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  • 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.

October 16, 2008 - 10:21pm

Maggie's post on temperament and leadership really gets it right – check it out.

Although the term "servant leadership" creeps me out – my past experience with people who used it was that they were juuuust a little too self-congratulatory about it – Maggie really nails the dynamic of blending confidence and egolessness. Watching the debates, I'd be hard-pressed to repeat anything Obama said, but his demeanor stuck with me; in the midst of nuttiness, he's unflappable. After watching, I come away seeing McCain less as another Bush than as another Cheney, angrily grumbling at the neighborhood kids to get the hell off his lawn. With Obama, there's a contagious, confident calm.

I don't have Obama's gifts, and I certainly haven't had a life like his. But he's absolutely worth watching as a leadership study.

I've watched on my campus as the budget news has progressed with surprising speed from 'bad' to 'awful' to 'repent your sins.' And I've watched people at different levels react in different ways, each eliciting different reactions. I'm beginning to realize that when you're a public figure, even if in a limited context, demeanor is what people remember.

When someone in a staff role has a meltdown, that person and his immediate coworkers feel it. When someone in a public role has a meltdown, everybody gets scared. Public meltdowns make a bad situation worse, even when they're based on a clearsighted recognition of some external reality.

The usual administrator's playbook says that when things get bad, you get evasive. Change the subject, or find something to praise, or if you're really stuck, trot out the vague cliches. This is actually better than having a meltdown, but it doesn't really inspire confidence, either. At best, it's a holding action. Sometimes that's the best you can do, of course, but it rarely has the desired effect.

Lately, I've been experimenting with a new approach. On a few recent occasions, as things have become particularly scary, I've gone into public discussions with my guard down and plenty of facts at hand. Instead of bracing for confrontation, I've simply admitted the limits of what I know, put the facts out there, acknowledged my own biases, and asked for input. And I have to admit being embarrassed at how badly I've underestimated some of my colleagues. (I'll even admit being embarrassed now, when I reread some of my posts from a few years ago.)

Okay, I'm a slow learner. And it's hard.

The responses, mostly, have been heartening. Instead of the self-righteous pushback and 'gotcha' moves that have been entirely too common over the years, I'm actually starting to see a real exchange of ideas. Some of that is the clarity that crisis brings – when the state is in free-fall, it's hard to reduce all bad things to this or that dean. But some of it, I think, is an almost palpable need for a sense of safety and calm. The best responses come when we collectively bring some legibility to the chaos. That feeling of 'getting a handle on it' seems to help, like pretending you're steering when you're on a roller coaster. And sometimes getting a handle on it means letting go of some of your own stuff.

The trick is to make it look easy, to project calm. That's freakin' hard, but it's also half the message.


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