in Higher Ed

Going boldly

In institutional settings, it can be easy to settle in as a fly on the wall. I don’t really enjoy making waves. Those who know me well, might find that kinda funny at first glance. That would be the case, because they know that I can’t help but try to improve things — even if said things are none of my business to try to help sometimes. I don’t mean sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong, because I have enough to worry about on my own plate.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not always willing to offer a few kindly words if someone asks my opinion and people often do. I’ve come to find in some situations though, that it can be more frustrating than not to find yourself constantly as a cog, rather than the one making the slide greasy for everyone else to slide down easily.

What do I mean?

It’s easy to put your radio up to listen to the white noise of the ‘net, to see what others are doing and to follow their lead. That’s what thought leaders do, they speak decisively and hope (or expect?) someone to follow.

I tend to be more inclusive in my approach and desire not just for consensus, but to value the fringe players as much as the key players. I don’t feel like these two goals are in conflict, either. When I coached tennis, my favourite players weren’t always my star players. It was the young, scrappy kid working his way up from the lowest echelons. (and just because I was that kid myself…)

But, even the ones in the middle felt valued and showed up too. My philosophy was that no one was expendable. Sure, people will leave. But if people feel like they’re part of something, they’re more likely to contribute and give their all. If you entrusted them to make the right choices, they usually don’t go out of their way to disappoint you.

We used to have this locker with a combo lock on it. I hated the stupid thing, because I had a devil of time opening combo locks in high school and it seemed that thing wanted to taunt me as if it were my 9th grade locker. I used to make the kids open for me, because it annoyed me. Sometimes, they’d want to stay after sessions and hit for a while. I’d let them lock up and use the balls if they wanted to. Was it against the rules technically? Yeah. If one time, the balls were left out and it rained, would I have taken heat? Yup.

Did it ever happen? Not once.

That same adage applies to entrust people within our organizations to grow, to learn, to make mistakes and to take risks. You might say “it’s not their money to risk…” but that’s not the point. The point is, what separates them from where you are in a leadership role? Time. Nothing else. It’s not even knowledge anymore. I don’t know that it ever was about being the smartest person.

People lament the desire of millennials to want to hurry up to be part of things and that they “don’t want to wait their turn…” but the fundamental thing people are ignoring is that their passion and energy represent an opportunity to go somewhere..boldly.

When we choose to just follow the pack, to regurgitate conventional wisdom and do it “the way we’ve always done it,” we miss out on opportunities to really affect change within our organizations.

Leaders need to be smart enough to know when to steer the plane and when to let go. So when you’re not there, the need to worry about “what might happen” isn’t in question.