Friday, October 21, 2005

Miami's search for a "culture of leadership"

I was at lunch today with about 30 faculty and staff from throughout the University. The lunch was convened by Dr. Richard Nault, Vice President for Student Affairs, and Dr. John Skillings, Associate Provost for Academic Affairs. Drs. Nault and Skillings chose to begin meetings of the variety of campus stakeholders in leadership last spring. Today's meeting was the second such gathering. Because we have a new Provost, Dr. Jeffrey Herbst, it seemed appropriate to invite Dr. Herbst to speak to this group on his perspectives of leadership. Dr. Herbst is a respected scholar in political science who has spent most of his career at Princeton.

I was beyond curious at what we might hear at lunch. The ideas I found most stimulating were several paradoxes Dr. Herbst proposed. The first was that we know leadership matters but we don't know how. There are several academic disciplines that explore leadership but consistency in how it is studied, the context, and the dynamics result in disparate conclusions. Another problematic issue in the study of leadership is that leaders can only be evaluated after they are gone - the question is if leaders foster structures and commitments to sustain the leader's impact. One of the biggest dilemmas is the fact that media and technology have been very influential in democratizing our world - so much so that there are very powerful anti-authority forces that make leading difficult. He concluded his remarks with the assertion that the most worthy objective in leadership development is not developing skills for leading but to help students discover their own purposes so that leadership is an outcome of their conviction rather than leading being a goal in itself.

I was gratified that Dr. Herbst sees the importance of students finding work worth doing. Ultimately, we can do a lot in training and educating students on techniques, skills, insights, but the hard part is developing a sense of awareness of self and the journey toward purpose. For me, this is the bottom line and the one on which I think we should focus most. I sometimes use the terms "collector" and "contributor" to describe different kinds of students. The collectors are the ones for whom leadership is all about them, their resume, their accomplishments, their ego. The contributors are the ones who simply know that they believe something deeply in their souls and that they have to do something about it. This is a simple, maybe even simplistic, distinction - collector or contributor.

The further question pursued at our lunch was whether Miami has a "culture of leadership" or "cultures of leadership." Most of the room seemed to nod at the likelihood that we have cultures of leadership. One person raised the all important question that we've been advocating for some time through "Miami's Leadership Commitment." He asked if the "culture" might not be that we should value each individual's search for purpose and leadership. This recognizes that there are multiple paths and realities for us all. Our opportunity and challenge is to support each other as we each use the variety of tools available to us to learn about ourselves and to learn how to express our deepest convictions in acts of leadership.

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