By Stan Pelkey
It’s not difficult to find reflections on leaders and leadership. Northouse (2010) notes, “Bookstore shelves are filled with popular books about leaders and advice on how to be a leader” (p. 1). Besides those popular books, an extensive body of social science research on leadership exists. And we could cast our net even more widely and consider how Western literature has reflected—explicitly or implicitly—upon human motivation, behavior, and leadership for millennia. Our collective obsession with heroes and heroic stories, evident in our mass media culture for over a century, as well as in traditional historical narratives, points to wide-spread fascination in Western society with social organization, leadership, and the exercise of power in its various forms, including referent, expert, legitimate, reward-based, and coercive power.
Six years ago, I began my journey into academic leadership when I became an “area” or department chair in the School of Music at Western Michigan University. At the same time, I had the opportunity to join a year-long, university-wide leadership training program. I became so interested in the topics we discussed and the readings we completed that I followed up on that experience by taking some formal coursework in higher education administration and leadership. As I took those courses, I kept turning to literature and media culture for insights, which is in keeping with my personal vision of the humanities as a repository of collective memories and wisdom, an ongoing conversation about both the abstract and the highly practical. Now, years later, I’m taking some time to do what I did not have time to do back then: share a few thoughts about leadership and change through the lens of some personally beloved literature and media.
In this first blog around the topic of leadership and literature, I’m going to focus on “CHANGE.” Yes, I know that can be a terrifying word. It has often been for me as well. In the past few years, however, I’ve challenged myself to re-assess my desire for stasis and to re-imagine “change” as a deep, moral commitment to constantly try to improve processes and products to better meet other people’s needs.
For example, Northouse (2010) writes that change does not need to be “disruptive”; it can mean improving existing functions (p. 48). Rost (1993) notes that change should be linked to meeting people’s real needs (p. 113). Senge (1990) argues that small, incremental changes can be the “leverage” needed to start to transform entire systems (p. 64). These authors helped me gain a new vision of what “change” could mean in higher education (and other organizations generally).
Faculty members are humans, and like so many other humans, some react negatively to proposed change because it threatens their sense of identity, status, or “turf.” Change can also seem to threaten the integrity of academic disciplines. Change is less threatening, however, when academic disciplines are understood to be tools that can be used to solve problems that are important to individual students and to society more broadly rather than as sacrosanct bodies of processes and tightly guarded and bounded collections of knowledge.
I have come to believe that if faculty members were given more time and resources so that they really could continually grow as scholars and teachers, many (though not necessarily all) of the problems that we try to solve with endless committee meetings about curricula, scheduling, technology, and policy would be eliminated.
There would be a sudden, massive development in human capital across our academic institutions, which would lead in turn to collective, “transformational” leadership at every level of those institutions.
That transformational leadership would be consistent with the democratic ideals espoused by the educator Lyman Bryson in his classic text, The Next America: Prophecy and Faith (1952). Bryson argued, “Any process is democratic that enables those who take part to learn by choices made in freedom and to test new choices, while knowledge and experience grow. Its purpose is to develop human beings as ends in themselves” (p. 93) and to enable them to become all that they can be (p. 240). Democracy and democratic processes are not limited to government or the state, but should permeate every facet of social and cultural life, including society’s schools. Therefore, “The teacher is the one who enlarges our freedom by enlarging our knowledge of possible choice and likely consequence” (p. 142), which is the chief means of individual development (p. 144). If Bryson is right, then not only should our universities be run as democratically as possible, but academic leaders should work to “enlarge the freedom” of faculty, and every faculty member should do the same for students. “Change”—understood as growth—would become second nature in such an environment.
The constant transformation of individuals takes hard work and deep commitment. Too often, we become obsessed with our past accomplishments; this can make us complacent or fearful of change. It can also lead to a kind of emotional paralysis if previously mastered skills become associated too closely with our personal identities.
In his short story, “The Leader of the People,” which eventually formed part of the Red Pony stories, John Steinbeck introduces us to Grandfather. He is Mrs. Tiflin’s father, Jody’s grandpa, and one of the banes of Carl Tiflin’s life. Grandfather annoys Carl because he dwells constantly on his experience leading a wagon train across the country to California in the later nineteenth century. Mrs. Tiflin tries to explain her father to her husband Carl (and to the reader):
“He led a wagon train clear across the plains to the coast, and when it was finished, his life was done. It was a big thing to do, but it didn’t last long enough. Look… it’s as though he was born to do that, and after he finished it, there wasn’t anything more for him to do but to think about it and talk about it. If there’d been any farther west to go, he’d have gone….” (p. 213)
This explanation fails to diffuse the tension, and Grandfather eventually overhears Carl complain that he is sick of hearing the same stories over and over again. Grandfather later admits to Jody that it’s not even the long-ago events themselves that matter most to him. It was the process of “westering”:
“It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head…. Every man wanted something for himself, but the beast that was all of them wanted only westering.” (pp. 224–225)
While Grandfather articulates that amazing feeling of a being part of a process that moves toward a common goal and shared vision, he has become trapped in the memory of his own past accomplishments. More to the point: he fully identifies himself with them. He may have had the rights skills and correct understanding for that moment in his life, but he does not seem to be a leader generally, as he has been unable to translate those abilities into problem-solving skills for new experiences, challenges, and opportunities.
In my work as a Director of Music at numerous churches in six states during the past two decades, I have witnessed this “paralysis in the past” many times, not only in the oft-mocked “we’ve never done it that way before” attitudes voiced by many church members, but also in the tendency for some to be unable to face new challenges without recourse to nostalgic comparisons to “back then.” It’s not simply that some are unwilling to try new approaches to solve new problems; some are unable to face the very existence of the new problems because of devotion to systems, processes, and products of the past. But let’s be honest and fair: such devotion to past systems, processes, and products can be found among members of all human organizations!
I spent years falling prey to this attitude! But then I realized that this attitude was strongly tied to a paralyzing association of my current skills with my personal and professional identity. I was afraid that I could not continue to “grow my skill set” and keep expanding “who I am” personally and professionally. Against my best “preachments” that who I am is more important than what I am or what I do, in “practice” (emotionally, and in terms of some behaviors and attitudes), too often in the past, I comfortably slid into a definition of myself that was strongly tied to “what I do,” “what I know,” and ultimately “what I am most comfortable knowing and doing.”
Now I know that this attitude is the change killer in me! My remedy: embrace the insights I gained from Birnbaum, Fullan, Rost, Schlechty, and Senge, among others, and challenge myself to master new skills and build new understanding at a faster pace. Instead of worrying that change diminishes past accomplishments (and so threatens established identity), I try to see calls for change as opportunities to grow, to become a more richly textured person.
Being a leader means being on a constant quest to expand the self. True leaders will likewise inspire and make possible the expansion of other selves. They will act accordingly in relation to all those around them, whether that means actually contributing something of value or just getting out of the way!
A Reading List
Birnbaum, R. (1991). How colleges work: The cybernetics of academic organization and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bryson, L. (1952). The next America: Prophecy and faith. New York: Harper and Brothers.
Fullan, M. (2001). Understanding Change. In Leading in a culture of change (31–49). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Northouse, P.G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice (5th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.
Rost, J. C. (1993). The nature of leadership. In Leadership for the twenty-first century (98–128). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
Schlechty, P.C. (2007). Understanding the normative system. In Michael Fullan (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (2nd ed.) (221–237). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Senge, P. (1990). The laws of the fifth discipline. In The fifth discipline (57-67).
New York: Crown Business.
Steinbeck, J. (1995). The Leader of the People. In The long valley (209–226). New York: Penguin Books.