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Lessons From Bossypants: Women and Leadership
August 9, 2011 - 7:30pm

Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag....In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful accidents. -- Tina Fey, Bossypants


When I was elected chair of my department this past semester, I did two things immediately. First, I sent out a tweet asking for resources, suggestions, and advice. Second, I bought Tina Fey's Bossypants -- on audiobook, of course, so I could listen to her reading it.

The first resulted in the generosity I have come to appreciate and rely on in the good folks I know from the Twittersphere: a link to a free trial of the Women in Higher Education newsletter, this post by Jeffrey McClurken for new chairs, as well as words of wisdom and support. I've also learned a great deal from the other writers at University of Venus (especially this article on women in administration from Mary Churchill), in particular those with whom I had the privilege of serving on a live chat at the Guardian UK website looking at women and leadership in higher ed (here; also a follow-up by Anamaria Dutceac Segesten here).

The second step resulted in full-fledged Tina Fey worship and a new perspective on how an administrative gig could be a vehicle for positive change.

(Yes, I can feel your skepticism from here; bear with me. This is my first post for University of Venus as a regular contributor, and the first of several dispatches from the land of new chairs: they might not always be this sunny, but I believe there is something productive in thinking about this work as potentially transformative, so I'm just going to insist on that for now, if that's okay.)

In Bossypants, Tina Fey talks about how doing improv at Second City in Chicago taught her how to be effective as "the boss" on the television show, 30 Rock. The key, she says, is to be a yes, and type person. In improv, if someone throws out an idea, to keep the bit going you should say, Yes, and… So, if I say, If only we hadn't used up all the marshmallows! Remember what happened the last time we had grandma over --, you should say, Yes, and…: Yes, and it just made that whole situation with her teeth even worse, especially after the parakeet got loose. If you say No, but, if you ask too many questions, if you stop the bit and say, Wait, where are we going to get a parakeet, the whole thing dies. (By the way, this is not an example from the book; I made it up, which might be why I do what I do and not improv.)

A yes, and person doesn’t find ways to cut down something potentially good before it really has a chance to get going. Being a yes, and person means you are flexible. You are open to collaboration, to possibility, to joining in on someone else's vision and helping to make it part of the work of the group. What Tina Fey learned through improv is generosity, creativity, openness, a willingness to be inspired by others, an appreciation of collaboration rather than competition, and a sense that the vision of a group is only as good as what each person brings to it.

At least, that's my takeaway. And while Tina Fey-ness might be a pretty high standard to reach, I'm hearing from other people that this is a model of leadership they can get behind. A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (thanks to Stacey Donohue for sharing) observes that academics committed to research and teaching who move into chairing a department don't always get the training they need. I was lucky to have opportunities on my own campus in this area, and what I learned was that helping people think about their own vision and personal strategic plan is the best way to foster transformative thinking and action in a group. Is there room for skepticism here? Sure -- but a department open to building on everyone's strengths, creating moments for people to do good work independently and collaboratively to make the best program possible: that's a department I'd want to be part of.

In future posts, I'd like to take up what it means to be a GenX woman taking on a leadership role in academia, how to balance such a position with the first loves of research and teaching, and concerns specific to women in higher ed. In the meantime, I'm grateful for the smart, funny, high-powered women I turn to in thinking about this new role -- I know I can count on for them mentoring whether I’m popping into a colleague’s office for a quick chat and some advice, or zipping to work laughing at the woman who taught me that girls can be funny and in charge...sometimes even at the same time.

Chester, Pennsylvania in the US

Janine Utell is an Associate Professor of English at Widener University and a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be reached by email at jmutell@gmail; follow her on Twitter @janineutell.


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