Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Barbara Mossberg on cultural perspectives of leadership
The following text is from a listserv post on 9-10-06 by Barabara Mossberg, President Emerita of Goddard College and currently a Senior Scholar at the James McGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland:
I noticed a different take on leadership qualities twenty years ago as a new dean of graduate studies at the University of Oregon. I had TA's from Asia and Europe who wanted to quit their jobs in the first two weeks (and mine), because the students were "not respectful." When, alarmed and dismayed, I asked how this was manifested, they replied, "they raise their hands to talk when I am speaking, they interrupt with questions, they come to my office to question the assignments, their grades. . . " I was relieved--"oh, they are acting as they have been trained since pre-school!" and inspired to create some programs for the whole University, graduate students and faculty, in which we all and each examined the cultural assumptions that go into teaching (for example) and the values we generate and invoke in our students that express cultural ideals that culminate in how we identify and nurture leaders. In the U.S., what are the historical forces that explain why we would encourage students to come up with "different" answers, raise our hands and otherwise "intervene" and "interrupt," establish themselves as unique, creative, even challenging presences in the learning environment, differentiate themselves proactively from other students, ourselves as faculty, and even the "authorities" whom we ask them to consider with critical thinking skills? We ask such questions in the context of learning how another culture might define academic excellence in terms of consensus and agreement fostering and perpetuating the teachings of the faculty and authorities, for example. What is to be gained by the approach in whatever country, and what cultural forces and history shape such educational approaches that nurture specific citizen values that ultimately apply to the kind of leadership we want? Each faculty member was asked to consider what traits make up a "good student" and what assignments and pedagogies reward those traits--and why. How does this reflect and continue to shape the culture? In increasingly diverse and multicultural and global classrooms, how can we understand and promote different kinds of understandings of "academic success?" How can we educate for the global arena in which different values are operant and collide? Thus I see particular opportunity in the graduate programs in which students from many countries participate, to consider these questions for a more internationally-conscious pedagogy.
On this note, in further work for American studies, I considered what forces led Americans to vote for what presidents they did, and what informed the national debates (Carter, Reagan, elder Bush, Clinton, etc.). I will share something from my own work on chaos theory and global leadership. I saw that Clinton was charged with being indecisive when in fact he seemed to be modeling complexity and other dynamic whole systems theories from emergent sciences in his decision-making processes. I gave lectures on his "round world" thinking in which issues were understood not in polarities, but in global terms of not either/or but an inclusive model of truths and realities that co-exist even as they conflict, compete, overlap, merge, collide, and contradict--just as earth appears at any moment from space, at once, simultaneously, wet and dry, dark and light, low and high, freezing and humid, etc. This sense of complexity, of "and . . and . . .and" I think was threatening, considered "indecisive" in a context of insecurity over multiplicity of an increasingly global and diverse world, increasingly interdependent, so that "this or that" approaches seemed more "decisive", even if this interpretation does not express the reality of a situation and in fact distorts it. We are reminded that it is only a relatively short time in which we have lived with knowledge of a "round world" and even more recent that we have images of ourselves from space that change the way we can see ourselves. Decisions one way or another are made, but how the public understands the forces shaping the decisions is tremendously important to understanding what "decisive" means. Where and when do we see issues looked at in terms of long-term results, for global stability and prosperity, based on what we learn from history!
This is a wonderfully rich example of why it is important to continue to examine our notions of learning and leadership. We come from different experiences and places and those differences profoundly impact our own choices and our views of the choices of others. Note to self - What unexamined notions are standing in my way of connecting with others in both learning and leadership?