Spider Monkeys and the Dialectics of Leadership

spider monkeys

At nearly 60 years old, Mrs. Bette Limper was tall and elegant and I was delighted to be assigned to her 6th grade class. She was different from the maternal teachers in comfortable shoes I had had before. She wore false eyelashes, high heels and her platinum hair was coiffed in a French twist. She had a reputation for being strict and academically rigorous. Mrs. Bette Limper orchestrated her class from her desk. Under her watchful eye, we were industrious and engaged. One day as I was discussing something important with the girl next to me Mrs. Bette Limper was not amused and after several warnings, she took away my recess. “You can stay in and write a report,” she said sternly.

Not liking ambiguity, I sought to clarify. I raised my hand. “On anything? Or on something specific?”

Hours later as the other children filed out the door I stayed in my seat. I had been thinking about my report. I raised my hand. “I would like to do my report on spider monkeys.”

Mrs. Bette Limper seemed surprised to see me, then remembered, and said fine. I returned from the library with a stack of books and set to work. Unfortunately recess ended too soon. When I was told to put my books away and turn my attention to other work I told her I would have to stay in all week. And I did. Which meant that Mrs. Bette Limper also had to stay in. In fact, we both ate lunch in the classroom and had recess there, since, as I explained to her, my primary source, the Encyclopedia Britannica could not leave the building as per order of the librarian and I simply had to finish what I had started. I do not believe she enjoyed that week like I did. In fact, I am sure she did not, as I saw her poke her food forlornly at her desk head slightly down, while I worked feverishly at mine.

By the end of the week I put the finishing touches on the report and brought a chair up to her desk. “May I read this to you?” I said proudly. “I have some excellent information in here.” Without waiting for an answer, I read my report which ended with an entreaty to my father to allow me to have a spider monkey.

Mrs. Bette Limper was an excellent role model. And while we were taught to be extremely respectful of our teachers, I also recall seeing the relationship as a dialectical one, even as a 6th grader. So, while Mrs. Bette Limper’s job was to educate us, I also understood that our job was to educate Mrs. Bette Limper. Not to one up her or in any way to undercut her authority. But to be in relationship with her in such a way as to help create her as a teacher while she created us as students. And in this historical understanding, is an important contemporary leadership rule.

Good leaders knowingly and willingly enter dialectical relationships through which their leadership can emerge; they are created in and through the vulnerability that it takes to learn from those around them, to create synergistic moments where people’s passions and imaginations can be captured, unleashed, directed and celebrated.

Mrs. Bette Limper was a fine teacher because she had fine students. I contend that both, created the other. Good leaders intentionally create the openings and opportunities for reciprocal moments of self-construction because they understand they are not leaders sui generis, but leaders created in situ. This kind of leadership is necessarily based in the unpredictable processes upon which situated leadership rests. It is mutual and authentic, established not just for the exchange of thoughts but for the birthing of ideas and it requires trust that these relationships will produce the results we need. And we are results driven. The best college leaders I have known constructed formal and informal mechanisms for dialogue and included themselves. They built good processes to become good leaders.

One artifact of a struggling university is that leaders become isolated from their best assets and wind up cheating themselves and their institutions.  Most leaders allow themselves to be advised by a trusted inner circle. The more stressed an institution, the more insular its leaders become. In some ways, this makes sense. When you are under siege, you turn to those you trust the most. As the stress escalates, the circle shrinks. I worked at a university where it was well known that the president had one trusted confident with four or five vice presidents who vied for her ear. The more stressed the university became, the more she relied only on her confident. And the enormous talent pool at her disposal was relegated to the margins to play a diminished role with muted capacity in problem solving. They were painted invisible when the institution needed them most.

Leaders who make decisions through isolation, elide brilliance, eclipse possible solutions and create followers who enact orders rather than empowered colleagues whose creativity can birth ideas and possibilities. This is a problem, especially in higher education where ideas are our stock and trade. The greater the stress, the more time a leader spends trying to manage crises and the less time he or she puts into building capacity. I spoke to a colleague from a neighboring college whose area of expertise is distance education. As his college faces increasing pressure from dwindling enrollments, he said he never sees his new president, does not have access to the provost and he is unable to speak directly to his dean or associate dean. He lamented that there is no input mechanism by which he could offer his expertise, which he feels could extend the college’s reach into non-traditional markets and help solve enrollment issues.  Instead, he is simply told to continue the traditional face to face teaching model. His capacity is nullified and removed from the solution pool. Here is the rub. When you disregard the enormous talent and potential that circulates around you, you relegate yourself to a crisis management model of leadership. Leaders who manage only crises will manage their institutions into the ground.

I specialize in reviving underperforming educational units. While I have a lot to learn about leadership, there are two things I do where ever I go. First, I have an open-door policy. Faculty regularly stop in to say hello, update me on their work and often pitch new ideas. When faculty see one of their colleagues pitching, they will stop in to listen or join the pitch. Ideas are instantly iterated and dispatched to committee, then to a budget process to test viability, then to application. My school is known for its capacity to “turn on a dime.” And while I prefer for people to think it’s magic, it really is our ability to efficiently harness brilliance and put vetted ideas into practice.

The second thing I do is to support substantive leadership teams tasked with developing initiatives, evaluating ideas, and making decisions. I intentionally set a collaborative culture within my schools in which all ideas are entertained and evaluated. I like the axiom, “Don’t worry if you don’t see the box. We don’t see it either.”  In addition to standing leadership teams I encourage “pop up” leadership teams comprised of faculty, staff and community experts who have special interest or content expertise. These pop up teams form around certain issues or needs and then disband. The advantage to the latter is that everyone has an opportunity to contribute and no one feels their time has been hijacked.

Goal directed leadership teams are inclusive, they expand the pool of brilliance and expertise focused on issues and problems, they empower competent and capable people to develop new ideas and they share risk in hard decisions. But they also help leaders become who they are while leaders are shaping the institution to become what it can be. When I think of leadership I marvel at the power of Mrs. Bette Limper orchestrating her classroom from her large oak desk. But when I think of my own leadership I think about flying kites. Because the work of flying a kite is wholly dependent on maintaining the tension between the kite and the wind. Let go of the string, and the kite tumbles toward earth. The work of leadership is to hold on, to maintain the relationship, to respond to it, to be changed by it, while developing skill as a navigator and an aviator.

Back to 6th grade. When the students filed in from recess and saw me sitting next to Mrs. Bette Limper finishing my pudding and reading a report on spider monkeys they stopped dead in their tracks. From the doorway someone blurted out, “Why does she get to stay in?”

Before Mrs. Bette Limper could say anything other than, “Take your seats, class,” a small revolution had begun. Within an hour, a plan was hatched and a proposal was made. Everyone wanted to stay in one day a week from recess, eat lunch in the classroom and write a report. While she did not want to say yes. She did not want to say no either. We were made to promise to work diligently since some of that time we would be left unsupervised. We raised our right hands and swore. I am sure, as proper as she was, Mrs. Bette Limper wanted to swear too. But she did not, and so began Friday reports. The other 6th grade classes also asked to stay in to write reports and within a week it was policy. Important: harness brilliance, trust the dialectics of change. But perhaps the last rule of good leadership—whenever you can, go full spider monkey!

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