It was not the first time my supervisor accused me of secretly thinking that I could do his job better than he could. He advised me, “You need to practice having a poker face,” often saying that I would surely lose all of my money in an actual game.
Despite little experience as an administrator, my strong references eventually afforded me the opportunity to become an acting administrator. Finally, I would be able to do things my way. Being an administrator felt like the sweet spot for me, and the “leader” designation provided a natural high.
It was not long after landing that dream job as an administrator in my own right that I began to read the faces of those who reported to me. I couldn’t believe that they secretly thought that they could do my job better than me, just as I had thought of my supervisor. This realization made me question whether or not being an administrator really was the right path for me.
In retrospect, one of the changes I made that helped sustain me during the times when I questioned my competence was to become less preoccupied with how others saw me and what they might think of me. I focused like a laser on the roles, goals, and day-to-day habits of our unit in support of students. My focus was so intense that an administrator from another area said that I was a zealot when it came to students. Yes, I was, and I took the comment as a compliment.
Having changed my focus, it became vivid to me that I had previously been preoccupied with simply becoming a leader rather than why I wanted to become a leader. While I had always approached my role with humility, it was naïve arrogance that made me think that I could motivate a staff to see the work of student affairs from my perspective and, in turn, change the way they had always done things.
If you begin to feel as if being an administrator is not for you, give yourself time. Among the lessons I learned during my first year as an administrator was that this is the time when we begin to learn who we are, where we should be, and what we should be doing.
In the recent inter-generational conversation on gender I had the privilege of facilitating, the generational differences among the three African American women were perhaps most evident in the responses to the following question:
I’ve spoken with several women of color who have been given incredible responsibility for achieving goals without the power of authority to accomplish the goals. They work themselves to the point of exhaustion fearing the consequences of failure. Some become emotionally drained and suffer illness as a result. As successful Black women, what advice would you give to other women of color who experience something similar to what I’ve described?
The Silent, or Traditional, Generation and the Baby Boomers were the first to have the doors opened to more opportunities for education and careers. We were entering a world in which the climate was overtly racist and sexist. We knew that we were always working against negative stereotypes. While we could never be fully prepared for the challenges we would face, we understood that we would have to stand out among the best; that we could not be tardy; that we could not be unkempt; that we would have to speak clearly; and that we would have to always be seen as giving our best efforts. We knew that we would not be given a second chance if we failed. I’d like to believe that, as Jackie said, we no longer have to be the smartest person in the room.
Millennials, such as Tangela, regardless of race, having not experienced being shut out of opportunities on a broad and overt scale, do not feel “gratitude” for being “allowed” in the game, seeing it, instead, as just as much their right to be where they are as anyone else’s. They demand justice and equity in treatment. They want reasonableness in expectations, and they have strategies to create some balance between their personal well-being and their career success, as you can hear in the following clip.
As a Gen Xer, Eboni understood both the age-old admonition of having to work harder and that the generations coming along after would not be influenced by the same kind of thinking. Having found herself in the middle of these generational shifts, as the discussion delved deeper into different strategies, Eboni offered thoughts on racialized role strain, noting that as we consider whether things have gotten better or if it is just as difficult or harder now that there are nuances to the persistent challenges that are more specific to time, space, place with each generation.
Full Transcript for “Advice” Question
Gwen (Traditional/ Silent Generation – T/S): I know you’ll be able to relate to this because you’ve all had very illustrious careers, but I’ve spoken with several women of color who’ve been given incredible responsibility for achieving goals, but they haven’t been given the power or authority to accomplish the goals. They work themselves to the point of exhaustion, fearing the consequences of failure. Some become emotionally drained and suffer illness as a result. As a successful Black woman, what advice would you give to other women of color who experience something similar to what I’ve described?
Jackie (BB): Gwen, this is Jackie. That question is almost like you took a page out of my life, because it definitely describes many of the things I’ve gone through. My response will be evident based on the old adage that our mothers and our grandmothers used to give us that we had to be twice as good in order to be considered relevant. And, at least from my generation’s point of view, I think that is so important and so relevant – that, in my career, I heard that I had to be twice as good in order to be accepted at the table or to be considered as someone equal to the rest of the people at the table. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many of the young women who I’ve mentored or developed friendships with say that it still applies to them, as well, but I know that for my generation, that was extremely relevant and important. And we were told to work hard, and I don’t think we had the same filters that the young women have now in terms of drawing back and – doing you best, but – not necessarily overwhelming yourself with so much hard work and trying to be the best at the table.
A new phrase that I use on a regular basis – and I didn’t develop it – to young women is that you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. And, so, I think it’s critically important that you show that you can be a strong participant, and that you’re good, but that you don’t have to show and demonstrate that you’re the smartest person in the room.
Tangela (M): So, the question is like multi-fold to me. I would say that a woman going through that should do a few things, and the first is to right-size the task. What that means to me is having a conversation about the extent and limits of your authority for even accepting an assignment – and getting it in writing, and then taking the temperature of the person that is delegating you that authority, so that you have the right bandwidth to do what you feel your responsibility is, but also understanding that responsibility is the ability to do the work. And multiple people can do the work; accountability is monitoring those folks responsible, and authority is having the power to make decisions for those who are accountable and are responsible. And so, any one of those levers can be pulled so that whomever is doing that work is more meaningful. And the last point is self-care. Know who your support is. Be vocal in reaching out to them. Ms. Woods here is definitely mine. I’ve had many a hard day where the job felt like it was hell, and so she reached me to call and I needed that reset. The answer I think is two-fold: we’re talking about your emotional health and your ability.
Gwen (T/S): Fantastic. Thank you so much.
Eboni (X): So, I guess my response would be, we’ve seen some improvements, but overall, our positioning could still stand for improvement, right? So, by that I mean, if there’s a way in which oftentimes, when women ascend to leadership positions, in particular Black women, that there aren’t significant investments in advancing support and rewards for our hard work and commitment, so that we have ambitions that have – resources that have not kept pace with those ambitions. And, I think sometimes that, in part because of these age-old tropes of Black women as being strong and inheriting situations when we do say we want to lead, we’re given, you know, the Hail Mary – the devastating context of “turn it around,” you know, “it’s on its last leg” and has the least resources. And so, I think that there’s much more to do where the rhetoric follows the reality of what we have in terms of a commitment that, in some form, in terms of the value we bring, advancement and support that is needed, and the resources so that we’re not having to lead and also be in unchecked situations of resource dependency.
Gwen (T/S): That’s something that I hear resonating throughout your responses that, you know, as Jackie began about working harder, and Tangela’s talking about right-sizing the task, which is not usually the right size, and then that idea of turning it around – so many women I’ve talked with…they come in and they’ve been in horrible situations and they’re asked to make it work. They don’t want to turn down an opportunity. What would you advise these women? I think Tangela said about right-sizing the responsibility. How do you go about right-sizing that?
Jackie (BB): Gwen, I need to interject something here, please. As part of Tangela’s statement, she was saying that you need to get agreement on your topic, or your task and your goals, and then get it in writing, and you don’t have that luxury in most situations. When you report to a board of trustees or you report to a board of people, they’re not going to put it in writing for you. If you report to a governing body, they’re not going to put that in writing. And so that’s a very difficult thing – you can’t require that or ask that of them, because it’s not going to happen that way. I had several organizations that I was the titular head of the organization, and yet the governing bodies that I reported to basically said to me, “These are the goals of the organization.” One of the things that helps you self-direct, if you will, is to develop your own set of goals and present them to whoever you report to or who you are responsible for. And that makes a difference. So, I was able to, in a couple of instances, submit my own goals and talk about how they were achievable in that space, and get them to agree to my goals, rather than waiting for them to give me goals, because that makes a big, big difference. So often we sit and wait to be given our jobs, and sometimes we have to submit our own goals, and we have to do it in a caring and submissive way. You’re proactive, but you’re proactive not necessarily in an aggressive way. And so, a couple of times I’ve had to say, “As I’ve studied this organization – or as I look at where it’s been as an organization and where you want it to go – these are some of the goals that I think we might want to achieve to get there.” And then that starts a discussion in a very, very different way, and you can get agreement then on most of those things. But, to get them to put it in writing – eh, that’s not gonna happen…
Tangela (M): And, so, I think you misunderstood me. It’s not that they should put it in writing; it’s that you should have your own plan – right? – and when you have your own plan, you should be able to articulate your own plan and your vision, so that you get buy-in from both the top and the bottom.
Jackie (BB): We’re in agreement there.
Gwen (T/S): Right. Well., you know, this is something. When Jackie talked about doing this in a way that may not be as assertive as you would want to be, it goes back to what Tangela said about the messenger. There may be some people who could just come in and say, you know, “This is what I think needs to be done,” but, being a woman, being an African American woman, that may not be possible, so there are times when we have to, you know, be a little less assertive.
Jackie (BB): Oh, absolutely.
Eboni (X): That’s a lot, right?
Gwen (T/S): I know, I’m thinking, “Do I really believe it?” I haven’t done it well…
Eboni (X): Well, you know, I was thinking about this whole notion of racialized role strain. That there are ways in which there’s a representation for the group that we have, and that’s minimally two-fold, right? It’s for the race, it’s for the gender, you know, as women… And, so, reconciling what our various tools are in terms of the different roles and the different hats that we wear or roles that we have, and how much of that, in many ways, can provoke or produce kind of a racialized role strain – or at least that’s been my experience in some of what I have seen bubble up in some of the research that I have done. And, so, when I think about this question of, “Have we gotten better through the generations, or is it just as difficult or harder now?” in some ways it is, and in some ways, it’s become more complex. I know, this is probably a conversation for later, but as we think about some of the contrasting differences between the 20th and the 21st century in terms of challenges for women, and namely Black women, this whole social media piece – that’s a whole ‘nother beast, you know. And particularly for Black women in terms of cross-sections of Black women. So, not just professional Black women and women that lead, but I think about the imprint that it has on impressionable youth and Black girls, and what may be strengthened and what actually may be chipped away at in the way that they see themselves and what their worth and their value is, and who they can be and what they can be and what they should achieve. So, I think, it’s intergenerational – the challenges – but as we all face the challenges, there are nuances to them that are more specific to time, space, place with each generation. And, so, that there’s’ a different cross to bear that my daughters have that was just not even front-of-mind for me at their age as a teenager, or that my mom, when I was in my formative years, that just wasn’t on her radar that she didn’t have to contend with because of the time.
NASPA has a brand new award for equity, diversity, and inclusion, and it is named in honor of Dr. Bobby E. Leach, who served as NASPA’s first African American president (what would today be the board chair) from 1985-1986.
It was my honor to accept the “inaugural” Bobby E. Leach Award this past month at NASPA’s 2017 Annual Conference in San Antonio. Dr. Leach was an extraordinary man who accomplished much in his life. Extremely well educated, he attained an undergraduate degree in mathematics and science by the age of 21, and a Masters Degree and a Ph.D. after also excelling in military service.
His work life included serving as a high school principal for 10 years, associate dean of students at Wofford College from 1970-1973, and dean of students at Southern Methodist University from 1973-1976.
Bobby E. Leach Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Award Recipient Gwen Dungy with NASPA President Kevin Kruger and Board Chair Lori White.
In 1978, Dr. Leach was the first Black administrator hired at Florida State University, and the highest ranking African American in the Florida State administration. He served as vice president for student affairs at Florida State until 1988. He passed away much too soon in 1989. In 1991, Florida State University named its new Student Recreation Center in his honor.
Following are brief remarks I made about Dr. Leach at the NASPA 2017 Awards Luncheon when I accepted the award named in his honor:
I just read The Confidence Effect-Every Woman’s Guide to the Attitude That Attracts Success by Grace Killelea. The book is an easy and quick read written in a conversational tone with anecdotes from the author’s own experiences as well as examples from other successful women. This book reinforces what other authors of leadership books have written about getting ahead. However, Killelea’s presentation style makes it easy to remember her advice with techniques such as the “4 Rs of Success” and the “IPO of Networking. ”
Though the target audience for the book is women, I recommend it for faculty, Student Affairs professionals, and all staff at colleges and universities. Why? Because while students say that their parents are their heroes, youare their role models. If you exhibit the twin goals for success that Killelea recommends—confidenceand competence, students will be watching and some will be inspired to find their own paths to confidence and competence.
In addition to acquiring helpful tips on building confidence, there are some other gems that I think might resonate. For example, newer professionals in higher education or other careers often agonize over how long to remain in a position that might not be all that they would like it to be. As a role model for students and for your own success, you might want to heed Killelea’s advice:
The lane you’re traveling in right now might not be ideal; it may be full of challenges, potholes, conflicts, and politics, but the way out of it is through it. Don’t suddenly jump lanes and abandon the track before it’s appropriate to do so.
The author suggests questions to ask to help know when to switch lanes. These are the kinds of questions you will want to have handy when students seek your advice and counsel regarding their career goals. In building your own confidence through a track record of success, you can tell and show students how to move forward with confidence.
Students you don’t even know are watching you. You will want to show them The Confidence Effect.
This past week I had the privilege of speaking with a group of up-and-coming leaders who were participating in an institute for leadership development. When I was first asked to do this several months ago, I put it off because these kinds of requests always cause me some amount of anxiety.
I have to admit that I was surprised to see it pop up on my calendar this week because I thought that the roster of speakers would certainly fill all the spaces before they got around to asking me again. The planners had forethought and placed it on my calendar several months ago, so I had to do it.
It’s not that I did not want to participate, Unfortunately, I tend to think that people who talk as if they know what leadership is might be charlatans because who really knows what this fascinating concept is?
As I ruminated about why I didn’t want to speak on leadership, I found fault with the title the planners had given the talk: Building Relationships: A Leader’s Tool. Though I understood the point that was intended and the spirit of the title, the idea of relationships being a tool to be used seemed manipulative to me and insincere. Then I worried myself with the question, “What can I say about leadership that they have not already heard and that they don’t already know?”
To prove my thoughts in this question about what they already know, I asked them at the very beginning of my talk to share what they think leadership is, and sure enough, they all seemed to have some well-formed ideas about leadership.
After seeing the group and hearing their thoughts about leadership, I was truly happy to be with them. I told them that I had written articles, co-edited a book, served in several positions of leadership, and I had made numerous speeches on leadership. But, what I would share with them would not necessarily be based on anything I had done previously. I was going to talk with them about what I thought about leadership and relationships at this particular time on this day.
First, I told them what I think leadership is not:
Leadership is not a static condition or role.
Leadership is not something that you own and can put in your brief case or designer bag and take with you to the next place.
Leadership implies working with others, and together, you and the group form a tacit mutual agreement to work toward common goals.
When leadership occurs, there is an understanding among all in the group that each person in the group has a role that contributes to the attainment of something. The person who wants to be an effective leader must insure that everyone sees that the leader is also a worker bee whose responsibilities are often different and not better than or more important than any other workers. The group should easily see that all roles are important and all are valued for what they bring.
Sometimes the person who has the ultimate responsibility for goal attainment fears failure. Having the responsibility for the accomplishments of the entire group can make one who wants to be the leader anxious and afraid.
When I have felt this way, I behave in ways that I always regret, and wish I could take back those moments, but the moments are like feathers in the wind and gone forever. Unable to have a “do over,” I vow to do better and, for me, doing better proves the old tried and true adage that we have all heard. Everything will be all right, “Just be yourself.”
In other words, be authentic. I think that being authentic is the one way of being that one can control, count on, and take to every situation. Being authentic often allows one to hold the magic orb of being a leader. The orb is heavy. It is beautiful in its own way; it’s a painstaking fine work of art, and it’s extremely complex. The orb demands a lot from the one who holds it, and it does not promise that it will always work its magic in your favor. Because leadership depends on the cooperation of others and relationships, the orb of leadership can be finicky, fleeting, and short-lived.
So how do I retain authenticity and how does it help me build relationships that are invaluable in supporting my desire and efforts to be a leader? In thinking about my experiences and how I want to be everyday with the people with whom I work, I have created this mnemonic for ease in remembering. Being authentic is being REL (real):
R is for the respect I strive to demonstrate by appreciating what everyone brings to our efforts;
E is for empathy as I put myself in the place of others in our group and treat them as I would want to be treated; and
L is for love. Yes, leaders who want to be successful have to love the team and be there for each of them.
Being REL (real) builds relationships. Relationships can be the coin of the realm in effective leadership. Being REL with my groups has tended to result in relationships that allow me to hold the orb of leadership in a number of administrative jobs. I am grateful for those fleeting and short-lived moments.