, wise action -- and wise speech.


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