And given the focus of this chapter, and its most auspicious date, if you haven’t yet, please go vote. Vote like your future depends on it. Because it does.
Lead where you are.
This book and the principles that it explores begins with and is addressed to you: not just because you’re the one who has picked it up, but because all transformative change must begin with you.
This statement contradicts a lot of our assumptions about change, and about leadership. When we think of leaders, we tend to focus on the people at the top of an organization. Those are leaders, we assume: they are highly publicly visible, and they have the clout and the authority to make a difference in the ways their organizations function.
Perhaps. But I tend to think, more often than not, that referring to the folks at the top of an org chart as “leadership” is a misleading euphemism. It’s true that many of those people got to where they are because they are leaders. But you’ll notice that the cause and effect in the previous sentence is reversed from what you might expect: they got the jobs because they are, at least in principle, leaders; it’s not the jobs that make them leaders.
In fact, most of what comes to us from above in our institutions and organizations is management rather than leadership. Leadership as I explore it in the pages ahead is not a role but a quality. Most importantly, it is a quality that anyone can demonstrate, regardless of where in your organization’s hierarchy you might fall.
Leadership is a willingness to bring people together to cultivate change. Leadership is a willingness to point the way toward more thoughtful, more inclusive, more just ways of working. Leadership is a commitment to bringing out the best in those around you, and to helping them become leaders, too. And that can happen anywhere in the org chart.
The trick lies in finding the things over which you have some input or even control. Within a college or university, the principle of shared governance usually delegates authority over particular spheres or processes to the faculty. For instance, the curriculum is often defined as belonging to and controlled by the faculty. Departments and other units within the institution also have governance processes through which members of the unit can propose change. There are often — wrongly — limitations on participation in those processes for people in less-empowered employment categories, such as non-tenure-track faculty, staff, or graduate students, but there are likely still means for you to make your voice heard. (And if not, that may be the area on which your mobilization for change should focus. More on this to come.) The important thing is to find those structures and processes that you can shape and improve.
Improvement is key: what we’re aiming for is building an institution that is more just, more caring, more generous. One that respects and supports the work of all of its members. One that recognizes that living up to its mission requires serving not just its clients but its own community as well. Building that kind of institution demands that we all examine the ways that we work and make sure they serve this larger good. It may sound mushy, but this kind of ongoing institutional self-examination is the first, most crucial step in transformative change.
Here’s an example — and it’s one of the more famously intractable areas of academic life: tenure and promotion standards and processes. The first requirement in approaching these standards and processes is recognizing that there is a problem. This recognition can be a challenge, given that so many of those in positions of authority over these processes have succeeded under their auspices. However, those standards as written often have not kept up with changes in the fields they address, including innovations in the means and modes of communication. They rely on forms and metrics originally designed for some fields, often in STEM, that have to be retrofitted for others like the arts. They presume that fairness emerges from treating all candidates identically, rather than understanding candidates individually. And they have often been in place long enough that they give the impression of solidity: it’s not clear who really owns them, or how they could possibly be revised.
As a result, the members of any given academic department may feel stuck with the policies they have, bound by their college or university’s authority over them. Senior faculty advising on tenure and promotion cases that contain innovative work, for instance, can be heard to say things like “personally, I’d love to give credit for that kind of publication, but The Administration will never accept that.” In a mentoring situation, this kind of statement is often accompanied by the sentiment that a friend of mine once described as “anticipatory remorse,” in which the senior colleague expresses deep regret for the damage that they would have caused to your career should they have allowed you to take this unsanctioned path.
Very often, however, the cause for this remorse isn’t there at all. Every dean or provost I have ever talked with about tenure and promotion has indicated, to some extent or another, that while they might own a portion of the process, they do not own the standards those processes employ. They do not define or maintain the list of what “counts” in these processes, in other words, but instead take their guidance from field-based experts — and usually from the departments themselves. Their role, as most deans and provosts understand it, is to uphold the standards once they’re defined, but not to define them.
What this means is that a department, and the faculty within that department, have far more power to define those standards than they usually think. If a department were to send a clear, good-faith argument to the dean and/or provost demonstrating that, in their field, these innovative forms of scholarly production or communication are now considered by experts in the field to be just as valid and provide comparable opportunities for research impact to those provided by more traditional forms, the administration would very often be guided by that argument.
My own department at Michigan State recently undertook this work. We opened up the department’s bylaws for revision, hoping to strengthen throughout the description of our governance processes the manifestations of our commitment to equity and inclusion. The voting members of the faculty were divided into subcommittees that examined and made recommendations about particular sections of the bylaws, and one such subcommittee, the one I joined, focused on our annual review and promotion and tenure review processes. Our discussions were challenging, but we expanded the departmental definition of what “counts” under the heading of research from a narrow focus on conventionally peer-reviewed books and journal articles to a much broader range of forms — including public-facing work such as exhibitions, performances, films and videos, and digital projects — and a much broader range of review processes. We maintain throughout a commitment to demonstrated excellence (what some might think of as “rigor”) but without the false assumption that only certain forms or processes can give rise to such excellence, or can allow us to recognize it. Our revisions also explicitly stipulate that even the expanded list of what counts isn’t exhaustive, and that attention must be paid to new forms and mechanisms for producing engaged and engaging scholarship that are developing around us.
By capturing such expansiveness in our bylaws, we’ve established a kind of generosity as part of our department ethos. We’re lucky to have been able to do so with the support of a dean who is similarly working to cultivate generosity and care as the foundation of the work being done across our college. It’s easy to imagine a circumstance under which a less forward-thinking dean, or a more metrics-minded provost, might find our revisions to be not just an opening up of our standards but a lowering of those standards. But we have amassed support from the national professional organizations that guide work done in our department’s fields, each of which has issued a set of guidelines for the evaluation of scholarship produced in new media forms, as well as calls for including more publicly-engaged work under the rubric of scholarship. With this field-level support, the argument for changing department standards and processes becomes all the more compelling.
Changing the form — and I mean that literally here: ours is called “Form D” — that personnel assessments employ is a slightly different endeavor. In all very large organizations, and in an increasing number of smaller ones, there is a form for everything. In recent years, many of these forms have been moved online and turned into systems. And the thing about these forms and systems is that everyone hates them, but everyone feels bound by them. Because there are no alternatives. Because it’s how things are done. This is particularly true where those forms and systems intersect with personnel processes. The owners of the forms and systems (often a human resources department) need the standardization they provide in order to ensure that everyone who uses them is being assessed in the same fashion. The problem, of course, is that providing everyone with the same boxes to fill in and then assessing them according to what they put in those boxes is a poor substitute for genuine equity and inclusiveness, not least because the people whom the forms are meant to represent almost always feel unable to boil themselves down to or fit themselves into the categories that structure the form. The form or system was almost always designed with a particular field or fields in mind — in our case, it’s engineering — and other fields struggle to cram things into the rubric they’ve created.
But the thing about forms and systems is that, at least theoretically, they can be changed. It’s no doubt an uphill battle, but a reasoned, principled argument about why the form or system is insufficient for representing the work being done in a particular field and a demonstration of how it might be improved can result in changes. I’ll dig into the alternative that we’ve been working on in the chapter on Values.
In the meantime, though, you’ll have noted that these two examples of local change have a couple of things in common: each seeks to take processes or structures that are currently restrictive and at times punitive and open them up, to make them more generous in the ways they allow for innovative, engaging work. Each focuses on a part of the process that is under relatively local control — especially in the case of department bylaws — and revises it to create the more generous environment that those who are party to that process want to create. And each emphasizes the need for clear, principled arguments on behalf of the change: why the current process or policy does not work, and how the new process or policy better aligns with the kinds of excellence the institution wishes to model.
The importance of this kind of argument can’t be understated: folks up the chain who are invested in the ways things have always been done are unlikely to let those things go without a persuasive argument. The nature of those arguments will differ, of course, from instance to instance, and from organization to organization. Sometimes there will be higher authorities to whom those arguments can appeal — national professional organizations, for instance. Sometimes those arguments will have to rely on demonstration in order to make the case.
The need for these arguments for change highlights an important set of qualifiers to the slogan “lead where you are.” You have the capacity to transform the aspects of your work processes and environments over which you have some degree of ownership and control, but that capacity may be limited by the hierarchy in which you’re embedded. Figuring out how to navigate that hierarchy and how to bring those above you on the org chart along is a key component of the work. This is no less true of a university president who needs to persuade a potentially skeptical board of trustees than it is of an office administrator who needs to persuade a supervisor.
There are of course great differences in the degree of freedom that individuals in different kinds of roles have to effect creative institutional transformation. Sometimes, for instance, a supervisor will so micromanage those who report to them that the members of their unit feel no wiggle room at all. Sometimes a board will make demands that leave little room for negotiation. These situations may require more specific forms of resistance before positive change can be enacted: outside intervention, protest, demonstration. But even within such situations, there is agency, and figuring out how to organize for change requires individuals willing to build coalitions.
It’s also important to note, as Sara Ahmed reminds us in her exploration of diversity work on university campuses, of the ways that the drive for change can be defanged. Enormous energy can be poured into bold statements and policies that are all too easily ignored. The substitution of documents for action is always a danger. The work of creating real transformative change requires not just rhetoric and promises but a real commitment to follow through. Who will ensure that the new policies and processes are employed and adhered to? Who will review the results of those new policies and processes to determine whether they’re having the desired effects?
This need for follow-through, for ensuring that an at times recalcitrant institution live up to its stated desire to be more generous, can be exhausting. Those who fight for change often find themselves demoralized, disillusioned, worn out. Continually fighting to change an organization or institution that refuses such transformation can leave you wanting to give up. To quit. This potential for exhaustion is one key reason why it’s important to understand leadership not as a solo effort, but rather as a desire to bring together and inspire others who want to work for change. That cultivation of community is the most important step you can take — and more on that in the next chapter.