• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


The Fights of Spring

Leaderships styles matter.

April 15, 2015

As a dean, what do you do when everyone on campus is cranky?

My friend and occasional partner-in-crime Paula Krebs has a good piece over in the Chronicle about that. With requisite circumspection, she outlines what a colleague of mine calls “hate-pril,” or the month when everyone’s fuses are at their shortest.  

It happens every year. It’s easy to forget, in the same sense that it’s easy to forget pain.  

Krebs offers some useful strategies for nudging constructive culture change. Many of them have to do with setting policies and expectations, and separating the dancer from the dance.  

Yes to those, and I’ll add one.

In my faculty days, the dean who hired me was a lovely human being who absolutely radiated stress. She meant well, worked hard, and generally fought the good fight, but I always emerged from conversations with her more nervous than when I went in. “High-strung” isn’t quite fair -- she was never hostile -- but she certainly wore her very nervous heart on her sleeve.  I didn’t give it much thought until she left and her successor had a more calming manner.  

They weren’t terribly different in any substantive way. They knew and liked each other, and I liked both of them.  But their ways of being in the world were different in ways that had powerful effects on the emotional climate of the place. I couldn’t help but notice that the leader’s style became a sort of default setting more broadly.  

When I moved into administration, I had to apply that observation to myself.  It took a little while, and some trial-and-error, to find a way of being in the role that was sufficiently true to myself to wear well and still be appropriate to the role and constructive in the institution.  

Hierarchy is an amplifier. The higher you are in the organization, the more closely people will watch you for cues, whether consciously or not.  

That’s where a combination of self-awareness and role awareness matters.  A leader without self-awareness will send mixed messages. Without naming any names, I’ll just say I’ve seen it, and it’s unnerving. In good times, it may not matter much, but when things get difficult or conflictual, people who are on edge because you’re sending mixed messages will be much quicker to jump to negative conclusions. If your visceral message conflicts with your verbal one, people will assume that you’re untrustworthy. That’s true even if they agree with your words.  

Hate-pril is when the nonverbals really matter. If you know your personal style well enough to find the right parts to draw upon when people get cranky, without coming off as inauthentic, you can have a calming influence.  

Personal style is not a shorthand for substantive views. It’s possible to be frantic and conservative, or calm and forward-looking. In some ways, leaders who come off as trustworthy are actually much more able to be transformative, precisely because people won’t be as quick to assume the worst with them. Confidence doesn’t have to be blustery; in fact, bluster often indicates a deeper uncertainty.  Similarly, some folks confuse “peremptory” with “decisive,” or “thoughtful” with “wishy-washy.” I tend to have more confidence in people who consider decisions before committing to them; anything too easily won can be too easily lost.  

This time of year, more than any other, leaders need to be aware of their own style of being, and of the visceral messages they’re sending. Visceral messages of reassurance can reduce some of the drama, and help people focus on the many, many tasks at hand. The key for leaders is to find styles of sending those messages that don’t undermine their content.  And remembering that April doesn’t last forever.



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