Leadership lessons from the scarab

A colleague here at Southern Polytechnic State University gives a speech about “Think like a bee.”  Her point is that groups of people (like bees) can accomplish things by working together that individuals cannot, and she makes a great point.  But after hearing a piece on NPR recently about another insect, I think dung beetles also have much to commend themselves.

The report cites a study on how dung beetles navigate and the discovery that they use the stars to plot their routes.  (We already knew that they use the Sun and Moon.)  Being able to chart a straight-line path is an important survival tool for dung beetles.  When they score material in a fresh dung pile, the beetles shape some into a sphere and roll it away before another beetle steals it.  This new study explains how the beetles are able to roll their balls in a straight line on a dark (but clear) night by using the Milky Way.  Here’s a link to the transcript: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/29/170588505/scientists-discover-dung-beetles-use-the-milky-way-for-gps.

In truth, learning from dung beetles is not a new idea.  One of my fellow associate academic vice presidents at Cal Poly Pomona was an entomologist who specialized in dung beetles.  Within Academic Affairs at Cal Poly, Dave was responsible for faculty issues, which meant he spent most of his time working with the faculty union, personnel issues, and related topics.  Dave introduced all of us in the office to the concept of the “24-hour crust,” which he applied to difficult situations in the office.  (Lots of things, including dung balls, are easier to handle if they are allowed to sit for a day.)

Based on the information in the NPR report (from research published in Current Biology), we know that those little guys can roll their dung balls (up to 10-20 times their own weight) in a straight line because they are using the heavens to navigate.  In this case, individual stars don’t seem to be the key, but rather the white smear that billions of stars in the Milky Way create in the night sky.

One of the ways the researchers pursued their work – to be sure the beetles were really navigating by the heavens – was to put little cardboard hats on the beetles, so that they couldn’t see the sky.  The result?  They wandered around in circles.  I was, of course, curious about what a dung beetle looks like wearing a hat, so I located a photograph from the original paper.  In truth, I like my mental image better, but you can judge for yourself.  Here’s a link to an online summary of the original research article, which includes a photo of a beetle with a cap:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212015072.

My friend Dave would also point out the role of dung beetles in art.  Scarab is just another name for a dung beetle.  The ancient Egyptians drew a parallel between how the Sun god rolled the sun across the sky and how the scarab rolls its dung ball across the ground.  (And this was long before anyone knew the beetles were actually using the Sun to navigate!)  The scarab amulet was thought to bring good luck.

So – dung beetles more than pull (or push) their own weight.  They focus on their goal.  They frequently stop and look around to evaluate their environment.  They can do celestial  navigation.  They can work in teams.  They model efficiency, patience, and persistence.

And if we take only one lesson from these beetles, this is a good one:  Stop every once in a while and look up at the stars.

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The anti-resolutions for 2013

Most new year’s resolutions begin by putting goals on our to-do list for the coming year:  exercise more, make healthier food choices, be more patient with Aunt Mildred.  Several recent articles have emphasized the value of setting new year’s goals to take things off the list – focusing on what we won’t do and, at the same time, on how we can simplify our lives.  Particularly good articles include ones on the websites for “Little PINK Book” (http://littlepinkbook.com/little-pink-book/8-things-top-women-wont-do-2013-top-women-profile) and GOOD (http://www.good.is/posts/what-s-your-new-year-s-unresolution).

Earlier this week, I asked the faculty and staff who participated in Southern Polytechnic State University’s 2012 Women’s Leadership Initiative about their “anti-resolutions” and whether they were planning to cross anything off their lists in 2013.  They offered some great responses about what they plan not to do, which are listed below.  If we can all manage to avoid doing these things – imagine how our lives will improve in the coming year!

The anti-resolutions:

  • I will stop multi-tasking. 
  • I will release myself from the “paralysis of analysis” and the tendency to over-think things.
  • I will stop being my own biggest critic.
  • I will not try to handle everything myself.
  • I will stop wasting a full hour at lunch stuffing my mouth.
  • I will not allow the time that I want to save for myself to be scheduled last.
  • I will stop keeping my light from shining in both work and my personal life.
  • I will not waste my food calories by eating junk food.
  • I will stop giving up the time I had set aside to get my work done just because it’s more convenient for someone else to schedule a meeting during that time.
  • I will stop drinking sodas and other drinks filled with sugar.
  • I will spend less money.
  • I will stop being a couch potato — and I will get out and enjoy life!
  • I will stop staying up late, working on miscellaneous things that can wait until the next day.
  • I will not eat a heavy meal and then go to sleep.
  • I will not spend all my time on routine activities.
  • I will stop worrying about the future and try to live in the moment.
  • I will reduce the number of courses I take (in my current graduate program) so that I can give each course my full attention.
  • I will spend less time with people who sap my energy.
  • I will not feel compelled to be connected to my work 24/7.
  • I will stop feeling guilty for doing my work, rather than doing what other people want me to do for them.
  • I will not give up when I come across difficulties, setbacks, or misunderstandings.

Brava, colleagues!  Good luck in not achieving these goals!

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Developing a plan

When I was in college, we all assumed that jobs – and careers — would appear when we graduated.  Most of us found the Career Center on campus a few weeks before graduation, when we walked in and stated, “I need a job.”

In the current economic and technological climate, the process of finding a job starts much earlier, and job seekers have access to a massive amount of information about opportunities, salary ranges, and openings.  The sheer volume of data makes an organized approach to careers even more important.  Traditionally, such discussions have happened with faculty advisors, employers, mentors, and friends.  The quality of the conversation varied greatly.  Many people used the “spaghetti” approach to figuring out which the career they were most interested in pursuing.  (You remember the story about the apocryphal roommate who tested whether the pasta was done by throwing it against the wall to see if it sticks, don’t you?)  I’ve known a number of people who have applied for so many job openings that the process looked random.  When a job possibility worked out, they would try it out to see if it “stuck.”  If so, great.  If not, they would cast more applications into the world and try something new.  This approach is neither thoughtful nor productive, and it often wastes the time and energy of both the job seeker and the employers. 

People with leadership skills are more likely to take charge of the situation and approach the job – and career – process with a plan.  One effective approach is the “individual development plan,” or IDP.  This has been used in some workplaces to help employees set personal goals (whether to build on strengths or address weaknesses), but the value can be much broader and more valuable, and it can be used in both career planning and performance improvement.

Lots of consultants will be happy to help you develop an IDP for a fee, and a Google search will produce a number of bureaucratic-looking templates, but the format matters less than the process.  The most important aspect is thinking through your personal skills and interests, looking at where the gaps may be, and considering options in the context of your values and motivators.  Many different paths can accomplish this goal, and the self-knowledge gained in the process is particularly important.  The result can be a clearer sense of direction, specific goals for improvement, and a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction,

However, some tools are more useful than others.  One that has just become available is myIDP.org (http://myIDP.sciencecareers.org), a web-based tool that is supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Science Careers.”  The site includes assessment tools with a series of questions to help you identify your talents and interests.  Leadership ability is part of the equation.  The outcome is a suggested list of careers to consider, along with personalized development plan and a mechanism for holding yourself accountable with e-mail reminders.  The site is free and confidential, although the focus is clearly on preparation for careers in science and engineering.

A number of business leaders have recently called for replacing annual performance reviews with an individual development plan.  (One worthy example is Samuel Culbert’s article titled “Get Rid of the Performance Review!” in The Wall Street Journal, available online at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122426318874844933.html and most recently updated on June 21, 2012.)  The criticisms of annual reviews include the anxiety they create, the real or inferred punishment for honest self-appraisals, and the negative effect on teamwork.  I’ve certainly observed the destructive aspects of “annual reviews” on individuals and teams.  Changing the conversation to being about individual development makes great sense to me.  Whether the actual development process uses myIDP.org or some other approach, the end result can be valuable. 

Leadership is about developing the talents of others, not punishing their weaknesses.  As we are all thinking about resolutions and plans for the new year, is this a good time to consider an IDP – for ourselves and others? 

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The power of group mentoring

I had the opportunity in November 2012 to attend the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (all of my academic degrees are in the geosciences), and I was able to attend a session titled “Women in Geology Mentor Program.”  This mentoring program for students is a regular feature of this annual meeting.  After developing a women’s leadership program on my campus last spring, I was interested in seeing how this one worked.

I was amazed by the number of women who came to this event.  The room overflowed with women geologists.  Most of them, but certainly not all, were students.  Every square foot of surface area (aside from the small stage) was filled with women sitting in chairs, standing along the walls, and sitting on the floor, listening to what the five speakers had to say.  The diversity among the speakers was impressive.  They were at various stages of their careers, from a new hire at an oil company to a senior leader with the U.S. Geological Survey.  One was an assistant professor at a liberal arts college;  another was a senior faculty member at a research university.  And still another was in the midst of a career transition from university administration to educational and outreach programming at a science museum.

In a sense, this was a group mentoring session, with five professional women serving as the mentors and over 120 protégés hanging on every word they said.  They told stories of opportunities, luck, and hard work.  They described setbacks, sponsors, and examples of both good and bad advice.  They spoke of frustration, resilience, and the critical importance of keeping a sense of humor. 

The event was a valuable reminder that mentoring can happen in many ways – and it can be provided by many people in multiple forms.  The pairing of a mentor and protégé is one way to accomplish this, but the larger-scale group format that I witnessed at this professional meeting can also be effective. 

One of the speakers summarized the messages she had heard during the session:

  • Assume paths to success and leadership will be circuitous.
  • Expect serendipity to play a role in your career.
  • Stay open to opportunities that appear unexpectedly.
  • Be patient.
  • Persevere.
  • Focus on your goals – and learn to say “no.”

This mentoring event at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America typically draws between 100 and 150 people.  The feedback forms illustrate the power of a program like this.  Typical comments include “I had no idea there were this many strong women in geology,” “I laughed and I cried at the stories I heard,” and “This session changed my life.”

I’m sure similar sessions and opportunities like this one exist in many academic disciplines.  As we think about ways to promote women’s leadership in higher education, let’s remember the importance of developing leadership within the disciplines.  Not all leadership happens in an administrative or corporate setting, and mentoring young women propagates leadership skills throughout our society, regardless of whether these women pursue careers in higher education, geology, health care, engineering, banking, or any other field.  As evidenced by this program, mentoring can have a powerful influence on people’s lives.Image

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Don’t shoot the messenger

Much has been said and written recently about the importance of leaders creating an environment in which people are willing to “speak truth to power.”

Earlier this month, the presidents of the University System of Georgia institutions had a retreat, at which we discussed leadership.  One topic was the lessons that can be learned from recent events at Pennsylvania State University (sexual abuse that was not reported by people who had reason to know about it) and Emory University (falsified enrollment data that were submitted in surveys and which were not reported by those responsible for the data integrity).

Some of the presidents talked about the importance of creating a climate in which people are encouraged to tell the truth and of not shooting the messenger when bad news is delivered.  (These are things the leadership team here at Southern Polytechnic talks about with some regularity.)  Everyone seemed to agree on this point, although how this actually plays out in a campus environment is less clear.

One of the presidents added that anyone who doesn’t report information in a timely way needs to be punished immediately.  My reaction was that this attitude has the potential to undermine the goal of creating a respectful working environment in which people feel safe sharing information – both good and bad.  It seems to me that reprimanding people for their timing may do nearly as much to discourage the honest reporting of problems as chastising them for the news they bring.  And how could someone sort out the difference between being punished for the message or castigated for the timing?

The better leadership solution, it seems to me, is a continual focus on building trust throughout the organization.  Key ways to do this include dealing with bad news calmly, focusing on solutions, and never shooting the messenger.  The reservoir of trust will pay off enormously when bad news comes around.

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Academic leadership, volcanoes, and John Silber (1926-2012)

When I think about strong academic leaders, I always have John Silber at the top of my list.   He was president of Boston University from 1971 to 1996, chancellor from 1996 to 2003, and president emeritus from 2003 until he passed away yesterday.  The stories about his wit, intellect, and temper are legendary, and many of these have been repeated as colleagues, friends, and foes reflect on the impact he had on BU, the University of Texas before that, the Boston area, Massachusetts, and higher education.

I knew him as “Uncle John,” rather than “Dr. Silber.”  He and his wife Kathryn shared a kitchen and bathroom in Yale graduate student housing with my parents in the early 1950s, before I was born.  I have, literally, known him my whole life.  (He used to joke that I was the only university president whose diapers he had once changed.)  And from as early as I can remember, I appreciated his humor, his wide-ranging knowledge, and his interest in engaging in debate, even with little kids.  The Silbers had seven children — the oldest, and only son, was my age — and when my two sisters and I were added in the mix, putting our families together was always interesting.  Kathryn Silber had the talents that most parents in large families have — of being able to focus on the person in front of her who needs immediate attention and being able to filter out a lot of distractions.

I know that my attitude about Uncle John was strongly influenced by the love and admiration my parents had for him.  They were the best of friends for nearly 60 years.  John persuaded my father to come work at Boston University when Dad retired from government service at age 50;  his first job was to develop a new Program in Artisanry.  After that project was up and running, Dad became responsible for BU’s budget and space allocation, working directly with John.

John was notorious for his brusque and sometime abrasive treatment of the people around him.  My father knew what he was getting into, working as an administrator at BU, but he also knew his own limits.  One day, after about three years at BU, Dad said, “I can either keep the friendship or the job.  I choose friendship.  John, I quit.”  They remained close friends.  I value that perspective:  when it comes to a choice like that, take the friendship.

One of John’s comments about faculty tenure has always stayed with me, too.  In an interview, he once compared faculty to volcanoes.  (Of course this would appeal to a geologist like me!)  He observed that making a tenure decision was like predicting a volcano’s activity.  Faculty who are considered for tenure must have been productive before they apply — John compared them with an erupting volcano.  There can be no question about the importance of such activity for tenure decisions.  The real question is whether the faculty member will become ” a burned out cinder cone” or continue to be a productive scholar (a.k.a, keep erupting) for the rest of his or her career.  The metaphor is both visual and appropriate.  And I think many people would agree that a volcanic image worked for John, too.

When I was inaugurated as president of Southern Polytechnic State University in 1999, John attended as the delegate representing Boston University.  He marched in the appropriate place in the academic procession (BU was founded in 1839), and he tried to keep a low profile.  This was a little difficult with the number of academics who attended.  At the luncheon prior to the inauguration ceremony, he was sitting with my parents and the Lieutenant Governor of Georgia.  The then-chancellor of the University System of Georgia came up to me — and asked to be introduced to Dr. Silber.  I don’t think I had ever seen that chancellor appear intimidated before — and I never did again.

In 2009, my husband Dallas and I were traveling in New England, and we made arrangements to meet John for dinner in Boston.  This is how our planning conversation went:

Me:  Dallas and I are going to be in Boston on Monday, August 10, and we’d like to invite you to be our guest for dinner.

JS:  Let me check the calendar.  I think I’m here.  If I’m at the lake, it’s only a two-hour drive, and I’ll just come back….Looks good.  What time?

Me:  Dallas and I are still figuring out the details, so I’ll have to get back to you with an exact time and place.  Do you have a preference?

JS:  Earlier is better than later.  But you’re going to be on my turf, and I’m not comfortable being your guest.  You need to be my guests.  I’ll make the reservations.

Me:  That wasn’t my intention.

JS:  I don’t care what your intention was.  In fact, I can’t tell you how insignificant your wishes are in this situation. 

I laughed so hard I couldn’t talk.

We did meet for dinner, joined by one of his daughters, and the evening was wonderful.  This was the exchange with our server at the end of the meal:

Server (after showing us the dessert tray):  What looks good to you?

JS:  Do you have chocolate ice cream?

Server:  We have vanilla and cinnamon ice cream.

 JS:  So you don’t have chocolate?

Server:  We have vanilla and cinnamon ice cream.  [Pause.]  You’re the president of a major university.  You can figure this out.

JS:  Can you pour some chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream?

Server:  I think we can do that.

I admired John’s commitment to education, his focus on logic and reason, and the honesty with which he always expressed his opinion.  If good leaders are always clear about their rationale and intent — on being able to articulate not only what they want to have happen, but also why — then John Silber was a truly great leader.  I’ll miss him.

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Motivations for leadership

In my experience, people are motivated to seek leadership roles in higher education for three major reasons.

Some people are motivated by having seen good role models.  These positive examples show how great leaders can make a difference in the health and future of an institution.  They can move the college or university (or subsets of it — like departments and divisions) forward in ways that benefit everyone and that realize the fundamental educational goals.  These positive role models help others see the impact that a good leader can have, and they inspire others to want to make the same kind of difference in higher education.

Others are motivated by bad role models.  Negative examples of leadership can be just as powerful — and instructional — as positive ones.  Seeing the destruction and havoc created by a poor leader can be motivational:  “Even I can do a better job than that — and I can prove it!”  In fact, we can learn as much — and sometimes more — from bad role models.  In my career, I’ve seen some memorable examples of how not to handle a situation that have been invaluable in helping me deal with similar situations when I have encountered them myself.

And then there are the people who are motivated to pursue leadership opportunities in higher education because they believe that being a dean or vice president or president is the route to power and glory and riches and love.  As my husband and I often observe, these people usually end up disappointed, indicted, or both.  And we’ve both worked for a president who fell into the “both” category.  Academic leaders who are seeking wealth or power are also usually examples of bad role models.

One of the questions I always encourage people to consider, as they contemplate moving into leadership positions, is to ask themselves “Why?”  Why are you interested?  What motivates you to be engaged that that level?  How can you make a positive difference?

If the answer to “Why?” involves money or fame, you might want to think again.



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