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Did you just laugh reading the words “administrative” and “joy” together? Roll your eyes? Oxymoron much? When we mentioned joy to higher education leaders this past year, one provost reflected the views of many when responding, “Do you think that joy is too high a bar?” The idea of working joyfully as a senior administrator seems like an impossibility or a privilege for just the very, very few.
People who work in higher education are experiencing staggering levels of work exhaustion and low morale. With a still-active global pandemic, racial reckoning, political polarization and vitriol, and a variety of national and international crises, people are just done. Even tenure, one of the last vestiges of job security in the working world, is not keeping people from bowing out.
Much of the focus has rightfully been on the burnout and workplace dissatisfaction of faculty, staff and students—not administrators. “Suck it up, buttercup” is a frequent administrative refrain. We voluntarily signed up for these senior leadership positions and are compensated at a higher level accordingly. We’ve been urged to never complain about overwork or express concerns about our mental health. As “servant leaders,” our job is to ensure that everyone else is OK; our call is to remember that it’s “not about us.”
Yet we cannot overlook the fact that challenges at the senior leadership level are triggering record turnover. This churn destabilizes colleges and their surrounding communities. Requests for empathy for administrators can’t fix morale alone. A higher education executive coach shared with us that many clients are regularly in tears, at the point of resigning and reconsidering their vocation. In the midst of all the current crises buffeting colleges and universities—political, economic, demographic and cultural—who will lead?
People often cite the importance of maintaining a sense of calling, purpose and personal fulfillment to maneuver through rough patches when it comes to faculty members. Such advice, however, does not seem to apply to administrators. The “call to teach” is revered; the call to administration is referred to as “going over to the Dark Side.” Cue the Darth Vader jokes. But joy is not a privilege that some human beings get and others must learn to live without. We all need to feel joy to do our jobs well.
How do we navigate the tension between managing in high-stress environments while also needing to work and live sustainably? Can we lead with joy?
In calling for administrative joy, we want to be clear: we know we don’t have it figured out. This is not a clickbait article on the “5 Easy Things You Can Do Today to Fix Burnout”—no easy techniques will solve every person’s concerns. But we’ve found that those of us in senior administrative positions can, in fact, take a few small steps to nurture joy in our lives.
Recognize what joy isn’t. In some of our conversations on the topic with other senior administrative leaders, we have been struck by several common reactions. One goes something like, “Well, it is nice that you lead that way, but that’s just not me” or “There is no way I could do that in my role or on my campus.” But joy is not something you inherently have or you don’t. It isn’t a leadership style. While certain techniques work for us, there are no universal ways to practice it. Joy can be loud. Joy can be quiet. Joy can be serious. Joy can be funny. The only aspect that’s required is to be true to yourself and your leadership.
Some leaders find the entire idea of administrative joy to be a Pollyanna fantasy. To them, the work is too hard and serious for some utopian vision of days filled with cartwheels, bubbles and rainbows. Yet joy is not a permanent state— it isn’t about walking around in constant bliss. It’s about moments. In sports psychology, the well-known idea of flow or a zone is a temporary state; athletes recognize that they can’t be in it all the time. The key is to identify what elements and aspects help create flow and then to purposefully design your training and preparation to enter a flow state when it matters. Joy seems similar to us.
View joy as a practice. Rather than a leadership style or a permanent state of being, we think of joy as a practice. Viewing it as such gives us the permission to play with it. Joy can be conjured and cultivated.
It exists irrespective of context and is not dependent on our day or our institutions’ challenges or whether or not the last email we received was a nasty one. It is something we can consciously influence and create in our work lives while acknowledging that such work can be exhausting, overwhelming and even cruel.
Administrative joy is a form of mindfulness and awareness. And by calling joy a practice, we are purposefully drawing connections to other practices that have demonstrated effectiveness in human fulfillment: spiritual and religious practices, mindfulness practices, wellness practices, and creative practices. If you are new to such practices, you might want to explore the habit-building work of James Clear or an introduction to meditation by Tara Brach. Meditation for CEOs is normalized, even applauded; it’s a tool that higher education leaders might better utilize. Rather than asking ourselves, “Why don’t I have any joy in my work?” we can reframe the question as “Where can I practice joy in my work?”
Revisit the dream. Doug Newberg, a sports and performance psychologist, coined the phrase “revisiting the dream” as a way to encourage leaders to remember why they got into the field in the first place. For example, a surgeon who has just lost a patient on the operating table and has to get right back to work must find a way to reset and move forward. While senior leaders in higher education probably won’t face something quite that dramatic, we constantly confront challenges, difficulties and troubles in an average workday. The accumulation of such negativity can become severe and even chronic.
Revisiting the dream for us might mean ignoring pings and Slacks to walk around the campus and see students doing college things—presentations, athletic events, musical performances and the like. It might mean keeping a happy file or collection of kudos and affirming notes to reread when we are feeling particularly overwhelmed or down. Or it could even mean carving out time, however precious, to work on an essay, read the latest article or book from our field, or maybe even teach a class.
As provosts, we both teach a course at different institutions called The Future of College in order to better understand what students and faculty members are experiencing. For both of us, the chance to regularly build relationships with students has been worth the time we’ve had to spend on classroom prep. It brings us joy. We got into this work because being around students—their energy, curiosity, challenges, desires—reminds us of the why of what we do every day.
Find your people. Senior leadership can be lonely. We encourage leaders to find their people and whatever structures work to generate communities of sustenance. When you feel isolated at work, it is hard to keep problems in proper perspective.
The two of us have established a deans’ club, a weekly Saturday morning support call. We have come to cherish and rely on this ritualized hour. When we refer to deans’ club around other senior leaders, we have been surprised how many folks say, “Aw, I want a deans’ club!”
Ron Heifetz and Marty Lipsky remind leaders that “Great athletes must simultaneously play the game and observe it as a whole.” We call this skill getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony, an image that captures the mental activity of stepping back from the action and asking, “What’s really going on here?” Your people can not only be with you in your challenges but also provide essential perspective to help you get back in the game.
Preserve your spirit. Daily forms of contemplative practice have been shown to improve mood and self-efficacy. For some people, that may be morning prayers or meditation. For others it may be deliberate “forest bathing” (yes, it’s a thing) by taking a 10-minute walk through the wooded section of campus. It does not have to be lofty or time-consuming— it can be making a single statement of gratitude to yourself when entering your campus and ritualizing it around a landmark or building. When work is at its hardest and our spirits are low, we have found that conjuring up a positive image of a specific person, place or moment from our campus can be buoying. Whatever works for you, employing a regular contemplative practice allows you to be centered, settled and even joyful—regardless of the circumstance—so you can then bring that spirit to your team and your community.
Learn humor. Higher education can be humorless. We are in the serious Academy (capital A). Reason, evidence, data, argument and logic are the currency of exchange and advancement. We should examine where those norms and values came from. Who has historically occupied executive leadership roles in higher education? Many women and people of color share that traditional or normative expressions of leadership in higher education are alienating. What if emotion, spirituality, intuition, joy and relationality were foregrounded as essential elements of leadership?
As researchers Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas argue in a TED talk and article, “How to Be Funny at Work,” the data show workplace humor encourages trust and makes work teams closer. They argue that humor can be learned; it is not an innate skill. They suggest finding tiny opportunities to cultivate humor and build on them; according to their research, minuscule interventions add up to a more delightful workplace.
Nurture an appreciative culture. Too often, we grind out a project only to pivot to the next chore in an unending list of to-dos and problems to fix. How do we cultivate delight? Taking even just a little time to pause and celebrate wins, big and small, can go a long way toward bringing joy back to work. For example, we begin certain meetings with appreciations. It is a simple structure that brings triple joy: joy for the person bringing up the name, joy for the person writing an appreciation and joy for the person receiving the personal acknowledgment. People just don’t get appreciated enough. And it only takes a few minutes.
Arthur C. Brooks has written that the “two key aspects of meaningful work are earned success and service to others. Earned success implies a sense of accomplishment and recognition for a job well done, while service to others requires knowledge of the real people who benefit from your work.” We have the capacity to build happier teams by recognizing their earned success and acknowledging the impact of their service.
It is a risk to choose joy—the easier path is one of cynicism and doubt. Historian Howard Zinn, in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, lobbies for hope against odds: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something … The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Is it possible that by actively calibrating the ratio of joy compared to discouragement in our work, that we might be able to dial up more joy? The fact is that if we are to lead in our volatile higher education sector in any kind of sustained way, we have to lead differently. What if we choose joy?