The L Word

I’m not talking about Love. Nor Lust. This post is not about the Lebanese. Nor is it about the TV series.

I’m talking about Leadership.

The assignment was: set up a blog, write about what leadership means to me, and what I would gain from brushing up on my leadership skills. This of course got me thinking about all the leaders I have had the privilege to know – my bosses,  friends who were natural leaders, activists who fight with the passion and tenacity I could never seem to muster. Yet one particular leader has dominated my thoughts on this topic, and those of you who know what I’ve been through these last few months, will understand why.

A Traumatic Thanksgiving

The University’s first branch campus outside of the USA

The organization I most recently worked for, a renown US-based university with a branch campus in Singapore, went through a crisis of leadership late last year. Our President was sacked out of the blue, staff and faculty were informed of this via email, and there was nobody on the ground to fill the void she left, nor to explain what had just happened, and why.

The timing of the announcement was crafty – we received the email in the wee hours of Thanksgiving 2011, a long holiday weekend in the USA – which meant that by the time the folks in Singapore read the email, we would have to wait five whole days before we could reasonably expect anyone in the US to be back at work and available to answer our questions. It was obvious why they had chosen this date – they probably thought that after five days away, people will have had time to calm down, recover from the shock, and be ready to move on. Oh boy, were they mistaken.

Our Dear Leader

The President of the branch campus (let’s call her PSS) was a visionary, a risk-taker, a woman with a big and kind heart. Stories abound about how she had worked her way up the ranks of the University: she started out as a clerk in the financial aid office, later became an esteemed faculty member, and eventually rose to the position of Vice-Dean of its Famous Art School, the #2 head honcho. In 2007 she founded the University’s first degree-granting branch campus outside the USA, and became its President (while retaining her Vice-Dean position and duties back at the home campus).

Where PSS would often invite staff and faculty to lunch

Despite her impressive titles and many accomplishments, I have never known her to be anything but warm, gracious and friendly. She is brilliant – intellectually and artistically – yet is one of the most sincere and down-to-earth people I have known. I’d once known a University President who insisted on riding in campus elevators alone – security had to hold the lifts for him and prevent anyone else from entering. PSS was the direct opposite of that.

She often casually invited staff and faculty to join her for lunch in the school cafeteria – it didn’t matter whether you were the receptionist or the Chair of a Department, everyone was welcome to sit with her (and you could actually relax and enjoy your lunch, you wouldn’t feel intimidated at all!). She frequently dropped by staff offices, laughing at our jokes, sharing her stories, and asking after our families. Her door was always open to students, many of whom sought her out for advice or help, and sometimes just to chat. It was that kind of place, and those values, that culture, flowed down to the rest of the organization.

Lessons in Leadership

After two semesters at LKYSPP, I now have some language to make sense of my experience at that Famous Art School. It’s clear that PSS not only had formal power, but referent and expert power as well – that explains why she still commands the respect and following of so many professors, students and staff, even after being stripped of her titles of President and Vice-Dean.

In her thirty years of service at the Famous Art School, PSS helped so many people succeed. She worked tirelessly, providing students, faculty and staff with various opportunities to grow, both personally and professionally. She encouraged us to be daring, to create, even to rebel. She was always so genuine in her interactions, cared so deeply about students, and treated each individual with respect, no matter who you were.

As a boss, she empowered her staff and faculty, striking a fine balance between trusting our judgement (often) and making executive decisions (rarely). She made the link between performance and reward very clear – if you were a star performer, chances were good that you would get promoted, or at least rewarded (never mind that you’re still working towards that degree). Thanks to her collaborative and participative style, we succeeded where the home campus struggled – we built a community here that frequently and successfully collaborated across departments, that celebrated each other’s achievements, and that very much felt like a family.

As a start-up, there were many growing pains. Like the students, we ‘learned by doing’ much of the time. We made mistakes, learned from them, and moved on. Money was tight but power was decentralized, so in classic PSS style, she innovated and launched new programs to draw more students to the school. Things were just beginning to flow smoothly, we were getting into our groove… when bam! Thanksgiving and that announcement came.

When the University President came to address the community, months after the fact, posters suddenly appeared in the lift, mocking his visit. We had us some guerillas!

A new leadership team has now been put in place, but due to major trust issues (a topic for another day – perhaps my next post), their bases of power, even after six months at the helm, is limited to coercive and reward power. To quote Rainey: “…the relative clumsiness and costliness of coercive power… requires costly vigilance and oversight and can make enemies.” Oh yeah.

PSS’s absence is keenly felt even today. Office doors used to be open, laughter often heard all the way down the hall. Today people speak in hushed tones behind closed doors. People used to feel trusted and respected. Today, emails need to be vetted and approved before being sent to students. Decisions used to be made swiftly but with consideration. Today, it is management-by-committee and some say “by remote control”, with the “cc:” button overworked, leaving many feeling frustrated and disheartened.

Many are still enraged at the injustice of PSS’s summary dismissal, insulted at the narrative that is being pushed, and troubled by the underlying message: “If this could happen to someone who has dedicated thirty years of her life to the school, and brought it so much success, what would they do if/when they want to get rid of me?”

The Morning After

Thanksgiving was a holiday for our School, a rare treat when we had the day off while the rest of Singapore had to work. Thus, it was a testament to PSS’s power, that the majority of the staff and faculty showed up on campus on Thanksgiving 2011, upon hearing the news of her “departure”. Most of us were still reeling from the shock, wondering what it meant for our jobs and the future of the school.

We sat in a circle on a cement floor, red eyes staring at our feet in stunned silence, punctuated by occasional sobs. We came together to share what little information we had, to ask if anyone knew anything more. We came to support and draw comfort from one another, just to be together and be there. Some of us were raring for a fight, strategizing how we could get PSS back. Others said, keep your head down, let’s wait and see what happens.

Sitting in that circle, I not only felt a great loss, I also recall being at a loss – I did not know what to do, what was expected of me. Were the staff looking to me to lead them? If so, lead them towards what? To fight for PSS? To save their jobs? To show them the way? I had not yet come to terms with my own emotions about what had happened – I was still very much in shock, denial, anger. I did not feel I had the resolve to lead a fight, nor did I have any desire to calm people down. I did not feel ready to lead, yet I sensed an unspoken expectation that I step up. I did not know what to say. I craved for something concrete to do. In that moment, I felt woefully inadequate.

I hope to never find myself in a situation like that again. Until that point, leadership to me meant motivating a team to achieve our goals, and making that process as enjoyable and educational as possible for the team. Yet now I understand there is so much more to it. I’m not sure to what extent a course can equip me with leadership skills, or even with the fortitude to cope with similar situations in the future. At the very least I will learn some theory, know myself better, and take some risks. And that is a good start.

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3 responses to “The L Word

  1. Wonderfully written. Captured all the important points. Waiting to read about your thoughts on the new management.

  2. Although I did not know PSS, from your description of her I agree that she was a true ‘leader’, even by Harvard Business Review’s John P. Kotter’s description – she set direction, aligned people and motivated them as opposed to his definition of ‘managers’ who plan, budget, organize, staff, provide control and solve problems. The new style of the school sounds very much like management and it’s a shame that a PSS was lost as I believe real leaders are quite rare and valuable. As I also come from a higher education background I’ve seen the evidence of ‘management’ all around me but what I’m really hoping for is a leader to inspire and motivate me. And I think to some extent everyone is.

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