The recent global pandemic has led us to think about leadership and leadership behavior in a different light, for it has demonstrated that effective leadership lessons are in many ways universal but, at the same time, remain particular to the context. In our case, it meant re-examining how useful the lessons we learned as black female deans might prove in any context involving change. We have chosen to focus on three lessons: you don't know what you don't know, you can’t hack your way to a vision and moral courage must trump inaction and silence.
You don’t know what you don’t know. In general, institutions hire leaders to be change agents and to provide visionary direction, but the best-laid plans might never gain traction because of a failure to study and understand the context in which one is operating. The experience of organizational leadership has often been compared to falling into and getting lost in a rabbit hole. It is a universal dilemma that requires acute attention not only to what you can easily discover about the context but also the more elusive present and future threats to moving forward. While it is not difficult to find information about the history of an organization and what has or has not worked well, often too little attention is paid to the “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” that must be a part of strategic planning.
Known unknowns, for instance, can refer to information that you know that you need but that is not being shared with you or that has not been adequately considered as part of the strategic plan. Admitting your lack of knowledge or seeking answers about such issues is not a sign of weakness but rather an opportunity to be intentional about fulfilling the expectations of your role.
In contrast, anticipating unknown unknowns, or not knowing what you don’t know, is more complex, if not impossible. It involves planning based on information or actions you cannot easily predict -- such as decision-making processes that affect your unit but to which you are not privy, or sudden organizational changes that affect your unit. Because leaders don’t know what they don’t know, they must strategize by imagining and attempting to forecast, in consultation with others, the possible best- and worst-case scenarios under unexpected challenges.
One issue that we faced as pioneer deans of color at our respective institutions was the possibility that our difference might translate into being minoritized -- that is, pushed to the margins and faced with unexplained resistance. For instance, we sometimes encountered difficulty in gaining information that should have been readily available for use in implementing changes, or we were forced to consider ways to forestall decisions that might be made without our input. To manage the barrier of the unknown unknowns, we had to forge relationships with allies who would keep us informed and engage in collaborative partnerships to build and launch initiatives. This notion of constantly dealing with resistance at times based on something seemingly other than our actual actions or abilities forced us as leaders to assess the context carefully and constantly ask ourselves, “What really is going on here?”
You can’t hack your way to a vision. Thorough knowledge of one’s context and its ongoing changes is crucial in preparing for difficult decisions, but all too often leaders equate success with quick fixes or quick wins -- which amount to hacking one’s way to a vision that has little substance or endurance. To be sure, in a crisis, leaders must make decisions in a timely manner, but those decisions should never eliminate adequate deliberation and information gathering.
Faced with appeals from a variety of directions to resolve an issue based on “the way it has always been done” or “what is most convenient” or “who will be unhappy” seldom renders the most responsible solution. For us, such challenges spark a crucial question that any leader who has to make a difficult, often unpopular, decision must ask themself: What must I do in this situation, given my position?
That is perhaps the most important question to keep in mind as one prepares for leadership, because the basis on which the decision is made reflects internal character and how it aligns with stated institutional principles. Promising visionary miracles is easy, but making meaningful, incremental change that helps to build an evolutionary and thriving institution has a more lasting and indelible effect.
In A Time to Build, Yuval Levin decries the failure of leaders who abandon the formative role of an institution in favor of the performative or celebrity role that basks in attention and power, often seeking quick wins that appeal to a culture of celebrity or instant, and often fleeting, attention. Meaningful change, in contrast, supports a culture of integrity that is driven by formative institutional principles and that provides a structure for future growth and change. For example, achieving institutional diversity must be about more than increasing numbers or staging celebrations of difference. Instead, it must involve fostering a culture of inclusion as an institutional value demonstrated by how we enact the institution’s mission and vision.
Moral courage must trump inaction and silence. Few people would argue against the truth of this maxim, especially as applied to a crisis. In recent times, the importance of moral courage has become ever more crucial in institutional leadership, which often struggles with frequent turnovers, competition for resources and an increasingly diverse student population. As deans of color, we faced such issues, learning quickly that enacting our roles with integrity called for moral courage -- that is, for speaking out and serving without fear.
Such a stance can come with disappointments and concerns about not being heard, about lack or loss of support, or even about reprisals. But despite those challenges, we were committed to making reasonable compromises so long as our fundamental values were not compromised. That is, of course, easier said than done, because integrity does not guarantee long-term security. But we also understood that whatever the cost, it was not worth abandoning professional responsibility or personal ethics in service to the status quo.
We believed then and now that to benefit those whom you serve and to lay the groundwork for long-term positive outcomes, moral courage trumps inaction and silence. Audre Lorde expressed it well in her poem “A Litany for Survival”: “When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak …” Serving without fear will not ensure the permanence of your goals and plans. But only by maintaining the courage to speak inconvenient truths can institutional leaders offer some certainty in the face of uncertain times.