#higheredWed: Speaking to Leaders

This past Saturday, September 8, I was privileged to be asked to deliver a keynote address for a student leadership symposium at San Francisco State University. Before nearly 600 student leaders, I spoke about the components of leadership and how they intersected with social justice. The energy in the auditorium was contagious. It reminded me of how much I love what I do and the opportunity to share with undergraduates.

Below are my remarks; I went off-script in a few places, but this is pretty much the substance of what I shared. Read them over and let me know what you think. What lessons about leadership have you learned?


5th Annual Student Leadership Symposium
San Francisco State University
September 8, 2012
Keynote Speaker: Dafina Lazarus Stewart, PhD

Good morning, everyone! How’s everybody doing today?

Thank you so much to your student affairs staff, particularly to your Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life, Dr. Mary Ann Begley, for bringing me here today and her co-collaborator for this event Sarah Bauer, Director of Student Involvement and Career Center. Let’s hear it for them both and the entire staff that worked hard to bring you this symposium! Come on, you can do better than that!

You are gathered here today for this symposium because you have been identified as leaders. Perhaps you are an executive officer for a student organization on campus, a social or academic fraternity; or perhaps you are here today because you are a resident assistant or an officer of a residence hall organization. Perhaps you have served as a peer facilitator in a class, led a team doing a community service project, or helped to organize student activism on your campus. Whatever brings you here today, I am here to tell you that none of those things make you a leader.

Yup, that’s right. You’re not a leader because you hold a certain position. You’re not even a leader because someone told you that you were a leader. You’re a leader for three reasons; I’ll talk about each of these in turn. You’re a leader because 1) there are people walking with you; 2) you are going someplace where others want to be; and 3) you do the small things that lead to big results. I arrived at these insights based not so much on my own experiences as a student leader because that was 20 years ago – I know, I know, I look like a college student.  It’s really been my own experiences as an advisor for two undergraduate student organizations and working with graduate students who are advising groups that has brought me to these ideas.

Let’s go back to that first idea: You are a leader because there are people walking with you. Notice that I didn’t say that you’re a leader because there are people following you. That would be simple enough, wouldn’t it? Besides, it also seems like a reasonable criterion. We mistakenly often talk about leading and leaders in the absence of following and followers. If you are a leader, there ought to be people following you – otherwise, you’re not leading, you’re just walking. Makes sense right? Sure it does, but that idea puts you in the wrong place in relation to everyone else; leadership is not about you.

Yes, leadership is inherently relational; it’s not an autonomous activity, no one leads in isolation. You can only lead in the context of community. If we take the philosophy that leaders have followers, then we have to ask why should people follow us? We could argue that people follow someone because they believe in them, they trust them, and on some level, because they feel connected to them. And that’s okay, that’s even pretty good. But when people follow us for those reasons, our leadership in our group will be short-lived and shallow. I can think of more than one example, and I bet you can too, of a student organization that had a very charismatic leader. While that person was president, the membership grew and people were excited about what was going on. Things seemed to be going great – for a while. But then, that student graduated and when that dynamic leader was gone, the organization went into decline. Members left and all the life seemed to drain out of the group. Sound familiar to anyone?

So, what happened? Why was the group unable to sustain the growth and enthusiasm it had experienced under that dynamic individual? Talk amongst yourselves for a minute.

I make this out to be a pretty bright group and I bet you came up with something like this: That, yes, although leading is inherently a relational activity, you are not the center of it. You aren’t leading if you’re walking by yourself, because leadership does necessitate followership. However, that puts you in front and everybody else behind you and that looks like old-school leadership, not like the progressive thinking that recognizes that everyone has a contribution to make that can be valued and used to advance the group. So let’s change that metaphor from leader in front and followers behind to leaders being in the company of those they led, leaders being the first among equals, sort of like the “first-follower.” See how that changes the dynamic, just even how you think about leadership, when you put yourself in the midst of your members? The people walking with you can’t just be in it for you, because you won’t always be there, but we hope that the organization will. That leads me to my next point.

You are a leader because you are going someplace where others want to be. The course you set should be determined by the vision, mission, and goals of the group. Your fellow students are going to stay engaged and commit their time and effort to the organization, because you’ve effectively crafted and communicated a vision that they are willing to buy into – you’re going someplace where they want to be. That someplace is toward the realization of the purpose of your organization. It takes a certain amount of progressive thinking to facilitate the development of vision and mission. Vision-crafting and mission development are not things that leaders do on their own, in isolation – not if they want other people to join the effort. You also shouldn’t approach it as a product to be sold with you as its salesperson.

Let me be honest with you: If you find yourself trying to convince others to get on board with you, then you probably are headed someplace that no one else wants to go. If you look around and the only people consistently showing up to your general body meetings are you and your exec board, you’ve got a problem with where you’re going. But maybe that’s not a problem and it’s great – if you are okay with your membership consisting of just the executive officers and the organization going defunct once you all graduate. I would assume though that you’re not okay with that, but I shouldn’t make assumptions. Are you okay with that?

I didn’t think so! So how do we prevent that from happening? Visions are best crafted with input from a broad array of other members. As a leader, though, it is your task to think creatively about where the organization can go. This requires having a big picture, a panoramic view of the organization that includes an understanding of its past, its present, and what threats and opportunities lay in its future. Conveying this information to your members is something you can uniquely offer as a leader (likely with the help of an advisor or alumni members) that others may not be able to provide. The vision and mission of your organization has to be big enough to allow for growth and innovation, while maintaining a thread of connection to the principles that guided it in the past. Consider this: Where do you want the organization to go as a member? What did you need from this group before you became an officer? What attracted you to this organization in the first place? Thinking of yourself as a passenger, instead of as the driver, will help to remind you of the view from the back of the bus.

Crafting a collective vision and mission is also important because getting the group to its destination is not just about you. You can’t be the only one driving the bus. Missions are accomplished and visions are realized through dedicated teamwork, not through the single-minded determination of an individual or a small group of people.

You are a leader because you do the small things that lead to big results. Your strengths and success as a leader are not determined in the big moments when the spotlights are on. It’s not because your biggest event of the year went off without a hitch and you had a higher attendance than ever before. It is not a result of getting an interview in the student newspaper with your picture on the front page. It’s not because you were able to make a significant change to university policy or took on some major issue on campus. Shining in the big moments doesn’t make you a leader. By the way, having big moments to shine in isn’t a requirement for being a leader either. Being a leader is not some surreal, larger-than-life role that you have to be almost superhuman to play.

In fact, real leadership is quite the opposite. Honing your competence as a leader happens in the small moments that happen every day that few people will ever see. It’s taking the time to make sure you know the university’s policies governing student organizations. It’s making sure that you really do follow-up with all those students who signed up to get more information at the student organization fair. Leadership is arriving early to set up an event and staying late to break down, even if others didn’t show up but said they would. Leaders pay attention to group dynamics and work to resolve conflict. Leaders are made when there’s dirty work to be done, work that doesn’t get mentioned in the student newspaper, work that doesn’t get a thank you, but you do it anyway.

It’s the everyday things, the small stuff, that accumulate and lead to big results. The time you take sending emails, learning university policy, following up on the mundane tasks necessary to prepare for an event will pay off on the long run in increased membership, building good relationships with your advisors and other university staff that can lead to changes in policy, and the event that makes the front page of the student newspaper. As Miley Cyrus sings in the only song of hers that I actually like, “life’s a climb” and it’s the climb that reveals who you are and strengthens you as a leader, not the mountaintop.

Do a self-assessment based on these 3 criteria: You’re a leader if there are people walking with you; you’re a leader if you are going someplace others want to go; and, you’re a leader when you do the small things that lead to big results.

So, are you a leader? Show of hands, how many of you feel confident that you can answer that question in the affirmative?

Okay, how many of you aren’t so sure that you are a leader based on those 3 criteria?

It is okay to acknowledge that, to say – wait, maybe I’m not really a leader, yet, or I don’t exercise leadership consistently. Leadership is something you grow into and have to work to maintain. It’s not a light switch – you don’t suddenly stop being a leader, nor do you become a leader and then that’s it. You can demonstrate strong, positive, effective leadership in one situation and then in another situation, you can fall short.

Leading takes work and consistent practice. It’s an active word that is built on the concepts I already shared above. Those characteristics make you an effective leader; they don’t necessarily make you a positive leader. Positive leaders are change agents who inspire others to act in ways that lead to greater equity and which broaden inclusion. So I want to talk a little bit about being that kind of leader, a socially just leader.

Socially just leaders aren’t know-it-alls, they aren’t “P-C police,” and they are not immune from making mistakes. Socially just leaders are change agents who commit to a vision of their group, their organization, and their campus that seeks to build bridges that unite their peers across lines of difference, not build walls that divide. Their vision of what could be sees whose voices are missing from their group and strives to find out why so that they can make room for those voices to come to the table. They advocate for those who are not present and stand as allies with those who are trying to make change. Leaders who are change agents use their group’s status and position to support other groups. Leaders who value social justice, continue to expand their own awareness, knowledge, and skills, recognizing that multicultural competence is a journey, not a destination.

Incorporating social justice in your definition of what it means to you to be a leader takes courage and determination. It’s risky to challenge your peers, especially when you may be unsure of exactly why something someone said or did reinforces inequity instead of dismantles it. Courage, boldness, and the willingness to risk speaking up for what’s right instead of staying quiet – these characteristics mark leaders who are trying to make a difference.

Determination is also an important trait for change agents. You can’t give up at the first sign of opposition, whether it’s from a fellow student who is resisting outreach to draw in new members who will diversify the group or an institutional policy that hasn’t caught up with the times. Determination and persistence come from believing that change is worth the trouble. More equitable practices and policies and greater inclusivity don’t happen overnight. A clear vision of where you’re going is necessary to stay on the path.

Finally, this type of leadership doesn’t rest easy just because everything is going great in their own group. Most of you will likely recognize this Disney Channel movie line, “We’re all in this together.” I know it’s cheesy but it’s true. You can’t have a “me-and-mine” mentality and call yourself a change agent, committed to social justice. Supporting the success of other groups brings good karma to your organization. Moreover, seeking opportunities to collaborate with others across lines of difference will enhance your multicultural awareness, knowledge, and skills. Great programming ideas can come out of attending to the intersections of identity. As leaders, you have a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the learning and development of your peers by proposing new ideas for programming and meeting topics. You’ll generate interest, curiosity, and excitement and that will benefit your organization and the campus as a whole.

You got here today because of your positional leadership. You will participate in workshops the rest of the day focused on various leadership skills, because you care about being good leaders. It is my hope that you continue throughout this day, thinking of the ways that you exercise leadership that have nothing to do with your position or title. I hope you will leave here today committed to making leadership a part of your daily routine, because I’m going to tell you a secret. Ready for it?

Okay, here’s the secret: You can be a leader whether you have a title or not by promoting and facilitating teamwork, by helping your group keep its mission and vision at the center of its activities, by doing the little things that must be done but which few people notice, and by working toward more socially just outcomes in your club and across your university. If you do these things, you’ll always be a leader regardless of your “official role.” That’s leadership that matters in both the short- and the long-term.

I’m going to ask you a question now, but I’m going to give you the answer first. Here’s the answer: “Right here.” Got it? Okay, now for the question: “Where my leaders at?”

Good. I’m glad you’re here because that’s exactly where we need you to be. Thank you.

#higheredWed: Election Season

This post covers both yesterday’s #higheredWed and tomorrow’s regular Friday post, so it’s coming on Thursday.

Anyway, it’s election season (in case the countless political ads and convention coverage evaded you and you’ve turned off your Facebook friends’ notifications about politics) and we’re going to be in this space for another couple of months (the debates begin next month; here’s the schedule). Those of us who work in higher education are likely planning or thinking about ways to make this a learning moment for our students, particularly undergraduate students. At the same time though, election season can be frustrating and seemingly useful only for hardening people’s opinions, not for facilitating constructive dialogue. Yet, I am a firm believer that education can come out of this madness we call politics in this country and that college and university educators can create the space to make it happen.

1. Remember the cognitive development and maturity required to engage in debates in a reasonable, sensible way. Notice I didn’t say “logical” or “unemotional.” Cognitive development theorists such as Marcia Baxter Magolda, Pat King with Karen Kitchener, and the authors of Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule) all acknowledge that emotion and subjectivity play important and necessary roles in developing cognitive maturity. Often, once people abandon the “because my parents told me so” rationale for their beliefs, the next step is to connect on a personal level through their own experiences or those of someone close to them. Later comes the ability to take those personal experiences and place them in a broader context and use evidence to determine what is more or less likely or probable. Crafting programs that engage students on a personal-level is an important aspect of building bridges for more advanced (read “more complex”) cognitive thinking.

2. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. You may have scheduled a panel of speakers, a debate, or a lecture that deals with one or more of the salient issues on the table in this election. That’s great, but it’s full value will be lost if it’s not paired with time for attendees to talk about what they’ve heard with each other in conversations that are facilitated by adults invested in helping them think better, not come to whatever conclusion they prefer. I often hear people complain that debates and the convention speeches are useless because nobody ever changes their minds; they just look for justification for their own beliefs in what they’ve heard. The only way to change that is to allow students to directly engage the issues and talk with each other, not just be talked at. Probing questions that get students to explore how what they’ve heard affects them help bridge the gap to the next level of cognitive development, not just sitting listening to someone else talk for an hour.

3. Heart, soul, AND mind. There’s been a lot of talk about values in this year’s presidential election and that is a good thing. Values, what people believe about the life they want to live, what’s important to them, and how they define key concepts like success, freedom, and responsibility are fundamental to how people will make decisions and sort through the issues this fall. Getting students to answer these questions for themselves AND getting them to listen to how their peers answer these questions will help overcome the knee-jerk demonizing of opposing views that typically characterizes more simplistic cognitive maturity. For educators who are facilitating these discussions, being transparent about how your values play a role in your political action is really beneficial, especially for traditional-age students who are still crafting their own voice (what Baxter Magolda calls the development of self-authorship).

4. Panoramic views please. There’s so much talk about “the” Republican Party and “the” Democratic Party that not only makes it seem like each party is a monolith, but also portrays them as consistent over time. I bet many students would be surprised – no matter their political allegiances – to learn that it was Republicans who more ardently and consistently supported civil rights for African Americans and other racial minorities in the 1940s and 1950s, not Democrats. Helping students to see the complexity of political history and present-day discussions will also help students who may agree with one aspect of their party’s platform but disagree with others. I recently saw on Facebook someone decry the possibility of being fiscally conservative but socially liberal when in fact it is entirely possible to hold those two perspectives at the same time. Showing historical examples, or getting students to find them for themselves, shuts down myths like this.

5. Translate talk into action. Inspiring civic engagement begins with constructive dialogue, in my opinion, but it doesn’t end there. Getting our students to the polls – regardless of who they intend to vote for – is the ultimate objective in my mind for this election (and any election). Part of this is helping students see how local, state, and federal politics are interconnected and why it’s important for them to remain engaged in the issues beyond the presidential election.
Unfortunately, I see much of our political conversations happening on very simplistic, lower levels of cognitive development. I believe it is our duty as educators not to cooperate with that. We can elevate the tone of the conversations with our students. When we do, not only will our students benefit, but our whole nation.

Deadline to register to vote is October 9th. Election Day is November 6th: http://www.sos.ga.gov/elections/election_dates.htm

#higheredWed (on Friday): Starting Grad School

From the looks of my Facebook notification feed this Monday, apparently a lot of universities resumed classes for fall semester this week or are in the throes of beginning in the next week or so. This means that all over the country (and increasingly across the globe), bright-eyed and eager folks are beginning graduate preparation programs in student affairs as master’s students or returning for doctoral study in the field. Usually I’m caught up with everyone else, faculty and new students, in the controlled chaos that is the first week of classes. Since I’m not this year, I’ve been thinking about what I would say if I had a class of first-year master’s or doctoral students in front of me. It’s pretty simple, just 3 things:

  1. When you start panicking and wondering if you are cut out for grad school, remember that you were admitted for a reason. And that reason has everything to do with both your demonstrated abilities and potential for continued growth. It’s not an accident, nor is it a mistake. You will likely experience some pangs of doubt, get your first B (or C) ever in life from that faculty member who seems to be out to get you (not likely), and wonder how you’re ever going to get enough sleep and stay sane. Regardless, you’ll get through this transition with strong support, positive self-concept, a realistic view of the situation, and adaptive strategies for success (you’ll smile when you learn Schlossberg’s Transition theory). It’ll be tough at times and that’s when you have to be real clear about why you’re here at this time in your life and what you intend to do with this degree when you finish. Write it out on a piece of paper and post it some place – several places – to remind you of why you’re here and keep you motivated to persist when you want to give up.
  2. Everybody else in your program is there for a reason also, so “use [them] as resources not benchmarks,” as my former student Caitlin Keelor once advised a group of her peers at Bowling Green State University. I’ll add to that sage advice that you should also make yourself available to be used as a resource by your peers. Share what you know, the success strategies that you’ve figured out, and the best place to study in town or the choicest spot in the library. This isn’t a competition and it’s not undergrad anymore so your class rank doesn’t matter. Nobody is doling out jobs when you finish based on where you fall in the GPA distribution of your cohort, nor is being granted interviews at placement a factor of whether you beat the grading curve. Whether you got a better grade than somebody else in your class should not be your focus. Rather, I would hope you would be more concerned with whether you did better on this paper than you did on the last one (because you actually took the time to carefully review the feedback and apply it) and what you’re learning about how to be an effective student affairs professional.
  3. Stop looking for someone else to give you the answers. Student affairs is an applied field. Although theories about how students learn, develop, and grow; college environments and their uses; and student outcomes will constitute a part of your coursework, they are of little use if you do not learn to recognize and apply them in actual practice. Learning how to do this does not come in a FAQ that you’ll get from your faculty member in class. So don’t ask them, “Well, how do I actually apply this in practice?” The answer for that is for YOU to figure out because using theory isn’t a math problem with a clear, logical right answer. Using theory is messy and complex and idiosyncratic (and absolutely necessary). You can’t be lazy about it and expect somebody else to tell you what to do. You must take the time to learn the theory, what it’s good for, how to recognize when a situation may call for its application and work it out in practice.

Bonus: This is for those of you who are starting a master’s degree after already working in student affairs (that was my path) or who are returning to school to earn your doctorate after several years of professional practice. It is hard, very hard, to be put in the seat of the student again; to lose the autonomy and authority that you earned in your full-time position. It can be especially hard to be placed in a graduate assistantship where you feel you know as much, if not more, than the people supervising you. However, I encourage you to allow yourself to be a learner again, fully. Embrace this opportunity to not have all the answers, to ask more questions than you answer, and to learn new ways of doing things. I’m not suggesting that you hide your expertise or that you allow someone to treat you like you’re a complete novice when you’re not. I am suggesting that you give yourself permission to be a student. There are some benefits to not having the buck stop with you.

It will be tough, especially this first semester, but you can do this. Use your resources at your institution (faculty, peers, supervisors, academic support centers) and get connected (or stay connected) to professional networks. Student affairs is the best profession in the world and higher education is the most compelling field to study (okay, so I’m a little biased), because what we do matters and can affect people’s lives in meaningful ways every single day we show up to do what we do. Dig in deep and hold on for the ride!

#higheredWed: Advice for New Student Affairs Professionals

I’m devoting this week’s #higheredWed post to those folks who are starting their first full-time positions in student affairs. As a qualifier, I’m directing this primarily to new student affairs professionals who are coming directly from full-time graduate preparation programs and began those programs straight out of undergrad. This is, admittedly, a declining proportion of new student affairs professionals, but they still account for a significant number of new professionals in the field. These tips come from my 11 years of teaching master’s students in student affairs graduate programs and listening to the insights of dozens of those students over the years.

1. You will make new friends. For many of you, you’ve had a friendship group handed to you via your classmate peers since you went to kindergarten. This may be the first time in your life that you’re starting a new experience without anybody else being in the same boat. You may be the only new hire in your unit or in your division (less likely for those of you in residence life) and making friends will take initiative and assertiveness on your part that you’ve not had to exert before. All this notwithstanding, you will make new friends. You might just need to push yourself out of your comfort zone and strike up a conversation. I know, I know, that’s hard, but it’s worth it. Use professional networks to connect to other new professionals in the field (e.g., ACPA’s Standing Committee for Graduate Students and New Professionals), as well.

2. Make friends and socialize both on campus and off. Please don’t allow your work comrades to be the sum total of your socializing. Get to know a wide variety of people beyond your office and people who don’t work on your campus. You’ll appreciate this for a number of reasons down the line, not the least of which will be for the opportunity to NOT talk about your work all the time. Related to #1, if you take this time to explore new hobbies (or hobbies that were lost to your graduate studies!), you’ll make new friends and practice some life balance. Get off campus!

3. Don’t give up on your supervisor or your job. It really takes a least 3 years to really get settled in a new place and position. The first year you don’t know what the heck is going on. The second year, you’re starting to feel competent and get your bearings. In year three, you’ve got a rhythm and you have learned how things work a little better. If you throw in the towel after the first six months (unless things are really severe), you cheat yourself of the opportunity to rise to the challenge and grow in some unexpected and uncomfortable ways and you cheat the institution as well. Your supervisor may not be ideal and the job may not live up to your dreams, but you can benefit substantively from experiences that are less than ideal. Actually you might learn more. You might also want to check your assumptions and expectations that you had before you came in the door. Were they fair and realistic? Were they appropriate to the institutional environment? Did you take into account a full and complete understanding of your supervisor’s work load, personality, supervisory style?

4. Ask questions first, give ideas later. This is not the time for you to say, “Well at my grad/undergrad institution did it this way….” That’s the quickest way for your ideas to get dismissed and for you to be written off as the typically arrogant, know-it-all master’s graduate. Take the time to learn how things are done at your new position and WHY they are done in that way. What may have worked successfully at Institution A may not work as successfully at Institution B because of differences in culture, organization, resources, students, and staff dynamics. Ask questions that reflect a desire to learn and a humility about what you need to learn, not questions that passively imply rebuke.

5. Be confident about your skills and knowledge. Although you still have a lot to learn, you have already learned quite a bit and have some skills and knowledge to share and to work from. After all, that’s why they hired you in the first place. Know what you know and work with a spirit of excellence and improvement. This will confirm your supervisor’s decision to bring you on board. As you continue to gain competence, also plan to share your expertise with others through presentations at regional and national conferences and publication of effective practices.

6. Be a team player, not a competitor. A recent CSP grad, Caitlin Keelor, gave some advice to some first-year peers at the end of last fall that I think applies excellently beyond graduate school. She exhorted them to “use each other as resources, not as benchmarks.” In your new position, even though you may be the sole staff member responsible for X, you are likely working as a member of a larger unit, whether that me your department, or at smaller institutions, the student affairs division. Each individual is contributing to the success of the larger unit. Competing with others for recognition, resources, or prestige does not contribute to the whole. If you are doing good work, it will be recognized over time. More importantly, if you are doing good work, you are likely helping others do good work as well and benefitting the experiences and learning of the students at your institution. That’s what really matters.

7. Take seriously and invest in your own professional development. Although you’re happy to be done with classes and papers and grades, your learning isn’t finished. Keep up your professional organization memberships, both umbrella associations like ACPA & NASPA and functional-area specific associations if they exist in your area. Take some of that “extra” time you used to have to spend reading for classes and writing papers and read newly published research in the field (those association memberships typically come with a journal subscription included remember) , attend a webinar or workshop, and intentionally use national and regional conferences as opportunities to attend workshops and sessions that will help build knowledge and skills in areas that need to be developed. Find ways to join with others at your institution to do professional development in more cost-effective ways. For example, register for a webinar as a group and share the registration fee instead of doing it as an individual.

Your first year will be an amazing period of growth and learning for you and some times challenges will come along the way. However, you’re in this field for a reason; use those reasons to motivate you when the going gets tough. Finally, if you haven’t read Whitt’s 1997 article “Don’t  Drink the Water,” I highly recommend that you dig it out of your grad school readings or download it again from online. Her suggestions remain timely and helpful for both graduate students and new professionals. You are a welcome addition to our profession. We’re glad to have you and hope you’ll stick around for a couple of decades. 🙂

Happy New (Academic) Year!

Sorry for not posting on Monday (I did post to my research blog though); I’ll be taking this Friday off to decompress and enjoy some down time but I’ll be back on Monday, August 20!