In academic leadership, resume and character are separate entities

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Image courtesy of clipartfest.com

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during a quarter of century in academe is that one’s resume and character are separate entities.

Okay, a quick clarification: In academe a resume is called a curriculum vitae, or c.v. A c.v. is a resume on growth hormones, detailing activities that normally are summarized in a page or two. For someone with a lot of publications and speaking appearances, a  c.v. can easily top ten pages.

In any event, whether we call it a resume or a c.v., the bottom line is that an impressive paper record and upstanding personal character do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is especially the case with professors who enter the world of academic administration, harboring ambitions of deanships, college presidencies, and other high-ranking positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of good, ethical people in academic administration. Many bring a spirit of servant leadership to their work, as opposed to raw, preening ambition. But there’s another group, a pretty big one, that calls to mind writer William Deresiewicz’s excellent essay on leadership, based on a talk he gave to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

I have quoted often from this essay in this blog. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety. For dwellers in academe, especially, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll see some people you recognize in his descriptions — hopefully none involving a mirror!!

The rise of the type of leader described by Deresiewicz is one of the problems infecting academic life today: Too many ambitious climbers, not enough servant leaders. At a time when higher education needs its best people at the helm, I’m afraid it’s a very mixed bag.

Author Jenna Blum: “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in”

A great writer hamming it up for the camera

Hamming it up for the camera, or searching for an angle that clarifies today’s America?

How does a socially conscious novelist speak her truth in the Age of Trump?

For my long-time friend Jenna Blum, author of the New York Times bestselling novel Those Who Save Us and one of Oprah’s Top 30 women writers, it means weaving her values into her stories, sharing her views on social media, and engaging in political activism.

On Saturday, Jenna was the featured speaker for a program hosted by the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, speaking on the “crucial role of women’s literary voices in literature in the current political climate, and the fusing of art, writing, and activism.” She gave a wonderful talk, mixing personal stories, an understanding of history, and a sense of humor laced with vocabulary befitting a native of New Jersey.

Jenna’s own life story infuses her political outlook and her alarm over the election of Donald Trump. The daughter of a Jewish father and news writer and a mother of German heritage, she grew up in a household surrounded by books and an awareness of 20th century history. To write Those Who Save Us, a story set in World War II Germany, for over a decade she immersed herself in the Nazi era, reading deeply and serving as an interviewer of concentration camp survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

This perspective fundamentally shapes her view of America’s current political situation. Referencing Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie, she said that Election Night 2016 was “like Carrie at the prom,” expecting “something awesome,” only to see it turn into a nightmare. Every morning, she wakes up knowing that “something bad has happened to my country.”

Her alarm over the Trump Administration has galvanized her into action, and she has now taken on the role of political activist. She also regularly uses her Facebook page to post action alerts and to share her views of the unfolding situation. (In the process, she sometimes fields criticisms from readers who are fans of her books — which I can attest she handles with both respect and honesty.)

Jenna’s success as a writer was not overnight. She turned Those Who Save Us into a bestseller through sweat equity, including exhaustive self-marketing, countless book club appearances, and talks across the country and internationally. It is to her credit that she is willing to risk some of that hard-earned privilege by urging us to resist what is going on in Washington D.C. today.

Such actions sometimes require facing fears personally. She talked about going to the January women’s march on Washington with names of lawyers written on her arm, in case she was detained and her cell phone was taken away. In fact, Jenna confessed that the Trump phenomenon has activated her “Anne Frank complex,” her label for “persistent fears that the Nazis are going to take me away.” Furthermore, she is aware that other authors are being counseled by publishers and friends to keep their political viewpoints to themselves, and she’s heard that advice as well.

But her remarks on Saturday made clear her belief that this is a time for people to step up and be counted. She is putting those beliefs into action. Besides, she said, “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in.”

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After Auschwitz, Viktor Frankl saw only two races

When Viktor Frankl reflected upon his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner, including time spent at Auschwitz, he concluded that humanity basically divided into two races:

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.

This passage comes from Frankl’s classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning (p. 86, Beacon Press 2006 ed.), which I have praised in previous posts. It’s an extraordinarily gripping and perhaps odd book. Part 1, covering the first 90+ pages, is a compelling account of daily life in the concentration camps, punctuated by Frankl’s observations about human nature in such horrifying settings. Part 2, covering the remaining 60+ pages, is a more detached description of logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy founded by Frankl, a clinical psychologist. Logotherapy, as Frankl describes it, focuses the patient “on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future,” while defocussing the patient on “all the vicious cycle formations and [negative] feedback mechanisms” (p. 98).

Some may quarrel with Frankl’s binary separation of humanity into categories of “decent” or “indecent” people. In fact, I reacted this way when I first read the quoted passage, thinking that human beings are way too complex to be placed into one of two big groups. Furthermore, Frankl’s own narrative of concentration camp life describes how people who have lived good, moral lives can be driven to self-preserving behaviors that may, directly or indirectly, hurt others. But then I tried to put myself in Frankl’s shoes, imagining what he saw and experienced in the camps. It makes sense to me that he ultimately drew this dividing line, however subjective.

Frankl’s description of concentration camp life and explanation of logotherapy may resonate with those who are experiencing psychological trauma due to nightmarish work situations. As I have written before, the eliminationist instinct is not limited to large-scale horrors. It can manifest itself in seemingly everyday settings such as our workplaces, too.

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A sidebar: In sharing Frankl’s words about the “races” of decent and indecent people, in no way do I want to diminish important, challenging discussions taking place over race and ethnicity in contemporary society. We can and should face the tough questions raised by our various diversities and strive to find ways to build acceptance of those differences in our workplaces, communities, and social groups. Rather, I wanted to share how someone who faced good and evil every day at the most fundamental levels came to look at groupings of human beings in a simpler way than we might today.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Individual vs. organizational accountability

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

image courtesy of clipartfest.com

So here’s my question for today: When you think about accountability for workplace bullying and mobbing, do you think more about individual aggressors or about the organizations that hire and keep them on the payroll?

Of course, the pat response — in fact, the right one, I’d argue — is both. But I’d submit that the calculus is not uniform, and that the perch from where we sit may determine our personal answers. Here are a few of my observations on this question:

  • Bullying and mobbing behaviors are typically targeted and personalized. Sometimes the motivations for the abuse are transparent. But often they are not. Furthermore, they may not be rational, in that the underlying reason(s) for the abuse can be explained in a way that easily makes sense. Figuring out motivations sometimes can be a challenge for a targeted worker, adding to the confusion and bewilderment of the experience and sharpening the focus on specific aggressor(s).
  • Nevertheless, as intensely interpersonal as these behaviors may become, they usually cannot flourish without organizational sponsorship, enabling, or, at the very least, indifference. This applies specially to mobbing, which requires multiple players, often aided by institutional mechanisms.
  • For an individual targeted by bullying or mobbing, the natural focus is on the closest abusers and tormenters. However, the target often recognizes the organizational dynamic when reaching out for help and finding that little or no genuine assistance is available.
  • If we want to prevent and stop bullying and mobbing at work, the first view should be organizational and systems-based, looking especially at top leadership and workplace culture. Bullying and mobbing rarely thrive at organizations committed to treating their employees with a baseline of dignity and to hiring workers who share that commitment.

For those interested in the legal side, the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill that I’ve authored recognizes both organizational and individual responsibility for creating abusive work environments. Under my template version of the legislation, those who have been subjected to severe workplace bullying may pursue claims against both their employer and the individual tormenters. Furthermore, in recognition of the overall role played by employers, the legislation includes liability-reducing incentives for employers that act preventively and responsively toward bullying behaviors.

A day of TEDx talks at Kent State University

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

With Mary Louise Allen at Kent State University, Ohio

On Saturday I was reminded of how much fun it can be to be back in school again, but without those pesky exams and term papers. A weekend trip to Ohio to see a dear friend included a visit to Kent State University for a day of TEDx talks sponsored by the school’s student government association.

The TED brand of lectures features a subject matter expert giving a short, punchy stand-up talk on a topic of compelling or emerging interest, closing with an instructive or inspirational message. The format has proven so popular that the TED organization now licenses other groups to host “TEDx” talks on topics of their own choosing, with the local host groups recruiting their own lecturers.

Kent State’s student government leaders took advantage of this opportunity to organize a day of TEDx talks on the broad theme of “Rewind. Rethink. React. Respond,” drawing mainly on the university community (educators, students, alumni/ae) for speakers. Personal development, entrepreneurship, and social change were recurring focal points throughout the day.

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The Kent State event made for a great day of thinking and learning. My friend Mary Louise and I were among the, uh, more mature folks in attendance, the lion’s share of the audience being students. Nevertheless, many of the talks related easily to a more middle aged population as well.

This started with sociologist and entertainer Bertice Berry‘s opening remarks, which included a warm, funny story about an airport encounter with a woman whose demeanor and beautiful, blonde appearance initially pushed her insecurity buttons but quickly grew into a mutual understanding of how bad experiences and messages planted in us as kids can burden us well into adulthood.

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In fact, two of my favorite speakers were among those who shared important experiences from their youth. Keri Richmond, a student leader at Kent State, talked about growing up in the foster care system and how her experiences have inspired her to advocate for foster children. Phil Kim, a business professor from nearby Walsh University, talked about being a high school dropout and the importance of giving people second chances. Another speaker, Krish Mehra, shared part of his childhood in real time, as this brilliant 11-year-old young man talked about the importance of understanding digital coding! 

For me, the day was one of being an appreciative listener. Usually when I write about conferences and workshops, I’m including my experiences as a speaker or participant. Here I had the luxury of being in the audience and appreciating the work of others, without having to worry about my own presentation! The rich variety of talks once again reminded me of the linkages of between individual and social change. They also reinforced how difficult personal experiences can lead people to become advocates for positive change.

“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

The pleasure of supporting a local, socially conscious business

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Just days into their campaign, they’re close to their funding goal!

One January evening many years ago, I left my downtown Boston apartment and hopped on the subway to visit friends in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, on the city’s southwest edge. My assignment as a dinner guest was simple, to bring ice cream for our gathering. As I walked from the subway stop to my friends’ home, I stopped by a tiny little food store, the City Feed and Supply, to pick up the ice cream. Filled with organic products and local goods, the store so charmed me that I thought, hey, if the neighborhood can support a store like this, then maybe I should move here.

A possible move to Jamaica Plain turned out to be the main topic of dinner conversation with my friends. I would eventually contact a real estate broker and begin looking at places, with an eye toward buying a condo — my first-ever foray into home ownership. As luck would have it, later that year I would buy a place practically across the street from the very City Feed store that originally inspired my decision!

From the time I moved to Jamaica Plain until last fall, visits to the City Feed were practically a daily occurrence for me, with frequent runs for their delicious sandwiches (award winning, in fact), pastry, and coffee, as well as other sundries. The friendliness of the young group of store workers, many of whom are students and/or deeply engaged in artistic and creative work when not doing their shifts, was always part of the pleasure of going there. I also was delighted to support a locally owned, socially conscious business that thoroughly invested itself in the neighborhood.

In the meantime, co-owners and founders David Warner and Kristine Cortese would open a much larger store in the main drag of my neighborhood, replete with cafe space and an enhanced food menu. I would visit there on occasion and enjoyed the greater variety, but thank goodness my favorite “Little Feed” continued to thrive even after the arrival of “Big Feed.”

Alas, the Little Feed had to close down last fall, thanks to a need for significant, overdue repairs and renovations to its building. The City Feed owners expressed their hopes of re-opening, but not until very recently were they able to share plans to reopen the Little Feed and purchase the building that houses it. In order to raise money for the endeavor, they announced a neighborhood-based crowdfunding campaign, inviting loyal customers to buy stored value cards and house spending accounts, which in turn would give them a reserve of cash for a down payment and to restock the store.

Just days into this crowdfunding campaign, they already are closing in on their target amount, a huge testament to David and Kristine and the goodwill they and their employees have engendered in the neighborhood. As for me, I was only too happy to sign up for one of the big house accounts, knowing that I will once again be a regular visitor to the Little Feed. (Let’s just say that I’ll be covered for several hundred sandwiches and coffees and leave it at that!)

Without the Little Feed open and busy across the street, my part of the ‘hood has felt a little bereft. Such has been the place of that tiny storefront in my everyday life. But now it is about to rise again, and I’m happy to be a customer truly invested in its success.

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February 26 update: City Feed’s funding campaign was a smashing success, achieving its target amount in a matter of days and then exceeding its “stretch goal” by a considerable margin.

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