Category Archives: Ideas for Professional Development

Literature, Leadership, and Change

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.

Tips to Help You Succeed in Your First Year of College

Back in May, I wrote about how potential music majors could prepare for their first year of college. (See “How to Become a Music Major: Four Tips to Help You Get In and Get Through.”) This month I broaden the discussion and suggest ways that all students can improve their chances of having a positive first year at college.

A college or university is a collection of small communities, each advocating for and advancing its own educational goals and ideas. Faculty members often emphasize courses and degree programs as the core mission of a college or university and a student’s performance in class as the primary responsibility of the student in college. It is here that “real education” is supposed (and presumed) to take place. But there is also an entire student life and student development community whose professional members (deans of students, residence life coordinators, leadership trainers, study abroad officers, and health services staff, to name a few) and student members (student government officers, resident advisors, student newspaper staff, and so forth) believe that they have a very important part to play in the total education of students. Some may even think that student life trumps academic work because they offer the more “real world” experience and “real world” education. There are also teams of people—which may include both faculty and student life staff—who are managing all kinds of programming that does not fall neatly under either academics or student life, including guest lectures and presentations, workshops, career development opportunities, internships, concerts, plays, book clubs, film viewings and discussions, and so forth. And finally there are all of the student clubs, organizations, and associations.

ALL of these people or groups are competing for and hoping to get the individual student’s attention and commitment of time.


So my first piece of advice: Do not over commit to campus life during your first year.

Yes, that seems to put me in the camp that argues that academics are all important, but actually I believe that the entire college or university experience can be personally and professionally valuable. I’m not saying, “Do not get involved.” I am saying, “Be very careful not to get too involved.” This is a time management issue, not a statement about the relative merits of academic development and student life experiences. Both are important. But at the same time, you’re paying money for those college courses; in many cases, you’re paying a lot for those classes. You may even be going into debt for them! So I do advise that you spend your first year focusing on your courses until you’ve determined how much time you do need to be successful academically – and for many students that WILL be more hours per week than was needed for success in high school.

Once you’ve determined how much time you need to do well academically, then you can allocate more time to other campus activities and your collegiate social life.

My second piece of advice follows from the first: Do not wait until the second semester (or worse, the second year) to “gear up.” Push yourself as hard as possible in your first semester of college. Really successful students “gear up” rapidly in the very first few weeks of the first semester and every semester afterward.

As a faculty member, I have watched, year after year, as many students wait too long to get their semester started. These students finally realized around week 10 or 11 that they needed to buckle down and get to work. The problem: it is too late!

Often the due dates for critical (and large) assignments will now be only 2 or 3 weeks away, or a second exam in a course will be on the immediate horizon. Poor performances on assignments or examinations in the first 10 weeks are very difficult to overcome in the last 5 weeks because all the final assignments and all that studying for examinations in every class now begins to pile up. If you are behind in week 10, it is unlikely you can complete the work that was due during weeks 1–10 while also preparing successfully for those tasks that occur in weeks 11–15. In most cases, I find that the student grades I’ve accumulated by about week 8 anticipate final course grades for each student. Some students show some improvement in the final weeks of the semester; a few show significant maturation in their work and/or performance on examinations in the last weeks of the semester. Contrarily, grades for some students collapse after week 8—usually because the back log of late work I just mentioned overwhelms them emotionally and then they become so busy trying to finish late work that they cannot keep up with work due late in the semester.

By starting strong in your first semester will ultimately improve your GPA, and having a good GPA in your first term means you will be less likely as a junior or senior to have to beat the odds to pull a low GPA back up to respectable territory. With a strong GPA in the first semester, you will either set the stage for ongoing success or create a cushion for that inevitable semester that just does not go so well, often through no fault of your own.

So how do you start strong? The following tips collectively form my third piece of advice: develop healthy and successful study habits!

(A) Get to work on large projects and papers as soon as they are assigned. Yes, you will eventually have to set the larger projects aside for a few days or weeks because you will have to turn your attention to smaller assignments with more immediate deadlines (for example, reading assignments, lab reports, short essays, composition exercises, early-term assessments, and so on). Getting started earlier can have psychological benefits: it may mediate some of the anxiety many of us experience as deadlines for large projects loom; you will be more confident turning back to the big projects later in the term knowing you’ve already begun to work on them before the pressure to get them finished really mounts; you will be amazed by how much reflective processing of ideas has occurred in your mind even without your realizing it.

(B) Break down big tasks into a series of manageable sub-projects, then complete one every few days or weeks, depending on the scale of the overall project and your schedule. Tackling projects systematically and incrementally may relieve the anxiety of wondering, “When will I have time to do this huge project? How can I even get started?” Don’t try to find time for the whole, just find time for the smaller components; complete one goal at a time. Reward yourself with break time, and then get back to the next goal later today, tomorrow, next week, or whatever your calendar requires.

(C) Don’t wait to study for examinations. Study a little for each class for 15 or 20 minutes at least every other day. In a few weeks, you will be amazed by how much you know because you have “lived with” the material. Furthermore, you will not have to cram or study all night for a test, which means you will get more sleep when you need it the most!

(D) Read actively. Take notes on textbook assignments and other reading assignments (do not just passively underline or highlight in the book), and read through your notes as part of your test preparation, too. Consider going the extra mile: organize the notes you generate into meaningful summaries. You will be amazed by how much material you will have at your finger tips for essay questions on exams!

(E) If your professor gives you a study guide, use it! If your professor gives you sample questions, work on them!

Fourth: Do not blow off your general education courses. Yes, some may seem remedial compared to the last class in that particular subject you took in high school. Yes, some faculty members assign too much work in general education courses. But here’s the thing: even if you think you don’t care about the particular class or assume the information is irrelevant, you just never know when something you are learning could help you become a better person or contribute to your vocation or other interests. Furthermore, with jobs in near-constant states of transformation, you can not be too confident on what training or education you need, or will need, or what information is relevant or not.

Here’s a suggestion: if you are in a class with readings or texts to be mastered, mine those for ideas that illuminate what you DO care about. Better yet, finds ways to express this in assignments to your professors. Faculty members often will be pleased when students take the initiative to build connections between the texts the faculty member cares about and the general body of ideas or experiences that the student cares about. If it is a skills-based course, such as a lab, then turn the experience into a chance to observe human behavior in that environment. Or again, see if there are natural connections that you can create between your work and the course. At the very least, preserve your GPA and do not blow off general education classes! If the course is in a subject area that you feel you already know well, then take that opportunity to get an A for the course and so strengthen your GPA.

Fifth: Get to know your professors. Most will appreciate it if you introduce yourself to them, pay attention in class, and participate. And as you get to know professors and find the ones who inspire you, consider taking more elective courses with them, if possible. What you learn in the relationship and in observing that faculty member may be more valuable to you and your education than the subject matter of the class itself.

Finally, don’t feel badly if your roster of friends changes across year 1 and into year 2. This is normal as you meet more people and settle into a major. You may not room with the same people after year 1 – no problem! You may begin to eat with people you meet in your classes rather than those whom you first met during orientation or in your dorm – no problem! This is all natural, and everyone is going through this process. It is perfectly fine. Just keep being courteous and civil, and do not burn bridges!