Leadership FAQ: Why Say No?

As a counter to Leadership FAQ: Why? I present some reasons to not take on a leadership role.

I was recently on a panel for graduate students to discuss optional careers beyond the traditional academic path. I was there to represent the administrative choice and, in preparation, I thought about the reasons one might chose to take on a leadership role.  I wasn’t asked that question, so I get to answer it here.

For the state of context, I’m considering leadership roles that would be the equivalent of 25% or higher appointment for a year or more.

You might not want to take on that role if:

  1. You don’t have the appropriate leadership skills. Most people don’t think they do have the skills. However, I’m thinking of the situation where an opportunity comes up, you start considering it, and then you talk to your friends about it and they indicate that you might not a good fit for it. You can grow into a position, but if the key requirements of the position don’t match your strengths, you might consider passing on this opportunity.
  2. You think that what works well for you, works because of you. Leadership, on some level, requires that you thinking that the ideas you have are relevant for other folks. If you find yourself not sharing ideas or not thinking that others would benefit from what you do, then moving to leadership might not be for you.
  3. You like your privacy. Leadership almost always requires a certain public element. You may not have to be at the level of giving public speeches, but you will likely be viewed as being representative of whatever group you are leading. Your public actions may be viewed differently as people try to read you and your preferences.
  4. You like or need time for your research, scholarship or creative activity. It is not always the case that you have to give up your time in this area when you take on a leadership role, but it can be much more difficult to make such activities a regular part of your schedule. For example, if you are used to having the summer months to travel for research purposes, a 12-month administrative role might not work for you. In any case, a leadership role will almost always decrease (or change) your productivity.
  5. You like your private time or least some reasonable control over your time. Depending on the level of leadership, your activities will be driven by the demands of others, whether it is a scheduled meeting, or it an urgent email. In some cases you can schedule your own time, but often circumstances will trump your plans.

None of these are necessarily deal-breakers for taking on a leadership role, but are at least some things to consider or to include as part of your negotiations as you take on such a role.


Leadership FAQ: Why?

Why would any one choose to take on a leadership role?

I was recently on a panel for graduate students to discuss optional careers beyond the traditional academic path. I was there to represent the administrative choice and, in preparation, I thought about the reasons one might chose to take on a leadership role.  I wasn’t asked that question, so I get to answer it here.

For the state of context, I’m considering leadership roles that would be the equivalent of 25% or higher appointment for a year or more.

You might want to take on that role if:

  1. You have leadership skills. By this you have some abilities that make it easier for you to get the job done, or at least better than others. It can be challenging for an academic to evaluate their non-academic skills as they live in a world of the top 0.1% (or higher) in terms of their academic skills. For leadership, you just need to be in the top half or top quarter in terms of your skills and you can make a difference.
  2. You want to make a difference in a broader context. This starts with some thought that you have a good way of doing something. Then you have to have the thought (or arrogance) that your good way might be a good way for others to get things done. Leadership often expands your influence both in terms of power and in extent. Hopefully, you actually do have some good ideas and you use your added power for good.
  3. You have ambition (or AMBITION). Some people want to be in control, to lead others. Some view this as a responsibility to their academic unit: senior faculty are expected to take their turn in a leadership position. Some may have always wanted to lead and may have aspirations for even higher leadership roles. Basically, you become a leader because you want to, or feel you have to.
  4. You want to expand your circle of colleagues. Leadership roles always involve working with new people. They may be within your own unit or from other units on campus, or even from other campuses. They often have very different perspectives and interests. These give you a different view of your institution as well as new ideas about your own discipline or unit.
  5. You want to do something different. The academic career is unusual in that it is possible to basically be doing the same thing the last year of your career as you did the first. Leadership provides a chance to do something different at your same institution (no need to move, find new insurance, etc.) and for possibly a short period of time.
  6. You want to expand your career opportunities. Leadership positions usually have a relatively high level of turnover. At some point in your academic career, you see you have limited options. But as an administrator/leader you have many other options both within your institution and at other institutions.

Later, I’ll list some reasons why you might not want to take on a leadership position.

Authentic Leadership

In which I argue that essentially all leadership is authentic.

The phrase/idea “Authentic Leadership” has come up in various events in my life (leadership training, strategic planning and organizational goal setting) and there’s something about it that bothers me. It starts with the definition which basically says that the leadership actions (whatever those are) are consistent with some set of beliefs.  For example, if I believe that the work of individuals is of the highest importance, and I make decisions on policies or distribution of resources that prioritize and support such work then I’m being authentic.  However, if instead choose to support institutional needs, I’m being inauthentic. Or so it would be said.

I could live with that definition, if that was all there was to it. However, it is usually taken to another level in that there are certain ‘good’ beliefs and authentic leadership should reflect those beliefs whether or not the leader believes them. Or that a ‘good’ leader should have these beliefs and make decisions accordingly and thus be authentic. In other words, the opposite of ‘authentic’ is ‘bad’

Ignoring the expanded definition of authentic, I still have an issue. Unless I’m a chaotic or deceitful soul, my actions are a reflection of my true beliefs. Those beliefs just may not be my stated beliefs. For example, I may say I prioritize the work of individuals, but if I’m always choosing to side with institutional needs, then my real belief is that institutional needs are a priority. In other words, everyone is an authentic leader.

Ideally a conversation about authentic leadership should not be about a leader stating their beliefs, but, through reflection or input from others, should be about a leader identifying what their choices say about their true beliefs. Then those beliefs can be viewed against what the leader thinks their beliefs are and what the leadership development literature (of the moment) says are the desirable beliefs. Then they can work towards adopting those beliefs and making their actions reflect those beliefs.

Is there (always) a Step 0?

Examples and consideration of the unstated prerequisites of life.

(For those long-time readers of this blog, you’re familiar with my oft rant about prerequisites, but this take is about the unstated ones.)

I was thinking about part of the leadership workshop that didn’t really work for me. All the ideas made sense and the logic, justification and relevance were all fine, but it just didn’t ‘feel’ right for me. When I encounter such situations I try to go back to the basics and see if there’s some assumption about the situation (or a Step 0) that I don’t have or have missed.  I’m not sure what it is in this case, but I’m pretty confident there is something.  I’ll have to think more about it.

But then I was thinking about other situations and how that this hidden Step 0. was often a very important part of the eventual success. For example:

The practice of mise en place in cooking, where before you start the steps of a recipe, you get out all the equipment you’ll need and prep all the ingredients. I use this when I cook at home and find it makes the process much more efficient, effective, and enjoyable.  In contrast, when another member of my family cooks, they take on a more ‘just-in-time’ approach, prepping each ingredient as needed. They often seem much more frustrated with the cooking experience, and sometimes it impacts the results.

The role of assumptions in mathematics in general and in statistics in particular in answering basic questions. For example, if asked what the probability of rolling a single pip on a standard die, to get the expected answer of 1/6, there’s a long list of assumptions that have to be made about the die, the physics of rolling, the roller, etc.  This example is simple and common enough that most wouldn’t worry about these assumptions, but for more complicated situations, it is essential to clearly state all of them.

Anything based on a long-time tradition, e.g. anything within a religious tradition, where the standard interpretation or set of actions depends on a specific worldview.   I think my leadership workshop issue falls under this situation.

So then my thoughts go to wondering if most/all solutions depend on this background, a.k.a. Step 0? And, if so, then how can we effectively identify what it is?

My thought is that since there are a limited number of absolutes that all agree on, that, except in the most simple of cases, there is always a Step 0. Then the challenge becomes identifying what it is. I think you always need an expert in this case, i.e. someone who studies the situation and process and reflects on it, to provide some broader insight into the context and how the solution plays out. The key value is for the expert not to just be good at whatever it is, but to have spent time thinking about what it is (and isn’t) and how it fits in the world. The expert has to either have been or played the role of a foreigner to the world that produced the result. An expert in probability who ‘just gets it’, would never think of all the things that go into the rolling of a die, unless they deliberately stepped outside of what they understand about probability and looked at it through the eyes of another.

For our own practice, this means for those areas in which we are experts, we need to step outside and view the area as an outsider. This could be done through deliberate reflection, along with working with newcomers and those with different perspectives. Teaching is a great way to do this, as long as you pay attention to those Step 0 gaps that show up. For example, when I explain a new idea and a student doesn’t ‘get’ it, I can look at what ideas the student is building their understanding from and see if there’s a gap or if there’s some fundamental misunderstanding.

Another point of action is that once we have identified these Step 0s to remember that they exist and incorporate them appropriately in our practice. For example, if I find a specific type of gap shows up in a particular lesson, then I can either fill that gap as part of the lesson, or use part of the lesson to ‘discover’ the gap and help the students fill it on their own. The remembering part means that I’ll have to do this every time I teach the lesson.

Unstated assumptions or steps (Step 0s) exist and can greatly influence the outcome of an effort, so it worth our while to try to identify them and to regularly incorporate them into our work.


A reflection on the leadership development experience – the introductory biography

It happens with just about every new group: go around the circle and introduce yourself.In an academic setting that usually included your department, current role or position and something about your research. Often the research component can be detailed enough to include recent publications and grants.

But in the academic leadership development setting, would/should you expect something different? You might, but my limited experience, you won’t. The role part does at least include something about a leadership position to justify the seat at the table, but there’s still a focus on research achievement. Here’s some thoughts on why this is and then I’ll decide if it’s an issue:

  1. Academics define themselves based on their academic achievements. Yes, we teach and do service and other non-research activities, but ultimately we are researchers. Thus this is how we talk to each other.
  2. Academics have been primarily trained to be researchers and are good at it. They may not either have training in other areas or think of themselves as good in those areas. Thus they speak of their research as it is their ‘good thing’.
  3. Academics are experts in their field and may feel that that expertise transfers to or justifies their position in leadership. Thus, in a group, they have to establish their research credentials.
  4. Research talk is the language of the land. Thus talking about research achievements is normal, while talking about leadership achievements feels like bragging.
  5. Leadership talk is not a common language. Thus we don’t know what to talk about beyond what our current role is.

Is this an issue? If you believe in the Authentic Leadership paradigm which contains a fair amount of self-reflection, then it is an issue. At best it is shallow, as it puts the deep reveal in safe and irrelevant areas (remember, we are in a leadership development setting). At worst it sets up false identities and expectations, as participants become identified with their research rather than their leadership.

It can become less of an issue if the group moves past the opening and reveals more about their leadership selves, if the research self can be used to inform the leadership self, or if the leadership identity can be brought out and celebrated in later meetings. All of these depend both on the facilitator and the buy-in from the group.


Admired Leaders

Thoughts on an exercise to identify leaders I admire.

One of the first exercises in the leadership workbook is to identify 5 leaders I admire. I’m finding this difficult as I don’t think much about people that are in the usual leader categories: presidents and foreign leaders, military leaders, and business leaders. There are people that I’ve admired actions or decisions they’ve made, but I haven’t pursued them more extensively. It would be easier to look only at a single action, but I’ve read ahead and see that we have to think about the character and qualities of these people.

So my first list, penned one morning at a McDonald’s was this:

  1. Ronald Reagan (first election and president during college years; ‘won’ the cold war, seemed to see beyond party lines)
  2. Jesus Christ (a classic, meaningful and influential; not comfortable with following the “Jesus as a Business Leader’ path, but for relationships, a good choice)
  3. Bill Gates (I thought I needed an actual business leader and I like tech; unique in some sense by managing to stay in charge from dorm-room startup to international multi-billion dollar company)
  4. Cathy Family (Chick Fil A, probably Don, current CEO) (Another business choice; preservation of their family values in running the business in face of opposition (and lost profit), read some about the discussions related to the controversy and their efforts to learn and adjust)
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr (another classic, clear mission, unique solutions)

I then started thinking more about people I’ve served with or under and came up with a few more. I did limit myself to not mention people that I currently work with, because that could be weird and I think identifying strengths and weaknesses takes time. I think I’ll save them for another time.

I’ve also thought (and worried) about what this list says about me. One thought is that as a mathematician I connect more to ideas than the person generating the idea, so maybe it makes sense that I don’t really have a strongly identified set of admired leaders.  I think in the next phase where we look at characteristics of these leaders, I’ll hopefully see an admired list of values.




Taking a Left Turn

A contemplation of non-linear improvement and its connection to (micro)management.

A little exercise:

Think of one thing that characterizes poor teaching (by whatever measure).  Now, think of one thing that characterizes good teaching. Is there a straight path from one to the other?

In many examples I can think of, you can get from one to the other, but not by a straight path.  For example, poor teaching is often disorganized, while good teaching is engaging, but I don’t think that just becoming more organized (the straight path from disorganized) will necessarily make you engaging. As one goes from poor to good, from disorganized to engaging, they have to take a turn somewhere. But where should this happen?

Now we get to talk some math.  There’s an optimization algorithm called Steepest Descent (SD) in which you go off in a straight path searching for the best spot along the path. The key is picking the direction and for SD, you choose the one that gives you the best initial improvement. So, from our example, if you are disorganized, your initial direction is one that increases your organizing skills.

In nice cases it is easy to see how SD eventually finds the optimal solution, however even in simple cases it can be shown that the optimal solution is only reached in the limit, i.e. after an infinite number of steps. You move towards the optimal solution, but taking a zig-zag path.

We can bring this back to our question of improvement, as there are two ways to ‘fix’ SD relevant to ‘taking a turn’. The first in Conjugate Gradient (CG) and in simplest terms, you put the ‘turn’ in the choice of the initial direction by turning it so that it doesn’t ‘go back’ in the previous directions. In our example, that would mean after you optimize all you can by becoming more organized, you figure out your next area of improvement, but make sure that you minimize any aspects that have to do with organization.

CG works when SD works, and in nice cases CG can find the solution in a finite number of steps. Even in less than nice cases, it works better than SD.

The other fix uses some sort of Dogleg (DL) process, and is typically for non-linear problems. In this case you start your step in the SD direction, but then at some time you change your path towards another point. The key is that the path choices are built not on the original problem, but on an idealized approximation which makes the base calculations easier. The final answer is based on the original problem. In our example, this would mean that you would start becoming more organized, but based on education literature or other’s experiences, you’d at some point turn towards some theoretical ideal. You’d be using your real experience to measure the success and stop at the best point along that path.

So why do I bring all this up? I’ve been involved in various efforts to ‘improve’ things, and when those efforts have been successful it has been when the overall goal is clear and the action taker is also a key decider on the thing. I’d say this works because the improvement uses a CG or DL type approach. For example, if someone is trying to improve their teaching, when they know what sort of broad results they want, and are involved in identifying the issues and the solution, then there is a higher likelihood for real improvement. In the case where the action taker is responding to someone else’s choices or someone else has the broad vision, there is usually much more frustration and little improvement. I’d argue that outside management (micromanagement) takes a more SD type approach, as they work from only a snapshot of the situation and usually focus on places that give the quickest response.

There are no real surprises here. It seems most modern leadership/management models tend toward a collaborative/shared-governance perspective which captures the broader or holistic view inherent in the CG and DL type approaches. But it is good to be on the look-out for the less effective, zig-zag approach inherent in a SD type approach.