Some Higher Education Leadership Thoughts (Not Your Basic Blog)
By: Steve Waldron
Early this year, which seems like five years ago, our extended family vacationed in the British Virgin Islands. We returned just in time to enjoy the Chiefs’ triumph in the Super Bowl and see the stock market hit all-time highs. 2020 was shaping up pretty well. You know the rest of the story. Just last week, I told my wife that I suspected our plane actually crashed on the way back from the BVI and that we’re trapped in some sort of Lost redux. August resembles February about as much as Laurel resembled Hardy.
You have made countless decisions during the past five months. Most of them were completely unanticipated. The same will be true in the coming 12 months. At times, the weight of the world will seem to be on your shoulders. Do you cancel fall sports; remain virtual; open campus; require temperature checks; police off-campus social distancing; hold enrollment fairs; and a thousand other questions that make your stomach churn. Additionally, everyone, and I mean everyone, has an opinion; one they’re more than willing to share and often in an open forum. An interesting fact about the opinionated, they rarely have to make decisions. The opinionated can express an opinion and with great satisfaction consider themselves absolved of responsibility. The opinionated don’t even need to be right. They don’t reside, as Theodore Roosevelt might say, in The Arena. That’s not a knock, it just is.
Today’s thoughts on leadership come with a foundational story. As a young Marine captain, a senior mentor in a critical staff meeting whispered to me that everyone in the room had the luxury of providing unfettered advice but only one person had the responsibility of decision. As I observed the next 30 minutes, that decision-maker ultimately focused on one thing, the mission. The Commander sifted through the chaff, heard the advice of his team, then listened to his own judgement and decided on a course of action that best accomplished the mission.
Many years later, as a colonel in Helmand Province, Afghanistan tasked with socio-economic development of a ruined economy, I partnered with a civilian colleague from the Department of Agriculture to encourage alternatives to growing poppy. The Taliban made a lot of money from opium and was taking extreme measures to protect its production. I asked for and heard the advice of the team, then listened to my own judgement. Our mission was to stabilize the economy. To support that, we needed to work with local leaders, so we made the tough decision to schedule and attend the Shura. That meeting resulted in agreements furthering the mission.
The point is that you carry the responsibility. All others matter but they have the luxury of providing advice. In making your critical decisions, focus on your mission statement. I’m sure it speaks to providing quality education, preparing students for lifetime service, educating leaders, making discoveries, transforming lives, conducting impactful research, disseminating knowledge, and the like. Ensure your decisions best support accomplishing the mission and never look back. That is the primary duty you owe all of your stakeholders. Everything else is chaff.