Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Challenge of Leadership

First of all I would like to say how happy I am that my not so secret passions of Dancing With the Stars and the Amazing Race are back on TV. It also makes me happy that the Amazing Race has producers named things like Hayma Screech and Bertram Van Munster. Seriously.

I spent half a day on Friday and all day on Saturday attending a strategic planning meeting for the college at which I work. We have a relatively new president, and a year ago we went through this same exercise, bringing together the key management level people and key faculty members of the college to plan the direction the college will go in the next 5 years. Last year was the first time the college really did something like this, involving all the constituencies and at first I thought it would never work. Too many cooks in the kitchen so to speak. But amazingly it did work. We were able to identify key agenda items that the college needed to address in the short term as well as long term, and come up with a mission statement as well as a positioning statement.

This year was pretty much the same deal. We reviewed what we had settled on last year, where we stood in terms of completing the short term goals, the longer term goals, the strengths and weaknesses we had identified of the college and then began working on where to go from here. We broke out into small groups four times through out the day and a half exercise to focus on the various tasks. All went pretty well except for two of the break out sessions.

The first bump in the road came when our task was to come up with suggestions for either a community service or social justice issue that the college could embrace and get behind as an entire community. We have several offices on campus which manage a wide variety of community service or social justice related groups and activities. The goal here was not to replace those efforts with a campus wide initiative, but to select one initiative where we as an institution could really make a difference by putting our combined efforts into it. A good idea as far as I could see. Until I got into my break out session and one of the members of my group was the director for spiritual life on campus. She immediately said she was against this exercise. She felt that community service efforts only work if it grows organically from the students up. That you cannot mandate participation and be successful. I suggested that by having administration of the college embrace a particular issue, it sent the message that we as an institution took the issue, whatever issue it was, seriously and wanted to make a difference and that would lead students to buy into it, to embrace it. She disagreed. It has to come from the kids she said. I said okay, lets look at churches, synagogues, temples of any sort. People are drawn to attend a particular one because it stands for something. You already know what a Catholic church stands for when you decide to become a member. You don't think "I will go to this church and I will make it into what I want it to be". The Pope kind of dictates what the church stands for. So after agreeing to at least participate in the exercise, but to state her general displeasure with the whole concept, we went on with the exercise. As it turns out, we decided to do a study to find out what issue has the greatest need that also intersects with our ability to make a difference as an institution.

The other painful session, which happened to be the last one, was focused on the task of taking the 20 or so action items we had identified from last year, pick one to get more specific about in terms of creating specific steps for achieving that goal. Some were HARD. For example, building a new athletic facility. We are a small college and we have built on most of our usable space already. While we need a new one very very badly, finding the space and the funding will be HARD. Anyway, I ended up in a group with the same director of spiritual life, the athletic director, and the dean of students, to name a few. This was the most painful hour I have spent professionally in a long time. The dean of students said NO to everything that would mean more work for her department and kept trying to get us to focus on retention of first year students and advising. The athletic director wanted to do the athletic facility. The spiritual life person wanted to focus on how to get more staffing for her office by hiring work study students and kept finding ways to disagree with anything that made more work for the advising office. No one could agree on ANYTHING.

I am pretty good at distilling a discussion down to the talking points. Every time I managed to get someone to focus and give us some bullet points for our action plan, someone else would immediately change the subject and say they didn't want to talk about that, they wanted to talk about this ENTIRELY DIFFERENT TOPIC. And not in a friendly, cooperative, supportive manner, but in a yelling and pushy kind of way. I really didn't care WHAT initiative we focused on, because we would end up doing them all sometime in the next four years. But in order to get one jump started we needed to pick one and get jiggy with planning. The president was not going to accept that we could not come to consensus and kept yelling at each other.

It was eye opening and frustrating. It was disheartening. I expected a higher level of commitment to serving students from the people who serve as a dean of students or a director of spiritual life. Both were more interested in serving their own interests in terms of not making more work for themselves, or their friends on campus or somehow getting more help for themselves.

The good news was the overall, the efforts of the whole group were worthwhile. We came up with great ideas, bonded with people we didn't know well before, and ate some good food. And a different group focused on plans for a new athletic center, so we may end up with one yet!

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