If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. ~John Quincy Adams
Reviewing perspectives on leadership provides an opportunity to identify potential strengths beneficial to a student affairs leadership position. Many of us can identify with the achievements defined by Spears (2002) as characteristics of servant-leaders, including awareness, conceptualization, and community building. Additionally, Krulak’s (1998) Marine Corp leadership competencies highlighted decisiveness, endurance, and enthusiasm, qualities that resonate with achievements in my professional life. Each of these leadership areas will be useful in the work of student affairs.
Spears (2002) specifies servant-leadership “as a way of being in relationships with others”, involving others in “decision making” and an enhancement of “personal growth” in the workplace (p. 142.). Spears indicated the characteristic of general awareness and self-awareness as strengths essential to the servant leader. As a practitioner of psychometric and emotional intelligence assessments, I am confident in my knowledge of self, personal strengths, and areas for growth. Additionally, in my presentations on these topics I frequently offer my own preferences up as topics for examination, leading comfort to discussing issues relating to my perceived strengths or weaknesses. This openness allows me a forum for being acutely aware of my own shortcomings while enabling an objective view of a given situation and my perceptions of the situation.
Spears identifies the conceptualization characteristic of the servant-leader, the ability to “dream great dreams” (p. 144), as requiring practice for most leaders. The conceptual or vision framework is defining for me in that I have never been one to let the status quo stand in the way of my work or service to students. I am reminded of a long ago conference presentation where Edward “Chip” Anderson discussed what likely was the precursor to his strengths-based educating work (2005). He asked, “What would we do if we really loved our students?” “What would do if we truly loved our students?” Those questions helped to shape a direction for my students affairs work. They are questions that allow big thinking, which is frequently shot down by reality, but every once in a while leads to innovation and success.
Building community or finding group identity is cited as the responsibility of a leader to bring individuals together as they shift from local community to institutions as the shaper of lives (Spears, p. 145). I have success in helping students find this community by interweaving a dependence upon one another and have achieved similar outcomes with staff who were seeking identity and direction. Finding common ground and a common purpose are critical areas for advancing and supporting college success.
I was surprised to find myself identifying with so many of the Marine Corp Leadership Traits. But after a read-through, it is easy to see these traits as basic tenets of responsibility that any leader must possess for effectiveness and respect in their position.
Krulak (1998) defines decisiveness as easy to understand but not to be confused with inflexibility. I find that my ability of decisiveness, or being able to find closure or completion on a topic or problem, is a strength that helps groups and individuals process and move forward. I am able to gather and review information, reach a conclusion, and proceed with a course of action. The rapidity with which I am able to do this is disconcerting for some, so I find that I need to focus on helping others seek the information or validation they need move ahead.
The trait of endurance can mean “patience”, “going the distance”, and “taking the long view”, (Krulak, 1998, p. 9). As a leader, I have rarely asked my colleagues or employees to complete a task that I am unwilling to complete. This has meant all-night student retreats, fifteen-hour days, seventy-five hour weeks and so many weekends on duty that they become a blur. It likely means that I needed more staff to share these responsibilities, but it also means that we participate “where our students are” and provide more that just face time for students and colleagues.
Being an individual that others can look to for the trait of enthusiasm is fundamental for success in student affairs. My energy and ability to choose my attitude in most situations is imbued from large-group courses to my one-on-one interactions with students. If I want students to be excited and care about their education, I have to show the same excitement.
Although I can regularly display skills in listening and empathy, they are leadership areas where I have room for improvement. Spears (2000) emphasizes that servant-leaders have the ability to “listen to what is being said and not said” (p. 143). Strength in listening requires inner thought in addition to representing the will of the group. I sometimes struggle with listening or allowing individuals to completely present their thoughts before responding. My preference for quick processing of information and desire to seek closure contrasts with the need to include all ideas and contributions.
Spear points to empathy as accepting and recognizing people for their special and unique spirits (p. 143). Where I particularly find challenge with empathy is when behaviors are emotionally charged or enhanced. I frequently take a more logical and pragmatic approach to problems or circumstance and my linear viewpoint must stretch to help others find harmony in decisions. Listening and empathy are partner skills that I strive to develop with student and professional interactions.
Chaordic leadership, defined as the blend of chaos and order, follows many of the traits of servant-leadership and emphasizes that relationships and interactions are required for success. Specifically, it is the idea that without respect, authority can become destructive. Creativity can only succeed when we toss out old ideas making room for the new. Chaos and order are rational descriptions of our work in student affairs and higher education. This relationship of contrasting ideas is perhaps why I have found passion and excitement in my professional path. No two days are alike. No two students are alike.
I strive to mirror the behaviors of my mentors and the other leaders I have admired in my life. At this point in my career, it is sad to report that poor leadership is not uncommon in our profession. The goal then is to check and remove these behaviors from our own practice and move in new directions. There is a balance.
Krulak, C. C. (1998). The fourteen basic traits of effective leadership [Special section]. About Campus, 8-11.
Spears, L. C. (2000). Emerging characteristics of Servant-Leadership. In Kellerman, B. & Matusak, L. R. (Eds.) Cutting edge leadership 2000. (pp. 142-146). College Park: University of Maryland, James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership.