Friday, October 17, 2008



Maggie's post on temperament and leadership really gets it right – check it out.

Although the term “servant leadership” creeps me out – my past experience with people who used it was that they were juuuust a little too self-congratulatory about it – Maggie really nails the dynamic of blending confidence and egolessness. Watching the debates, I'd be hard-pressed to repeat anything Obama said, but his demeanor stuck with me; in the midst of nuttiness, he's unflappable. After watching, I come away seeing McCain less as another Bush than as another Cheney, angrily grumbling at the neighborhood kids to get the hell off his lawn. With Obama, there's a contagious, confident calm.

I don't have Obama's gifts, and I certainly haven't had a life like his. But he's absolutely worth watching as a leadership study.

I've watched on my campus as the budget news has progressed with surprising speed from 'bad' to 'awful' to 'repent your sins.' And I've watched people at different levels react in different ways, each eliciting different reactions. I'm beginning to realize that when you're a public figure, even if in a limited context, demeanor is what people remember.

When someone in a staff role has a meltdown, that person and his immediate coworkers feel it. When someone in a public role has a meltdown, everybody gets scared. Public meltdowns make a bad situation worse, even when they're based on a clearsighted recognition of some external reality.

The usual administrator's playbook says that when things get bad, you get evasive. Change the subject, or find something to praise, or if you're really stuck, trot out the vague cliches. This is actually better than having a meltdown, but it doesn't really inspire confidence, either. At best, it's a holding action. Sometimes that's the best you can do, of course, but it rarely has the desired effect.

Lately, I've been experimenting with a new approach. On a few recent occasions, as things have become particularly scary, I've gone into public discussions with my guard down and plenty of facts at hand. Instead of bracing for confrontation, I've simply admitted the limits of what I know, put the facts out there, acknowledged my own biases, and asked for input. And I have to admit being embarrassed at how badly I've underestimated some of my colleagues. (I'll even admit being embarrassed now, when I reread some of my posts from a few years ago.)

Okay, I'm a slow learner. And it's hard.

The responses, mostly, have been heartening. Instead of the self-righteous pushback and 'gotcha' moves that have been entirely too common over the years, I'm actually starting to see a real exchange of ideas. Some of that is the clarity that crisis brings – when the state is in free-fall, it's hard to reduce all bad things to this or that dean. But some of it, I think, is an almost palpable need for a sense of safety and calm. The best responses come when we collectively bring some legibility to the chaos. That feeling of 'getting a handle on it' seems to help, like pretending you're steering when you're on a roller coaster. And sometimes getting a handle on it means letting go of some of your own stuff.

The trick is to make it look easy, to project calm. That's freakin' hard, but it's also half the message.

Here's another problem with "public meltdowns." Your colleagues will laugh at you--either up front (if they have tenure) or behind your back (if they don't).

Once upon a time, my institution's then- Dean was a drama queen, full-out, all the drama of a bad soap opera, all of the time. Lots of yelling, belittling, etc. School wide meetings were so painfully scripted (to avoid faculty comment) that we called them "The Fidel Hour." She had zippo credibility and there was great rejoicing when she was encouraged to seek employment elsewhere. She could NOT have done calm if her job depended upon

Projecting calm and an honest "well I just don't know" in the midst of a crisis is reassuring on a number of levels.

1. If you're not panicing, then the faculty doesn't have to panic.

2. By admitting you don't know opens the door to the possibility this isn't a typical "reindeer game" by the administration. It also has the virtue of being honest. Furthermore, it underscores point one: The situation is unprecedented, but we don't have to totally flip out.

OT but in honor of the financial crisis: What's the different between an investment banker and a pizza?

A pizza can feed a family of four....
"Instead of bracing for confrontation, I've simply admitted the limits of what I know, put the facts out there, acknowledged my own biases, and asked for input."

This is virtually always a successful strategy. It works in inherently confrontation situations too, like legal confrontations. And when you remain calm, people feel like, "Okay, this is a crisis/problem/catastrophe, but we just need to go one step at a time."

My dad is such a successful lawyer because he walks into antagonistic meetings with such a very calm demeanor and listens to everything everyone says, and projects so much calm that even the LOSERS always feel like he's done them a favor by letting them give concessions to his clients. And he does it at parent-teacher conferences, in mother-child (*ahem*) confrontations, etc. It's just the way he is.

It's much more of a learned skill for me, but I've discovered that it's often helpful to let upset people vent completely, in any order they want to, and only AFTER that to go back and start sorting the facts and picking up on the key points or pushing them for information/ideas in important areas. People feel much more listened-to, calm, and open if you let them get it all out there in their own fashion. (Again, from an attorney point of view, there's always a temptation to make the client/witness tell you the story in the order YOU need it with the details YOU need for court ... which is not remotely the same thing as what the client/witness feels is emotionally important, so they feel belittled and pushed aside for your agenda.)
"I've gone into public discussions with my guard down and plenty of facts at hand."

Wow--this is fairly impressive even if, as you say, obvious. My admin is cloaked with secrecy and their story changes daily. As a result, everyone is freaking out, morale is a at a record low, and people wish they could leave, but are watching jobs evaporate as institutions cancel searches.
One of the strengths of our administrations response to our financial difficulties has been its openness about what exactly the situation is and our response to it. There are times when that had to be tempered with the need to keep the press (and thus the legislature) in the dark until after things were carved in legislation, of course.

And, I will add, a calm fact-based approach was a big part of those successes.

Its biggest failure has resulted from not doing those things, mainly over the summer. Unilateral decisions were made that had the effect of NOT bringing the faculty in as part of a united response, and it would have been very easy to have done so if egos had not gotten in the way.
Boy Oh Boy will I be happy when this election cycle is over . . . and otehrwise rational, constructive people will abandon their partisan focus and get back to the important stuff.

Had a great discussion in three separate sections last week about "Election Cycle Mania" (one sophomore/intro/large section; one senior/near capstone/medium section; and one graduate/MBA/small section).

A common theme ran through all three: "What is happening to my friends? They are all acting vicious/crazy/obsessed!"

Like, I ask "do you want to go get a latte?" and they answer "first lets register to vote under a phony mname and see if we can vote twice, because Fair Trade policies are critical to helping the working poor on US coffee plantations stave off the depredations of the patriarchal homophobic capitalist hate-mongering imperialistic racist sexist running dogs . . . "

Dean Dad, introspection please. I know it's your blog and you can cry if you want to, but EVERY SINGLE FRICKIN TOPIC for the last 6 months has been subtle (and frankly not so subtle) "Pro Obama" probamaganda.

Ease up- he's going to win the election- and the Demmicans will get a bulletproof majority in both houses- Back to the Future circa 1970s- so RELAX. This is getting sui tedious . . .
Errr sorry about that last post.

1. Not every single topic has been election/politics related.

This is obviously a false statement. I guess when I followed the "leadership" thread and found it was another "Obama" article I flipped out.

I apologize for my rudeness.

2. "Public Meltdowns" are frequently a leadership issue under any circumstance . . .

Hmm I think I may know something personally about those?

The "Meltdown" issue has two components:

a. Circumstances leading up to and the triggering event of the meltdown itself; and how the meltdown actually took place, and

b. The reactions/responses to the meltdown.

I think the original post, link, and subsequent thread has dealt primarily with issue a.

Leadership research has suggested that in some cases meltdowns are "appropriate" when conducted "under proper circumstances" (the stereotypical inertia-when-faced-with-danger-rant).

Extreme behavior of the leader in order to create circumstances for change, as it were.

Slapping the hysterical soldier in order to get the soldier to return fire perhaps.


Afterwards, *these* scenarios of "managed meltdown" can generally be easily understood by the organization- especially if they result in the desired effect.

All is forgiven; the esteem of the leader may actually rise in the eyes and hearts of the organization; even if he or she acted "inappropriately" at the time.

So we have the classic "2X2 Matrix" endemic to management theory. The outcome measured is "Appropriateness of the Meltdown" which leads to the assessment of the leader- a Good Leader vs. a Bad Leader. Along one dimension we have the intensity of the meltdown (degree of social norms broken; Hi or Lo). Along the other dimension we have the result of the meltdown (degree of desirable organizational change or effectiveness of meltdown; Hi or Lo).

Lo/Lo: Weak, ineffective leader
Lo/Hi: Strong, courageous leader
Hi/Lo: Nut Case
Hi/Hi: Passionate, effective but a wack job


As early as 1981 this idea was applied to the "flame war" issue in on-line public communication (listservers, then newsgroups, now blogs). I haven't done any formal research in this area, but have read some anecdotal snippets about some studies performed? One of the key determinants (IIRC) was the level of anonymity assumed (guest vs. registered posters).

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