Warren Bennis, one of my favorite writers on leadership, tried his hand for seven years at running a university. He didn’t much like it and, nearly 20 years later, at the pinnacle of a successful academic career, wrote in a 1994 memoir that he left the presidency of the University of Cincinnati newly aware of "an important personal truth. I was never going to be completely happy with positional power, the only kind of power an organization can bestow. What I really wanted was personal power, influence based on voice."
My own experience, strikingly similar to Bennis’s in the early years of my presidency was, by the end, miraculously different. I walked out of a presidency having found my personal power — and my voice — through the painstaking process of learning to survive in the vortex of positional power. And I found there a state of mind approaching complete happiness.
Warren Bennis’s disaffection with the presidency came from an experience that troubled me when I started out, the feeling of being "held hostage" to others’ projections.
"The perceptions of other people can be a prison," Bennis wrote. Being president made him begin to understand for the first time, he said, "what it must be like to be the victim of prejudice, to be helpless in the steel embrace of how other people see you. People impute motives to their leaders, love or hate them, seek them out or avoid them, and idolize or demonize them independently of what the leaders do or are. Ironically, at the very time I had the most power, I felt the greatest sense of powerlessness."
When I started in the presidency, I often felt powerless and misunderstood: confused, inarticulate, ineffective. I blamed my inexperience, called it ineptitude -- and some of it was. At times during the first year I felt as though the college didn’t really want a president, as though the organization was running on autopilot, content to have a leader who was nothing more than a cardboard cutout. At other times, paradoxically, I felt as though the college wanted a leader who was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, that the president was expected to catalyze every committee meeting, legitimate every event, render every decision, validate everyone’s worth, as though nothing of meaning could happen until she arrived.
I was fortunate that, pretty much by accident, an unusually insightful organizational consultant, Richard Nodell, happened across my path early in my third year. He was a true intellectual with a big spirit and when I asked him how he worked, he said he would encourage me to develop the practice of "looking at everything that happens as meaningful, and perhaps even enjoyable." That sounded good to me.
But it took me several months to convince myself that I wanted and needed the help he could provide. We began to discuss a consulting contract and a fee structure for what he called a system intervention at the college and I balked. I had imagined hiring him on the side and paying for his services privately. I knew that some colleagues would be suspicious of some guy from the outside who seemed to have the new president’s ear and that others would disapprove of my spending the college’s money on a outside management consultant whose intelligence, expertise and “corporate” values they would instinctively mistrust.
"Our contract has to be clean and out in the open," he countered, or it would be based on a false premise that would compromise our working alliance. "The structure of our agreement has to recognize what you need as legitimate, and so do you." This was not some remedial help I could sneak off on my own to secure. "The work we will be doing is in the service of your role as president. It won’t be good for the college if you are pushed so profoundly by the job that you lose the chance to learn." Since it was the possibility of learning that had drawn me to the job, I decided to go forward, starting out on a trial basis. I quickly discovered for myself all the ways in which this consulting relationship would be nothing like a luxury on the side, but would in fact become central to my work, the one place I could go to integrate the many partial views others were bringing me, to discern patterns and to weave a unified and strategic vision of the organization as a whole.
When a large coalition of Asian-American students staged a sit-in outside my office, for example, we assembled the senior administration and together disentangled a long laundry list of specific "demands" the students believed would enhance their sense of being "seen" and respected. By taking the students even more seriously than they were taking themselves, the administrative team was able to engage the student leaders in an extended and consequential conversation with the deans of academic and student life about concrete steps the college could take to enrich their educational experiences. In effect, we reframed the interaction from symbols to substance.
It was also through this work that I came to recognize and, gradually, to rise above the dehumanizing effects of the echo chamber of projections and to find solid ground on which I could stand apart from the expectations of others without losing my connections to them. I knew I would have to make changes to survive in the job for any length of time. And I knew one of the biggest changes I had to make, and fast, was to pull back from managing details so that I could begin to live into the wider arc of my role. What I hadn’t appreciated was how profound a shift this would be, a transformation in how I saw myself. I would have to sacrifice the pleasure I had always taken in a certain kind of mastery – the sense of intellectual integrity that came with delving deeply into an issue, ferreting about in the nuance and building a larger synthesis inductively from the data. I would have to claim the freedom not to have all the answers. I would have to be content imagining myself leading a trek through a thicket of unanswered and fertile questions.
One question I had been tracking was whether I could learn to practice what I thought of as a leadership of peace, a goal that may have reflected my roots in Quaker tradition, but rested as well on two convictions I had reached in years of studying and experiencing organizational life. First, it seemed to me that a healthy organization, by definition, was one that supported its members in making and sustaining connections — within themselves, with one another, with their clients or, in our case, the students, and with the larger and deeper meanings and contexts of their work. This was consistent, too, with the groundbreaking studies on growth in connection Jean Baker Miller and other feminist thinkers had been doing for many years, some at Wellesley.
From this first insight, it followed, second, that leaders responsible for organizational success would themselves have to be working self-consciously to resist the pressures that would otherwise drive them into isolation. I knew how it felt to withdraw at times of confusion or pain — or to harden in the face of attack — and I knew what an effort it took to find my way back to myself. To work in a purposeful way to preserve connections, was, I felt, to lead in the service of peace.
As a woman, I was intent on developing my own authentic leadership so I especially wanted to be sure, when faced with decisions, that I had found the place where I could stand with authority, the position I could recognize from my own observation to be right and true. I kept that imperative uppermost in my partnership with this outside consultant, monitoring what was his, what was mine, and what was ours. And this primary partnership became a touchstone for growing the system of partnerships through which I led the college, delegating responsibilities with full trust in my deans and vice presidents, knowing we were in synchrony because of the constancy of our attention to sustaining our partnerships. These were sturdy enough not only to withstand even the most jarring crisis, but also enabled us to find the meaning in it, and to understand and approach it as the organization’s new direction in which to grow. Over time we were able to weave our individual partnerships together into a powerful network, creating an exceptionally effective and mutually-rewarding leadership team.
Each of the individual partnerships reproduced the original choreography of self-responsibility and interdependence, two values that were central not only to my personal aspirations as a leader, but also to my vision for the college and the education I wanted to be certain we were offering our students. And it turned out that learning to sustain this tension of oneness and separateness in an interlocking matrix of carefully tended and resilient partnerships became a wellspring for me of both positional power and abiding peace.
Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.
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