Row, row, row your boat…to leadership

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard some long-time friends speak enthusiastically about the lessons they learned from rowing when they were in college.  I’ve learned a lot, and I look forward to learning a great deal more.

These friends were prompted to share their stories because I was bragging about the success of the Humboldt State University women’s rowing team.  The women have just won their second national NCAA Division II championship in three years, bringing HSU its fifth national title in athletics.  I remembered that both these women had rowed when they were in college.  And when I asked them about that experience, each lit up and began talking about the importance of rowing in their lives.  

Barbara, who now lives in Atlanta, rowed in Pennsylvania in college.  She loved the team dynamics, the collaboration that makes the efforts work, and the friendships that she made.  She learned about the importance of having the right people in the right position, and she learned that she could make the greatest contribution in the middle of the boat.  She realized how a single person who was out of rhythm with the rest of the group could profoundly detract from the group’s effort.   And she learned the feeling of power in her own contributions.  (She also learned the importance of not allowing herself to be distracted by her deep love of birdwatching.)

Barb’s husband describes, in vivid detail, trying to photograph her as she participated in the Head of the Charles, with one photo as her boat went under a bridge…and his courageous (or foolish) dash across multiple lanes of Boston traffic to catch her on the other side.  (He survived — and got the photo.)

Nancy, who now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, rowed at Princeton.  She discovered the feeling of strength and power that derive from the personal fitness required to engage in the sport.  She understood the importance of working together, of following the cox’s directions, and of sharing a goal.  Rowing provided a rhythm in her life — she knew where she would be every afternoon at the same hour, practicing.  

Her most memorable rowing experience was one afternoon when she and another team member had a near-perfect run.  They moved across the lake as though they were flying.   Decades later, she speaks of that afternoon as though it were yesterday.  The experience was no less impressive for having had no witnesses to the event.  The exhilaration was internal, personal, and powerful.

Rowing clearly offers many lessons in collaboration, in teamwork, and in leadership.  I can’t wait to learn more from the women’s rowing team at Humboldt State.




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36 decisions a day

At a recent meeting of women leaders in higher education, a colleague president observed that she is asked to make about 36 decisions every day.  (You could see everyone else in the room trying to calculate their own tally.)  But, she said, only about three or four of these daily decisions were really important decisions.

The challenge, she pointed out, is being able to recognize which three or four decisions are the ones that matter.

I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since.  In some cases, I can identify the key decisions when they present themselves.  Choices about critical hires, what projects to support with scarce University resources, and which new academic programs to move forward will obviously have an impact on the future of the institution.

But what about those decisions whose impacts won’t be felt until sometime in the future – if ever?  Deciding to call a prospective donor at a moment that will be memorable and start a strong relationship?   Striking up a conversation with a stranger who turns out to be an alumna?   Stopping to help someone who seems lost on campus and later discovering that interaction made the different in a student’s decision to enroll?

There is no way to predict the downstream impact of immediate decisions.  Perhaps all we can do is focus on making the best decisions when we know they are important – and being aware that even the minor decisions can have larger impacts.

For now, I’ll be happy if I can figure out the most important decisions I make, as a leader, today!

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Leadership lessons from…roller derby?

In November 2013, I visited the State University of New York at Oneonta, and I had the opportunity to talk with a number of faculty and students.  Most of them were from the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, the other natural sciences, and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.  In one of these sessions, I met a student who is pursuing a major in physics education and a minor in women’s and gender studies, and she offered some interesting insights into leadership – and roller derby.

This student is part of the Hill City Rollers (if you’ve ever been to Oneonta, NY, you’ll know why the club name refers to the hills), and she is passionate about roller derby.  She is an active participant in the sport, and she emphasized the value she finds in it.  Here are a few examples of the lessons she has derived from participating in this sport:

  • Participants are not judged by their appearance, but rather by their ability to contribute to the team.  Clubs promote their focus on “enabling people of all levels of ability, ages, and body types to train to play a sport.”
  • Players develop leadership skills through commitment to the sport, training, working as part of a team, and supporting the community.
  • Players are simultaneously engaged in offense and defense, which makes the strategy and planning particularly complicated.
  • Roller derby teams typically have members from all walks of life – secretaries, lawyers, teachers, doctors, students, and homemakers.
  • Roller derby players take the competition seriously, but they seem to keep their sense of humor about the sport.

I appreciate the sense of community and the spirit that are part of this sport.  Here’s a website posting from the Hill City Rollers, dated December 13, 2013:  “Ok, so we lost. 122-237. But WE had an awesome STAR PASS! And a KILLER LAST JAM!!! 23 point by Vicious Vixen!! Congratulations to Troublemaker for doing really well in her FIRST BOUT!”

Today, more than 1,000 women-owned roller derby leagues exist around the globe.   In the past, the bouts were staged (think “professional wrestling”), but this rarely happens now.  Or so I am told.  Most of the people I have talked with find the scoring impossible to follow – and I admit was more confused after reading the roller derby rules than I was before.

I haven’t been to a roller derby match since I met this student in Oneonta.  In fact, I’ve never been a roller derby event ever, but I think that’s going to change.  The Atlanta Rollergirls 2014 season begins in February.

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Sometimes, the jump rope breaks.

People in leadership positions sometimes feel like they are ringmasters in a circus.  Many things are happening at the same time.  Some of the animals are dangerous or, at best, unpredictable.  The star performers need to have their egos stroked.  The clown car breaks down.  Everyone needs to work together to put on the show.  And, ultimately, the goal is to keep the customers happy and coming back for more, because there is an underlying business model to support the effort.

Circus Harmony is a program at the City Museum, in St. Louis, Missouri, that teaches “circus skills.”  Circus Harmony’s motto is “Peace Through Pyramids/Harmony Through Handsprings,” and students as young as five years old learn about tumbling, acrobatics, juggling, and contortion, and clowning.  (And you’re never too old to learn these skills.  A current student who is learning about the trapeze is 86.)

I learned about Circus Harmony for the first time a few weeks ago, when I visited the City Museum.  I didn’t know what to expect when a docent said that a circus performance was scheduled at noon – but I knew I had to find out.  (I was having difficulty imaging elephants on the third floor of a renovated factory building.)  The performances from Circus Harmony were by young people, ranging from about 8 to 18 years old, who are learning to be tumblers, gymnasts, contortionists, aerialists, and jugglers  — and sometimes utilizing several of these skills at the same time. 

I was particularly impressed by the poise these young people displayed in the face of things going wrong.   When a group of gymnasts took several attempts to get a pose right, they just kept trying until they succeeded;  they focused on the task at hand, apparently oblivious to the hundred pairs of eyes watching them.  When the young woman twirling a dozen hula hoops dropped one and it rolled out the door and into the lobby, she chased it down, came back, and picked up the routine where she had left off.  And when a young man was balancing on top of a 4-foot-diameter ball, preparing to jump rope, and the rope handle broke, the ringmaster stopped one of the other performers from fetching a new one.  She handed the broken rope back to the performer.  He cinched his grip up a few inches higher on the rope and proceeded to jump with the broken rope while he was balancing on the ball. 

I thought these recoveries were spectacular.  I commented on this aspect of the performance to the ringmaster as my husband and I left, and she noted that this is an important part of what Circus Harmony teaches.  “Sometimes,” she said, “the jump rope breaks.  You have to learn to deal with it.”

I think this is a great metaphor for dealing with problems in general – and the challenges of leadership, in particular.  Here is what Circus Harmony says about how “circus teaches the art of life”:

While our students are learning to flip, fly and juggle, they are also learning important life skills like focus, persistence and teamwork.  Bu turning you upside down we teach you to stand on your own two feet.  By dropping objects we teach you to catch them.  By having you walk all over someone we teach you to take care of them.  By having you clown around we teach you to take yourself seriously.

I’m going to take a lesson from these young performers the next time I encounter an unexpected obstacle or challenge.  Sometimes, the jump rope breaks.

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A leadership lesson from Gettysburg

Last week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Because I grew up in a historic part of Virginia and I lived 30 miles from Gettysburg for a number of years, I have always known the presence of history on a daily basis.  Today, I can see Kennesaw Mountain, site of another Civil War battle, from my kitchen window.  The current round of sesquicentennial events from the Civil War are a reminder to reflect on this country’s history — and some of the leadership lessons it offers.

I had the opportunity to re-watch the 1993 movie Gettysburg this past weekend;  the film includes some illustrative depictions of leadership, although I’m only going to focus on one of these stories here.  In an event popularized by both Michael Shaara’s 1974 book The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was leading the 20th Maine Regiment;  he had left his position as a rhetoric professor at Bowdoin College to enlist for service in the Union army.  On the second day of the Gettysburg battle, Col. Chamberlain and his men were defending a hill called Little Round Top.  They were attacked by Confederate troops and lost many men.  They were basically out of ammunition.  Although Chamberlain’s men had presumably planned to collect whatever ammunition might be available from the fallen soldiers, the next attack came too quickly.  So Chamberlain assessed the situation, evaluated the tools at hand, and made a command decision – to use bayonets and charge downhill to meet the attackers.  Even if his troops were out of ammunition and couldn’t shoot their guns, his men could still use them as weapons.  (Geologists call this “field engineering.”)

Leaders are realistic about their circumstances and the solutions.  They understand their environment, the responses that make sense, and the mission they are trying to accomplish.  Chamberlain apparently did not waste any time thinking how unfair the attack was, finding ways to avoid engaging, or wishing he had stayed home on the Maine coast.  He figured out what he had to work with (guns without ammunition, but with bayonets), and he came up with a plan.  Then, as the reports go, he ordered his regiment to “fix bayonets” and led the charge down the hill.

Colin Powell has an excellent quote on this leadership topic, too:  “Leadership is solving problems.  The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.  They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care.  Either case is a failure of leadership.”

And as John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.”  As depicted in this movie, Chamberlain not only “saddled up,” but he led others in doing the same.

As is common in Civil War lore, the movie Gettysburg emphasizes that, after the war, Chamberlain was elected governor of Maine (for four one-year terms) and then became president of Bowdoin College.  For the rest of his life, he always insisted on being addressed as “General.”  Chamberlain’s letters, which are part of a digital library at Bowdoin, offer some insight into his experience in academic leadership.  In a 1874 letter to Professor Henry Johnson, who taught modern languages at Bowdoin, Chamberlain wrote:  “I thought it best to resign the Presidency at the last Commencement; and I want to say to set a caution against your young ambition, that however pleasant and useful the life of a College Professor may be, that of a President, in I may say any of our common or best New England colleges even, is about the most thankless wearing and wasteful life that can be undertaken.”  Really?  More thankless, wearing, and wasteful than engaging in war?  That’s a remarkable perspective.

The film Gettysburg does not comment on the fact that the commanding officer of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee, also became a college president after the war.   Lee’s initial response to the Board of Trustees of Washington College (Lexington, Virginia), when he was elected president, was to decline the offer;  he thought his health would prevent him from active teaching (which was expected of most college presidents at the time), and he was concerned that his role in the war “…might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility.”  Reports are mixed about whether Lee enjoyed his presidential role, but the college certainly grew in curriculum, enrollment, and funding under his leadership.   Ultimately, the Board of Trustees capitalized on Lee’s popularity in the college’s fundraising efforts.  And why not?  The college needed funds desperately.  Even a year after Lee became president, the plan to build shelves to house the geological specimens was contingent on the carpenter being willing to wait seven months to be paid.  After Lee’s death, the Trustees renamed the school Washington and Lee.  In 2012, the endowment of Washington and Lee University was over $1.2 billion.  (Bowdoin College’s was over $900 million in that year.)

So, 150 years later, the Battle of Gettysburg still offers insights into leadership – in both military and academic settings.  What other lessons does this particular slice of history offer?

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Recommended summer reading for 2013

As you plan your summer reading list, I hope you are including some of the great books about leadership that have been published recently.  Here are two that I have just finished.  I recommend them both, and I see some interesting connections between them.

“The Fearless Fish Out of Water:  How to Succeed When You’re the Only One Like You” by Robin Fisher Roffer (2009, John Wiley & Sons) is a wonderful summary of the value of authenticity, of figuring out those characteristics that are uniquely yours, and of building on those traits.  Robin argues for being true to your values and to using those core tenets as a basis for exploring new experiences.  Her book is filled with stories from her own adventures, as well as those of friends and colleagues, and these provide great illustrations of the power of understanding yourself as a springboard to success.

Those of you who participated in Southern Polytechnic State University’s 2012 Women’s Leadership Initiative may recognize Robin’s name.  Her earlier book, “Make a Name for Yourself:  8 Steps Every Woman Needs to Create a Personal Brand of Strategy for Success” (2002, Crown Business), was on that group’s recommended list of “Leadership Books for Women.”  

I also recommend Jennifer Kahnweiler’s “Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference” (2013, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.).  Jennifer highlights the powerful skills that enable introverts to be highly successful leaders and change agents.  This book is about much more than helping introverts succeed in an extroverted world;  Jennifer makes a strong case for how developing “introverted strengths” can benefit everyone.  Indeed, extroverts may find particular value in focusing on enhancing their skills in preparation, engaged listening, focused conversations, writing, and the thoughtful use of social media.  Like Robin, Jennifer uses real-life examples that illustrate her points.  This new publication builds on Jennifer’s previous book, “The Introverted Leader” (originally published in 2009 and re-released in 2013, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.);  I know a number of participants in SPSU’s Women’s Leadership Initiative have already read that book.

At their centers, both Robin’s and Jennifer’s books begin with the importance of understanding yourself in order to be a strong and effective leader.  Knowing your motivations, values, strengths, and blind spots is a critical first step in leading others to accomplish great things.  Personal authenticity is vital to leadership – and to helping others be their authentic selves. 

I encourage you to add Robin’s and Jennifer’s books to your summer reading list.  What else is on your list?


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Mentors, role models, and the Queen Bee Syndrome

I spent some of last week at the American Council on Education (ACE) annual meeting in D.C., which was preceded by meetings of ACE’s Women’s Network Executive Council (which I currently chair) and of the state coordinators for the Women’s Network.  The Network focuses on developing women leaders and helping them advance to leadership positions in higher education.

One clear message from these conversations was the importance of mentors — women and men who can provide guidance, perspective, support, and ideas when they are needed.  Many of the women who are already serving in leadership positions can link their success to one or more mentors who helped them at critical points in their careers.

As these groups were discussing the best ways to help other women, the concept of the “Queen Bee” arose.  I was unfamiliar with the term, although I certainly understand the meaning.  The Queen Bee is a woman who does not help other women;  indeed, the Queen Bee may actively block advancement and undermine other women.   Her attitude can be summarized as “My career progression was tough for me, so I’ll make it tough for you.”

In the last week, I have learned that the Queen Bee Syndrome is pervasive — and it’s not new.  The term dates to the 1970s, when researchers at the University of Michigan identified the workplace behavior that some women exhibit.  One of the interesting outcomes is that this may lead to women being more comfortable working for men than for other women — which is an unfortunate situation.  The Wall Street Journal published an excellent summary last week in an article titled “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee.”  I heartily recommend the article.  Here’s the URL:

In other parts of the ACE meetings, I met some amazing women who serve as role models for many of us (and undoubtedly mentors for some).  The president of California State University – San Marcos told a story about how excited her then-campus was when she was appointed as the first woman dean earlier in her career — and then how, a year later, a group told her that they were disappointed by her leadership.  The reason?  The other women didn’t see her banging her fist on the table and generally behaving like the men;  even the women thought that bluster was the only effective leadership style.

The president of University of Texas – Brownsville and Texas Southmost College talked about experiences in her 25 years in that role and as the first Mexican-American woman to become a college or university president in the U.S.  Her stories include being sued by the Department of Homeland Security because she refused to let them build a wall across the middle of her campus, which straddles the US-Mexico border.

The president of Pierpont Community & Technical College (a relatively new institution in West Virginia) told me an inspiring story about earning her doctorate through a program designed for women on welfare — which she was.  She was a single parent, raising children and living on food stamps, when she discovered a scholarship program designed to help women in such situations earn a college degree.  Of course, the scholarship was designed to encourage the pursuit of associates and bachelors degrees, but the program didn’t prohibit funding for masters and doctoral degrees.  She met the criteria, and she won the scholarship.  She describes herself as having a highly unlikely background for a president — and she spoke about the value of a mentor who simply challenged her with “Why not earn your doctorate?  Why not become a president?”  She will be a great mentor, too.

In 2006, the Women’s National Basketball Association held an event titled “Celebrating Inspiration,” at which the WNBA’s All-Decade Team was honored.  The keynote speaker was Madeline Albright, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and then Secretary of State.  In her remarks, she said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

I think that also means there is a special place in heaven for those who do help women succeed and advance in their careers.  I certainly hope so.


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