Sunday, October 24, 2010

Servant leadership

I have to admit up front that I have an exceedingly bad reaction to the name of the concept, "servant leadership." I think some of the reaction is feminist: I am not anyone's servant. Just because I do not pursue leadership roles in an effort to achieve power and privilege does not mean I want to become a servant to my peers or the larger organization of which I am a part. I am also turned off by the way the concept of the servant leader has been picked up and used by Christian ministers, business leaders, and academics (see book cover below). I do not approach academic administration wondering "What Would Jesus Do?" and I am somewhat uncomfortable with others approaching their work that way.

This issue came up for me as I was working on a statement of my leadership philosophy/approach.  I reviewed a few available online to see what people were saying about their own philosophies, and I found that a number of these statements described the author as a servant leader. I have read some about the concept and find it in some ways perplexing and irritating.

The central practices of servant leadership, as defined by Dr. Kent M. Keith, CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, are "self-awareness, listening, changing the pyramid (ie., flatten the hierarchy) , developing your colleagues, coaching not controlling, unleashing the energy and intelligence of others, and foresight." Most of these ideas are pretty straightforward and seem to fall under the rubric of reflexivity and openness to input by people across the organization, concepts that seem pretty straightforward and don't rely on the servant metaphor.

I am a strong believer in finding opportunities for growth for people across the institutional spectrum: send your student advising staff--and not just your faculty--to an out-of-town conference; include students on decision-making committees and be sure they have voting rights; encourage your support staff to participate in leadership skill development opportunities on campus, and so on. I do think that, taken to their extreme, a sole focus on bettering everyone who works at your organization can take you away from your other institutional goals--goals you are paid to achieve!

I also think we have to own that these behaviors are not really all about "serving others," but serving the larger organizational goals. Sometimes, when the staff in my unit get a new perk, they bring renewed goodwill and energy to the program. When I make decisions by considering what the other students, faculty, and staff members want, I am thinking about how to make this decision something people will actually implement and maintain. Act too high handed in a university context, and you will find that your policy/practice/program comes to nothing. The faculty forgets you said it, the students ignore it, and the staff creates lots of ways to undermine it. Put another way, buy-in facilitates actual change.

Another problem with the servant leader model, identified by Mitch McCrimmon, is that administrators who claim to be "servants" to people who work for/with them and then have to fire them (or, in a higher educational context, assign them class sections they don't want, deny resources for travel, or deny someone tenure) make make these "servant leaders" seem like a big, fat hypocrites. The truth is that I have power over resources and opportunities, and I have to make decisions about how they are distributed that some people in the organization are going to find hurtful or not in their best interests. But as an administrator, I serve the organization as well as my colleagues, staff, and students. 

Finally, I think my biggest problem with the "servant leader" identity is that when I am serving in the role of university administrator, it is my job. It is not an avocation, but in fact a vocation for which I am paid. I am a professional, and I engage in leadership as a component of my role as administrator. I am evaluated by my colleagues and superiors for my performance in meeting organizational goals. A thoughtful organization would consider such issues as staff development and support, informed decision making, and creativity in evaluating my performance as an administrator.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Celebrating the writing group

I am writing this blog entry to once again express my affection for a writing group. My sabbatical was passing me by, in some ways, as I drowned in the multiple research  and writing projects I was trying to work on simultaneously. Thanks to the self-imposed deadline that I shared with the writing group, I have one article draft done and another on deck. There is something about accountability and a sense of camaraderie that really helps me make the right decisions about how to spend my time.

I have been a member of three writing groups in my professional life, and each has been a boon to my work. All groups revolved around food--usually lunch--and included reviewing other people's work.

One group was very large and interdisciplinary, and that was both challenging and fun. It can be difficult to understand the conventions of another person's discipline, and disagreements and defensiveness occasionally ensued during those paper discussions. I sometimes had to go outside the group for useful feedback, but I did feel like I had people who were in my corner. I also learned a lot about the work in other disciplines and built wonderful friendships that I still maintain.

The second writing group was within my department, but it was a large group that was open to all comers, as it were, as long as you were pre-tenure. Once again, the group did some good work, and many of us saw our productivity improve. Some problems emerged based on temperament and style that caused some members to want to discontinue participating in the group. Several people (myself included) also struggled with doing so much extra reading of papers, which we felt pulled us away from our own work. Eventually, we decided to discontinue that group.

The newest group is small, self-selected, woman-only, and friendly in tone and style. We agreed to set our own goals, hold each other accountable to those goals, and not get stressed about how productive anyone else is... We have people versed in different topics and kinds of methodologies, so there is always someone who can comment knowledgeably on a paper. Who knows how it will shake out? It looks good, so far.

I plan to continue participating in the writing group, even when the semester sabbatical is done, because it is the best way for me to be continually productive. It makes me think that perhaps my goals for the sabbatical, which are quite lofty, are still reachable. Even if I don't meet them, though, I know I will do enough to be relatively pleased with myself.

All hail the writing group!

Monday, October 11, 2010

National Coming Out Day

In honor of National Coming Out Day, I have written a list of steps you can take to improve life for LGBT faculty, staff, and students on your campus. (These are written for (heterosexual/gender-normative) allies, but many steps can also be taken by LGBT individuals as well.

Administrators can:
  • make sure that discussions of diversity on campus include sexual orientation and gender identity and gender expression.
  • review their policies and practices in their own unit and across campus to make sure that they support LGBT faculty, staff, and students. For employees, these include bereavement and sick leave, domestic partner health care benefits, spousal accommodations in hiring, health benefits covering gender transition services, etc. Students need protections in classrooms, dorms, and on campus. If the policies and practices are not there, work for change.
  • seek out input from LGBT faculty, staff, and students on a regular basis. You won't know what people are facing unless you hear from them.
  • make sure LGBT folks are serving on committees across campus. 
  • make sure faculty who do LGBT research are supported and that their research is respected.
  • develop supportive services for LGBT students, who are among the most likely to drop out of school.
  • consider reaching out to LGBT alumni for information, student support, and financial contributions.
  • challenge homophobia, heterosexism, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. Consistently interrupting bad behaviors and poor thinking makes a difference in a unit and on campus.
Faculty can:
  • make sure to include LGBT issues as they relate to the curriculum and the discipline. This is happening in humanities and social sciences, but even in math and the sciences, it matters. For example, biologists can tell students that same-sex behaviors are common in many species and discuss how these behaviors affect biological theories of sex based on reproduction; all scientists can discuss famous scientists who were/are LGBT people; let students know that there are local and national groups, like LA Gay and Lesbian Scientists, who support LGBT folks in the math and science fields.
  • let LGBT students find ways to investigate LGBT topics in classes, when appropriate. It may be the first time these students have a chance to investigate LGBT culture, history, and research.
  • support LGBT faculty peers who are (a) out to students and colleagues, as this is a very important service that brings with it a great deal of risk; (b) doing research on LGBT topics or populations, as this research is needed, under-resourced, and often not supported in tenure and promotion.
  • consider doing research or service that benefits local LGBT communities. Business faculty could partner with a local LGBT small business group to evaluate it; historians could present on LGBT people in history to local high schools or community groups; law schools could offer lectures on legal issues affecting parents of LGBT kids; social scientists could study political and social issues facing LGBTs in the local community or the state.
  • support LGBT-supportive policies and practices in your unit and the university as a whole.
  • volunteer to serve as advisor to LGBT student group(s) on campus. You don't have to be LGBT to serve in this role; actually, allies can learn a great deal from serving in this role, and it takes the onus off of the few LGBT folks on campus.
  • interrupt comments and behaviors rooted in discrimination and oppression, whether they are in the classroom, private conversations with peers, or committee meetings. Educate people when you can.
I would also add that everyone can think about the places we lack knowledge or comfort about sexuality and gender identity, and we can learn more about LGBT issues in society, especially the needs of LGBT faculty/staff/students. Every discipline has an LGBT group within their disciplinary organization(s), many of whom do presentations at your conferences. Also, administrative groups, like ACE, CUPA-HR, and NASPA, and advocacy groups, like AAUP, also have related discussions. Go to these presentations, even though they are outside your area of research/administrative/teaching interest. As someone who has done these presentations for more than 10 years, I can tell you that we are HAPPY to have you attend.

The most important point: You can make a difference in the lives of LGBT folks on your campus. Take a little step forward--it will pay dividends for years to come!