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.

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream

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Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the term “gaslighting” is now going mainstream. The American Dialect Society has declared it one of the “Words of the Year,” defining it as “psychologically manipulat[ing] a person into questioning their own sanity.” Wikipedia may not be as academically authoritative a source, but its current explanation of gaslighting is right on point:

Gaslighting . . . is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a target. Its intent is to sow seeds of doubt in the targets, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. . . . Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

I’ll get to the Trump connection in a minute, but for now, a bit of background.

Origins of the term

It starts with an old movie.

I first became familiar with gaslighting several years ago when folks in the workplace anti-bullying movement used it to describe crazy-making behaviors at work. In my December 2012 piece about gaslighting as a form of workplace bullying (which has become one of this blog’s most popular posts), I shared Dr. Martha Stout’s explanation of the origins of the term in her excellent book, The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

In 1944, George Cukor directed a psychological thriller entitled Gaslight, in which a beautiful young woman, played by Ingrid Bergman, is made to feel she is going insane. Her fear that she is losing her mind is inflicted on her systematically by Charles Boyer, who plays her evil but charming husband. Among a number of other dirty tricks, Boyer arranges for Bergman to hear sounds in the attic when he absent, and for the gaslight to dim by itself, in a menacing house where her aunt was mysteriously murdered years before.

In the movie, Bergman’s psychological deterioration accelerates when she cannot get anyone to believe her claims.

America’s Gaslighter-In-Chief?

Gaslighting started to appear in the mainstream media last year, largely associated with Donald Trump’s conduct on the campaign trail. Last spring, for example, U.S. News contributing editor Nicole Hemmer wrote an insightful piece about Trump’s gaslighting behaviors via his campaign tactics and rhetoric:

Trump is a toxic blend of Barnum and bully. If you’re a good mark, he’s your best friend. But if you catch on to the con, then he starts to gaslight. Ask him a question and he’ll lie without batting an eye. Call him a liar and he’ll declare himself “truthful to a fault.” Confront him with contradictory evidence and he’ll shrug and repeat the fib. Maybe he’ll change the subject. But he’ll never change the lie.

The gaslighting tag continues. Here’s a snippet of Frida Ghitis’s commentary for CNN about Trump’s behavior, published earlier this week:

Is Donald Trump really a “big fan” of the intelligence community, as he claimed on Twitter, or did he disparage intelligence professionals when he repeatedly referred to them and their work in sneer quotes about “Intelligence” briefings and the “so-called ‘Russian hacking'”?

Did Trump mock a disabled reporter, or did your eyes, and the Hollywood elite make you think he did?

Did he convince Ford not to move a car plant to Mexico, saving American jobs, or was it all a fabrication for publicity?

Did he win the election with a historically narrow victory, or did he score a “landslide”?

. . . Reality is becoming hazy in the era of Trump. And that’s no accident.

The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter in chief.

Trump’s behavior has pushed buttons on a very personal level as well. After the election, Suzannah Weiss, writing for Everyday Feminism, invoked gaslighting in describing how Trump’s candidacy was a triggering event for abuse survivors and now relates to our political future:

As a survivor of emotional abuse, one tactic of Trump’s in particular reminded me of my manipulative ex partner: gaslighting. This is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality, to the point that you start to distrust your perceptions.

. . . Since I’ve learned about gaslighting, I’ve understood that all the things my partner blamed on me weren’t actually my fault. Looking at Trump’s words can also help us understand our own relationships, as well as the ways gaslighting can shape our political climate.

Lately even the academicians are getting into the act. For example, English and journalism professor Ben Yagoda (U. Delaware) delves into the history and use of the term, leading to Trump, in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece:

The new prominence [of the term] came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

Significance for workplace anti-bullying movement

It appears that Donald Trump’s gaslighting behavior was not simply for the campaign trail. As Frida Ghitis writes in her CNN piece, “If you’ve never heard the term, prepare to learn it and live with it every day.”

How will this modeled behavior impact the workplace anti-bullying movement? Will Trump actually validate gaslighting and bullying behaviors, in essence sending a message that if it’s appropriate behavior for the President, then it’s right for everyone? Or will the nation recoil at this recurring manipulative, deceitful conduct and realize that we need a lot less of it everywhere, including our workplaces?

These questions of personal conduct have quickly transcended political lines. As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes for the Washington Post:

Rather than a generic label for Trump, Americans require blunt, uncompromising language to describe what he does. He lies. He violates (as of noon Friday) the Constitution. He enables an adversary of America. His crude insults disgrace the office to which he has been elected. He defiles the presidency when he tells us that a black lawmaker’s district is “falling apart” and “crime infested,” as if African Americans represent only dystopian wastelands.

Trump will be president. Telling Americans why he doesn’t deserve to be president should be the goal of political opponents. Stopping him from accomplishing aims that damage our constitutional order, international standing, economy and social fabric should be the goal of all patriotic Americans.

Searching for great bosses

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For better or worse, it may be easy to find a bad boss, but how do we engage the search for that seemingly more elusive good boss?

Isvari Mohan, in a piece for the Boston Globe, reports on a 10-year study by management professor Sydney Finkelstein (Dartmouth) that included over 200 interviews — all in a quest to identify the qualities of great bosses and how to find them. A few highlights from the Globe piece:

  • “Great bosses roll up their sleeves and work closely with their employees. They are ambitious, drivers of change, interested in the message of the company, and willing to delegate authority.”
  • “Superbosses are geniuses at helping other people accomplish more than they thought possible, and they focus on generating talent on a continuous basis, says Finkelstein. They want to see you leave and do well; they optimize talent flow, not talent retention. They find unlikely winners to hire. They don’t care about traditional resumes.”
  • “Finkelstein says there are three groups [of great bosses]: iconoclasts like Jon Stewart who are so obsessed with their jobs that their dedication motivates others; glorious bastards like Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. who are driven by a desire to win and know they need talent to do so; and nurturers like cosmetics queen Mary Kay Ash who simply like helping others get ahead.”

Finkelstein’s findings appear in his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (2016). I look forward to checking it out.

Faithful readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time talking about bad bosses, especially those whose behaviors cross into the realm of bullying and abuse. It’s also vitally important, of course, that we talk about the qualities that make for good bosses, so we can have something to aspire to for ourselves and our co-workers.

Here are some previous posts that offer more commentary on this topic:

What makes for good bosses, leaders, and workplaces? (2015)

Positive qualities of my best bosses (2012)

You want good leaders? (2010)

 

The mantra of bad organizations: “That’s in the past, forget about it, let’s move on”

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When a dysfunctional organization seeks to move on from one failed chapter to the next, one of its biggest challenges is ensuring that the mistakes, miscues, and injustices of the immediate past disappear. After all, accountability can be brutal, especially for those in charge, so why must the previous events and actions muddy up everyone’s boundless excitement for the glorious future?

Thus, the message is sent from on high: It’s a brand new day. We can’t afford to dwell upon the past. Let’s move forward with our great new leadership ideas initiatives slogans!

Those who aren’t on board with the regime facade change may be marginalized or worse. They may even vanish and be rendered unpersons to help erase institutional memories that are best forgotten.

This pattern occurs over and again at lousy organizations in every sector — public, private, and non-profit. It is the tactical refuge of bad leaders who somehow get repeated chances to screw up. Sadly, it also appeals to the words of philosopher George Santayana quoted above, for organizations that cannot remember their past are surely doomed to repeat it, typically with recurring negative consequences.

Success vs. significance on the job

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Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber, in an excellent blog piece for Next Avenue, recounts a talk he attended featuring Dr. Aravind Srinivasan, a pioneering eye surgeon:

Here’s what Srinivasan said: “There’s a difference between success and significance. Success is what happens to you. Significance is what happens through you. Success is what comes to you. Significance is what you give away to others.”

The good doctor’s observation caused Webber to reflect:

It’s the kind of distinction that, when you hear it, makes you stop and think. You think about the difference between success and significance. And you think about your own life and the culture in which we live.

We live in a culture that worships success. Money is the default setting we use to measure success: The more money you make, the greater your success. The greater your success, the more you are deemed worthy.

We tend to equate wealth and success with intelligence and talent. If you are rich enough, famous enough, successful enough, you are qualified to have important opinions. You’re worth listening to. You may even be qualified to run for President.

Beware of avaricious success seekers

If “success is what comes to you” and “significance is what you give away to others,” then let me say: Beware of grasping, covetous success seekers.  They rationalize raw ambition to the exclusion of so many other qualities and values. They walk over and through other people; the skillful ones do it with smiles on their faces and may be appear, at least from a distance, as charming or even “friendly.” They may manipulate and bully as necessary, especially if someone is in their way. Whether due to insecurity, entitlement, or some combination of both, they believe that the brass ring should be theirs for the grabbing.

I have seen these folks in higher education, as I’m sure you’ve seen them in your vocation. There’s another odd dynamic that I’ve noticed about this type of individual in my business: They have a knack for racking up accolades relatively early in their careers, even when it’s not clear that they’ve accomplished anything of . . . well . . . significance. It’s almost as if they’re getting public brownie points for building their resumes. These honors and recognitions fuel their belief that future kudos are their birthright.

Instead…

Generically speaking, most of us want to be “successful,” however we might regard the term. Indeed, aspirations, goals, hopes, and dreams are all fine. So let’s pursue them with authenticity, guided by an inner ethical voice that says we should strive to make contributions of significance and treat others with a baseline of dignity.

High on the workplace dysfunction meter: An active, fear-based rumor mill

(image courtesy of clker.com)

(image courtesy of clker.com)

If fearful, dramatic rumors continually run through a workplace — some turning out to be true, others not — then I’m willing to bet that its organizational leadership does a poor job of communicating with its stakeholders and that the organizational culture lacks a core value of trust. If these rumors become increasingly wild, with some still proving to be correct, then the workplace dysfunction meter is stuck clearly in the red zone.

Content-wise, these rumors usually center on concerns that are important to just about anyone: Job security, compensation, benefits, leadership and ownership changes, organizational conflicts, work rules, and the like. A meeting, a cryptic memo, or even a casual conversation or e-mail can stoke the rumor mill and fuel a modern version of the “telephone” game, whereby speculation creates a narrative built upon tiny bits of fact.

The smart prognosticators are like expert military intelligence experts. They can take small pieces of information and be remarkably accurate at assessing a situation and forecasting coming events. Others may be not be so wise. As they feed the rumor mill, it starts to go bonkers. Most people fall somewhere between those extremes.

Responses and impacts

Individual responses to fearful rumors are often physiological. As I wrote earlier this year:

Mediator and facilitator Diane Musho Hamilton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, delves into brain science in describing what happens when we feel threatened:

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.”

Ultimately, from an organizational standpoint, morale, loyalty, and productivity are the major casualties.

Responsibility

It may be tempting to blame rank-and-file workers for engaging in such communications. And certainly there are workers who revel in spreading rumors of any sort. Once a rumor mill goes active, it’s hard to stop.

For the most part, however, if a rumor mill operates to the point of distraction, then poor leadership is typically a major culprit. After all, when boards and senior executives pay only lip service to communication, transparency, and honesty, then what is likely to fill the information void?

Servant leadership in the contemporary workplace

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Imagine a world where most leaders see their roles as serving their constituencies, imbued with a sense of the broader good, rather than simply adding bullet points to their resumes in preparation for the next climb up the greasy pole. Imagine professional cultures where ambition and the desire to advance in our careers are balanced with values of care and responsibility.

How can we grow leaders who hold themselves to these higher standards?

Massachusetts educator and organizational consultant Steven Lawrence is an emerging voice on the virtues of servant leadership, a topic that deserves much greater attention. In an essay posted to his Ground Experience site, Steve introduces servant leadership by citing the seminal work of the late Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Center for Applied Ethics:

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture. Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

…Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second. Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, and boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large. They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

My connection with Steve has been through our common interest in preventing and stopping workplace bullying. He discussed servant leadership in this context at the Workplace Bullying Workshop that I hosted last fall in Boston. Suffice it to say, the presence of more servant leaders in our workplaces would sharply reduce the prevalence of bullying and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment on the job.

I find the concept of servant leadership to be enormously appealing and life affirming, especially amidst professional cultures where raw ambition, private agendas, and naked ideology too often prevail. As a denizen of the academic workplace, I have witnessed and experienced the destruction wrought by self-serving administrators and board members. Looking at academe from a distance, one might visualize it as an idyllic work setting, fostered by leaders who share a love of learning, research, and ideas. All too often, this is not the case. In fact, servant leadership is increasingly rare in higher education.

So herein lies the rub: For more servant leadership, you need the presence of — yup — more servant leaders. To me this means that the philosophy and practice of servant leadership should be part of the training and orientation of future and present leaders. This doesn’t require us to cast aside our career goals and aspirations. Rather, we should treat opportunities to lead as privileges that enable us to make a difference, guided by a spirit of service.

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