Well, that was a week. Days of anxiously reloading every news outlet I could, followed by some precious hours of celebration and relief. And now… the fight continues.
This is part three in a roughly eleven-part project-in-process, collectively entitled Leading Generously. Your help in expanding my thinking is enormously appreciated! For the story thus far:
Lead people, not institutions.
In the introduction to this book, I talked a bit about why I focus on individuals as agents of change. It is without question the institutions and systems that hold sway over our lives that require transformation. These are the structures that enact and sustain privilege and oppression, that keep us ignorant of one another’s struggles, that keep us competing for resources and support. These are the structures that must be reimagined and rebuilt in order to foster the kinds of generosity, equity, and integrity we’d like to see in the world — but these structures are not going to transform themselves. If anything, the institutions and systems around us are self-reinforcing.
If we’re going to change our institutions, we — people — are going to have to plan, execute, and follow through on that transformative work. The initiative for that work needs to begin with individuals and proceed through the coalitions and communities that they form.
And that leads me to the key claim for this chapter: those coalitions and communities are far more important than institutions. The relationships they foster and represent are the source of our institutions’ humanity, and without them, even the most ostensibly mission-driven not-for-profit may as well be a soulless private equity firm. None of our structures and processes matter at all unless they are at the service of people, rather than the other way around.
People first. Relationships first. Coalitions and communities first.
The corollary to this? If you are in a leadership position, your job is to lead people, rather than the structures within which those people operate.
Don’t misunderstand me; I recognize that managing an institution is key to its survival. The institution must have appropriate budgetary processes and governance structures and so forth if it is going to survive. And of course one requirement for managing an organization is a willingness to make hard choices when they are necessary for the organization’s survival.
But the mere survival of an institutional structure is not enough, because the structure without the people is a hollow shell. And if an institution is going to become genuinely, structurally capable of generosity, of both fostering community internally and supporting rich connections to communities externally, it must put those people first. The relationships and connections with and among those people are necessary to ensuring that a mission-driven organization or institution can remain true to its mission, especially where that mission is centered around the public good.
It’s of course a bit of a commonplace in management to say things like “people are our business,” to emphasize with pride the role that “human capital” plays in the organization’s success. All without hearing the deeply dehumanizing effects of terms like that: human capital, human resources. Relegating the human to the position of adjective, used to qualify one part of an organization’s assets, is an utter failure of humanity. People are not adjectives in the service of capital. In order to lead, it’s crucial to understand who you’re leading: people, not capital, not resources. The terms need to be flipped, not just rhetorically but structurally: we must understand our organizations and institutions as existing in service to the human, the humane.
Doing so requires leading people rather than leading institutions. It requires seeking at every turn to refocus on the needs and concerns of those who contribute to the institution, and it requires working to maintain a clear vision of the humanity not just of those whom the institution serves but also of the structures through which you serve them.
The need to ensure that connections and relationships come first poses a real challenge for many in leadership roles. The org chart often reveals the problem: the higher you climb in the organization’s hierarchy, it seems, the fewer opportunities for connection with others are readily available. Too many top executives are surrounded only by their senior executive team. Some are isolated by happenstance and some by choice. And all of the members of those executive teams — like any of us — have gotten where they are through a particular kind of attention to the institution and its needs. Those senior executive teams are often hand-picked and nearly always comparatively homogenous, leading to a narrowing of perspective and a flattening of focus.
The results can be devastating. Communication between management and rank-and-file becomes a one-way transmission of announcements. Senior management filters information before it reaches the top executive. Morale and trust throughout the institution suffer, as the concerns of employees and constituents go unheard and unacted-upon, and as the announcements from above come from an increasingly remote and incomprehensible perspective.
This gulf between management and the rest of the organization becomes all the wider in moments of crisis. Expressions of care from the top ring hollow as it becomes clear to everyone that “we’re all in it together” is merely rhetorical, when there’s no sense whatsoever of the we that could conceivably be together. In 2020, astonishingly, a few university presidents have publicly expressed their willingness to sacrifice the lives of a small percentage of their students, faculty, and staff in order to “save” the institution, opening a serious question about what those leaders think their institution is for, if not those people.
I want to linger on this situation a moment longer, because it’s a far starker example of the need to remember that the object of leading is people than I ever wanted to be provided with. During the summer of 2020, calls to restart in-person instruction within institutions of higher education were frequently framed as a matter of concern for students and their futures: in order to deliver to them the high-quality educational experience they want, we must band together, take precautions, be prepared. If we don’t deliver that product, we were told, they won’t come back, and the institution will not survive.
Shining through that concern for students is thus the actual locus of concern: the future of the institution. As I hope Generous Thinking made clear, I am a deep believer in the value of institutions of higher education, especially broadly public-serving institutions of higher education, which have long functioned, if imperfectly, as an engine for social mobility and empowerment. I, like the vast majority of faculty and staff, will do a lot to ensure that those institutions survive. But institutions do not automatically deserve to survive based on that mission alone, and particularly not if they have to sacrifice the health and well-being of the people they comprise in order to do so.
I want to be clear: I understand that the executive teams at our colleges and universities have been charged with their institutions’ survival, and a signficant portion of that survival is bound up in the revenue provided by students who pay to attend. And thus getting the students on campus matters far more than their well-being once they’ve arrived, and certainly more than the well-being of those who fall on the expense side of the budget. (There’s another book to be written on this particular problem: the long-term ramifications of the neoliberal turn away from public investment in higher education and toward a market-oriented model of financing has submerged our campuses in the death cult of capitalism. But I digress.)
The bottom line — and I use the term advisedly — is that we must consider what our institutions are for if not for the people who learn in them, the people who teach in them, the people who build them and keep them operational. The relationship between institutions and those people is the entirety of the institution’s value, and if the lives of those people do not come first, the institution’s survival is moot.
Even more, caring for the lives of those people means caring for their whole lives, and not just the hours they spend on our campuses or in our offices. This requires understanding that their families and communities are not just at-times inconvenient background noise distracting them from their on-campus roles but are in fact part of the reason they fulfill those roles. It requires backing that understanding up with family- and community-friendly policies that enable students and staff to meet the full range of their obligations. It requires a kind of care that is transitive, that doesn’t just express concern for those directly connected with the campus but that supports those people in their objects of concern.
Caring for the entirety of these people also means working to understand their differences, to support them in those differences. It means hearing and valuing their perspectives, especially when they disagree, rather than requiring that they get in line. Leading people can never mean simply ordering them about, but rather must be focused on building a collective sense of purpose, and finding ways to help everyone work toward living out that purpose. And the collectivity of that purpose means that sometimes you’ll find yourself serving purposes that belong to those you lead. I’ll talk about this more much later, but this kind of solidarity — understanding that those you lead can only be with you if they are certain that you are also with them — is a crucial component of living up to the missions that our institutions espouse.