burden or opportunity (on leadership … and transition)

Twenty years ago, as a new graduate student, one of the things I didn’t really expect to think about much in this career was leadership. Then I discovered that there are so many things to lead. Faculty members lead classes, research projects, committees, academic units, journals, and professional organizations, to name a few.

Leadership is necessary for work to get done, and I’ve come to see how in higher education leadership needs to be communal and distributed. If everyone just leads in their own spaces, the system and infrastructure that support us all will flounder.

Over the years, I’ve fallen into various leadership positions within those communal and distributed spaces. I’ve been appointed, voted in, and even volunteered myself for a few of those positions. Once in a position, I tend to be immersed. I remember being told as a child that any job worth doing is worth doing well, and so I strive to do my job(s) well. (I won’t claim that I’ve always done everything well, and I still have much to learn, but I do try.) And then I move on.

Leadership in these communal spaces has temporal limits. Sometimes there’s a clearly defined term. Other times, it becomes clear that new leaders are rising up and deserve their turn, or that the current leader has made their contribution and should step down. When leaders stay on for too long, or when rising leaders are not given the opportunity to lead and learn, communities may stagnate, decay, or experience dissent. Transition of leadership is a good thing, and however it happens, a time always comes when it is appropriate for a leader to move on and let someone else have the opportunity to lead, bringing new ideas and energy to the community.

Opportunity. That’s a loaded word in some contexts, a euphemism for an arduous burden. It is common in higher education for people to consider the opportunity to lead their community through a task or a period of time a burden, and to shy away from it. Leadership is work, for sure, although I have always tried to focus on the benefits of the opportunity rather than the burdens: reciprocity, realizing my vision, and professional development. Reciprocity: I have benefited from the leadership of others, and I want to give back. Realizing my vision: I want to take my turn at shaping the future of my community, and a position of leadership allows me to do so. Professional development: Each time I have served as a leader, I have learned new things, further developed my personal network, and reaped some reward (even if as simple as the thanks of others). Sometimes the new skill or reward is not apparent when taking on the task, but it almost always emerges. Every time I have transitioned from a leadership position back to the regular rank and file, I have reflected on ways in which I benefited from the opportunity, and the ways in which I hope my leadership benefited the community that I served.

The transition of leadership is not always a smooth process, and does not always occur when it perhaps should.  Sometimes leaders don’t want to step down. They may even justify staying in the position, thinking that no one else could do it as well. However, by staying in the position no one else is getting the opportunity to do it well. (Full disclosure: I’ve been there myself. Once, very early in my career, I knew it was time to move on from a leadership position related to an earlier version of my life, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I remain thankful to the person who painlessly facilitated my exit for me, and once I stepped down I never looked back. Since then, I have benefitted from the wisdom of mentors and colleagues who have helped me make these decisions.)

At other times, leaders may feel that they must stay in the position, because they don’t see any other option. No one is volunteering to be the next leader, and attempts to solicit a leader have been unsuccessful. In this situation, the opportunity often has become a burden to that leader, and others who stand around and watch may feel that they don’t want to assume the leadership role because that would be taking on the burden themselves. I have come to like this situation to the plight of the desperate, weary parent holding the baby:

The parent (leader) has been carrying the baby (leading the community) for a long time, and has grown visibly weary. There is nowhere to put the baby down and get a rest. The situation compounds itself: the wearier the parent, the crankier the baby, and so on. The parent looks around, to see if there is anyone else who might hold the baby for a while. Everyone averts the parent’s eyes; if carrying the baby made the parent that weary, why would anyone want to take over the task? The people who gathered around to offer parenting advice and compliment the baby, the ones who wanted to play with the baby when she was cooing and happy, have all disappeared. And so the parent gets no relief, because the parent loves the baby too much to drop her.

It’s an impossible situation, really. The parent cannot let go of the baby, but must wait until there are capable arms willing to take over. And who can blame those who saw the weary parent and did not want to take on that burden?

However, let’s try a different ending to the story:

Seeing the tired parent, a young adult walks up and says, “I’ve not yet had my own child, but I’m eager to learn, and I’d be happy to hold and play with your baby for a while so you can have a rest.” An older adult follows shortly thereafter and says, “My children are all grown up, but I remember when they were young and how simultaneously rewarding and tiring parenthood was. I’ll help this young person care for the baby for a while.” And so the parent hands the baby to the young adult, while the older adult watches, and the baby coos with happiness to be received in fresh arms by people who are willing and able to give their full attention to her. The new caregivers are not burdened, because they know that their time with the baby is defined and temporary, and they feel good about watching the baby because they know they are performing a valuable task that will benefit others. The parent, upon getting some rest, feels a renewed surge of love for the baby; the parent was not weary from holding a baby, the parent was weary from holding a baby for too long.

And that, admittedly, is where the analogy must end, since a parent would only be expected to hand over a baby temporarily, whereas a leader typically steps down permanently, perhaps entering an advisory or mentorship role for some time. Still, I think the point is made: Just because a leader has grown weary does not mean that leaderships is inherently a burden. For that weary leader, the position was likely once an opportunity, and after stepping down and having a good rest the weary leader will be able to once again appreciate that opportunity and hopefully to offer support to the new leader as well as to continue to participate in the community at large.

With this story in mind, I’ll return to where I began: the idea that leadership within the community should be distributed, and one manner in which leadership is distributed is through turn-taking.

In higher education, we all benefit from the infrastructure that surrounds us.  At the same time, faculty are advised to participate in leadership and service tasks related to this infrastructure as little as possible because these tasks directly don’t further their scholarship and “don’t count” in the system through which rewards go to the person with the highest publication and citation count. However … if journals did not have editors, how would these manuscripts be vetted and published? If conferences did not have planners, how and where would these faculty convene with colleagues from different institutions to share their work? If committees did not have chairs, who would ensure that any number of institutional tasks get done? Many of these tasks are performed on a volunteer basis, perhaps with a token honorarium offered. One option, of course, would be to pay a salary that is commensurate with the labor involved (and it’s not a bad idea, but it would have economic trickle-down effects throughout the system). Another would be to change current employment expectations to explicitly require that everyone take their turn at these various tasks and that sufficient ‘on the clock’ time be allocated to them. However, that’s not the higher education system we currently have, and the reality is that many of these leadership tasks are squeezed into the margins of the day, without meaningful pay or time allotted to them. As a result, many faculty members consider these leadership positions that serve their colleagues to be a burden and avoided, instead favoring activities that more directly and personally benefit themselves. That leaves the people with a stronger sense of obligation to the community or a lesser ability to say no to do the heavy lifting from which we all benefit …. but what if those people started to follow the conventional wisdom that these leadership roles that help bring together our scholarly community and engage us in self-governance are to be avoided? What if they just stopped leading, without a care toward helping to fill the space that they vacate? What if they just walked away one day? Would anyone seize the opportunity to catch the baby?