Category Archives: Leadership

Mementos for a Rainy Day

If you’re like me, it’s easier to recall the slights, humiliations, put-downs, and general meanness experienced than the kind, gracious, generous, and loving messages received.

In my quest to clear my memento cache, I discovered that I had squirreled away some of the kind messages that I’d received.

For me, this blog serves as a way to preserve parts of these messages kept for a rainy day. It is my hope that this encourages you to not only reflect on such messages you have received, but also to be the giver of such encouragement. Such messages go a long way in countering the negative messages, and often are treasured by the receiver far more than we know.

For instance, when I faced challenges in my leadership role, Mike affirmed that, “You, more than any single person, are responsible for the success of NASPA. I thank you for your amazing service to our Association and for your friendship over the years.”

And KC took it to another level:

Thank you very much for another year of progressive and excellent leadership at NASPA. You have had a wonderful and lasting impact especially with the new and young professionals who have become a part of the organization. Your leadership has been very “Heroic” meaning it is visionary, energizing, passionate, enduring, courageous, and loving. During my undergraduate years, I always heard and witnessed the Jesuits speaking and going on about “Heroic Leadership,” and I thought it was something unique to them as an order or religious organization. However, after witnessing you, your presence, and your leadership at and with NASPA, you too have it and are a “Heroic Leader.” You and your presence touch thousands in a very positive manner year in and year out. Thank you very much for leading and creating an organization that all members can be proud of and develop full ownership in. (December 31, 2007, KC)

Indeed, the messages from and about the young professionals like RW that I sought to mentor hold a special place in my heart:

Bless you! Thank you so much for supporting my efforts to pursue my education. I am very thankful for you taking time out of your hectic schedule to support me…. You are an amazing role model and mentor.

And when I wasn’t always sure how well a presentation had been received, messages like these made all the difference:

I can’t begin to describe the passion and sincerity with which luncheon participants described your presentation. They were deeply moved, and they were moved because you told them the truth in a manner that allowed them to hear it. However, after telling them the reality of these times we live in, you gave them reasons for and ways to keep hope alive. (December 2000, GE)

***

I really enjoyed my one-on-one visits with you and was grateful beyond words that you were our group leader. Your presentation Thursday really got me thinking, and I have been working hard on articulating my personal formula (which we hope to have our staff do as well later this summer). (July 30, 2007, JC)

And in those times when you wonder if others see the vision toward which you’re working as the leader of an organization, messages like the one from XR let you know that the sacrifices are paying off:

During your tenure NASPA has expanded internationally, grown in membership, significantly expanded its financial assets, and has become “the” voice of student development nationally. In addition, under your vision and leadership, NASPA has become our collective voice in Washington and on Capitol Hill—a role that becomes stronger as the years pass. (November 3, 2005)

And, finally, there are the messages that convey more than collegiality, but a true friendship and understanding of one as a person (down to the use of “integrity” as part of my FIRE mnemonic):

It is a pleasure working with you, Gwen. In addition to your high level of competency, and even, rational approach and warmth with people, you have a tremendous integrity that underlies all your work. I am so proud that you represent NASPA to the world—you make us look really good, and I consider myself fortunate to have this opportunity to come to know you and work with you. (December 17, 1998, KRH)

***

I just wanted to sincerely thank you for your support and friendship over the past few years. I truly enjoyed my time on the Board and have always been so impressed with the amount of passion and grace with which you do your work. I have learned so much by simply watching you and I sincerely hope we are able to stay connected. Thank you for everything and know how much you are appreciated. With much gratitude. (March 16, 2010, Pauline)

I am truly grateful for the support and friendship of so many over the years.

The Ephemeral Nature of “Leadership”

It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of people from previously underrepresented groups being selected as leaders of colleges and universities.

However, if they feel empowered by the title of leader, they must beware of the trap. Though it has a long history behind it, leadership is a false concept and there are no algorithms for it.

Leadership is ephemeral. It motivates on the one hand and mocks on the other. It’s like a specter. No matter how much one studies and searches for it, it will not materialize. Ghost-like, it floats in front of one’s eyes urging a chase.  

As ubiquitous and as powerful as the idea of leadership is, my wish for these new leaders is that they will experience the incredible lightness of knowing that leadership should never be an end in itself.

Compartmentalizing Disrespect

By title and official authority, you’re the leader of the group. You work hard to carry out your responsibilities and you show respect to every member of the team.

You knew from the beginning that in this very hierarchical environment there was one person who, though below you on the organizational chart, would hold more sway or influence than you. You puzzled why this person had not gone for the position for which you now held because their desire for power and influence was apparent.

Nevertheless, this person who technically held the subordinate position to you also had authority over a segment of the population and had the ability to make work life comfortable or uncomfortable for a sizable number of people. They had an uncanny knack for influencing others to like or dislike who or what they deemed worthy or unworthy based solely on their personal sense of justice and fairness.

You refer to the person just described as Judge Everybody.

You worked with some of your team members to plan the annual retreat. There were to be serious and fun exercises, good snacks, and a very special lunch. It was during the lunch that the “real leader” of the group was publicly anointed.

During the exercises, Merry Merry, a charismatic sycophant, gleefully insisted that Judge Everybody be the leader for every activity. Others gave you side-eye glances to see how you were reacting to this enthusiastic robing of Judge Everybody.

It was during the lunch that Merry Merry made a proclamation that Judge Everybody was the “REAL Leader.” Merry Merry, who was your friend when not in the company of Judge Everybody, would not make eye contact with you.

At the time when all were to be seated for this special lunch, it appeared that your team was waiting to see where Judge Everybody would sit before finding a seat as close to Judge Everybody as possible. You deliberately left seats between you and Judge Everybody in order to give more space for those who wanted a closer seat to better inhale the aura of Judge Everybody. A couple of brave souls sat near you. You think to yourself, is my faith strong enough to get me through this gauntlet of disrespect and humiliation?

Fortunately, you have become an expert at compartmentalizing. You use this defense mechanism to put the feelings of humiliation in a box for later reflection. You know that you become impervious to slights by immersing yourself in work. Work is your refuge. It helps you trick your mind into denying reality by reframing the experience with a palatable interpretation.

You know that you’re not the only one who has struggled to hold strong in such an environment. You understand that designated leaders who have reluctant followers have to separate and insulate themselves mentally and emotionally by compartmentalizing. You accept that though you hold fast, wounds of humiliation never heal. They are merely rationalized and compartmentalized.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As part of my personal motto, represented by the acronym FIRE, I make a habit of reflecting on experiences and what can be learned from them. I have used my journals over the years to do just that in the process of writing. It is my hope that sharing these reflections through this BLOG may have some value for others, but please note that I intend for people who I do not specifically name to remain anonymous to readers. For the record, this blog post is not about NASPA or anyone I worked with at NASPA.

All My Sisters and Me

In March 1992, my Black sisters and I were in San Antonio attending the annual conference of a professional women’s organization. Historically, the organization’s membership had been virtually all White, except for a couple of notable Black women who were the best in their field. By 1992, our coterie of Black sisters had increased to a small minority with some status.

During a free afternoon, five of my sisters and I decided to shop for pottery and jewelry while enjoying the sights along the River Walk. 

Not too far from the hotel, we encountered an Asian American colleague who was usually in solidarity with us because the same issues and concerns Black members raised also plagued other nonmajority members. The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander women in this organization could be counted on one hand.

My sisters and I greeted our colleague warmly and we embraced all around. A fellow member of the program committee, I asked if she knew what time the meeting was that evening. Expressing dismay that I didn’t get the notice, she let me know it was to be at 7:30 p.m. After more hugs, she moved on. 

Now knowing the time of the committee meeting, I suggested to my sisters that we get something to eat while we were out during the afternoon so I could eat with them.

We continued to meander down the River Walk, stopping to look in shops along the way. In one of the shops, “Diva” expresses great admiration and interest in a lovely bracelet. I encouraged her to buy it, going so far as to ask the clerk if he would give her a discount because she really liked the bracelet. He agreed to give the discount and she bought the bracelet. I felt happy for her, and I’m sure I beamed with satisfaction.

As we continued our shopping, it seemed that Diva was determined that I also buy something, no matter what it was. Eventually, I became annoyed. My motive in encouraging her to buy came from a good place. I did not feel that her motive was the same.   

Sometime after I had suggested that we eat while we were out, a couple of my sisters began making comments such as, “Gwen is hungry, so we better get something to eat.” I was accustomed to the teasing, so their comments didn’t bother me.

We chose a Thai restaurant. During the latter part of what was an amiable dinner, Diva, who was new in the organization, apparently feeling comfortable with us, said that she felt unwelcome when she first joined, feeling that the organization was “cliquish.”

“Elegant “responded in a friendly tone, “I was friendly with you.” I followed up her comment with, “I also befriended you. Do you remember that I invited you to lunch?”

Diva responded in a less than friendly tone, “Yeah, but that was business.”

Taken aback, I mused, “I thought I was being friendly; how did you get the idea that it was business?”

Two of my sisters said nothing and just stared as “Admiral” and Elegant tried to convince Diva that things were not as she perceived them. When I sensed that Diva felt strongly about her initial feelings and seemed to want to be able to express them and be heard, I wanted us to empathize with her and give her experience the respect it deserved.

Sage that I must have thought I was, I said, “You know, Diva, you really might have felt a chilliness toward you because it’s not uncommon for people as strikingly attractive as you are to cause some people, perhaps unconsciously, to wait and see before they extend a welcome and acceptance.”

Diva’s lips turned down and her eyes seemed to float out of their sockets as she responded, “Yes! I’ve experienced this before, and I think people who put themselves up as important and as ‘sisters’ are just hypocrites because they usually do this kind of thing.”

I had apparently touched a nerve. I tried to close this box of snakes that I had opened, saying, “People are human, and this can be a natural and unconscious reaction….,” but Admiral cut me off, declaring, “This is not true in this group. Maybe when males are in the group, the competition is there but not in this group of women professionals.”

The mood definitely changed, and I could smell the stink of anger in the air. 

When we are outside the restaurant, Admiral got in my face, saying, “Gwen, I can’t believe you said that!” “How can you think that?” I’m a part of this organization and I know this is not true.”

I felt apologetic and tried to explain that I was just trying to make Diva feel better. Admiral cut her eyes away from me and walked ahead with Elegant. From their postures and movements, I gathered that they were talking about me and rejecting me for my comment.

In the meantime, Diva fell in step with me, saying, “I believe what you said, and I want to talk with you further about this.” Not wanting to keep this line of conversation going, I escaped from Diva and began walking in step with the silent sisters. Diva kept talking with anyone who came near her. My other four sisters got very interested in the pottery we passed along the way, ignoring what Diva was saying.

I deliberately walked next to Admiral and said, “I know you want to kill me for making that comment, but when you think about human behavior, what I said could be a possible motive for the chilliness that Diva felt. Jealousy and envy are real.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” responded Admiral, “but you have so much going for you—you have this nice little shape, shapely legs…. You don’t have any reason to feel as you do.”

“I’m not feeling that way!” I protested. “I’m speaking generally!”

Admiral ignored my comment and told me that I wouldn’t be late for my meeting because we’re only a couple of blocks away. I had no idea how to get back, and told her so, but she only said, “It’s easy,” and turned away. 

No one said goodbye to me. With a sigh of exasperation, I began my search for the right direction to return to the hotel for the 7:30 p.m. program committee meeting.

After September 11, 2001

After September 11, 2001, everyone had a story about where they were, the efforts they made to get home, and what they did to connect with loved ones upon hearing the devastating news about the attacks made on American soil by foreign terrorists. The senseless tragedy was almost beyond comprehension.

After September 11, 2001, I witnessed a NASPA staff that was shaken but not defeated. Although there were a multitude of anxieties, such as fear of being in Washington, DC, doing work on Capitol Hill, taking the Metro to and from work, flying on behalf of NASPA, and even opening mail because of anthrax, staff members adapted and redoubled their efforts in support of student affairs professionals who were needed more than ever on their campuses.

After September 11, 2001, student affairs professionals served as navigators and provided safe harbors for all members of their campus communities. Using their skills of empathy, understanding, and knowledge of crisis intervention, they were the first responders for students, faculty, and staff. They did what they were trained to do and shared strategies with colleagues across the nation on how best to respond to these unprecedented times, and the increased needs of the student and campus community amidst fear, uncertainty, and a range of reactions, including the bizarre and self-destructive.

After September 11, 2001, NASPA leaders looked beyond the tragedies of the day and sought ways, where possible, to reduce risk on campuses and, unfortunately, to prepare for the aftermath of future senseless tragedies.

After September 11, 2001, what did NOT—and never should—go unnoticed is the commitment of student affairs professionals to working with campus communities to create a climate that promotes learning and a sense of security and belonging in the face of adversity.  

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Identifying Your Institutional Purpose

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the final installment in a seven-part series in which I shared some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

Different people have different strengths.  You need to look at the institution really hard and find what your own strengths are within that context. Figure out what the institution is for. And what your role is in that. And don’t forget that.

It doesn’t come from the mission statement and it doesn’t come from any of the “official language.” It’s more like Cardinal Newman’s idea of the university in an ethical framework. What kind of a universe is a university or a college? What is it there for? What does it do for our society? What does it do for the people who go through it? What does it do for the people who work there?

And you need to remember that it is a community. It may be dysfunctional at times but it’s a community. Communities are good. We live in communities. You need to make your community work.

If you can keep a clear focus on what’s important, you’ll avoid the trap of slipping into a kind of imperial boat mode: “This is our Student Affairs Empire. Don’t you touch it because we’re in a pond of our own.”

We’re not in separate ponds, we’re all in one big pond (that connects to the larger world in myriad ways). And if you think that way, you have a better chance of understanding the concerns of the other players, and what language they speak. That’s something you run across in higher education frequently: barriers that are there because we don’t learn how to talk to players in the other boats in our common pond.

David Keymer on Student Affairs: Documenting Success, Demonstrating Value

I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Keymer, who served as a chief student affairs officer at SUNY Utica Rome; California State University, Stanislaus; and Zayed University (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) from 1983-2004. This is the sixth in a seven-part series in which I will be sharing some of the wisdom gleaned from David’s experience in student affairs across these varied institutions.

One of the things I like about academics is that they tend to respect evidence. It doesn’t necessarily change their prejudices, but they do respect it. So, if you can get a large enough evidentiary base through student interviews and so on, and if your questions are consistent so you can kind of plot things, you’ve got exactly the type of evidence that academics will listen to. And it’s being presented in their language, not your language.

I think anything a student affairs professional can do to document the success of their endeavors is worth doing. Sometimes, student affairs professionals are so busy on the front end, providing service, that they don’t stop to think of documenting their successes and their issues. We need to supply evidence to other people that our services make a difference.  Like it or not, you have to sell yourself all the time.

We all have our own focuses. And we all want the thing we’re focused on to do well, and that’s one of the reasons for having a senior student affairs administrator on the President’s Council. The Provost is interested in students, too, but the Provost has the faculty, which is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. Faculty issues and concerns occupy 80, 90% of the Provost’s time. And when the Provost goes to the President’s Council to talk, that’s what the Provost will focus on.

Business and Finance offer a lot of services. But while they offer them so students can be there, students aren’t their primary focus.

The Chief Student Affairs Officer does two things. One is overseeing a lot of services that make it possible for students to get into the university, through the university, and do better. The second thing is being the voice for the students, for student concerns and issues, to make sure they’re heard at the highest level.

It’s a matter of focus: The Provost talks about faculty; I talk about students; the business and finance person talks about building plans or money; and the advancement person talks about university development. To do my job well, though, I’ve got to listen really hard to the other people at the table. Listening is a paramount skill—and if you do listen, and show them you’re trying to support them as well, you have a decent chance of being heard yourself.